Interview - Ted Adams
Ted Adams is no stranger to comics and gaming. Before founding IDW, he was the Vice President of Consumer Products at WildStorm, the division that oversaw the production of the WildStorms CCG. We were extremely fortunate to catch up with Ted as he generously shared his memories of the big 90s trading card market and experience with the WSCCG!
By WildStormsCCG.com Staff
Ted Adams as featured on the IDW website.
Can you paint us a picture of what types of work you were doing before you linked up with WildStorm?
When I graduated college I had a business degree and I went to work for Eclipse which was a very small publisher. The nice thing about working for a small publisher was I was able to wear a lot of different hats, so I learned the comic book publishing business inside and out. I got to work with Dean Mullaney who was a real mentor to me and learned a lot from him.
I took that job and then went to Dark Horse which was a bigger company than Eclipse but still a relatively small publisher. I got to work with Mike Richardson who was also another good mentor. I got to see what that business was like and I worked even more. So at Dark Horse, I really worked on all divisions. I had some editorial projects; I had a lot of marketing projects. I helped them start their book channel distribution. So I really had the chance to be, in a substantive way, in a lot of different departments.
From there, I went back to get an MBA and further my business career. Then I had an offer from John Nee to go and work for WildStorm in what pretty quickly became a position; I was the Vice President of Consumer Products. Basically I was in charge of anything at WildStorm that was not a comic book. At the time that was primarily trading cards but very quickly moved into doing other things like the WildStorms CCG.
I’ve looked back at some of the old solicitations in Previews magazine and you guys put together some of the coolest stuff on the market at the time.
You know, the market was just a better market back then. When I started working there in 1994, it was sort of post completely crazy Image Comics. It wasn’t the days when things were selling millions of copies, but most books were selling 100,000 plus. There was good revenue and opportunity for entrepreneurs like Jim Lee and John Nee to be able to try new things. The trading card business was really a great business back then. So we started out initially doing trading cards primarily based on Jim’s characters at WildStorm. That pretty quickly branched out to the other Image studios. So we were doing Spawn which was a really successful series for us. We did a bunch of stuff with Extreme and Maximum like Avengelyne and some of those characters as well. It was a good time. There were lots of interested buyers. Some decent money was flowing through the industry so it was just a good time to be making product.
It looks like the first set that WildStorm put out was through Topps. How quickly was the transition to having WildStorm handle the cards themselves?
Yeah the Topps set predated me, but I think the success of that set really got the attention of Jim and John. I’m sure being smart entrepreneurs they realized it wasn’t that hard to make trading cards and they could do it themselves. So when I came onboard, WildStorm had self-produced a chromium card set and that set predated me. When I came on the first stuff I worked on were painted trading cards which were oversized and that’s the first set that I initiated and ran.
So with the trading card business going strong, how did the idea to add a card game into the mix come along?
Magic was really blowing up the world at the time. John had seen the success that was going on there. John came into my office, or likely I went into his office and he asked me to put something together that was similar to Magic. Drew Bittner was certainly the integral part of that from the game mechanic standpoint. Drew was our in-house gamer if you will. And of course Matt Forbeck who we hired not too long after that. The two of them were really the ones that ran the game mechanics.
So while they were building this game, what did your side of the process look like?
I was looking at more of the bigger picture kinds of things. I was working under the assumption that the game was going to be good. Drew was very passionate about it and Matt’s resume was pretty good so my assumption was that we were going to make a decent game. And so we spent a lot of time looking at what other people were doing. Certainly because of Magic there were a million games being released at the time. There’s a ton of competition. What we were trying to do was just lean on our ability to market to the hardcore WildStorm fans and the hardcore Jim Lee fans. We had that opportunity because the comic books were still selling huge quantities. We could market in the comics and apply a lot of pressure to Diamond because WildStorm was an important publisher for them. So it was just trying to leverage that. Get people excited through promo cards. There wasn’t really online marketing it was much more print marketing. There was a magazine [InQuest] that focused on cards and trading cards so we put a lot of attention towards that. We also did a lot of sampling with comic stores. So you know we started to do what we could to really let the world know that this was going to be coming out. Certainly Jim and John were always willing to spend money on creative so while the game was being designed, Kris Oprisko, who worked for me, was responsible for hiring artists. WildStorm was very much seen, especially in the early days, as very much an artist’s studio. It was later that it became known for James Robinson and Alan Moore and those kinds of things. But in the early days it was all about Jim and Brett Booth and Scott Clark and those guys, so we wanted as much as we could to make sure the art was as good as the art in the comic books.
You mention promos in magazines. Was it the studio or the magazine that initiated that approach?
We would have approached them and I’m sure it was a pay for play kind of thing. There was some kind of distribution fee to distribute the cards that way. So that would have been driven by us, almost without any question. Not that they weren’t interested. That’s an opportunity for them to make some money. I’m sure we took out some ads and did the cards. Like I said before, the good thing about working for John and Jim, particularly because the business was doing well, was they were willing to spend money to do those kinds of things. Most of that money in the world of comics books, particularly today, is gone so it becomes this like death spiral where things don’t sell well therefore you don’t have the money to market them well. But those were kind of the glory days back in those days. There was good money to spend and I had bosses who were willing to spend it.
You guys got pretty creative with some of the promos, like coupon redemptions.
I think a lot of that was driven by, I don’t know if that was Jim or John, but they had done some of that with comics and I think that was something that was of some interest to them. That was a much more common way to do things pre-internet. I mean we had the internet, but not the way we do today. That sounds like a Jim Lee idea to me.
Based on the amount of redemption packs still floating around, it seems like they were either not very popular or they were overprinted. How did you guys determine your print run sizes?
Certainly, we were like any publisher trying to manage inventory and making sure we weren’t… it’s always that impossible print run decision. You don’t want to overprint. You don’t want to under print. Especially in the early days it’s hard to manage because you don’t have any sales history and you don’t really know what’s going to happen. My guess is we were just taking a stab at printing. I remember the cards were difficult to print. We were doing a lot of trading cards. We were doing 1-2 trading card sets a month, just producing gobs and gobs of trading cards. Those were relatively easy to print because your paper stock is pretty uniform and you’re not shuffling trading cards. The first trading card set doesn’t exactly have to look like the second one. But the card games of course have all that complexity because you can’t… you don’t want people to be able to mark cards by using different paper stock. While I don’t remember the details, I do remember that the card games were a hundred fold harder to manufacture than the trading cards.
Did the availability of materials ever come into play in determining what got printed, like paper stock or packaging?
I remember the foil wrap itself for trading cards and trading card games was quite expensive and has huge minimum orders. I remember we were buying just insane amounts of foil and trying to manage how we going to be able to print and use that foil in the most cost effective way. So whether or not we were jobbing runs, meaning we might run a trading card foil pack at the same time we were running a card game foil pack. Just making sure we were being as smart as we could about it. There’s also a complexity on trading cards that way that their collated and put into the sets. You don’t want people to get the same pack of cards over and over. And trading card games had even more complexity because of the common, uncommon, rare, and super rare cards. Everything about manufacturing trading card games is quite complex.
It’s interesting you mention the expense of the foil packs since the final set was all done in starter deck boxes.
That’s the reason for that. At that point the runs would have been too small to support buying the foil. So that’s why that happened. We moved on the trading card side as well. The business started to go away so we moved to box sets of cards. The foil was just cost prohibitive. To make it work at all, you had to run many hundreds of thousands of packs. In the heyday of the business that was, I wouldn’t say easy to do, but it was at least achievable. But at the end of the business, you just couldn’t make it work.
Looking at some of the cards, I can see the difficulty where the reverse always seems to be lined up but sometimes at the expense of the front borders being slightly off.
There was definitely a learning curve on the production side. Our production department, we were unusual because we did all the production in-house. And my division was always very behind the comics. The company was far and away a comic book publisher and it did everything else a distant second. So our resources were always behind the comic book division. And the comic book division was always running late basically on everything. So if we were doing production on our products, I would always try to have them scheduled way ahead of time so we wouldn’t end up having to wait for production people who were going to be busy with comics. While the trading cards and card games were profitable for a time, the company was still a comic book publisher. We were never going to get first place in line as far as production resources would go. And I had the good fortune to work with some really smart production people but that complexity… I do have vague memories, sort of nightmares I guess, where the borders would be off register a little bit on the fronts of the cards because they were set up wrong or we might have to change our one printer to another printer and they’d have different specs. So it wasn’t that the production people weren’t doing their best the truth was that their number one priority was to focus on comics.
Because the money was so big, we had some luxuries. There was a woman who worked for WildStorm, Deborah Marvin, who was actually our print press person. This was very unusual. It would never happen today. But she would actually go on press and manage that process. She was quite good at her job. She would fly all over the country wherever we were printing, and I think a lot of it was done in Canada. In 2018 the idea that a comic publisher would have a person on press is sort of absurd, but back in those days we had the money and the runs were big enough to support it. She wasn’t involved on the creative side but on the production side she was really the point person.
Speaking of Deborah, there’s a promotion in the back of the WildStorms Player’s Guide that features her, you, Kris Oprisko, and Kimberly Bauer. It was a mail in promotion to have a personalized card built using a photograph and a form that you’d fill out. How did that come about?
Yeah, that was one of John’s ideas. John still likes that stuff today even. Don’t be surprised if you see Marvel doing something like that. John loves the individually customized product idea. We had made our own. You know it was just a way to have some fun having the cards be based off of us. My memory is that not many people took advantage of it.
The ad said the cards were compatible with the game. It seems like that meant the game stats would be accurate but I’m not quite sure you guys could have printed off cards the same way.
I don’t remember how we did it. I think we may have printed them in La Jolla. It would be so easy to do now with the internet but not back then. Certainly they weren’t being printed with the set cards. That would have been logistically impossible. Digital printing didn’t exist like it did back in those days like it does today. There’s no version of how you could have put that onto a press sheet and do a one off. There’s no way it would have been the same as the other cards in the set.
The custom promos weren’t the only cards that would have featured photography. A lot of the chase cards from the Conflict set showcased models instead of artwork. How did that idea come about?
It was kind of a group type of thing. We were always looking for ideas. We all traveled a lot so we are all kind of friends. This was way before cosplay was like it is today. It was a very different world. Cosplay was not at all common back in the mid to late 90s. It was more of a somebody knew somebody kind of a thing and WildStorm had women who were dressing up as the characters. In most cases it was the girlfriend of one of the creators but not always. The Gen13 characters would have been driven by the comics side of things. Half the reason people go to conventions now is to participate in cosplay but it was kind of a different thing back then. It was really ahead of its time.
The truth was we had so many cards to fill because the volume of cards the sets required was just overwhelming at times. So I know we were always just trying to figure out how we could do more and more and more. I’m sure at some point somebody just said hey can do, I don’t know that we even called it cosplay back then, but we could do this. And now we have five more cards.
Did you think the game would have that kind of lasting effect and what would you say to everyone still keeping the game alive today?
Listen, at this point I’ve had a ridiculously long career. I have made, I couldn’t even tell you, maybe 10,000 products if you look at all the books that we’ve published and all the things that I’ve done in my career. It’s very rare that something had those kinds of legs. So for people to still like the game and to still be talking about it, there’s just nothing better for somebody that was involved in the process. There’s nothing better than that.
You can tell that there was a lot of thought and care put into the game.
Yes, it wasn’t a cynical decision to do this. Certainly, Jim and John wanted to do it because we all saw some money there but we were doing it because we wanted to make something that we thought was going to have the chance to be good, or even great. So everybody was very sincere about it and it wasn’t just a bunch of suits putting together something because they were looking at a spreadsheet. We were all fortunate. Jim really fostered a positive work environment. It was a group of people, who were, in large, enjoying what they were doing.
Well I think that about wraps it up. Ted, thank you so much for taking the time to talk about WildStorms!
It was nice chatting with you! Thanks!
Ted Adams (left) reunited with John Uhrich (right) at an event in 2012.
The personalized card promotion in the WildStorms' Players Guide featuring from top to bottom: Deborah Marvin, Kris Oprisko, Ted Adams, and Kimberly Bauer.