So you give your kid a dollar to buy some trading cards -- Cal Ripken, maybe, or Kirby Puckett. And he comes back with . . . Paul Tsongas?
There it is, though: "Tsongas on Issues," or Card No. 24 in the series "Decision '92," put out by AAA Sports Inc. of Cincinnati. On the back, we get this sound bite from the failed Democratic presidential candidate that was issued, presumably, in more hopeful times: "We need a President who recognizes that absent a viable manufacturing base, there is no U.S. economy." If that's not enough to grab you, there's Card No. 30 ("Democratic VP Selection") or No. 43 ("Bush on Issues -- Defense Spending") to whet your appetite for the coming election.
"Decision '92" is but one example of what has become an astonishingly fertile market: nonsports trading cards. From Harley-Davidsons to the Iran-contra hearings to old true-detective magazines, there seems to be a card for just about any topic.
"It's easy entertainment, and there's a diversity with nonsports cards that just can't be matched in sports cards," says Maggie McKenzie, co-owner of Alternate Worlds in Cockeysville, which sells a wide variety of nonsports trading cards. "Plus, with the way sports cards are going, prices can be ridiculous -- $5 and up sometimes. Kids can afford nonsports cards."
At Alternate Worlds, you can get your fix in baseball cards or NFL cards. But the store also sells trading cards featuring such topics as modern warplanes ("Wings of Fire," eight cards for $1), old country music stars ("Country Classics," 10 for $1.49) and crime figures of the 20th century ("True Crime," 12 for $1.65).
"In the last couple of years, the market has really taken off," says Harris Toser, production manager of Non-Sport Update, a quarterly trade magazine out of Harrisburg, Pa. "Six to seven years ago, there were at the most 10 nonsports sets put out in a year. "This year alone -- from last October to this month -- there have been 167 sets out that we know of."
According to The Licensing Letter, another industry publication, about $1.2 billion was spent in 1991 on new trading cards -- an increase of 20 percent over 1990. Nonsports cards accounted for about $160 million, or 13 percent, of that figure.
Teen-age boys and young men with a healthy concentration of nostalgia-loving baby boomers are the cards most frequent buyers, say industry observers. But, Mr. Toser cautions, "The market is made up of a lot of individuals. Each set attracts its own audience."
Also, a slowdown in the sports card sector, following a boom in the late 1980s when collectors and speculators became heavily involved, has helped the nonsports card market.
"Unquestionably, the sports card market has slowed down," acknowledges George White, a spokesman for Sky Box, which produces a number of both kinds of cards. "For instance, there will be 27 different football sets out this fall. That's tough for the consumer and tough for the retailer, who must decide which to buy and which to carry."
In the nonsports category, most of the sales come from what are called "licensed" cards -- those for which the manufacturer paid a fee to own the rights to produce a card. In this category are cards with themes relating to say, music, film, comic books or television. About $110 million in licensed nonsports cards were sold last year, says The Licensing Letter, and "Batman Returns" cards and ones featuring Marvel Comics characters -- notably X-Man -- have been recent big sellers.
But it is the nonlicensed cards -- those that might show antique guitars or bass fishing stars -- that best indicate the staggering number of choices available.
Take, for instance, the recent set "Thee Dolls," which features nude dancers from the adult nightclub chain Thee Dollhouses. "They're doing really well; there's been a big market for adult cards," says Mike Horn, a sports card buyer for Diamond Comic Distributors, a major card distributor based in Baltimore.
Card No. 56, for instance, features blond, lissome Camilla Brucker of Pompano Beach, Fla., We get some statistics on her and this little nugget: "Fantasy: Drive around nude in a convertible while having sex." Another "Doll," though, is less lascivious. Kaylee Louise (Card No. 145) says her fantasy is to "make more money than Ross Perot."
Then there's "Republicans Attack!" put out in mid-July by the quirky Kitchen Sink Press of Princeton, Wisc. This 36-card set, which sells for $10.95, is a satiric shot at George Bush and friends, patterned after the classic early 1960s cards, "Mars Attacks!"
That set about a Martian invasion, was also a thinly disguised anti-communist parable. In "Republicans Attack!" George Bush uses the Hubble Space Telescope to wipe out Democratic voters, and Patrick Buchanan helps wall off the country's borders to stop immigration.