Grand Cards: Where Did National Chicle Go Wrong?

Friday, December 24, 2010

Where Did National Chicle Go Wrong?

Yesterday I learned that the much maligned Topps National Chicle would not be making a return in 2010. It, along with T-206, would be effectively replaced by a new old set "Gypsy Queen."

I'm hardly broken up by the news--I was quick to lay blame on a National Chicle set that was an unbelievable disappointment and I've felt that T-206 was weak (again) as well. Still, I thought enough of National Chicle conceptually to make this comment on twitter:
I thought chicle had potential with a couple tweaks

And the more I thought about it last night and this morning, the more I really felt that to be the case.

I'm going to admit right of the bat that I don't know what it would have taken to make the set a success. There is a schism in the card collecting community where one group of collectors views cards as a subset of memorabilia, especially autographed memorabilia, and collects for that reason. There is another group that collects for team sets or full sets or generally appreciates cards for being cards and not as vectors for autographs or memorabilia. The result is an uneasy tension with card sets that Topps et al. doesn't seem to know quite how to balance. I potentially good set can be a commercial failure because of a bad autograph checklist. An often boring and crappy set can be a huge success for reasons that boggle the mind.

So instead of parsing those dynamics, I'm going to talk about what makes a set good, or more specifically, what made National Chicle not so good. I think that we'll find that it is the same things that made T-206 not so good, and what I think may make Gypsy Queen not so good, even with all of the fancy autograph announcements and such.

The cards look bad.

Isn't that the whole point? Cards are, in their way, little rectangular pieces of art. If I'm an autograph collector, I'm going to want my autograph to be on something that looks nice--there are enough signatures floating around there that it doesn't make any sense to go after an autograph that is on some stupid item.

With T-206 the full-size cards just looked crummy. I don't know if it was because the images where just filtered poorly through photoshop or if the no-hat concept just failed in execution, but every time I saw a full-size T-206 card it looked somewhat blurry or out of register or generally unappealing. Faithful replicas of T-206 they were not.

For Chicle the problem was more fundamental. The set commissioned artists to draw each card--a fabulous concept that I was really on board with. The point here was to make unique cards that looked good. The problem, unfortunately, was in execution. Many of the Chicle cards looked terrible, a problem that was as much the fault of the artists themselves as it was with whatever product manager thought that it was a good idea to approve certain paintings in the set.

It didn't help that the set got off on the wrong foot by showing us the stupid "Chipper Ruth" card, and the whole "show legends in the present day" bit fell way flat. As did showing rookies in classic rookie cards Those cards looked weird, and didn't fit in with the overall set aesthetic.

Sure, maybe the checklist was weak, but I'm not sure that was the case. Miguel Cabrera and Ryan Howard signed. Stan Musial signed. Buster Posey and Neftali Feliz are in the set--before they were Rookies of the Year no less. Sure, there were some unknown rookies and future scrubs, but have you bought any card product for the last ten years? That's how it goes. The set certainly doesn't need to live and die by its autographs if it has other things going for it. I think Allen & Ginter and Topps Heritage have shown us that.

The problem that I have is that National Chicle was immediately lumped into the "Retro" set bin, even though it had a chance to be fundamentally different. These were painted cards. They had a chance to be something.

But now, one year on, the set is dead. Maybe it's for the better, but I think replacing it with a different, and seemingly very ugly IMO, vintage set is a mistake. I mean, am I going to get a Sandy Koufax or Hank Aaron autograph out of Gypsy Queen? Of course not. Neither are you. We're all going to get Brent Dlugach v.2011 autographs and we'll be disappointed because we also have a bunch of stupid looking cards in our box that nobody cares about.

Chicle could have been better if they had just worked out the kinds. Get better paintings, for one. Eliminate the nonsensical subsets (throwbacks are fine). Expand the checklist so that we can get real team sets or a nice collectible set. Stop the artist autographs--nobody cares about those, or multiple parallel backs.

Simply said, can I just have a normal set someday that doesn't repeat a tired formula? Can I have something that is new and interesting in some way?

Can you just give me Topps Gallery again? That's what Chicle should have been.