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Clip and Save This Article: The Greatness of the Cardback

If the abstract concept of “nostalgia” could somehow be compressed, reduced and quantified into a physical thing, then it would be represented by…THE CARDBACK.


On a toy site like Fwoosh, you end up talking about toys quite a bit, especially if you contribute regular articles to the front page of said site. If you were to ask me where my love of toys came from, I could ramble off some vague notions of what it was about toys that never left me. But if I were to really sit and think about it, I think it would all boil down to the pure genius of The Cardback—with mandatory capitalization.

I love the toys of today. We’ve come so far in toynology that each year seems to shorten the gap between “what we want to play with” and “What’s out there.” Articulation choices are being perfected, and balances between articulation and sculpt are being achieved across a wide spectrum of toys. The fully-clothed 6 inch figure is no longer the awkward thing of days past, meaning lifelike achievements are no longer relegated to the 1/6th arena.

But for all the advances in the product itself, I can’t say the same for the presentation. Now, that doesn’t mean that the packaging (or the trash surrounding the figure, depending on your point of view) of today’s toys is bad. Not at all. It runs the gamut from serviceable to shelf-worthy, depending on the property. But the true glory of The Cardback of yesteryear is, for the most part, gone, with only a few avenues left for it.

If you’re of a certain age, then you know exactly what I’m talking about when I mention The Cardback with an almost holy reverence. The Cardback of a vintage Star Wars figure is a beautiful thing, a multicolored paragon of action figure goodness than you can almost taste on your tongue like a fistful of jellybeans. Imprinted on a bold field of color are all the toys that will fill up your wish lists for months to come.

The concept was improved upon with G.I. Joe. Not only did you get miniature renditions of those fully-painted character designs practically exploding from the little doorways that contained them, but you also got the most brilliant thing toy achievement this side of mini-comics: the file card.

Distilled into a white dwarf of information, the G.I. Joe File card was a compact wikipedia that somehow, through a handful of sharp, concise lines, let you know everything about the character you were holding, from real name, to personality to weapon loadout. The brilliance of these file cards is something that can’t be overstated.

Even in details like real names, there are often hidden details or in jokes. Some are obvious, like Cutter’s real name being “Skip A. Stone” (I love that) to certain things that—and don’t point and laugh at me—took me years before I realized. I’m talking about Torch, Ripper and Buzzer’s real names. Tom Dick and Harry for the first names, and Winken, Blinken and Nod for the last names. Yes, that didn’t occur to me for quite a while, but when I did, I sat back and smiled towards Larry Hama’s general direction.

While nothing really beat the clip and save aspect of the G.I. Joe file cards, it seemed like every toy company and toyline wanted you to cut off something. Whether it was both the file cards and flag points of the Joe cards, or the bios on the Super Powers, the idea was about letting you know something about who you were holding. While not every toyline went for bios, others managed to get across the information in distinct ways. Secret Wars served up brief comic strips giving you a rudimentary idea of the power set of the characters.



or the small single panel illustrations that topped the Masters of the Universe, or the very short comic strips adorning the Secret Wars figures, when it was time to open toys then you had to have the scissors handy if you wanted to really earn your collector badge. Even Transformers had robot points and bios/power meters.

Of course, not every toyline was festooned with those extras, but every toyline did have a detailed view of other figures to buy. Because having what we had in our hand wasn’t enough. Hell, it’s still not enough, because we’re all nuts.

The Cardback is so important and strong with nostalgia that today we’re getting toys that are specifically created just to be representations of cardback color variations. While that may seem nuts, that’s exactly what has happened with Masters of the Universe classics. It makes absolute sense to me, because sometimes The Cardback was the only visual representation of the toy for quite a while. If you’re staring at that chunk of cardboard as a kid and wishing for Ram Man, then he’s going to be orange and red for you, and not the red and green of his toy. The fact that actual Cardback variations of toys are being made shows how powerful that colored cardboard was. Face it; when we were playing with those G.I. Joe figures, were we really playing with a chunk of simple sculpting and paint, or were we really playing with a miniature version of that painted card art? I know which one I was playing with.

The Cardback was so much more than “the back of the package” back then, and way more than the trash surrounding the figure. It was a reference, a handy list, a character sheet, a collectible all on its own, and, in a way, a piece of Pop art, carefully curated for maximum efficiency and impact. I lay a lot of blame on The Cardback for furthering my interest in action figures, because on the back of that card there were always figures that weren’t on the surrounding pegs, toys I wanted, characters I wanted to know about.

Just like today, there was always more more more!