Monsters' ball: Topps artist is scary good

Alex Pardee's 'Brightmares' putting unique spin on national pastime

March 25th, 2021

When Topps initially got in touch with artist Alex Pardee about working on Project70, a reimagining of the brand’s classic baseball sets over the past 70 years, his gut reaction was: Not a chance.

“I’m not going to be able to do this,” he thought to himself. “Have they even seen my work?”

For decades, Pardee has built a massive audience with a brand of surreal art he calls “Brightmares,” an amalgamation of "bright nightmares." His portfolio is equal parts dark and vivid, terrifying and hilarious. Think … a demonic candy corn. A disintegrating -- but still grinning -- Mickey Mouse. Even his logo is a rainbow with fangs.

While Pardee did collect baseball cards as a kid, his artwork had never once incorporated sports. In fact, he’d turned down similar opportunities over the years because he didn’t think they vibed with what he did best.

But when he discussed Project70 with Topps, they assured him they loved his style just the way it was. He’d been handpicked by noted curator Roger Gastman and creative agency SA Studios to do what he does best -- and to not change a thing.

“And I was like, all right!” Pardee said with a laugh. “You asked for it!”

The rest is baseball card history. His first submission, a monsterized rendition of Braves superstar Ronald Acuña Jr., was an immediate sensation, drawing near-unanimous rave reviews on social media. Pardee, who was drawn to Acuña’s energy, his trademark sunglasses and the fact that he always seemed to be smiling, gave him a twisted grin reminiscent of Marvel’s Venom or Baraka from Mortal Kombat.

When the print run came back, Pardee had sold 14,825 Acuñas, easily the most in the set to date -- pretty good for a card that very well may never have seen the light of day.

“That was probably the biggest surprise I’ve had in five years,” Pardee said. “I don’t want to do classic cards, I want to inject what I do into it and see if it works, and I was genuinely nervous that I was just going to piss everybody off. But instead most people were like, 'This is really cool!'”

The card was a striking departure from everything people had come to expect from the national pastime, and seemingly everyone took notice, including his peers.

“I thought Alex’s Acuña card was insane, in the best way,” fellow Project70 artist Efdot said. “I appreciated the risks he took with the portrait, and the reaction from collectors showed how much they loved his Topps debut.”

“Acuña,” agreed Blake Jamieson on a recent livestream, “has stolen the show for the set so far.”

Pardee’s creative vision has opened many doors for him, with Topps the latest one. But just as importantly, it’s served as the stabilizing force throughout his life.

As a teenager, Pardee dealt with extreme feelings of anxiety and depression, and nothing really seemed to be helping. Everything changed during one particular sleepless night, when he randomly picked up a pencil next to his bed. Pardee began doodling on a napkin, and before he knew it, nearly two hours had melted away.

“I didn’t draw anything coherent,” Pardee said, “but I realized in those two hours I wasn’t feeling bad anymore. I found something I could focus on. So I was like, ‘Whatever I’m doing here, this is what I need to do as long as I don’t want to feel sick.’”

From then, no matter what else he was doing in his life, Pardee practiced his art to help balance him, and also just because he loved it. He found inspiration all around him and in his favorite things, most notably Street Fighter 2, Tales from the Crypt and skateboard art. He also adored a comic book called The Maxx, which explored mental health issues behind the guise of a superhero story.

But first and foremost, he cites Garbage Pail Kids cards, ubiquitous during the 1980’s but still around today courtesy of Topps, as the main influence on his artistic worldview.

“I always had like this demented, dark sense of humor as a kid -- just like my dad and my grandma,” Pardee said. “When I discovered GPK, it kind of opened my eyes that regular people like these, and not just weirdos. I began to think if I do something weird or monstrous or gross, maybe people will like it.”

Pardee eventually quit a 9 to 5 he hated, figuring that whether he failed or not, he had to pursue his dream. After a lot of hard work -- and more than a few lean years -- a milestone arrived when he was hired as the art director for a band called The Used, exposing his artwork to a younger demographic. A few years later, Zack Snyder -- yes, the #SnyderCut guy! -- tabbed him to help devise the visuals for his movie "Sucker Punch."

As his profile and following steadily grew, he got involved in more and more projects -- a gallery show here, a clothing brand there, art direction for other bands. Lately, he’s been delving into the NFT world, to great effect. And he continues to explore his relationship with fans of his art.

This past year was challenging for many, and Pardee wanted people to know that wherever they were, they weren’t alone. With the help of Chloe Rice, his girlfriend and a talented artist in her own right, he began streaming on Twitch almost daily, staging interactive shows where he’d collaborate with fans on works of art. They also staged fundraisers and designed prints to benefit groups like Meals on Wheels.

“Overall, we’re just trying to give back,” Pardee said, “to find a way to navigate getting through this, along with everybody, while getting through this ourselves.”

So what’s the next step? For starters, Pardee’s highly anticipated second card, Mike Trout, dropped today on Topps’ site with an incredible backstory attached, and he still has 18 more cards coming. Past that, Pardee has enjoyed himself so much that he wouldn’t mind exploring future opportunities with the brand, and the feeling is very mutual.

“Alex’s artwork is exactly what we hoped to see from artists on Project70. We wanted to give the artists the space and platform to be creative,” said Jeff Heckman, Topps’ global director of e-commerce. “He has captured the interest of the collecting community and there is an excitement to see what he will do next.

“I have a few ideas [for other projects], and I look forward to talking to him soon to see what we can do in the future.”

For now, though, Pardee is taking things one card at a time, and he’s ready for the world to see his latest creation.

“I’ll be excited to see if you guys are into it or not,” Pardee said of the Trout card. “But the good news is, if you’re not, I’ve got 18 more cards after that to get you back!”

That probably won’t be necessary: Just ask thousands of baseball fans. Once you’ve visited Alex Pardee’s world, you’re in no rush to leave.