The Rest of the Story (of Gerani!)
By Kurt Kuersteiner (© 2003 Monsterwax Monster Trading Cards) for The Wrapper Magazine
A few issues ago, I had the pleasure of talking with Gary Gerani about Dinosaurs Attack. Gary covered a lot of other interesting stories about his work with Topps, but space would not permit including it all. This is kind of a mish-mash of card comments which jump around in different directions, but I thought readers would enjoy hearing more from the man who contributed so much to the world's largest non-sports card company.
At one point, I asked Gary why Topps didn't do more original art sets. His response:
GG: "The reason why the president of Topps even took on [Dinosaurs Attack] in the first place was because he was so blown away when I showed him all the art and everything, he said, 'Gary, this is fabulous.' So we made a commercial, and really went all out, and then the thing didn't really sell well. It sold okay. The rate of sale was just like the old Mars Attacks.
"I guess these original Science Fiction properties sold in card form will have a trickle audience but it's not going to be like Garbage Pail Kids or Wacky Packs. The bad taste humor stuff we would do would ignite. It would really sell well. The Sci-fi sets (I guess) had a more limited audience, a cult audience. So they became huge cult items, but they never really paid for themselves. Remember, commissioning all the art and the production costs are very very expensive. If they only sell okay, it's just not worth it."
KK: "They figured, why are we putting all our money into these things when we can just crank out another photo set and earn just as much with so much less."
GG: "Exactly. That's exactly what happened to the card industry in the 90s in general. All those beautiful art sets that people were doing, Star Wars Galaxy and the rest of them. Then they realized the cost of doing those things based on how much they sold was not worth it. I never do art work sets anymore, no one does them."
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On Earl Norem and Xno's art:
GG: "I think Earl Norem's stuff looks a little more retro, whereas Xno was a little more contemporary."
KK: "Well Norem and Saunders both have the Pulp background. They both did covers for the pulps. That was a common technique they both used. You can practically pick out each of Saunders 'art pieces in Civil War News and Mars Attacks by looking for the white shine on the side of the face."
GG: "Oh yes, the shiny skin! We always laughed about Robin in the Batman painted series. His arms and legs looked like porcelain because they all had those shiny highlights! They were all great artists and great people to work with also."
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On the subject of starting his own company:
GG: "I'm always under pressure from people saying, 'Start your own card company.' And I always sorta fantasize [about my own company named] Card King Entertainment. I want to do a Ray Harryhausen card set, which nobody has ever done. I wanna do the classic Universal Monsters, but I want to do a card set with all the trimmings for each of them. Next year is the Creature's anniversary. I wanted to do a fabulous card set on the Creature, just like we do with any movie. You have your character cards, your story line, your behind-the-scenes sub sets. And then maybe, Dracula, Frankenstein, Bride of Frankenstein, etc. You wind up doing a single card set on all the classic Universal monster movies, and do them as beautifully as possible. Traditionally, they have always been under an umbrella of all the characters. I think these movies are such classics that you could indeed do a set on each of them...
"So I'm always tempted to go into business myself. Maybe then I could license from Topps some of my own creations and put out new ones!"
* * *
On the movie business:
GG: "I've been in the movie business now for a couple of decades, and I gotta tell you, the fellow that I originally wrote Pumpkin Head with, my childhood friend and writing partner, killed himself because of the madness of the business and what it can do to you. One minute you're up on cloud nine, the next minute, you're down to the depths again. This business is a killer. It can really reek havoc on you."
KK: "And the people in it are generally such back biters and back stabbers."
GG: "They lie just to-- recreational lying! It's incredible! With Pumpkin Head, the (company's name withheld) claimed they had the rights. The original producer and I approached them and asked about doing a sequel. (It's such a big cult hit now days.) They kept giving us hell and insanity and lies, and after two years of lawyers, we found out the bankers had the sequel rights. The company was lying though their teeth all along!"
KK: "Speaking of Pumpkin Head, I noticed it was one of the monsters featured in the Fright Flicks card set."
GG: "That's because I squeezed it in and went out of my way to make sure my own monster was in that set. That's so funny.
"The whole idea of Fright Flicks was to do a color version with new movies of the kind of sets that we had done with the Creature Feature series. You know, the classic monster sets with funny captions on the bottom. That's almost been like a Topps tradition."
* * *
On his early days:
GG: "My first bit of professional writing was back in 1971 or so. It was for The Monster Times. That was a monster magazine in newspaper format."
KK: "When did you actually start working for Topps?"
GG: "About '72. I was still in Brooklyn, as was Topps. I got the job because of writing for the monster magazine. Len Brown was the director for new product development at Topps. He was a movie collector. We both collected 16 mm films. That was the only way you could own a movie (before VHS). The Monster Times gave me free ads for being a regular writer. I advertised that I was looking for new 16mm films, and Len saw the ad and called me. He said, 'Hey, I like your articles, have you ever considered writing trading cards?' And I thought, what the heck, I'll come down. And then because we were both film collectors and fans and all that, he hired me to be the new card editor and writer. That's how all that started."
* * *
On the subject of Star Wars:
"I've done hundreds and hundreds of card sets from the days of Adam Twelve and The Waltons in the early days. We eventually got to the Star Wars era in the late 70s and things started to get very exciting. Then we got to the 90s and people were concerned about quality. We were catering to a different audience. Before that, it was just the kids. But by the time we got to the 90s, it was the collectors and the fans that were driving what we were doing."
KK: "That was actually the same audience, they had just grown up since the 1970s."
GG: "Exactly, they had become more sophisticated and they really got into the subject. The whole thing with Star Wars was exciting to begin with, because I got to do the original card backs. They were a little primitive but still kinda fun. Then in the 90s, I came up with Star Wars Galaxy, which was an art approach. And then I created Wide Vision which was a nice long card so I could finally print the actual frame from the movie with the beautiful composition of the finished frame. Then you could flip it over and there's the story board and behind-the-scenes shot. You could really see the evolution of the shot and the movie. It was like doing a film maker's newsletter because it was very sophisticated. I loved that. I am most proud of the Wide Vision because that literally changed the shape of the card and was able to accommodate everything beautifully.
"I certainly didn't invent the long card, but it was the creative application I'm proud of. Anyone can throw pictures on cards and write some copy. What I always tried to do for my own interest is to approach it as if I was doing a little book. It's kind of like a book but it's just not bound together. There's separate pieces."
KK: "We've certainly come a long way from the 1960s sets with pictures on the front and puzzle pieces on the back."
GG: "Oh God! The puzzle pieces! For years I begged to write more copy, but they would say, 'But kids like puzzles.' Ultimately, they figured out they could stick the puzzles on the stickers (which used to come in every pack) and that's how we got rid of the puzzles. Then I was finally able to write more copy."
* * *
On the subject of the Hulk and Outer Limits:
GG: "Writing copy could get a little strange at times. Back in the 70s, when I wrote the backs for the Incredible Hulk TV series, I originally wrote all the copy pertaining to the actual episodes. But then Universal said, 'Sorry, we didn't clear the rights with the individual writers who wrote the episodes, so you can't tell those stories. Make up whatever. I think I just wound up writing some generic TV facts or something. I don't even remember. It might have even been a puzzle!"
KK: "I wonder if that's what happened to Len Brown and the original back copy to Outer Limits. Those stories had nothing to do with the actual episodes either."
GG: "Oh yes, and you can read about it in the 1997 DuoCards set of Outer Limits. They hired me to do that set for them. They reprinted several of the original 1960s cards, but on the backs, I wrote the history of what Len Brown had to go through when he wrote the originals!" (see cards 72 - 80 and the sub sets.)
* * *
These are just some of the stories Gary shared that give additional insight to what life at Topps was like. It also makes one wonder what tales other Topps employees could tell if given the chance. Let's hope that one day, we'll find out!
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