Tuesday, June 26, 2007

My favorite Mego Museum Trading Cards. Or, Why I Collect Megos.

I called this blog the Mego Museum Art Department and not just the Dida Display blog because I wanted a place to post about the work I have done at the Museum, but with the difficulties with the Displayset production I had a bit of a slowdown after Mego Meet. I make no guarantees that there will be another post from the Art Department, but it's possible!

Two threads at the newly refurbished Mego Museum Forums got me thinking... The first was one that's come and gone dozens of times but is always fun and interesting: Why Do You Collect Megos? It's a question I ask myself often, sometimes in exasperation. My answer to the second thread, Which is your favorite MM trading card? actually helps answer the first question for me.

The trading card discussion was remarkable in that responses seemed to lean toward the person's favorite character, naturally enough. However, no one mentioned the Superman or Spider-man cards; Two favorite characters, two favorite Megos, two somewhat overlooked cards.

While they are prized for their rarity (we only made 500 of them) they tend to get short shrift because they aren't as exciting and dynamic as the later cards are. So, I'd like to give them their due.

In the fall of 2005 I was in the middle of overhauling the Mego Museum after a 5 year hiatus. Brian Heiler had done a heroic job growing the site into one of the best vintage toy archives on the web but he was hamstrung by the site's outdated format. So over the course of several months I developed the logo and templates that gave the place a fresher, more cohesive look and much improved navigation. For me it was a great feeling to finish something I had left undone and correct something that had always bothered me. So in the middle of this Brian emails and asks if I have a larger resolution version of the old Spider-Man gallery image. He and Steve Leach (MegoSteve) are putting together a trading card to promote the Museum.

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I was immediately excited by the idea and inspired by the perfectly retro design that Steve had done on the back, but I had two concerns. First, I wanted the card to reflect the new look of the Museum that would debut in a few months, and more importantly, I couldn't live with that old Spider-man image printed and scattered across the world. Not only was it very low resolution and not printable, but it, like all of the gallery art, had been made when I was just learning Photoshop and digital art and I really wanted to improve it.

To do these two cards I was faced with a very short deadline. Brian was getting a sweet deal adding these cards to another print run so I had to work fast. Fortunately, Steve had put together a strong basic design that I was able to plug into the new Museum treatment.

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This first rough used a Conan I happened to have photographed and I think I may have toyed with the idea of having one standard color for all the cards, thus Conan with primary colors from the Museum front page. I saw immediately that the only way to go was to use the various colors Mego used for the packaging art. I had recently gone on a spree of buying carded WGSH and I had picked up the love of the Mego color scheme from Benjamin Holcomb who can wax rhapsodic about Mego packaging colors (and wrote a book about it!).

I think it was a crucial decision. It grounded the cards in the Mego history and aesthetic while allowing us to use our own logos and iconography. Much as I love the classic Mego images and character logos I didn't want to have to deal with getting, for example, the Green Goblin's iconography off his box and incorporating it into a card design. Much easier to use the same template and simply plug in the colors accordingly. This eventually led me down the tortuous road of color-coding each character's page in Cascading Style Sheets, but it was worth it.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. We always shake or heads when we contemplate the number of Mego cards we have made, because when this first started it was intended to be a one shot deal, but I think it was clear to me early on that this would have to continue to it's logical end. I really wanted to be able to replace the gallery art for the figures and this was the way to do it. So the other crucial decision I made on the first cards was to develop a background style that I could live with. Generating 38-plus Super Hero images was going to be hard enough without drawing or painting that many original backgrounds. Fortunately, I didn't have any time at all to do the first two cards and was forced to find a treatment that would be quick--thus making dozens of subsequent cards possible.

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So after shooting the figures in the backyard sunlight I went my iPhoto library and found a bunch of shots of downtown San Francisco I had taken and grabbed a couple of likely backgrounds. I brought them into Photoshop and applied a few filter effects (Poster edges, posterize, find edges) and tried to reduce the images down to a graphic style that plausibly looked like comic art. I was frankly a little embarrassed to be relying on such cheap out of the box tricks, but at the same time I was excited by the possibilities if not the results. These first images are fairly tame and unimaginative, and as the project wore on I became more creative and achieved more dynamic results. I am glad that I stuck to limiting the color scheme of the background art the the character's colors, it gave the series a continuity and a challenge as things progressed.

Superman Card BackFor the back of the cards we kept MegoSteve's original work, and that is why they look somewhat unique from the rest. Spidey and Superman's cards use Mego "Repro Art" images, a brilliant choice on Steve's part because of how important line art was in toy marketing back in the 70's. But with so many characters and only so much decent repro clips I would have to develop a different treatment for the line art, but that's another story.

All very interesting, but how does that really explain why
I collect Megos?

Well, yeah, the creative outlet they've given me has been wonderful. I feel very lucky to have accidentally become the artist at the MegoMuseum. All along, with these cards, with the old gallery art and the old clunky web pages I was always trying to get across what these toys meant to me.

Superman Flies

There's something about this picture of Superman flying in the back yard that says it all for me. The crinkly red cape, the puffy sleeves, the kind, reassuring face...and the boots--those big clunky red plastic rainboots. To someone who didn't have Megos or spend much time with them it's just a Superman figure: Goofy, lame, charming, innocent, old-fashioned, nostalgic whatever adjective fits. But for myself and many of my fellows---this is a face that I spent a lot of time looking into at very close range as a kid does when playing with a favorite toy and when I saw one again after 10 years it was like meeting an old friend. The weight of the figure, the shape of that boot, the texture of the costume all adds up to something vaguely remembered but impossible to forget. This guy is a friend of mine, that's all I can say.

I guess that's one of the best things about the trading cards: The spirit of friendship they've taken on. They've been freely given away by dozens of Megoheads to hundreds more---always with the invitation to come to the Museum and make friends. So while this version of Superman and Spiderman may not have gotten the deluxe treatment they really did their job.

I'm going to sign off now before this gets any cornier. I hope to have some more news about Dida Displays soon and I'd like to revisit a few other trading cards in the future.

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