Black Ship Books Interviews Matt Fuller

Sketch cards by Len Bellinger (a threesome)

This week it’s all about collecting. Sketch cards, to be specific, and collectors are an important part of that world. What’s a sketch card, you say? Glad you asked. The interview with Matt Fuller below shall enlightened you, certainly. Quick note: This post contains sketch cards from Lord of the Rings because that is what our interviewee collects. Future interviews just might have other licences.

Sketch cards, or art cards, have been around for a while. Measuring 2.5 x 3.5 inches, these little things are usually some kind of art board or paper, sometimes pre-printed blank cards with the artist’s logo on the back, they are then drawn, inked and-or painted using a variety of methods portraying absolutely anything. They were most often traded back in their beginnings and still are, but are now often bought and sold, just like any other piece of art.
Below is an interview I conducted with a serious collector, Matt Fuller. He has quietly done a lot of collecting over the years and shares some of his opinions.

Sketch card by Soni Alcorn-Hender

IH: When did you first hear about, or see, sketch cards for the first time?
MF: I had collected sports cards casually for years, and in 2002 or so I started getting into non-sports autograph cards, and built up some serious collections (all since sold off). While autograph collecting I had noticed sketch cards here and there mainly via Star Wars sets, but none of them really appealed to me until 2011, when I came across my first Lord of the Rings sketch card, and it was all over at that point. I was hooked from the get go.

IH: How would you describe sketch cards to someone who has never heard of them?
MF: It’s a funny question, because even though many would consider me a die-hard collector, most of my personal circle of friends don’t know much about my hobby or collecting mania. When I’ve tried to describe the cards I’ve taken a very minimalist approach and called them simply: small cardboard art gems. Unfortunately there is still a stigma around collecting cards in general I think, even to this day. They’re still viewed by non-enthusiasts as just kids’ playthings, which is an absolute tragedy considering some of the amazing sets being put out these days.

IH: What would you, as a collector, consider to be the ultimate sketch card set?
MF: I guess I can interpret this question two ways. In terms of sets already produced, I think it’s the three Topps “Lord of the Rings” sets, bar none. Between the artists and the source material, there is no equal in my book. Clearly I’m a bit biased in that direction. If the question is more about what COULD be the ultimate sketch card set, I think it’s less about the licensed property and more about respecting the artists and the collectors. I think there has to be a way to create a high quality product with artists who create all A-level cards and at the same time are being compensated accordingly for their efforts. There needs to be a way for both the artists and the collectors to share in a win-win scenario.

IH: Do you think there is anything in particular that holds back the evolution of the sketch card genre?
MF: This is going to sound odd and perhaps vaguely socialist, but I think corporations are holding back the hobby in some respects. When profit is the end goal, corners will always be cut and neither the artists nor the collectors will be fully satisfied. But at the same time, to get the A-level intellectual property rights you need the money of a corporation, so it’s a bit of a catch-22. I think Perna Studios is a great example of a quality independent company which is trying to break the mold, but even they are limited in terms of the rights they can acquire due to money.
I hope at some point you see a collective of artists get together, perhaps fund a purchase of IP rights via Kickstarter, and provide a set which is a home run for collectors and makes sure all of the profits are funneled directly to the artists themselves. Without a corporate middle man to need a cut, this could be a cost-effective way to produce quality material at a reasonable cost.


Sketch cards (it’s a threesome) by Raphael Kayanan

IH: Why do you think sketch cards have grown in popularity over the past ten years?
MF: I think the wide availability of quality licensing material available has made a huge difference, so with that being said it comes back to quality content. We’ve had the classics for a while: Star Wars, LOTR, Indiana Jones and Marvel, but we’ve had some great sets in the last few years, based on new content like Walking Dead, Game of Thrones and Grimm that utilize recent shows and put out very high quality work. So part of the thanks goes to companies like HBO, AMC and Netflix who are putting out such high quality shows. On the card company side, Cryptozoic in particular seems to get the quality aspect, although I do wish they could better balance the quantity issue to make more cards available versus their rare chase approach. For someone like me who collects only sketches, it makes a case break financially unfeasible, and then I’m at the whim of mass case-breakers who jack up their prices on Ebay for a single sketch card as they try to recoup their costs.

IH: Do you think there are any implications to the sketch card genre, as a result of the growth in popularity?
MF: It makes me think back to 1990 or so when the independent comics craze was in full swing. For a while it was a great thing in terms of new content and a huge amount of choice for the consumer. But eventually the consumer was overwhelmed with competing products which were very similar to each other (and some just downright dumb … how may TMNT ripoffs were there?), and it became a full-on glut. Prices fell, inventory was stagnant, and the consumer was burned out. I worry about that a little – sketch cards right now are still a fairly limited market and too much inventory would definitely tip the scales where supply is greater than demand and that will result in a drop in sets produced in the long-term (although the short-term drop in card prices would certainly make collectors happy). Now that I’ve said that out loud I wonder how much of that plays into Cryptozoic’s marketing strategy ….

IH: Do you think sketch cards as an art form could exist sustainably without the fan-based topics, such as TV and movies?
MF: I think it would be tough, but possible. I’m out of sports collecting now, but I know that sketches have crossed into the sports market, but I don’t know how prevalent they are. The Classic Mythology and Insectae sets seemed to move fairly well, as did the Viceroy Space set. I think comics will always be the baseline but as more and more companies move into the field (which I think will continue to happen) then the content will have to expand beyond licensed properties, so I think we will see the premise continue to be tested as more generic or public domain properties are put out there.

IH: Where do you think sketch cards, and art cards as a medium in itself, can ultimately go? Have sketch cards reached their limit?

MF: The problem with physical art is that it can obviously be very limited based on the simple surface used. I had some ideas which I thought would be cool if I ever was to start my own card company, and since the likelihood of me every following through on my own is zero, I’ll throw it out there and hope someone thinks some of these are worth trying. What about we tie in the sketch cards with digital content? Each card could have its own custom code which leads to bonus online content. What if an artist recorded their work and make a time lapse and the owner of the card could see it with the link? Or a short message from the artist? And why wouldn’t a company create a scanned database of all of the cards produced with a way for collectors to log in and claim ownership of their cards with a code? The site could be linked directly to a forum where people could chat and trade the cards as well as share the bonus links so everyone could see their custom messaging, and the company has a built-in marketing database as a result.

Sketch card by Sarah Wilkinson

IH: Do you think storytelling has any place in sketch cards?
MF: Absolutely. That’s really why I got into Lord of the Rings over any other set. I’m a huge fan of both the books and the films. As soon as I saw a scene-focused card Lord of the Rings I immediately got the idea of using the sketch cards to create an actual storyboard of the films for myself. At first I didn’t even know if it was possible, but thanks to several fan-focused websites and forums where I was able to see a large sample of the cards created it became obvious that I could pull it off. I think most people focus on an artist or a character, but my focus is purely on the story itself. As a result, I think I would personally be limited to sets with linear storytelling such as licenses movies and TV for my collecting. That and the fact that I am killing my savings on these addictive little pieces of cardboard.

IH: If you collect sketch cards, the chances are good that you watch movies. What about books? Do you enjoy reading? Do you have a preferred platform, such as a reader or iPad, to along with actual books? Is one better than another?
MF: I’m a bookworm from back in the day, having read my first Sci-Fi book around age 8, and my love for books has remained with me to today. I’ve tried to go digital, I really have. I have a few books on my iPad and there’s a Kindle in the house as well, but at the end of the day I fall back to good old paper. There’s something very satisfying to me about holding a physical book in my hands, in some ways it takes me back and has a very calming effect on me. And you can tell my favorite books because they’re worn down – books definitely tell a story about their owners. On my iPad I suppose there’s software which could tell me how fast I read it base on page turns and how often I go back, but in the end that’s not important for me to know, it’s all about the books I know I love, so it’s hard-copy books all the way for me. After that I would choose iPad but that’s more due to familiarity as opposed to me thinking it is vastly superior to the other options.

IH: Do you think people are reading less?
MF: Based on personal observation, yes. At my job I work with a wide variety of age groups, and overall I definitely think there’s almost a movement (in the US at least) which says reading is not cool. That sounds odd when I write it, but it’s not quite anti-intellectualism (although I think that’s part of the issue) but more of a view that books aren’t cool. It’s almost become a niche – when I am on break and reading a book, those who would self-identify as nerds (a title I also embrace for myself) comment and ask about the books or share their own stories. A few in my office have openly scoffed that I would waste time reading. And the scoffers are far more vocal than those who share my view. I don’t know if one office is a statistically sound sample, but that’s what I’ve seen.

IH: What about in different countries? Are you aware of the effect (or lack thereof) of North American entertainment fads on other parts of the planet? Might other countries’ preferences have an effect on us? ( big question, perhaps…)
MF: I certainly know that some US media exports translate very well, with my own Lord of the Rings obsession being a great example. I know there are powerhouse collectors in the UK, Australia, Canada and Germany for the middle earth cards. I would suspect than any hit movie or well-exported TV show (Game of Thrones for example) would translate well internationally. On the other direction, I’m a little shocked that more of the popular anime titles haven’t shown up in sketch card form yet. Maybe as an anime-fan myself I think the market is better than it is in reality, but I think experimenting with sketch cards of the more popular anime titles (even Pokemon for example, which still appears to be huge) would be a good first step.

IH: Do you think it’s true that technology is “ruining” in the Western world? Are we becoming addicted to our cell phones and X-Boxes? Or are these things complimenting (in one way or another) our society?
MF: Interesting question. I think right now we’re seeing a breakdown in social interactions, absolutely. I’ve got 4 kids, and I have to put stringent limits on electronics use. And it’s not the fault of the kids – these electronics are highly addictive, and for impressionable developing minds it can be all-encompassing. At the risk of sounding like Andy Rooney, I do remember in my day (not that long ago) when you walked over to see your friends and hang out, and now it all takes place online. All of my kids will be sitting in their rooms chatting with friends online – whether that is good or bad in the long run remains to be seen.
Cell phones are certainly having an impact as well. My morning commute on the train is a sea of down-turned faces staring at their phones. In that scenario it isn’t too bad, it is a good distraction on a monotonous ride. But people walking down the streets on phones and no paying attention, drivers using their phones, even people on dates constantly checking their phones … antisocial behavior and sometimes dangerous behavior abounds thanks to cell phones if you ask me. And I won’t even get into the rampant spelling and grammar problems presented by texting and auto-correct….
I think the real issue will come in maybe 20 years when software automation becomes commonplace and starts really impacting the work force on an extended scale. Bill Gates recently gave a great interview about this, and it talked about how some common jobs now will almost be non-existent in the future (with my own accounting field being one of them) The societal changes that will come at that point will make the industrial automation changes of the last few decades seem tame by comparison.

IH: Is digital publishing doing harm to the publishing industry? What are your opinions on self-publishing? (a very big question, I realize)
MF: I think there will be a point where self-publishing will be the norm in terms of books. I’ve already seen some articles about inexpensive on-demand printing options for self-publishers, and clearly the digital market is wide open. I think the challenge will be finding a revenue model which puts the content creators first. You see articles all the time showing how people with millions of listens on Spotify barely make $100, and I imagine the book publishing models are the same. Once the distributor and marketer and credit card processor all take a cut of the digital download fee, there’s not much of a living to be made right now. That needs to change.

IH: In your opinion, is storytelling as a whole, changing? What do you think?
MF: Yes, but I think it is a mixed bag. On the book side I’ve seen some very interesting authors over the last few years which show that risk-taking can pay off. China Mieville puts out some amazing work and always comes through. Susanna Clarke was brilliant with Jonathan Strange. Personally I like discovering authors who shake up my expectations in terms of not just the story itself but in their style of writing. While not my normal genre, Wolf Hall just blew me away with its amazing writing. So on the book side there are certainly some new talented voices emerging, but on the flip side a walk through any remaining book store will reveal that there are still plenty of authors just following the herd. I suppose that will never change.
I think on the whole we are seeing a renaissance for high quality television. Just look at the A-list actors who used to avoid TV like the plague and are now jumping into it eagerly, and many in some great shows. The Following, Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, Walking Dead, Mad Men … some seriously well written and well acted shows have come out in the recent past, and that looks like a trend which will continue. Off all the mediums, I think TV is in a strong position now thanks to some risk taking by the smaller channels, and even some non-traditional sources (House of Cards comes to mind).
Movies are hit or miss. We still get the inevitable blockbuster sequels, but thankfully there are still markets for well produced thought-provoking (non eye candy) films. I prefer story over spectacle myself, but if I can get both in one package, take my money). Nebraska, Her, 12 Years a Slave … they all told amazing stories without over the top explosions or trick shots. It all comes back to the story.

Sketch cards by Tony Perna

IH: Is there anything else you would like to add, either about cards or the art world as a whole? Is there a question you are dying to answer that I haven’t asked?

MF: I’m very pro-artist, and I hope that the artists start to get more respect from the corporations, or otherwise that they figure out a way to make a company work for them. I know self-publishing is risky, but hearing of artists getting a buck and change a card from the big T in the old days is absurd. I have no idea if it is better now, but it should be. That’s a big reason that I have had my own blank sketch card stock created, so I can cut out the middleman and go directly to the artist. There are some artists who have made a nice chunk of change off of just me, and if more people would look at direct patronage as a channel, I think it would be a good thing for everyone.

IH: As a last question, what would be “your pick of the month”, when your day job boots are put away – have you recently read an incredible book, or discovered a software that is the coolest thing since electricity was invented, or an app, a video game, board game, tool, cookbook, basically anything on this planet that everybody should know about?

MF: Pick of the month? Ok, let’s split by category, and I’ll limit it to things I have actually consumed myself. Book would be Wool by Hugh Howey – really great and absorbing read. Music I haven’t downloaded much of lately, so I don’t have anything to offer there. For video games, I’ve played two recently which blew me away for completely different reasons. Gone Home took me completely by surprise and I was so pleased at the end of it, which is an absolute rarity in the video game world. And South Park The Stick of Truth is rude, crude and incredibly fun. For TV I’ve just discovered Review on Comedy Central and it’s hilarious.

On behalf of Black Ship Books, thank you immensely for your thoughts and insight, Matt! It would be interesting to have you back in a year and see how things have (or have not) changed.

Sketch cards by Matt Busch

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