“…and what are we going to do, unless they are?”
I became a fan of They Might Be Giants in the same way that I’m sure a lot of people did: by hearing their famous rendition of Istanbul (Not Constantinople), via an episode of Tiny Toon Adventures. Something about the silly and whimsical nature of the songs, coupled with the bombastic instrumentation and relatively low-key vocals, very much appealed to me, a rabid child raised on the likes of “Weird Al” Yankovic. I did, very slowly, start acquiring more of their music over a very widespread period. But don’t let’s start with my life story, because we’re here to look at a deck, not to whistle in the dark. So hang on tight, to keep from getting thrown to the wolves.
The general oddness of They Might Be Giants means that any deck of cards they’d sell could be about basically anything. Would the suits be an arrangement of cows, puppets, presidents, and robots? Would the Ace of Spades be a little birdhouse? Would Adam Ant show up for no apparent reason? No, apparently none of those things. The TMBG deck contains an assortment of cryptids, myths, hoaxes, and paranormal creatures, illustrated by Merman and designed by Paul Sahre, who has collaborated frequently with the band for album artwork and merchandise. This deck in particular was originally a part of a 2012 holiday merchandise bundle, but began being sold standalone via their official merchandise site, for a paltry $15 plus shipping.
When I finally received this deck in my letterbox and took it out of its snail shell, I made a particular note that the “default” arrangement was very unusual. Normally, a deck tends to be arranged in rank order, either from Ace to King, or from 2 to Ace. In this deck’s case, everything right is wrong again: the order starts with the Ace, then the 10, then ranks 2 through 9, then the Jack, the King, and the Queen at the top. An attempt at throwing off the traditional French arrangement? Hard to say for sure, and it’s a detail I’m sure most owners of the deck wouldn’t even care about, since it’ll just get shuffled anyway.
Not that the deck’s women and men are actually anything resembling human (with a few noted exceptions). Might they be giants? In some cases, yes. Each suit represents a category of unusual and unnatural creatures. Cryptids, identified by a black eyeball, include Sasquatch, the Loch Ness Monster, and Mothman. The Hoaxes suit, a red circle with a dash through it, is purported to include the Bogeyman, the Pig-Faced Woman, and the Jackalope, but on the actual cards appear to have been swapped with the Paranormal suit (red X’s), which contains an alien, a skyfish, and the shadow people. The last suit, Myths, is adorned with a black dagger, and includes the Minotaur, the Mermaid, and the Kraken. Finally, the two Jokers are Ningen and the Mongolian Death Worm (ever seen/read/played Dune? Those things). Each of the cards with creatures on them has a very gritty and detailed pencil sketch, credited to “Merman.” This visual style lends the creatures an exceptionally creepy vibe, like something that you’d find in an arcane tome from an abandoned library in the late 1800s.
Before I dig my grave and get any more than 32 footsteps away from the purpose of a deck of cards, let’s have a look at how it plays. The cards aren’t produced by a major manufacturer (they’re made in China), so the nice Bicycle-style texturing and air cushioning is not present, but that doesn’t really spell doom for the way it feels. The cards don’t stick together, and they don’t drift around everywhere, so the average tabletop game has more chance than a snowball in hell of remaining intact during play. They pose no obvious problems shuffling, and despite being made in China, they don’t feel like they’ll cut up your thumbs in the process either.
Perhaps I’m just twisting in the wind, due to my minimum wage situation, but despite the quality artwork and the very unique custom suits (even with unique pip arrangements per suit), I’m having a bit of trouble justifying the $15 purchase to myself. Am I spoiled by the nicer decks, the Bicycle and Nintendo cards that deal so easily and feel like they’ll stand up to everything, even a road movie to Berlin? Will I ever actually play with these? I suppose no one knows my plan, least of all myself, and I stand a better chance of meeting James Ensor than I do of writing a cheesy reference that makes any sense today. It’s not my birthday, but why must I be sad? …I should really stop before I do any more damage. I’ve lost count of how many TMBG song references I’ve slipped into this article already, so I suppose I ought to declare this the end of the tour.
The cards. Yes. They’re not bad. They’re not amazing. But it’s about time I actually gave this great band some actual money.