The surreal world of off-brand Pogs
While searching through boxes of old things this weekend, I discovered my childhood collection of Pogs. Pogs, or “milk caps” as the traditionalists preferred to call them, found their origins in Hawaii, where bored children in a pre-internet era would stack the caps from their milk and juice bottles and attempt to collect as many as they could by flipping them over — a sort of postmodern marbles, if you will. But Pogs didn’t become a cultural touchstone until the mid-90s in a short-lived but intense commercial fad led by the Canada Games Company. As a consumerist child of the 90s myself, I was all over it.
Of course, “real” pogs — those produced and sanctioned by the World POG Federation — were the cream of the crop for collectors and competitors alike. But as pogs’ popularity exploded, droves of entrepreneurs hoping to cash in on the trend began to flood the market with cheap, generic-branded pogs that paled in comparison to their brand-name counterparts, both in quality and any real design sensiblity. That didn’t matter to my 9-year-old self, though. Low on funds and high on the thrill of collecting, I bought up as many as I could once the local hobby shop began stocking them to the ceiling.
Looking back on them now, I’m reminded of just how shitty these knockoff pogs were. Sure, they had tacky foil stamping and designs reminiscent of a low-rent tattoo parlour, but those are features that sing to the heart of an impressionable young boy. And upon closer inspection, there are deliberate patterns and trends within the individual designs, a series of tropes within this pastiche of poor taste.
An inexplicably large portion of my collection is made up of pogs obsessed with poison. At first it seemed like these were just skull pogs — sensible, considering the Gen-X “hardcore” stylings of many of them. But for some reason, there are dozens of pogs that simply splatter the word “Poison” across their faces, pairing it with a skull and crossbones, various venomous beasts, or, for some reason, pirates, I guess.
If skulls aren’t your thing, you can always emblazon your Rockabilly hotrod with a plethora of 8-balls. These pogs embraced this icon of greaser culture, pairing them with snakes, dragons, and lightning bolts to amplify the devil-may-care connotations of the ubiquitous pool ball. Interestingly, one progressive pog attempts to buck the trend and get a jump on its contemporaries by offering up an elusive nine ball. It’s a rare collector’s item, I’m sure.
The peaceful counterpart to the skulls and 8-balls in this parade of cultural appropriation, Yin Yangs were Generation X’s way of telling you to chill out and seek balance in life. As common on your stoner roommate’s wall as they were on these pogs, yin yangs were the manufacturer’s answer to the question, “Hey, what other round shit can we slap on these things?”
It can be a lot of pressure to decide between poisonous skulls, 8-balls, or yin yangs. Luckily, Haigo Prefectural Manufacturing Industries Joy Games Division has you covered.
Clip-Art Sports Pogs
Remnants of an era when the only digital graphics available to designers came on CD-ROMs labelled “1000 CLIP ART GRAPHICS!”, these pogs attempt to capture the excitement and athleticism of competitive sports in the most off-putting ways possible. Evidently captioned by someone unfamiliar with the idea of “sports” as a whole, the titles were seemingly chosen by skimming an entry-level textbook on competitive athletics, highlighting random phrases, and having the cheapest translator available localize them for Western markets. What’s more exciting to a child than the thrill of preseason highlights or preventing sports injuries?
All creatures, ferocious and otherwise
I can see where they were going with some of these — spiders, dogs, and zoologically ambiguous horse-dragons are all pretty intimidating in their own rights. But I’d hate to be the kid who showed up to a tournament with a set of cuddly bunny and manatee pogs, only to end up the laughing stock of his peers.
Oh wait. I was that kid.
Shitty 90s-era CGI landscapes
Last seen on the cover of a mass-market Phillip K. Dick paperback, or airbrushed on the side of your weird neighbour’s van, these scenes are a throwback to a bygone era when digital graphics were a fresh novelty, but processing power was not yet equipped to handle the breadth of imagination sparked by computer graphics software. Through the magic of pogs, you could travel to an underwater city, witness a Pink Floyd concert at the top of an Aztec pyramid, or be transformed into a being of pure sexual energy by the crimson prisms of the fuck-plains. Barring that, just get really blazed and imagine that you’re travelling the Yellow Brick Road from Toto’s point of view.
Rounding out the set are a handful of pogs that are simply uncategorizable. Some seem to be amateur but earnest illustrations of the macabre, the pogs serving as a forum for a sort of proto-deviantArt. Others are obviously filler, cranked out by an apathetic designer who just needs to finish this set so he can go home and watch Babylon 5. And while I’m sure that the Star Trek pog was part of some movie tie-in, I can’t for the life of me imagine why children would be expected to rush out and get their hands on their very own Lore pogs.
The Pog Binder
Of course, my youth wasn’t blighted with only these awful, back-alley market pogs. For the truly discerning collector, hobby shops offered plastic binder sleeves for keeping all of your official pogs in pristine condition, for when their values eventually peak.
A quick eBay query tells me that they’re still on their way up, but I’m certain that in another decade or five, my childhood investment will finally get me into the big time. Barring that, at least I’ll be ready for when the fad eventually resurfaces in a torrential wave of ironic nostalgia.