For the briefest of moments in the mid ’90s, pogs were as good as any currency. I was right within the target age, but never did quite understand the fad’s “culture.” I collected them sheerly because it was hard not to collect milk caps with psychedelic frogs on them once they’d been deemed socially acceptable. Things like that don’t last long. I knew it was then or never.
Even as an outsider, it was easy to pick up the basics of the game, because everyone was playing it.
Usually, you’d find two kids stacking their collective pogs together into a neat pile. Then, they’d take turns pegging it with a “slammer” — a heavier, plastic pog — hoping to flip over as many as possible. Some people started with the piles face-down, but I’ve seen plenty started face-up. However they worked it, each player got to keep the pogs that they managed to flip. For good, I mean. On a foul run, a pog player stood to lose a veritable cardboard fortune.
It was one of those things that looked easier than it really was. Not that the game was “hard,” but the kids who were really into it had it down to a science, chucking their slammers with a level of precision that seemed totally threatening. Since my hand-eye coordination skills were akin to those belonging to sick dogs, staying away from the ring was an easy decision.
My erratic pog collection was primarily picked up from local comic stores. At the time, there were many more comic stores than there are now, thanks to godly Thanoses and dying Supermen. In those stores, pogs were always sold “loose,” as in, you just picked the ones you wanted out of a big bin, and bought them separately.
Even if the stores sold them for a nickel a piece (and many sold them for more), it was nearly all-profit, because there’s no way they paid more than a fraction of a penny for each of those things.
I never knew where those pogs were coming from, or who was making them. There were plenty of “official” varieties, but most of the time, the pogs I found had no trademark or fine print, and they all looked so oddly generic. As the fad grew to inconceivable heights, lots of big companies caught wind and joined the fray, packaging up special sets that cost a heck of a lot more than kids were used to paying. But pay we did, because credibility-through-pogs was never an opportunity to be missed.
And so, we started getting things like the above — a set of Universal Monsters pogs, made by Imperial in 1994. Actually, since “pogs” were actually “Pogs” and that term was licensed elsewhere, Imperial settled for the hip and happening title of Slammer Whammers. We’ll continue to call them pogs, because I never want to type “Slammer Whammers” again.
I’m assuming that many of you are familiar with these, because I choose to believe that everyone reading this site has led the exact same life that I have, right down to the preschool “hey how sharp is this carpenter’s knife” incident.
But really, you should know about these. Packages like the one above were sold at Toys “R” Us for years, getting their prices slashed again and again, never quite escaping the tormenting embarrassment of the clearance aisle. Honestly, we can safely assume that they were still being sold by TRU as late as three weeks ago.
I liked my random, bootleg pogs. Loved the neon skulls, the winged 8-balls and the polka-dotted scarab beetles. But Universal Monsters pogs? My favorite, by far. It helped that Toys “R” Us was getting rid of them for a quarter a pop, but even at full retail, I would’ve bought a few packages. Comic book stores had a decent inventory, but there was a serious lack of Gillman pogs.
Each package came with 18 pogs (one of which being an elite glow-in-the-dark cap), along with a big plastic slammer featuring three-dimensional detailing. More importantly, with only six characters in the series, it was a sure bet that you’d end up with more than a few Gillman pogs, in various sneaky poses.
No idea why Gillman liked sneaking around so much. It’s not like he couldn’t handle his shit straight atcha.
Back then, I didn’t know much about the classic horror monsters. There was no Wikipedia and no YouTube to transform me into an expert in three minutes or less. All I had were back issues of Starlog and a terrible assortment of Blockbuster videocassettes.
That didn’t preclude me from picking my favorites, though. It seemed obvious that Frankenstein’s Monster was cooler than his wife, and that Dracula could kick any mummy’s ass. But Gillman? THE Creature from THE Black Lagoon? Didn’t need to see his movie to know that he swam in a different league.
As I collected these and other pogs, it struck me that the whole phenomenon was a little odd. I was used to collecting things, and maybe I even lived for collecting things, but there were always a few unspoken rules. I’d grown accustomed to knowing when I had something desirable, or when my collection was “complete,” or how much my stuff was “worth,” according to a lame price guide written by some moron working out of a basement apartment in Cottonwood Falls. Somehow, there was always a structure.
With pogs, there was no structure. It was impossible to collect them all. There were millions of them. Everyone was making them. I had no idea if the ones I had were considered “good” or “bad.” I didn’t know how to measure my collection in anything but sheer numbers, and that got boring, because there were only so many cylindrical cases that you could stuff pogs into before it started sucking. Then you moved onto storing ’em in cardboard boxes, which is normally fine, but throwing yet another dozen pogs into a box that already contained hundreds of them just didn’t spark any feelings of achievement. It was collecting for the sake of it, and if I was going to do that, sand was free.
Fortunately, by the time the contents of the above paragraph entered and exited my bumpy head, the pog fad was over. For years, its memory lived on in the form of milk caps stapled onto my bedroom door. It was no easy feat to staple pogs to wood, and yeah, it kind of ruined their condition, but it sure beat tossing ’em in a box and forgetting that I owned them. Not that I didn’t do that, too.
Maybe I should have played the game the right way. I should’ve put my best foot forward, challenged the pros, and let the pogs fall where they may. If only those greasy shits weren’t so good with the damn slammers.
I hated entering contests that I was sure to lose. It’s why I’ve never jousted. It’s also why I only used Hackey Sacks as beanbag chairs for my action figures.