Bernie mittens, #gamestonk, Topps and the zeitgeist

Topps is a pretty old company, but among its trading card manufacturing peers, it’s arguably the one with its finger most firmly on the pulse of the nation.

Producing timely sets of cards for sports leagues, getting the first cards of rookie players in their new pro uniforms, or of traded players in their new team’s threads: this is the basic work of being a competent sports card company. Topps does that all very well, going so far as to keep the old tradition of “update” or “traded” sets, which are released late in a sport’s season to be the first to market with those traded or drafted players. But Topps goes well beyond just being on top of its sports lines.

Topps Now on the Biden/Harris inauguration

You may have heard that Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders sat in a chair and wore some mittens during the inauguration ceremony for U.S. President Joe Biden on Jan. 20. The photo of Bernie sitting cross-legged in a folding chair in his olive-green parka, sky blue face mask and mittens made out of old sweaters by a Vermont school teacher became the basis for a million memes.

Bernie in “The Big Lebowski” is one of my faves.

Normally, memes made from current events like this have a very short shelf life, so in order to be part of the wave, you’ve got to be quick. It’s one thing for a dude with Photoshop and a laptop to whip together a picture of Bernie sitting with the cast of Letterkenny in 30 minutes to be on top of it, but it’s quite another for a gigantic company in an old industry like trading card manufacturing to be able to capitalize on such a fleeting cultural moment. Topps, with its set of Topps Now instant print cards commemorating the inauguration, did just that by including a card with the infamous meme-worthy photo of Sanders and his mittens.

The set was designed and available for purchase by the end of the day on the 20th, and the decision to include the Sanders card was clearly made by a person or team of people who were watching social media that day and had seen the incredible outpouring of Bernie memes crossing cultural and political lines. Looking at the other cards in the set, the inclusion of Bernie’s picture is an outlier: He didn’t speak or perform at the ceremony, and he wasn’t one of the people being sworn in. It’s there because Topps saw what was happening and decided to add to the meme tsunami.

Now, with sales for the inaugural set closed, Topps has announced that the Bernie Sanders card is the highest-selling Topps Now card to date.

And Topps Now has produced cards for a wide variety of sports, cultural, and political happenings over the years. The previous best-selling card was from last summer, when Dr. Anthony Fauci threw out the first pitch at a Washington Nationals game during the COVID-19 pandemic. Just another moment in the zeitgeist captured in the nick of time by Topps.

But it’s not just the Topps Now cards that are so adaptable and quick to market on current trends.

Garbage Pail Kids and the r/wallstreetbets phenomenon

Garbage Pail Kids cards have always been little nuggets of gross-out pop art that key in on cultural memes, lampooning movies, actors, sports figures, politicians, and whatever else has enough fame or infamy to call to mind a common image for a vast number of people. GPK has always been a sort of cousin, to my mind, of Mad Magazine. Like Mad Magazine, it’s never been right on the cutting edge of pop culture references, usually due to the slow nature of their legacy industries (publishing on paper products, essentially, takes time). But usually that’s more of a feature than a bug; giving time for a cultural moment to grow into wider awareness allows the eventual parody of the moment to land comedically with the biggest possible audience.

Like the Bernie meme before it, this week’s stock market war has captured the attention of seemingly everyone with an Internet connection. The battle has pitted amateur Reddit stock buyers banding together and purchasing stock in little-loved companies such as AMC Theaters, Nokia, and most notably the decrepit video game retailer GameStop vs. the hedge funds and other rich investor types who had “short-sold” those same companies, betting that their stock would go ever lower. It’s been practically impossible, even if you’re not inclined to follow the stock markets, to avoid mention of #gamestonk or “meme stocks” this week as these beleaguered companies saw their stocks soar to ridiculous heights. As a pop culture and social media junkie, I was frankly shocked that what I figured would be a flash in the pan niche story about investing (like most stories about cryptocurrency that only get a little mainstream attention when prices spike or crash, and then disappear) ended up utterly dominating all my social media feeds each of the last five days.

So color me surprised that Topps produced a new set of Garbage Pail Kids stickers inspired by this week’s Internet vs. Wall Street shark battles. It’s out right now! There are cards showing Redditors beating up on stock traders, a robot named for noted investor and rich man Elon Musk (who waded into the fray this week by Tweeting about the phenomenon), and even an illustration of Bernie Sanders sitting with his mittens in an AMC Theater. Nuance! Cross-pollinated memes! Timeliness! Amazing!

Full disclosure: I have purchased both the Bernie Sanders Topps Now card and the Garbage Pail Kids #gamestonk special series. What, you thought I was going to sit out the memes of the year in trading card form?

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