Interview - John Uhrich
John Uhrich is a talented artist and graphic designer who was the senior designer in the Consumer Products department at WildStorm, the division that oversaw, among many things, the WildStorms CCG! John had a big hand in the day-to-day duties that got the game into stores on time, and we were truly excited to talk with him about it all!
By WildStormsCCG.com Staff
John at the 25th anniversary WildStorm panel in San Diego, 2017.
Did you do any work in the comic and card industry before joining WildStorm?
My first job in comics was as a graphic designer for Majestic Entertainment, a division of the sports card collectable company, WildCard, which was based in Ohio. They had started a small line of comic books (Legacy, S.T.A.T.) and published a trading card set called Comics FutureStars. I was designing ads, logos, and some lettering paste up work on art boards as they came in.
Is that what lead to your work at WildStorm?
WildCard soon went out of business and a friend convinced me to send samples to Image Comics, which was only a year or so old. I actually answered a talent search ad for Homage Studios that was in the back pages of StrikeForce #3. I think I’m the only one that sent in design samples. I was flown out to San Diego and interviewed with WildStorm, Jim Lee’s studio, and in three weeks I had moved across country to work there.
What types of things were you working on before WildStorms CCG hit your desk?
I was part of the Consumer Products department at WildStorm, which encompassed everything from creating ads, graphics, and editorial content for the comic books to designing WildStorm merchandise such as t-shirts, hats, calendars, posters and, of course, trading cards.
Were the trading cards something you liked to focus working on?
The trading cards were a lot of fun to work on because they required a lot of graphic support. They each had their own logo and back designs, packaging, foil wraps, and advertisements that needed to be designed. Plus, most sets had specialty chase cards that required exciting printing techniques, like intricate die-cutting, embossing, printing on etched foil or foil stamping, and even lenticular motion cards. Occasionally, responsibilities also included going on press-checks when jobs were being printed locally. The trading cards were always profitable back then, so WildStorm created a lot of sets.
You're listed in the game credits for Graphic Design, among a few other names. That's a pretty broad scope. Can you elaborate on your contributions to the game?
I was senior designer of Consumer Products at the time. So I oversaw production of each set, making sure we got all the materials we needed from editorial so we could meet our deadlines. There were hundreds of cards, as you can imagine, so there was a lot of text and artwork to keep track of, which made proofing the cards all the more essential. Another designer created most of the graphics for the game cards and packaging, including foil wraps and promotional ads. WildStorm ran all of its own film at that time. So I was focused on preparing the final digital files for print and creating color-keys from the film, which went through another round of proofing before the jobs were shipped off for printing.
And so the film would be like a camera negative?
Imagine a roll of film from a 35mm camera, only much larger. In a darkroom, the unexposed film would be fed into one of WildStorm's film processors. The film was pretty wide and part of a continuous roll, so we could handle some large projects.
After a job was approved, the file would be printed out to one of the film processors, where it would be separated into four film negatives... Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Black which are needed to print full color jobs. Occasionally, we'd also create SPOT Color negatives, which were mostly used for screen-printing jobs. From the negatives we could create color proofs called color-keys.
An uncut sheet of cards and posters were the biggest items WS handled in-house, which covered most of what we were doing. We had a smaller processor for ads, etc. So we could run multiple jobs at once.
So once the cards were printed, how was it decided what cards would be sorted where?
It seems random, but the position of all the cards on the uncut sheets was determined by a mathematical algorithm, which was based on how common or rare the cards were. So, when the sheets are trimmed and the cards are collated into the packs, consumers have an equal chance to get each card.
As a graphic designer, what types of programs did you use for the final product?
This was the early 90’s, so the programs we used were Adobe Photoshop for the artwork and special visual effects, Adobe Illustrator and Freehand for creating logos or any other kind of type manipulation, and Quark XPress for text and final layout.
Was there much hand drawn design being passed around before the work hit the computer?
Each designer had their own way of approaching a project, but we all sketched out thumbnails and roughs to work out our ideas first.
Were there any designs that simply didn't make the cut?
There were always design concepts that didn’t make the cut. For each new project, a designer was tasked with coming up with at least a few different approaches, which were then pitched to the editor who was overseeing the job. Of course, some projects required more creative exploration than others, especially logos, which could go through countless variations and rounds of changes before final approval.
Were there printing limitations that made you redesign any elements?
I wouldn’t say we had printing limitations, but each job had its own determined set of specifications. For example, the cards were printed on thicker, high-gloss paper stock, so we could print at a much higher resolution. Things like t-shirts and hats required printing on fabric, so we printed those with a limited number of Spot colors, which has its own unique set of challenges.
How hectic were the deadlines? As an outsider looking in, it seemed like a scramble leading up to each release.
The deadlines at WildStorm were always pretty crazy. My specialty was putting out fires. I kept my team focused on bigger projects while I tackled day-to-day emergencies. On any given day a job would come in, usually an ad for a comic-book, that needed to go out that same day. Luckily, there was a FedEx office in our building. I have a lot of memories of dashing down the stairs and bursting through their doors just before closing time to make sure a job got out on time. The card sets seemed to go a lot more like clockwork, though. The time tables were always tight, of course, but we never missed a deadline.
Is there a specific piece of work you did at WildStorm that stands out as being a favorite?
My favorite project at WildStorm wasn’t a part of the WSCCG series at all. It was the ‘Art of Chiodo’ Trading Card Set. Joe Chiodo is such an amazing artist and was absolutely wonderful to work with. He gave me a lot of freedom while coming up with the designs for his set and I’m very proud of the final result.
Did you play the game upon its release?
I’m a little embarrassed to admit I never played the final version of the game.
How about play-testing? Did you get involved there?
I was involved in some early play-testing to help work out the kinks. Of course, the cards we were using were all blank then except for hand-written descriptions of what type of cards they were. I do remember it being a lot of fun. We definitely shared a lot of laughs and good times while working on each set.
Can you share a moment or experience you had during the game development that you're particularly fond of?
The thing I’m most proud of is such a design tech-nerdy thing. The cards were printed in large blocks of 90 or 100 before being cut, and the backs were mostly all orange except for the prize and battlesite cards, which were purple. To save money, we ran only one master set of film for the card backs… all orange. For the purple backs, we would give a list of those card positions to the printer and they would simply mask out the Yellow plate for those cards, running just Cyan, Magenta and Black instead of the full CMYK, which created the purple version. I was part of the discussion that ultimately came up with that solution. It saved WildStorm a lot of time and money not having to run film for every set of card backs.
Are you surprised by the fan loyalty for this game, twenty years after the last set was printed?
No, I’m not surprised at all that the WSCCG cards still have a loyal fan base to this day. A lot of love went into creating those cards, so it’s not shocking they should receive a lot of love in return.
Awesome! Thank you, John, for taking the time to share all this with us!
It’s been fun chatting! Thanks!
The four color printing process shown on a page from the WildC.A.T.s Adventures Sourcebook. Art by John Uhrich with inks by Mike Sellers.
The 1996 Art Of Chiodo trading card set, featuring graphic designs by John Uhrich.