The comic shop can be a weirdly libidinous place. When a young man stumbles into a building that’s designed to sell elaborately-described power fantasies and detailed drawings of idealized women, things can start to feel a little weird. And as you pseudo-accidentally stray towards the beaded curtain at the back of the shop, to that place that divides the spandex from what’s immediately under the spandex, the thin line between childhood collectible and adult collectible, very confusingly, disappears.
Whether they feature relatively innocuous images of chicks in bikinis, or depict full-on uncensored flesh, adult trading cards exude that mysterious, forbidden, slightly gross feeling. Trading cards, as a medium for images and text, are conventionally perceived as an object intended for a younger audience, whether it’s as a collectible card game featuring cartoon monsters, something to stick in bicycle spokes, or just something to trade for a better snack at lunch. Adult collectors of trading cards, much like adult comic collectors, adult cartoon watchers and adult toy collectors, are a group who are often met with condescension because their pursuits are seen as the hobbies of children, and real adults collect things like cars, bills, herpes, and children who invariably cannot control themselves in restaurants. Because the world needs more of that. The medium, however, does not inherently dictate the medium’s substance or intent.
It’s this weird limbo between demographics where some of the most interesting collectibles exist. So, let’s start with one of my favorite sets of “adult” trading cards: Portfolio’s Secret: The Elite Force trading cards from 1994.
Portfolio’s Secret, as it were, is a series of 57 trading cards published in the 1990s by the generically-named Entertainment Publishing Group, and photographed by talented pin-up photographer Robert Coello. The core set of 36 cards focuses on six models in various designer swimsuits frolicking on some exotic resort beach, and that would be more than enough for most people, but the set gets a little weird towards the end. Rather than continue the set with more bikini’d babes, Portfolio’s Secret launches into a weird, half-assed subset of cards depicting a team of female superheroes called “The Elite Force”: a comic book team of heroines based on the same six models. One might think that PF would have found some local weirdo’s nerdy kid to draw these heroines for the cards, but they scored no less than John Romita Jr. So, yeah, maybe they did get some weirdo’s nerdy kid after all. This bizarre amalgamation of ideas was, without a doubt, a poorly-designed attempt to bridge the already awkward gap between comic nerds and horndogs. Or, if you’re a paranoid grandmother, to lure innocent children into softcore smut.
The Elite Force is sketched onto a subset of nine cards, each listing their bizarre powers and weaknesses. Sunset, for example, can (and I quote), “…lift weight up to 2 tons breath [sic] underwater and become invisible.” And completely ignore commas, it would seem. At sunrise, Sunset becomes roofied by nature and cannot move. As if it needs to be said, there’s something sexually deranged about the description of a paralyzed bikini model on the back of a trading card. And Cosmo’s “weakness”? She falls in love a lot, when she’s not creating a “wizardry feeling” by controlling people’s minds with her seductive eyes.
This weird team of sexually-charged bikini heroes is tied together by a truly terrible narrative scrawled across the back of two more cards, half of which is written in all capital letters, and without any clear understanding of how words come together to form sentences. Obviously, no one is buying these cards for the thrilling story of six empowered women fighting crime, and if that doesn’t disrupt the set enough, I’m also sure it was be a total, absolute bummer to open a pack of these and get a drawing of “Harley”, the team’s broad-shouldered, bearded leader. Why, Portfolio’s Secret? Why would you stick a drawing of some hairy dude in a set of bikini trading cards? Is it your mission to nurture, and subsequently destroy, boners?
There’s a lot about the set that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, but sense is kind of thrown to the wolves when it comes to boobs and butts on trading cards. It’s not as if anyone working on these would be able to focus on things like proper spelling of words, numbering and printing the cards correctly, or maintaining any kind of real order. Because boobs. And for some reason, the set includes a card dedicated to the publisher talking about how awesome he is, because anyone buying these really wants to know about your business model, EPG. Studies have shown that no one would buy Penthouse if it weren’t for the Powerpoints. This is the first card set I’ve ever seen to come up with something worse than a checklist card. The only thing worse would be to slip a razor into a few packs… but at least that would be marginally exciting. The set includes five known error cards – repeating images throughout the set, flipping other images, and generally making it a difficult experience to figure out what you’ve got.
The publisher’s message, despite being a waste of space where boobs could have been, throws out a bit of interesting information about an otherwise un-traceable company. While EPG states that this is their fourth set of “adult” trading cards, a company called Portfolio had actually published the three earlier sets of “fashion model” cards. There are no records of their “Eye to Eye Magazine”, which is now the name of an architecture magazine based in upstate NY, and their “JamPac Magazine”, which was also somehow a trading card set because this was the 1990s and who could forget Plasm, folded after one issue. As is the tendency with companies that appeared during the trading card boom of the ’90s, EPG has dissipated into the ether, existing only as a footnote in the archives of business directories and a small stack of well-photographed “fashion model” trading cards. Much like the company itself, most of the models (aside from Frederique) have also disappeared, changing their names (or never even using their real ones) and probably hoping that no one finds them on Facebook. Even though a clever and creepy Internet detective would discover that some of them are actually Facebook friends today.
If combining superheroes with sex so directly was a crass move, it only gets worse.
Part 2 coming soon.
C. David is a writer and artist living in the Hudson Valley, NY. He loves pinball, Wazmo Nariz, Rem Lezar, MODOK, pogs, Ultra Monsters, 80s horror, and is secretly very enthusiastic about everything else not listed here.