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Saturday, October 25, 2008

THE RIDICULOUS BUT TRUE STORY OF "STAN BUNCHE" AND THE SKETCH-A-GRAPH SCAM

What does this vintage STRANGE TALES cover have to do with this post? Read on...

Set the Wayback Machine to the spring of 1998.

Of the many bits of mischief that the Marvel Bullpen of the 1990’s got up to my favorite has to be when Fleer, a company known primarily for putting out trading cards, started up a line of Marvel Comics-related cards called “Sketch-A-Graphs,” each pack containing the usual depictions of favorite heroes and villains, but also including a hand-drawn sketch card done by a famous Marvel artist such as John Romita Sr. or Bill Sienkiwicz. Not a bad deal, but for reasons that elude me the company turned to the Bullpen to crank out as many cards as possible as a rush freelance job, paying us a laughable pittance and expecting quality work in no time at all and for a rate that wouldn’t even buy a small order of Chicken McNuggets. Nonetheless the impoverished Bullpen leapt at the opportunity to make some extra scratch and the results were rather less than stellar. Some people, most notably Art corrections guru Darren Auck and freelancer John Czop, actually turned in some lovely pieces, even adding color, but for the most part the efforts were hastily-scrawled wastes of card stock that included such gems as a series of rudimentary tombstones commemorating the honored dead of the Marvel Universe — “R.I.P. Bucky” and suchlike — , oval-shaped Spider-Man heads haphazardly colored with a red Sharpie marker and an appalling collection of Howard the Duck portraits done by a guy who had never drawn a “funny animal” in his life, let alone a duck, and that lack of experience was painfully evident. In fact, the sheer volume of flagrantly awful cards resulted in Fleer flat-out rejecting a shitload of them.

For my part, I initially did color character portraits that took about ten-to-fifteen minutes each to complete, but it soon became apparent that if I were actually going to come up with a significant enough number of cards to pay off a long-standing credit card bill — the sole reason I took on the assignment — I would have to figure out a formula and crank out multiple runs of perhaps one or two notable characters. My first set of formula cards were of the Hulk, closeup portraits of him from the shoulders up with him exclaiming something like “Hulk like beans!” or “Hulk too sexy for his shirt!” and they all featured his green skin tone, rendered in about three shades of emerald to give the image some weight. That was fun for a while, but then Fleer provided us with more blank cards, bringing my personal commitment up to a solid thousand and the deadline loomed mere days away, so how to accomplish such a Herculean task? Keeping my need to eliminate the credit card balance that had hovered over me for nearly seven years in mind, I formulated a fool-proof strategy for project completion: get drunk off my ass and work virtually nonstop over the weekend with two longboxes full of comics and the complete runoff MARVEL UNIVERSE — the comprehensive encyclopedia of all things Marvel from 1939 up — at the ready for reference. So I loaded up the fridge with Budweiser forty-ouncers and a bottle of Jose Quervo and set to drawing.

Some of my full-color Sketch-A-Graphs, drawn during a beer-and-tequila-fueled haze.

Like Popeye mainlining spinach, I was filled with energy after imbibing a goodly quantity of the chosen fermented beverages and I cranked out card after card in bursts of twenty, all of which were in full color and a hell of a lot better realized than you might expect from a lush under a deadline. Stopping only for an occasional nap, snack or bathroom break, I was able to come up with 480 pieces before I knew there was no way I could keep up the pace and do every card in color, so I had to once more come up with a character that could easily be churned out swiftly and in mass quantities. I wracked my booze-soaked brain and consulted the pages of MARVEL UNIVERSE for that elusive salvation, and after an hour or so of thumbing back and forth through assorted volumes it hit me: A.I.M. agents.

A reference turnaround of a typical A.I.M. agent from MARVEL UNIVERSE.

A.I.M. — an acronym for Advanced Idea mechanics — was an organization of brilliant engineers and scientists who created advance weapons for terrorists, assorted super-villains and the like while getting their asses kicked by Nick Fury, the agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Captain America, most notably coming up with the Cosmic Cube, the Super-Adaptoid and MODOK (“Mental Organism Designed Only for Killing”), and their uniforms consisted of a canary-yellow jumpsuit surmounted with a matching helmet that looked like an inverted bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken whose sole feature was a mesh eye-slit for visibility. Drawing a from-the-shoulders-up portrait of an faceless, nameless A.I.M. agent would be a piece of cake, and after a half-hour trial period in which I drilled myself on drawing one as swiftly as possible I was able to literally produce the image with my eyes closed, a trick I still sometimes do at parties when asked to prove the veracity of this story. Thus prepared, I launched into my project and cranked out 580 (yes, you read that right) A.I.M. heads within about three hours. When I showed up to work that Monday, laden with a thousand cards, I showed them to the assembled Bullpen and basked shamelessly in the blended derision and admiration heaped upon me for having the unmitigated gall to perpetrate such an act out outright fleecing. When I explained to then-art director Michael Golden how I pulled off the assignment he simply said, “Hey, man, you do what you gotta do to get it done and meet the deadline!”

The finished stacks of hand-drawn Sketch-A-Graphs, separated by character, with six piles of A.I.M. heads seen at the rear and another to their immediate right. Grand total: one thousand cards.

Upon turning in the cards and them making their way back to Fleer I received feedback from the fuckstick in charge of the project and he bitched me out for drawing some of the Hulk pictures with art outside of the bleed lines — I had to explain to the moron how it’s okay to draw outside of the bleed provided that the art that will be cropped is just superfluous runoff, and I didn't give a flying fuck if my signature got sliced off, for obvious reasons — and for having the nerve to give him over five-hundred A.I.M. heads, after which he announced that he wasn’t going to pay me what I was due. I rained unbridled fury down upon him over the phone and informed him that I was going to bring my grievance to the guy at Marvel who’d brought us the project in the first place; I did just that and not long afterward I’m pleased to say that I received a check for all the money I was due and paid off my credit card balance (I have it on good authority that the asshole at Fleer was told that I was a very pissed-off, 250-pound scary negro with a huge Afro, so he relented for fear that I would put on my grass skirt and caper about his house while uttering “ooga-booga” incantations in preamble to using him to indulge in my natural-born taste for cannibalism).

We now skip ahead by a couple of years to when the Sketch-A-Graph cards are collector’s items that regularly turn up on eBay. I’ve been told more than once by friends who follow such things, and the ones who are still active doing original sketch cards for freelance bucks, that my A.I.M. heads are occasionally found for sale at insanely inflated prices that make me laugh my ass off. I once even received an email from a collector who found my name online and upon reading my comics biz resume he wondered if I were the A.I.M. heads guy. I answered in the affirmative and he responded with “Yeah, your cards are kind of…notorious, but why is your name on them signed ‘Stan?’” I had no idea what he was talking about, but it soon became apparent that my signature was not only scrawled swiftly but also drunkenly, so there’s a faction of collectors out there who know of me as the illustrious “Stan Bunche.” Who’da thunk it?

An actual A.I.M. head card by "Stan Bunche." From the collection of Jared Osborn.

And with the rise in popularity of beautifully-sculpted "mini-busts" of comics characters both well-known and somewhat obscure came this handsome 2-pack of A.I.M. agents crafted in resin, perhaps a belated bit of fallout from the efforts of "Stan Bunche?"

Again, who'da thunk it? I'd love a set, but I can think of many other ways I'd rather spend seventy-five bucks.

6 comments:

John Bligh said...

I know for a fact that at least Jared and myself have both won original Stan Bunche A.I.M. Agent Sketchagraphs off Ebay. I actually have mine framed!

Looks fabulous on the piano!

Jared said...

The "illustrious" Stan Bunche? I hate to burst your bubble that's the "infamous" Stan Bunche. I know that everyone is the hero of their own story but this is a tale where you happen to be one of the villains.
First off the reason that they used guys in the guys in the bullpen was that their original plan, to have famous Marvel artists do the sketchagraph cards, ran up against the cold rocks on the shore of their budget. They wanted to pay three bucks a sketch. That was way too low to get any famous artist to do a hundred sketches. They got three or four sketches at most out of the big names. And the big names did that as a lark. Not for the cash.
Hence the dumb-asses in charge had to come down to the bullpen and get all the unknown artists to pitch in. And at three bucks a sketch that was still a ridiculously low price as you know. Too low for my lazy ass. I never did any but I also didn't have a big credit card bill.
There was a little bit of a competition going on in the bullpen to see who could figure out how to do a decent drawing in the shortest amount of time. I emphasize decent drawing though. Everyone knew that they were no-names and if they turned in shameless crap that would be the end of the little extra money coming in for these cards. And make no mistake the bullpenners doing these cards were doing them to make some extra money.
This went on for a couple of days. And then as the deadline approached you came in one morning with the A.I.M. Agent cards. Five hundred of them. They were so shamelessly bad that everyone knew they would end the sketchagraph card "gravy train" (I hesitate to call it that because there really wasn't much gravy). There was no talking to you. You handed in the crappy A.I.M. Agent cards and they immediately shut down the job. This was what everyone had feared. Using unknown artists and getting crappy work back. Even Dave's "Mysterios" were the Mona Lisa compared to those A.I.M. Agents.
And you may have been payed but not everyone was. They just stopped accepting everyone else's cards for fear of getting more bad sketches. And we all knew that was going to happen if you turned in those bad A.I.M. Agent cards. Still you were adamant.
And the reason that "Stan Bunche" is infamous is because of the fans. The card sets that the sketchagraph card came out in made the claim that if you bought a whole retail box of these cards you would get a sketchagraph card. A retail box went for about $75. Imagine you're a fan and buy a whole box of cards just to get a sketchagraph card and it's a Stan Bunche A.I.M. Agent. That is one pissed off fan. He just payed a whole lot of money for a bad drawing.
Now you are certainly not the top villain in this piece. Hell, they should have never let those A.I.M. Agents see the light of day. They should have payed you and thrown those cards away. You did have others that were nice. But you did ruin things for some of your fellow bullpenners. I don't think anyone ever held it against you because the whole thing was such a fucked up job to begin with but "Stan Bunche" is not a revered name among sketchagraph collectors.
And the price for A.I.M. Agent cards isn't what I'd describe as "insanely inflated". The usually go for between $8-$15 (that the cheapest price of any sketchagraph card). That's quite a hit being that someone compared to $75 to get the box of cards it came in. But not may of the sketchagraph cards go for more than $75 though I haven't looked lately. I have mine already!

Bunche said...

I have to disagree; considering what they are, an A.I.M. agent card going for anything more than $2 is insanely inflated.

John Bligh said...

Alas, there are no AIM Agents currently on Ebay, just "real" Stan Bunche cards: http://desc.shop.ebay.com/items/Other__bunche_W0QQLHQ5fTitleDescZ1QQLHQ5fBINZ1QQLHQ5fIncludeSIFZ1QQ_nkwZbuncheQQQ5ftrkparmsZ72Q253A1205Q257C66Q253A2Q257C65Q253A12Q257C39Q253A1QQ_psizeZ3QQ_sacatZ37901QQ_trksidZp3286Q2ec0Q2em14

shades033 said...

I dunno.. I thought this story was great and having gone to high school with the "illustrious Stan Bunche", it could be a cool keepsake/memento... going to Ebay right now to find some.

Bruster said...

I proudly display an original Stan Bunche A.I.M. Agent on my fridge...