The Pokémon TCG has come a long way since I first started collecting in the late 90s. I was lucky to have been at just the right age when the whole craze kicked off. Pokémon cards swept through our school like a bad case of glandular fever, infecting teenagers in every year group. Cards were traded and sold in the playground each day, fights broke out when dodgy trades went down and we had absolutely no clue about the importance of sleeving cards. I carried my Base Set Charizard (below) around in my blazer’s inside pocket, unsleeved and sharing a space with my keys, no doubt gouging deep scratches in the holofoil as I moved about each day. If you need a moment to catch your breath and wait for your heart rate to drop having just read that, please do.
What was it about Pokémon cards that lured me in? Well, it definitely wasn’t playing the actual card game. Despite the fact that every other person in my year group at school collected and traded Pokémon cards, I can’t recall a single person who knew how to actually play the game. These were the days before YouTube tutorials and internet FAQs on how to build decks. Starter decks did come with rules, so there was no excuse, but why did no one think to give it a go? I think maybe we were able to scratch that gaming itch with Pokémon Red and Blue, both of which came out at about the same time as the TCG hit shelves and both of which required a bit less effort. My Gameboy Colour was small enough to be tucked into that same blazer pocket next to naked, unsleeved Charizard for break/lunchtime gaming on the go. It’s also worth mentioning that no one collected Pokémon cards back then for any sort of financial gain or as a future investment opportunity. No one kept sealed Base Set booster packs aside. I wasn’t even aware that buying whole booster boxes was an option, never mind having the willpower to keep one in sealed and in pristine condition. Again, it was the 90s. YouTube, with its many Pokétuber collecting videos, unboxings and openings, did not exist. Also, no one could have foreseen that a beaten up and dog-eared Base Set Charizard could still fetch some decent money in 20 years’ time, never mind a mint condition, first edition, shadowless Zard. The joy and hype surrounding the whole phenomenon was where the true value and investment lay: for a certain section of young people, Pokémon cards served as an adolescent status symbol, and there was a lot to be gained from the day to day playground wheeling and dealing, as well as being able to buy the odd booster pack at the weekend with some pocket money. When Jungle and Fossil cards eventually hit our playground, the person that revealed them was bequeathed with minor celebrity status, as if they had just returned from some sort of exotic Jungle or Fossil expedition with all of these new Pokémon in tow. It was all of that. That’s what lured me in.
The Art Of Storytelling
But, especially looking back, there was definitely something else, even if I may not have been completely aware of it at the time: the art and illustrations of the TCG. With my grown-up eyes fixed on the rear-view mirror, the TCG’s artwork seemingly functioned on two levels for me: the first was the simple aesthetics of the artwork. That iconic Charizard, courtesy of the master Mitsuhiro Arita, almost bursting out of the card window; you could almost feel the heat of its flames. Or that podgy Base Set Pikachu from the same artist, its cheeks ready to burst with electricity. The pool of artists and illustrators was initially relatively shallow when it all began, the big contributors being Arita, Ken Sugimori, Keiji Kinebuchi and Tomoaki Imakuni. But that pool is now unfathomably deep. Twenty fives years and over 100 English card sets later, a total of around 200 different artists have contributed to the artwork of the TCG to date. The result is a rich archive of work, some styles so individual that they are instantly recognisable (looking at you, Komiya, sowsow and Mori).
The second of these levels, and arguably the one that has developed most markedly as the TCG has aged, is the ability of Pokémon artwork to tell stories. But it wasn’t always like this. Looking back at those first holos from Base Set, there wasn’t much going on in the way of storytelling. The brilliant and charming original artwork aside, the first holos were generally quite flat, stock images of the big hitters of Gen 1. Chansey & Raichu (left) just look happy to be in the holo window. Poliwrath and Hitmonchan look angry, but about what? Blastoise and Venusaur lack the same dynamism of their fire type counterpart. And, for whatever reason, most of the Base Set holos seem to have their gaze trained on something to their right (which I had never noticed until now) and are just “there”, suspended in their holo pattern rather than doing anything meaningful.
Nevertheless, even in the early days there was evidence that storytelling in the TCG was a thing. You just had to look past the those chase cards, the holos, to find it. A lot of us as kids probably scoffed at the common and uncommon cards in favour of anything remotely shiny, but this is where the storytelling in fact shines. Look at the Base Set Abra, for example (right). Anyone who has played the video games will know that Abra are notoriously skittish, so perhaps this Abra has found a peaceful spot behind a tree to keep a low profile.
Cubone 50/64 Common Pokemon Card (Jungle Set)The Base Set Charmander too (left) depicts a lovely scene where the Pokémon has mistakenly set the grass alight, and is surveying the damage it has done. There’s a charming innocence to the illustration in terms of its pose and expression, almost as if Charmander has no idea that it could be capable of such a thing.
Then we move to Cubone from the Jungle set (right), lonely and looking to the night sky, perhaps mourning the loss of its mother, whose skull it wears on its own head. Or Psyduck from Fossil, distressed and considering its own reflection which is no doubt generating one of its notorious headaches.
Alolan Vulpix (Rev) 053/214 | Lost Thunder | Magic MadhouseShining Gyarados - Neo Revelation #65 Pokemon CardAdmittedly storytelling moments in early sets were few and far between, but since then storytelling in the TCG has positively exploded. Jump forward a little in time to Shining Gyarados (left) from Neo Revelations - this one has Loch Ness Monster vibes, as the poor fisherman has stumbled across this legendary form and is now caught in a storm, water and clouds overhead swirling as the Pokémon is poised to unleash its rage. This scene was later emulated by Tokiya on a half art card in the Ancient Origins set. Then another big jump ahead to Lost Origins’ Alolan Vulpix (right), which depicts the Pokémon plunging headfirst into the snow. This doesn’t seem to be that special at first glance, until you realise that this is the hunting behaviour of real-life arctic foxes who leap into the air and plunge down again, looking for small creatures to eat below the snow.
The relationship between Pokémon and trainer is another hugely important opportunity to tell stories through the art of the TCG, which for whatever reason remained largely absent for years. This has now been fully realised, especially in the glorious Trainer Gallery cards which first appeared in Battle Styles in 2020. These cards have given illustrators more score to show deep connections between people and their Pokémon in all walks of life: as well as the standard trainer and Pokémon artwork depicting battle scenes, in these Trainer Gallery cards there are tender moments (Akari snuggled next to her Pikachu, both sleeping peacefully in a forest glade in a Lost Origin Trainer Gallery card (left); Pikachu has its foot lodged in Akari’s face, which any parent who has ever slept in the same bed as their restless child will recognise all too well); there are moments where Trainer and Pokémon are completely at ease with each other (Leon and his Charizard sharing a laugh as his Pokémon lolls across his lap affectionately in their Lost Origin Trainer Gallery card (left); there are moments in which Pokémon help their trainers at work (Astral Radiance’s Gardevoir card (right) depicts the Pokémon helping its trainer, a doctor or medical professional, get through a nightshift doing admin in front of the glare of a computer screen); and there are funny moments (Brilliant Stars Trainer Gallery and the look on Acerola’s face having just walked into the room to find her Mimikyu seemingly watching something it shouldn’t be, its body framed by the light of the TV and its shadow projected menacingly onto the wall behind (left); the power of this card in terms of storytelling comes from a tried and tested trope of the horror genre, in which what the viewer does not see is actually more impactful than what we do see – consider the Jurassic Park vibrating water cup scene or the shadow of the vampire gliding up a moonlit wall in Murnau’s classic Nosferatu). These Trainer Gallery cards are only a handful of examples, but all of them are rich in storytelling potential, not only for what we see, but also for everything we are not explicitly told: what are Leon and Charizard laughing about? What is Akari’s Pikachu having an uneasy dream about? What would the doctor do without their Gardevoir to look out for them? What is Mimikyu watching and why is Acerola so shocked? All of these things might seem inconsequential or unimportant to some collectors, but the questions are there to be asked and lend the TCG another layer of depth for those who choose to look for it.
The TCG shows no signs of this trend abating anytime in the near future either. New Scarlet and Violet era illustrator cards have already arrived which are as strong at telling stories as ever. In the Base Set, new Pokémon to this generation, Fidough can be seen gazing at pastries in a bakery shop window (right). Again, this card raises a few questions if you dare to ask them: is Fidough gazing longingly at the pastries, out of hunger? Or is Fidough aware of itself? Does it know that it’s a Pokémon resembling a dog made out of sweet pastries? Has it seen its reflection in the bakery shop window and is it wondering what connection it has to these pastries? Taken another, slightly more disturbing way and making an assumption about Fidough’s seemingly distressed expression, is it worried that it might end up like one of these pastries in the bakery shop window? Are those Fidough body parts in that baker’s window?! And if Fidough is indeed hungry, is this bordering on cannibalism? The Pokémon equivalent of a town centre pigeon pecking at the dregs of a KFC bargain bucket. Ok, this last thought is a bit of a stretch but I can’t deny that I didn’t think it! With art and a little imagination, almost anything is possible.
Looking ahead, I’m already eagerly anticpating Paldea Evolved’s Magikarp illustrator rare, which I’ve already picked up in Japanese (right). This particular card depicts the Chinese legend of Longmen (the Dragon Gate), upon which Magikarp’s evolutionary line is based. The Legend states that the Dragon Gate can be found at the top of a waterfall which flows from a sacred mountain. Carp journey upstream against the current but only a few have the courage to leap up the waterfall and pass through the Dragon Gate. Those that do are said to transform into powerful dragons, hence how Magikarp, arguably one of the most useless Pokémon ever, is able to transform into an absolute beast! The spirit of Gyarados can be seen on this card, beckoning or taunting, as the Magikarp toils upstream to prove its worth. This exquisite piece of storytelling, which is heavily tied to a piece of real world folklore, is the reason Magikarp is my favourite Pokémon, and I don’t think anything will ever change that. I love the notion that a goofy looking fish, so often shunned for its uselessness, is able to overcome the odds, be strong, resilient and emerge a dragon at the end of it all. Just imagine the power in a story like that, especially for an insecure, young Pokémon enthusiast still unsure of their place in the world. We need stories like this and I’m thankful we have Pokémon to help tell them.
TCG Storytelling The Final Evolution?
Despite the rich aesthetic value of the Pokémon TCG that I’ve banged on about at length so far, I don’t personally collect anymore. The stress of chasing the best cards at sometimes eye watering prices (and starting a family) forced this decision and I actually sold a lot of the cards I prized so much for their art and storytelling qualities. But now I get to discover the TCG all over again, through the eyes of my son. He has an eye for the art, just as I did. We attended the Scarlet & Violet Base Set Pre-release and his imagination was captured by some of the storytelling power of the alternate art illustrator cards, especially the ones that depict a sequence of events over multiple cards. His favourite new Pokémon is Spidops and in the alternate art cards of both Tarountula and Spidops, there is a story being told. Tarountula can be seen swinging perilously from a single fibre of its web, as a marauding Scyther tries to claim a quick and easy meal out of the feeble spider Pokémon (left). But on the Spidops alternate art card, we see the now evolved Tarountula exacting its revenge. Spidops has caught the miscreant Scyther, who is now in the process of being enveloped in spider silk (right). Scyther is now the one flailing, hanging upside down and going nowhere. Over these two cards, a simple story plays out of how the tables can turn quickly thanks to a single evolutionary stage.
Hands down the most charming piece of storytelling though, which plays out over multiple illustrator cards in the latest set is that of the Ralts, Kirlia and Gardevoir evolutionary line. In the Ralts card we see a young couple, moving into a new home, their Ralts taking in its new surroundings as they unpack boxes (left). This scene alone is loaded with storytelling potential. Framed photos have been hung before boxes have even been unpacked, highlighting how their love for each other and their Pokémon is what makes this house a home. One photo depicts Ralts curled up in a baby like pose, perhaps sleeping. The one to its right looks like the couple’s wedding photo, but their Ralts is there too, very much a part of this relationship. There is an open box with blankets and a small potted plant, still a sapling.
On the Kirlia card, time has moved on. The boxes are gone, the blankets have been unpacked. A new baby has arrived and is clothed in a Ralts inspired sleep suit, its mother nursing it on the sofa as the family’s Kirlia looks on curiously (right). A Ralts doll rests against the leg of the coffee table, presumably a knitted toy for the baby, possibly made by mummy whose knitting needles and wool sit in the foreground. The potted plant is gone, maybe moved to somewhere safely out of reach of the newborn, but a new shrub has appeared to the right of the sofa. The father of the young family is approaching with a tray laden with two steaming bowls and another dish, maybe a poffin for Kirlia, a reward for being so attentive. What is most striking in this scene is the framed photos; they have changed. The Ralts and wedding photos are still on the wall, but have been joined by two new photos: one of a child in what looks like a Pikachu sleep suit, presumably the same baby that is asleep in its mother’s arms; the other is of the whole family: mother, father, child and Kirlia.
The Gardevoir alternate art card then fast forwards time considerably, and we see the couple advancing in years, both of them looking a little greyer than before. The mother of the family still likes to knit, her now fully evolved Gardevoir helping her hold the wool (left). The father is holding a camera. Perhaps he is the one who has enjoyed capturing these family memories that often end up framed on the sitting room wall. The shrub has grown and its branches now bear fruit, a symbol of how their family life has blossomed. The potted plant is back, looking bigger and sits beside the knitted Ralts baby toy, even though the child seems to have long since departed the household. It now sits as a reminder of a precious time. Where is the child, presumably now grown up? It seems like an opportunity missed not to show the child either being looked after by Gardevoir in a nanny capacity or else calling in to visit its parents in their advancing years. We shouldn’t expect anything too dark here in terms of what can be inferred from their child’s absence. The couple look healthy and happy, and pictures of their child (seemingly a little girl) have been added to the family gallery behind them. Both new additions to the wall point to the closeness of the relationship between their daughter and their Pokémon. There is a family portrait showing the daughter and Kirlia embracing, and next to it there seems to be one of their daughter’s drawings depicting the child and Pokémon together flanked by love hearts. The message is clear: time moves on, but at the heart of this family is love for each other and their Pokémon. Their Pokémon is not just a Pokémon; it is a companion for life and perhaps even a sibling to the daughter, in leu of a brother or sister. There are questions here about why there does not appear to have been another child in the family - either by choice or because the parents were not able to conceive another baby. Regardless, over the course of these three cards, we have been taken on a journey spanning many lives. Lives not unlike our own. The speculation and inference is just as, if not more exciting than being served all up of the information on a plate. The art of the TCG can take us places if we only let it.