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Official Article

Interview with 90s Trading Card Designer Robert Conway

To celebrate the 25th anniversary of the 1993 Arnold Schwarzenegger fantasy adventure film Last Action Hero, I recently wrote an article about the heavy merchandising push for the film that included video games, actions figures and trading cards. This last item resulted in an unsolved mystery.

On the packaging for the Topps trading card series there was a paragraph of promotional text for a Last Action Hero comic book to be published by Topps that would include exclusive trading card inserts. But in my year of preparing the article, I could find no mention of the comic ever being published. Shortly after my article went live, I found this...

Yes, an eBay listing for the insert cards from the Topps comics. So many questions entered my mind: How could these exist without a comic book to put them in? Who was this seller? How did they come to obtain these lost artifacts of cinematic promotion? Then I read the item description which unshrouded 25 years of mystery with comments like...

These cards were never released to the public. No one has these. In 1993 Topps was new to producing comics and had a lot of troubles...since the movie was an instant bomb at the box office the 3 part comic series was never released to the public. They just dropped it. These are not part of the Last Action Hero regular set that was produced by Topps, it's an entirely different thing. Anyhow that is the story.

I couldn't believe this was real, yet there was no way it could be a hoax. Mainly because I was certain that there was no one but me trying to track down this elusive comic and cards combo. It would not be a hot collectible item since the film, as mentioned in the description, was not a box office smash by any means. Not only that, this seller was claiming to be the actual designer of the cards themselves, which was an odd detail to include.

Of course I bid, won without competition and am now the proud owner of these unproduced trading cards. After making my payment, I then reached out to the seller to ask if he had worked on any other 90s trading card projects and the list of high profile properties was staggering. After explaining what a fan I was of his work, he agreed to share his experiences. 

I am thrilled to bring you now an interview with graphic designer and artist, Robert Conway. Just to establish his credibility may I present an amazing list of credits including work for such companies as Lucasfilm Ltd., NFL, NBA, MLB, Fleer/Skybox, Topps, Marvel Comics, DC Comics, PBS, October Films, Artisan Entertainment and Miramax Films. If that doesn't wet your appetite, I don't know what will, so let's get into the fascinating career of this 90's trading card industry veteran.

HK: How was the Last Action Hero project presented to you initially by Topps?

Robert Conway: I had just started work as a Graphic Designer at a design studio in Manhattan. The Last Action Hero card insert project came as part of my first assignment together with the first Jurassic Park Comic and some other now defunct Topps titles. I was so fired up about it. I scanned these fossils I had at home and incorporated them into the design.

The project was to design special trading cards that would be inserted into the bagged Topps Comics. It was also when Topps had just begun to produce comics so there was a lot of fun in the newness of everything. I worked with Sean Taggart (known for his artwork for the Jerky Boys), Becky Foote (now a Senior Toy Designer for Disney) and Art Director, Don Alan.

HK: When you say you were the designer of the cards, what exactly does that involve?

Robert Conway: We had to tie everything together with the artwork that was provided to us. We had to elaborate on the art and bring everything together but stay true to the brand.

HK: What type of reference material for the film were you provided to work with?

Robert Conway: We were given some film slides from the movie and the logo and that was about it. They did not make style guides for everything back then so we had to make everything up from there ourselves, just filling in the cracks where we could.

HK: What type of tools were you using to create the layout for the cards at this time?

Robert Conway: That involved using the artwork given to us by the client. We would have it scanned then do all the designing on the Macintosh using Adobe Photoshop, Adobe Illustrator and Quark. From there we would make print outs and send them to the client or have a meeting with them. Then the client would tweak the designs or come up with their own ideas which they wanted us to work on. There was a lot of back and forth. Once everything was finalized we would get the card set ready for print because we were responsible for the production of the cards as well.

HK: Did Topps provide many guidelines as to how the cards should look or was that left up to you?

Robert Conway: Topps left a lot up to us, they were a good-natured bunch, we had similar geeky childhoods. We would come up with designs and they would offer suggestions and move things around to their liking. Or sometimes they would sketch something out and we would try to follow the sketches as best as we could.

HK: After you submitted your work for Last Action Hero, how did you find out the cards were not going to be released to the public?

Robert Conway: I made a phone call to Topps for the next art work for the cards and they delivered the news to me. I think it was a relief for some who worked there because the LAH comic book was late, I mean it wasn’t ready for the time of the movie’s release so I know there where people over there sweating bullets.

HK: The copy on the back of the packaging for the official trading card set that Topps did release said 3 cards would be inserted into each of the 3 issues of the comic book, but you only ended up with a physical copy of cards 1-6. Do you recall at all what was on cards 7-9?

Robert Conway: I never got to see the artwork for cards 7-9. They pulled the plug quick on the project which was kind of a surprise at that time, since Arnold was cleaning up at the box office, I assumed it was going to be a big hit. 

HK: Did you ever get to see any of the proposed comic book art on your visit to Topps or was it so behind schedule it hadn't even been produced yet?

Robert Conway: I saw some of the art at Topps and it was really good. I have attached a picture of the cover from the first issue, drawn by artist Jerome-K-Moore, here is a quote from from him off his deviantart page about it.

"Never published. Movie tanked. Brush and Ink, china marker. This cover of "The Governator," pre-politics, turned out pretty well, though Schwarzenegger's image-conscious editing grew irksome. He insisted I remove the cigar to promote a more positive message to kids. However, both the actor and the film's character, hypocritically, smoke like chimneys. So, he smoked it, I drew it. Needless to say, the movie also went up in smoke, and the comic book was vapor. Lol”

HK: Was it disappointing that your work was not going to be released or was it just another job?

Robert Conway: Yes, I was disappointed. It was one of my first trading card design assignments, so I stewed over it for weeks. Then one day we had a meeting at Topps in Brooklyn. My friend and client, who will remain nameless, knew I was bummed about it so when we had a moment to ourselves he/she took me to this storage closet and gave me a bunch of the LAH cards, he/she was like “It would be better if no one knew you had these.”

HK: Did working on the project make you want to see Last Action Hero in theaters or on home video?

Robert Conway: I never saw the film. I don’t know, the plot of the movie seemed too silly for me. More like a kids movie. I mean give me Terminator 2 or Total Recall and I am there. Maybe I will watch it now. The critics really did a number on that movie, it was the death knell, Topps pulled the plug on the comic quickly.

HK: The 90's marked a huge boom for trading cards and comic books, with many professionals finding themselves pulled into this lucrative world for the first time. How did you get involved in the world of trading cards?

Robert Conway: Well I was an unemployed graphic designer just answering want ads, my wife asked me what I really wanted to do with myself professionally and I said, “You know I’d love to design these things” as I held up one of the first Marvel Universe cards that I was collecting. 

Two weeks later I get a call back from an ad that I sent my resume to, it was this design studio in Manhattan and they were like, “Oh yeah, we designed Marvel Universe and Marvel Masterpieces” this blew my mind. So I got in there somehow and it turned out that the boss was going on a two week vacation. So that meant that I had the assignment of designing the Jurassic Park and Last Action Hero cards, I was psyched and I just worked my a** off and that is that.

HK: How did you feel about the massive demand for these types of products? Did you have any family members that got a kick out of what you were involved with?

Robert Conway: I was really into it and so were my six nephews and one niece. They could not believe that their Uncle Bobby got paid for this, they were kind of bewildered. I used to bring a lot of the stuff home, I would even give some to my parents who had no idea who Wolverine and the Silver Surfer were.

HK: Had you been a fan of any of the properties you worked on prior to getting these jobs?

Robert Conway: Yes, anything remotely related to science fiction I was totally into. I have a big collection of sci-fi paperbacks from the 50’s to the 70’s. I also loved comics and like I said above, I collected Marvel Cards even before I got the gig. So I was lucky enough to get to work on all the stuff that I loved.

HK: What property held the most personal interest for you upon receiving the assignment?

Robert Conway: That was working on Universal Monsters Illustrated trading card set for Topps, that is my fave. When I was a kid I used to watch all those old black and white horror movies and and I used to collect Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine religiously. 

Also the card set featured “The Creature from the Black Lagoon”, this was the favorite of my friends and I. We even made Creature movies with my old 8mm camera when we were kids. We bought one of those old Aurora Model sets of the Creature and gave him moveable limbs so we did this sloppy stop motion thing with the model, it was all good fun. So I always thought that my younger self would be proud of this achievement.

HK: You also did quite a bit of work with Marvel, who produced some of the most popular trading card sets of the 90's. Do you recall which sets you were involved in?

Robert Conway: Fleer Ultra X-Men was a huge success as I recall, it got a big write up in the New York Times. Apparently it was a big hit with kids and the article explained that they would trade them with each other like it was their currency. There was also Marvel Masterpieces 2 & 3, Marvel Universe 1994, Fleer Ultra Spider-man, Marvel Fleer Flair 1 & 2 and Amalgam.

HK: You said you also did work for Marvel's rival DC. Do you have a recollection of which sets you helped design for them?  

Robert Conway:The Return of Superman, DC Legends, Bloodlines and Marvel vs. DC. We had a lot of great designers working on DC Legends, that was when Adobe Photoshop came out with the invention of layers in their program and that was such a big leap forward and our designers went to town with that. 

HK: Another big fad of the time were POGs or circular collectors caps. Do you remember ever getting in to that area of the market?

Robert Conway: No, we almost did POGs but the fad had run it’s course by then. I personally never saw the appeal of those things at all. It is like the people who were producing POGs were trying to piggyback on the huge success of the trading card market and trying to breathe life into a product that was nowhere near as appealing.

HK: How often would you see your finished work out in stores? Did you ever pick up a few packs for yourself?

Robert Conway: I would go to comic and card stores all the time. I was more excited than anyone when a card set would come out, I would buy the stuff that wasn’t supplied to me by Fleer, Skybox, Inkworks or Topps. A lot of times I would get stuff from the card companies though, like uncut printed sheets.

HK: Your firm did quite a bit of work for movies as well, what were some of the higher profile films you worked on promotional materials for?

Robert Conway: We designed the Men in Black trading cards for Inkworks which was number one in the box office for the year. There was the Starship Troopers set that I am very proud of. Then there was the Planet of the Apes set, an Aliens set, Mars Attacks and Star Wars Finest, which won the coveted “Gummy” award for the best non-sports trading card set of the year. After that a list of clunker movies, Spawn, Titan A. E., Lost in Space and the Godzilla reboot.

HK: Was there a bit of pride knowing that so many people would be enjoying your work?

Robert Conway: Absolutely, everyone was so familiar with the titles that I was working on. I was hoping that maybe I was bringing a little bit of fun into their lives. I mean I was making things that people cherished and they would put them in plastic sleeves and stash them away for years. I took a lot of pride in that.

HK: What is the project you would be most likely to tell people you worked on?

Robert Conway: That would be the Skybox Premium 1995-96 NBA set, I got to design a lot of cool chase cards in that set, lots of Jordans and Shaqs. It was a great looking set if I do say so myself and it got great reviews in the trade magazines.

HK: Did you make a personal choice to move out of the trading card design business or did the market just dry up in the early 2000s?

Robert Conway: Yes, it went dry, they really saturated the market with trading cards and then video games were becoming more popular and kids were starting to spend money on that other rather than buying fancy cardboard pictures. I got let go and then I had to reinvent myself. So it wasn’t a personal choice, I should of gotten off the dying horse earlier.

HK: You are a fine artist as well, what type of medium do you work in and what are your preferred subjects?

Robert Conway: Yes, I paint in acrylic and usually nature subjects. I paint in a realistic style and everyone thinks they are photographs except for me. I started painting the fish in my koi pond first, I did a whole series of them and had a few solo shows. I also did a waterfall series and a series of my son diving at the local pool. I show my work from time to time and even ended up winning a few awards. If anyone is interested in seeing my paintings I am on Instagram at @busybrushcafe.

HK: Anything you would like to add about your experience?

Robert Conway: I think it was a fun time to be a graphic designer in the early nineties. Six years earlier people where using rubber cement, t-squares and acetate to make artwork ready for print. The acceleration of the technology had jumped by leaps and bounds in our field and the possibilities to design cool stuff just jumped off the charts.

I want to thank Mr. Conway so much for his insight and enthusiastic storytelling about a magical time for children of the 90s. How many of us ripped open package after package of trading cards without ever giving thought to those artists who put it all together. I know I still have binders full of his design work and have even framed it as works of art in my own retro room. Now we all know the rest of the story.

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jkatz Posted on Sep 07, 2018 at 04:48 AM

I enjoyed reading this. Very cool how the tech boom of the 90s coincided with the last stages of trading card craze.

Vaporman87 Posted on Sep 04, 2018 at 11:57 PM

Robert was clearly heavily involved in some of our favorite trading card lines in the '90s. I had collected a complete set of Marvel Universe cards over the course of a year or two. Now I've heard some backstory from a person directly responsible for the designs of them. What an amazing set of circumstances that led to this interview. Nice job Hoju.

NLogan Posted on Sep 04, 2018 at 11:21 PM

Mystery solved!

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