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It's in the cards

From superheroes to classic cars, ad campaigns to TV stars, non-sports collectible cards are drawing increasing interest

Monday, January 10, 2005

By George Haas
Pop culture writer


Mention collectible cards to the general public and most people likely think of baseball cards or Japanese kiddie game imports such as Pokemon or Yu-Gi-Oh.

Paul Mauriella wants to change that.

The 39-year-old Bridgeview resident was a big comic book fan as a youngster, but his allegiance switched to collectible cards when he found his favorite costumed do-gooders in a pack of Marvel Super Heroes cards produced in the 1960s.

Today, his collection of non-sport cards runs into the thousands. It includes familiar icons, such as Superman and Batman; old TV show favorites, such as "Get Smart"; and camp classics, such as the 1962 "Mars Attacks" set that inspired director Tim Burton to make an equally campy movie in 1996.Mauriella also turned his passion for the hobby into the largest gathering of non-sport card collectors in the Midwest, the Chicagoland Entertainment Collector's Expo.

In less than five years, Mauriella transformed a simple swap meet at the Summit VFW hall into a three-day gathering that this fall drew 1,700 visitors to the Ramada Inn O'Hare including vendors, artists and celebrity guests representing a wide variety of pop culture.

Mauriella said fans of collectible cards always could find sports card trade shows with some non-sport items, and even the big comic conventions, such as Chicago's Wizard World, devoted some floor space to collectible cards.

"But there really was nothing for just non-sport card collectors," he said. "We needed a forum for the hobby here in the Midwest."

Mauriella further separates non-sport card collectors from the myriad gaming card enthusiasts.

"Technically, they are non-sport cards, but I really think card games (such as) Magic the Gathering, Pokemon, Yu-Gi-Oh and anything that has a game attached to it, is a different animal," Mauriella said.

What then, constitutes the non-sport card arena?

You name it.

If you turn to the letter P in the price guide section of Non-Sport Update, a magazine devoted exclusively to fans of the hobby, you'll find listings for card sets as diverse as Power Rangers and Presidents of the United States. You'll also find cards for Princess Diana, Pro Body Builders, Playboy Covers, Popeye, Pooh and Precious Moments.

Roxanne Toser, who has published the magazine for 15 years, said there are non-sport cards for just about any interest, with pop culture subjects such as movies and TV shows drawing the bulk of the current interest in the hobby.

Ads for card sets of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," "The Quotable 007," "Disney Treasures" and "Farscape" were among many featured in the magazine's most recent issue.

And while the new-issue science-fiction and fantasy card sets are aimed squarely at the predominately male collector, Toser said more females are finding their way to the hobby.

"Card sets tied to 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer,' 'Xena' and 'Alias' have drawn a lot more females to the ranks in the past 10 years," Toser said. "There's even a new set, called U Go Grl, which is sort of an activity type of collectible card aimed at younger girls."

While non-sport cards soared in the 1960s (all those baby boomers) and the 1990s (improved printing methods and more card manufacturers), collecting non-sport cards actually began as far back as the late 1800s.

Cigarette packages at the time were made of flimsy paper, so a piece of cardboard was inserted into the pack to give it stability. Some enterprising soul eventually decided to print pictures on the back of the cardboard, and the promotional insert was born.

By 1880, at least one manufacturer was producing sets with pictures of actors, presidents and athletes on them.

While sports card sets would draw the bulk of the attention over the first half of the 20th century, non-sport cards continued to multiply.

One of the more valuable sets, "G-Men and Heroes of the Law," dates to a 1930s gum company and can command nearly $10,000 for the 168-card set.

The 1950s produced such sought-after sets as "Hopalong Cassidy" and "Davy Crockett," while the 1960s and '70s boomed with hundreds offerings, including TV show sets ("The Beverly Hillbillies" and "Charlie's Angels"), movies ("Planet of the Apes," "Star Wars") and "Wacky Packages," die-cut cards that spoofed ads.

"Just about every decade has its fans," said Mauriella. "Even the '80s, which was sort of a down period, produced popular sets (such as) 'The Garbage Pail Kids' (a spoof of the Cabbage Patch Kids doll craze)."

It was during the 1990s, however, that non-sport cards really took off. Where there once were only a few card makers, such as Topps, Fleer and Donruss, suddenly, dozens of manufacturers joined the hobby and began producing a dazzling array of cards linked to topics as diverse as "American Bandstand" and the Gulf War.

The buzz over these often premium-priced cards, which boasted foil or chromium inks or holograms, has died down somewhat, but the hobby continues to draw new fans.

In recent years, chase cards specially designed cards that feature limited edition artwork or signatures have created a stir.

"We're continuing to push the envelope, as are printers across the country," said Martha Modlin, executive vice-president for Inkworks, a card manufacturer responsible for such popular card sets as "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," "Smallville" and "Alien vs. Predator."

"We're constantly trying to figure out what new things we can do on a piece of paper to give it a new look," she said. "There's definitely a demand. We've got inks that glow in the dark; there are cards that have costume threads in them and cards that require heat to expose a secret, which we did with our new 'Alias' set."

If there's a drawback to collecting non-sport cards in the new millennium, it's that there's no surefire way to find them.

Kids might be able to find some of the new "Garbage Pail Kids" or "Wacky Packages" at a convenience store, a Wal-Mart or a Toys 'R Us store, but not consistently.

"You have to find a specialty shop that stocks them," Mauriella said. "And while some comic shops may have new packs, you'll never be able to find older cards."

The Internet is an option, with online auctions, "but I like to see the actual card I'm buying," Mauriella said. "That's why we put together the card convention."

As to the appeal of the hobby, Mauriella said it's like any collectible. "It's the thrill and challenge of the hunt."

George Haas may be reached at ghaas@dailysouthtown.com or (708) 633-5933.

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