Interview: Gary Gerani & Robert V. Conte on Star Wars Cards
On November 17th (the 37th anniversary of Life Day) Abrams ComicArts released Star Wars: The Original Topps Trading Card Series, Volume One, the first in a series of books reprinting all of the Topps trading cards for your perusal. We sat down and talked with the authors, Gary Gerani and Robert V. Conte, over their love of collecting, the historical value of preserving memorabilia, and where they think Star Wars will head in the future.
ComicMix: How was your experience working with Topps and Abrams ComicArts on this book?
Gary Gerani: Fine. The editors at Abrams were terrific. Most of the people connected with the project were fans, people who wanted this book as much as buyers did.
Robert V. Conte: Abrams didn’t have much of the content needed for this first volume. Surprisingly, neither did Topps. Fortunately, I have a massive STAR WARS collection including the trading cards and related promotional materials. We struck a deal and here we are!
CM: Gary, what inspired you to seek employment at Topps back in the 1970s?
GG: I was embarking on a career as a freelance writer, so I took any jobs that were available and seemed interesting. Being a Brooklyn kid, I grew up with Topps products, and knew the company was located in nearby Bush Terminal. It was Len (MARS ATTACKS) Brown of Topps that invited me into the fold. It turned out to be a lifelong professional relationship, great for both sides… I get my pension in a couple of years!
RVC: From childhood, I’ve collected trading cards, comic books and records. Topps was mostly known for baseball, football and other sports cards. Fortunately, the company offered a variety of non-sport subjects including KING KONG, JAWS 2, SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE and others that I just loved. Hence, I couldn’t resist the chance to be involved with this project!
CM: Did you collect the cards when they were first released?
RVC: Absolutely! I had seen STAR WARS in Summer of 1977 shortly before starting second grade. Several kids at my school traded their doubles of the first (blue border) and second (yellow border) series of cards. One kid was the only girl in the bunch, so I developed an immense crush and started buying the cards to impress her. It didn’t work!
CM: What is your favorite card or sticker in each of the five series and why?
GG: Don’t know if I really have favorites, to be honest. Certainly the infamous Threepio card (Series 4, Card #207) has nostalgia value for me…
*NOTE* The first printing of this card shows an unsuitable “appendage” below C-3PO’s torso that, once discovered, was removed and the entire series was reprinted. The revised card is actually more scarce than the original!
RVC: For me, my absolute favorite image is Series 1, Sticker #7 — “Lord Darth Vader.” It was the first one when I intentionally collected multiple copies of to place them anywhere including my schoolbooks!
CM: So who made the decision to color Chewbacca’s eyes blue on the first series of stickers?
CM: Did you like the bubble gum in the packs?
GG: Sure. I grew up chomping on those frequently stale slabs of pink.
RVC: I loathed Topps gum because it was too thin and dry. Donruss offered softer, thicker and yummier gum with its trading cards. Sorry, Topps!
CM: What sales figures were considered “excellent” back in 1977?
GG: I forget how many cases constituted a hit. STAR WARS went through the roof instantly, I can tell you that.
CM: To your knowledge, did other non-sport cards outsell STAR WARS?
GG: Amusingly, the only other movie/TV property that came close during this era was CHARLIE’S ANGELS. We did five series, just as we did five series of the original STAR WARS in ’77/’78.
RVC: I am completely shocked to learn this. Never underestimate the power of beautiful women!
CM: After sales of STAR WARS trading cards skyrocketed, did Topps create other card sets in the same genre to meet or exceed those sales figures?
GG: The success of STAR WARS did ignite a number of sci-fi properties, such as STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE, BATTLESTAR GALACTICA and CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND. You can add SUPERMAN, THE BLACK HOLE, and ALIEN to that list. In many cases, we didn’t expect these films to outsell STAR WARS, which was king of the hill. E.T. did amazingly well for us, as I recall. But we had problems getting material for additional series, so there’s only the one.
RVC: Funny, I remember vividly coming home with a few packs of ALIEN cards in 1979. My mother couldn’t believe that a “bubble-gum card company” would market an “R”-rated film to children. They went into the garbage before I had a chance to eat the gum!
CM: Why do you think trading cards cross into many different fandoms (for example, geek fans and sports fans)?
RVC: Trading cards were once the ultimate platform for photo sharing. Before the digital age, they were the most inexpensive way to amass dozens of images that were not published anywhere else. For collectors, seeking a set of tangible photos with behind-the-scenes text and story remains appealing as ever.
GG: To some degree that’s true. A card set really is like owning a collection of mini- photographs.
CM: In 1977, Wonder Bread released its trading cards independently, via grocery stores and supermarkets, to millions of American homes. Did those cards impact sales of the Topps cards?
GG: Made very little difference, really. No envy factor here. One product seemed to help another back then.
RVC: From a then-child’s point of view, the Wonder Bread cards were basically a preview set for the upcoming Topps cards. Fortunately, I successfully persuaded the publisher to reprint them inside the book. Collecting those 16 images had fans hunger for more… and the five series of Topps’s STAR WARS cards fed that demand.
CM: If either of you wrote the STAR WARS cards for the first time today, what would you change?
GG: I’d get rid of the puzzle backs and add more text.
RVC: As a devout fan, I would hope for more varied images; some pics in the five series were too similar and I recall being slightly disappointed.
CM: What is the most exciting thing about this book?
RVC: For me, it’s the opportunity to share with my family and friends a book that was mostly compiled from cards, wrappers, boxes, and promotional materials that I amassed between seven and nine-years-old. I’m approaching 50 now so it’s completely surreal!
GG: There’s always a place for pocket-size Americana. Entertainment cards are still widely categorized as “non-sports cards,” since the classic baseball card is what people think of first. It’s just a fun format, something we fondly associate with our childhood.
CM: Gary, you have been involved in many STAR WARS Topps projects. What has been your favorite part of working with Topps?
GG: The ability to create wonderful products, and the opportunity to art direct some of the greatest illustrators of our time.
CM: Of the card sets you wrote for Topps, which were your favorites?
GG: I’d say the STAR WARS WIDEVISION sets and the first few STAR WARS GALAXY. I created and named the Widevision format, and Greg Goldstein (now president of IDW) was key in nailing the technical process we used to digitally select the wide frames directly from film prints. That interesting process happened at the Telecine Research Center, right near Universal Studios in Los Angeles, CA.
CM: Do you still write card sets for Topps?
GG: Even as we speak I’m finishing up a set based on the new WARCRAFT movie, along with a new STAR WARS EVOLUTION series. THE FORCE AWAKENS is obviously due for a card set treatment, and I’m on standby for a trip to San Francisco for material gathering. Companies with a license for the new film have been forced to be very, very patient.
CM: Who has Augie Napoli’s original art used on the boxes and promotional material?
GG: Augie’s family. It’s hanging in their living room, on Staten Island.
CM: How do you share your geeky enthusiasm for pop culture with your kids/friends/family?GG: They see it when they just look around at my surroundings! I collect original art, movie posters, the works. Always have and always will.
RVC: My children think I am the ultimate hoarder of everything. If they ask me about anything related to Pop Culture, I usually have the answer. Impressive to some. Scary for others!
CM: As professional creators, you both have been lucky enough to be involved with multiple pop-culture franchises. Which current franchise, if any, is your dream job today?
GG: I’ll think we’ve been talking about it. Nothing beats STAR WARS. I’m a huge fan of classic horror movies, so doing sets like UNIVERSAL MONSTERS ILLUSTRATED was a genuine treat.
RVC: I’ve had opportunity to contribute to the legacies of some of the most iconic intellectual properties on the planet. GODZILLA, JAMES BOND 007, KISS, and SESAME STREET included. At this point, BATMAN, SPIDER-MAN and MICKEY MOUSE are on my shortlist. Fingers crossed!
CM: What do you feel is your biggest accomplishment in the pop culture world to date?GG: In 1977 I wrote FANTASTIC TELEVISION, the first book to deal with sci-fi, horror, and fantasy on the small screen. It was very well received. Later, in 1988, I co-wrote the screenplay to Stan Winston’s supernatural thriller PUMPKINHEAD, which has become a cult movie admired by people like Stephen King and Anne Rice… not to mention Woody Allen. And, for what it’s worth, I guess I’m still the Card King, having written, edited and art directed more trading card sets than anyone else. Hundreds of ’em!
RVC: Most of my fans come from the heavy-metal music community. During KISS’s 1996-97 reunion tour, I helped remaster and repackage over twenty albums by restoring the original elements, track listings, cover art, etc. I also consulted on two compilation albums and designed merchandise including lunch boxes, books and — you guessed it — trading cards! Most of my contributions are still in-print and, seeing my name in over a dozen languages worldwide today, is overwhelming. Sharing that with my kids is the greatest gift ever.
CM: What are your current projects?
GG: I’ve got six books coming out next year (three of them Abrams SW related), and a John Travolta racing car movie I co-wrote will be shooting in 2016 as well, right after he finishes GOTTI. I’m also doing a documentary about Steven Spielberg’s original TV composer Billy Goldenberg (DUEL, among others), not to mention various card sets for Topps. So yeah, I keep myself busy.
RVC: I’ve contributed my collection for the next three volumes of STAR WARS: THE ORIGINAL TOPPS TRADING CARD SERIES including THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, RETURN OF THE JEDI and STAR WARS GALAXY. I’m also writing a graphic novel — a memoir influenced on my life. I’m scheduled to co-author another book focused on arguably once of the most revolutionary forms of entertainment in history. I consult for companies that specialize in classic intellectual properties. Throw in an upcoming crowdfunding project and I think that’s a good start for 2016.