April 08, 2008

1990 - 1994 Countdown: #20. 1992 Topps Kids

(This post originally ran on February 22, 2008)

The Popeye muscles. The icicles on the end of Chili Davis’ bat. The Pop art sensibility and the 35¢ packs bobbing like life preservers in a sea of overpriced, insert-laden deadweights. The short 132-card checklist. The fun facts and anthropomorphic baseball equipment trading knowing looks with players and fans. Topps Kids, we hardly knew ye. Well… we knew ye—and some of us really loved ye (just not enough of us for ye’s liking).

This set, while defiant in the face of the mo’ money, mo’ problems hobby, was a product of Topps talking out of both sides of its mouth. Little kids were getting priced out of a hobby that had been geared towards them for generations, and much of it was Topps' doing with sets like Stadium Club. And yet Topps, ever the quixotic cavalier, rode to their rescue with cheap cheap packs, fun cartoons and explanatory tidbits about the game and the hobby.

The set launched a niche within an already niche hobby: what I’ve dubbed ‘Kids Kards.’ Both Donruss and Upper Deck followed the Topps lead with their own Kids Kards sets (Triple Play and Fun Packs, respectively). But while its competitors each churned out a few sets (Donruss produced Triple Play from 1992 to 1994 and Upper Deck made Fun Packs in 1993 and 1994), Topps Kids only survived through one year. Why?

I have a theory. While the cards were fun, and have gained a bit of notoriety for their pre-steroids depiction of players as muscle-bound Goliaths, Topps overlooked one very important thing about the hobby landscape of 1992: kids may have been priced out, but they were still collectors like everybody else: they wanted bells and whistles. They wanted shiny inserts. Upper Deck and Donruss understood this and incorporated these things into their Kids Kard sets. And Topps, though sage to recognize a market ready for its own set, was too wrapped up in its nostalgia of simpler times and simpler cards to see that its creation patronized its target audience.

I loved this set when it came out (and no, I wasn’t a little kid). I loved its playfulness and, as a collector experiencing foil fatigue at the time, I immensely enjoyed the fact that there was a shiny-things-free lower-priced set out there. I also liked the gum.

Though I’d forgotten about the set for a number of years, my admiration of it has grown. I jumped at buying a box online last summer and live-blogged a pack for A Pack A Day (click on the link to read the entry).

Earlier today, I got a chance to pose a few questions to David Coulson, the illustrator for Topps Kids, as well as other Topps sets.

The Baseball Card Blog: How did the set come about?

Coulson: I'd been working for as a freelance illustrator for Topps on and off ever since I started freelancing in the early 1980s. I was initially brought on by Art Spiegelman to illustrate a non-sports display box, and continued working primarily on non-sports projects, although I remember also illustrating a baseball and a football sticker album.

BBC Blog: Did Topps approach you early on in the development process?

Coulson: In the early '90s I was contacted by Brad Kahlhammer, an art director there who I'd worked with frequently, to design the cartoon back for the prototype Topps Kids card. It was a product that they were hoping would get young kids into baseball card collecting again (after years of decline in that demographic), hence the fun look and the low price point.

They had already had an illustrator design a few rough samples for the fronts (Richard McGuire is who I remember). This soon developed into me drawing all of the cartoon backs for the series, and drawing all the illustrations and hand-lettering for the fronts and the packaging as well. Some of the front styles were based on the style of the previous samples, the colored pencil rendered bodies with the photo heads being an example. There were at least 7 or 8 different front designs, all illustrated by me and mostly colored by me, with the exception of the cartoon silhouettes and graphic shapes which were colored at Topps.

For the backs I did only black & white illustrations (and lettering) and they had several different colorists do the colors, which is why if you look closely you can see different techniques of color application.

BBC Blog:With a checklist of only 132 cards, player selection must have been tough (only four or five players from each team). Were there any illustrations that didn't make it into the set?

Coulson: I don't know how they decided which players to include. I was provided with a script and stats for each back along with photo reference for each player and uniform reference for each team. I was able to come up with my own sight gags and similar incidental word balloons based on the scripts.

As far as I recall there were no illustrations that didn't make it into the set, although there were several that had to be revised when a player was traded after their card was drawn but before being printed.

BBC Blog: Finally, I approach baseball cards like they are little pieces of modern art, worthy of attention and critique. Are you a collector? And if so, do you have any favorite cards (that you've worked on or otherwise)?

Coulson: I agree with you about cards in general, although I am not a collector myself (except for my own samples). More recent sports card jobs I've done for Topps include the Bazooka Baseball, Bazooka Football, and Bazooka Basketball full color comic strip inserts series (Don Alan Zakrzewski art director), meant to be reminiscent of Bazooka Joe bubblegum comics, but also very similar in feel to the Topps Kids series. Each of these was a series of 24 insert cards, and unlike Topps Kids, they each continued for at least 2 or 3 years. I also drew black & white cartoon spots for the main series of Topps Baseball and Football cards for the 2006 year (Erik Kroha, art director), which was probably over 500 cartoons!

Here are a few other Topps Kids and David Coulson resources on the web:

Local Cartoonist Wows Kids (Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, 7/12/06)

David Coulson, Topps Kids illustrator (official site)

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