Fantasy Artist Trading Cards and the Mid-90s Collectible Market

Fantasy artist trading cards were a short-lived genre of collectible produced during the 1990s by three companies: Comic Images, FPO Cards, and Cardz. A spin-off from “comic cards,” which were themselves a spin-off from sports cards, fantasy artist trading cards were standard-size collector cards (2.5×3.5 inches) that featured, on each card’s front, a reproduction of a painting by a top fantasy artist and, on the back, some form of commentary about the painting (often by the artist him- or herself). Each 90-card set was sold in foil-wrapped packs containing 6 to 8 randomly distributed cards and was devoted to a single artist or pair of related artists. Frank Frazetta, Boris Vellejo, Julie Bell, Greg and Tim Hildebrandt, Jeffrey Jones, and David Cherry were some of the artists represented.

Within the 1990s collector card market, in which almost every kind of set imaginable was for sale (including, to name but a few, college basketball, Loony Tunes, Hammer Horror, and Beverly Hills 90210), fantasy artist trading cards possessed two unique selling points. First, they were visually arresting—by general standards, even beautiful. Whereas most collector cards featured poor quality art or generic photography (both of which were often subject to cheap reproduction methods that resulted in image degradation), fantasy artist trading cards contained high quality reproductions of paintings originally produced for collectors, museums, publishing houses, and entertainment companies. Second, Comic Images—the genre’s leader in market share—was an early innovator with regard to “card finishing.” The company’s fantasy artist trading cards were among the first non-sports card sets to make use of high-gloss finish on every individual card. Later sets, such as Best of Boris, also introduced a specialized finishing technique called “chrome stamping,” which resulted in shiny metallic images of such high gloss that the inks actually appeared wet. With such high quality finishes, fantasy artist trading cards stood out amongst competing products, which looked cheap and old-fashioned in comparison.

            

Unlike most other collector cards, which could be found in big-box stores such as Toys ‘R Us and Walmart, fantasy artist trading cards were sold exclusively through small  stores specializing in comics and/or sports memorabilia (usually called the “direct market”). At the time, these small stores were benefiting from a spectacular bubble in mass market collectibles, fueled by a new set of consumers who bought the direct market’s goods solely as investments. This new set of consumers, not being—like the original consumers—fans, had little attachment to specific brands or genres of comics or cards; they tended to range over direct market goods, buying anything that might qualify as an investment. Whereas comic books and baseball cards, for example, had previously depended upon two distinct, loyal, and rather small consumer groups, they now found themselves competing for the very same consumer base: a giant, capricious set of investment-seekers. The convergence of markets thus led to a huge transformation of the hitherto niche market specialty stores into general market collectible stores. These new stores in turn encouraged the development of new product hybrids—like the fantasy artist trading card—that would have previously struggled to find a consumer. Such products were thus largely if not wholly dependent upon the unique retail environment cultivated in these new collectible stores.

Within such an environment, packs of fantasy artist trading cards were often positioned as impulse items. Their low price point (typically $1.25 to $1.75 a pack, with specially finished sets going for $2.50 a pack) made them low-risk purchases for consumers, while the novelty of their genre encouraged retailers—at least at first—to place the product by the cash register (the only way to highlight an individual product in most comic/card stores). As impulse items, the cards also earned sales from people outside the usual consumer base—in particular, mothers of collectors too young to drive themselves to the store and collectors’ girlfriends. Over time, however, the cards managed to build up a set of dedicated consumers amongst adult roleplaying gamers and collectors of erotica (both groups almost exclusively male). They thus became part of the same adult fantasy cultural milieu as Dungeon & Dragons and Heavy Metal magazine.

Despite fantasy artist trading cards’ clear success, however small-scale, in the 1990s, by the turn of the millennium, the product had completely disappeared. Neither FPO Cards, Cardz, nor Comic Images continued to produce the cards; and direct market stores used bargain pricing to rapidly offload their remaining inventory (often selling below cost). How had the market for these cards changed so rapidly?

First, and probably most importantly, was the extraordinary—albeit by most accounts inevitable—collapse of the investment market for collectibles. It is not clear what set off the collapse, but the mechanics of it are well understood. When consumers exit the collectible market, they sell off the goods they’ve collected—and usually do so quickly in a single lot (a process called “dumping”). When dumping occurs in small numbers, the market is generally able to absorb it, either through new consumers, who sometimes buy entire lots of dumped goods as a way of beginning collections, or retailers, for whom the purchases of such lots are the most cost-effective way of building back inventory. When too many dump their collections at once, however, the need to sell quickly results in a downwards price spiral and a loss of value for such collectibles in general. This frightens other collectors, who—worried about losing their investment—decide to exit the market as well, dumping their collections in turn, and further depressing value. Eventually, no collectors are left (at least, none who approach collecting as an investment). This is exactly what happened at the end of the 1990s, and—as a result of it—direct market stores suffered a giant contraction of their consumer base. Products positioned as impulse items—such as fantasy artist trading cards—suddenly lacked a sufficient number of consumers to ensure adequate sales.

But fantasy artist trading cards could not depend upon their dedicated consumer base of roleplaying gamers either, for by late 1996 the producer of Dungeons & Dragons (and leading licensor of fantasy brands), TSR, Inc., had become insolvent. For a period of about a year (before they were purchased by another company in 1997), the company did not release a single product. Without TSR, whose magazine Dragon had been the primary means of marketing and exposure for the entire roleplaying game industry, an already shrinking market for roleplaying games contracted even further. Growth in new consumers reached zero while previously dedicated consumers took their money and loyalty elsewhere (in particular to online gaming and Magic: The Gathering). With roleplaying culture rapidly dying, fantasy artist trading cards found themselves bereft of their primary consumer base.

Anarchist

Hildebrandt for Magic: The Gathering

Together, these two events–the collapse of the collectible market and the bankruptcy of TSR—were probably sufficient to ensure the fantasy artist trading card’s extinction. But two other developments deserve brief mention. One is the reorganization of the direct market after the collectible bust to favor niche retailing. Instead of one-stop collectible stores, the direct market gradually moved towards separate comic stores, sports memorabilia stores, and gaming stores—with sometimes further distinctions within those categories. Though some overlap still occurs, the mixed-collectible retail environment that supported hybrid products like fantasy artist trading cards has been significantly reduced.  The other development was the appearance of Magic: The Gathering, a fantasy-world collectable card game produced by Wizards of the Coast (who would eventually purchase the bankrupt TSR) that originally debuted in 1993. Though there were, by the mid-90s many collectable card games—a number of which were set in fantasy worlds—Magic: The Gathering was the only game to feature art by leading fantasy artists (for which it paid a giant proportion of its operating budget). The functionless fantasy art trading cards produced by Comic Images and FPO thus found themselves competing with cards with which one could actually play and whose individual values could be more rationally predicted (indeed, Magic: The Gathering cards were one of the only products whose value did not fall during the collectible market collapse). Even some of the fantasy art trading card artists, such as the Hildebrandts, produced original artwork for Magic: The Gathering.

Given the long-term changes to the direct market, it’s doubtful the fantasy art trading card will ever make a return. But those who missed it can find the earlier sets on ebay, where they sell today for as little as $0.99 per 90-card set.

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