Dragon Cards & the Onset of Adolescence

Like most kids I went through a series of phases. I had my Pokémon phase, my gelled-up hair phase, my building-things phase, et cetera. At age eleven I had my dragon phase. I’ve touched on this before in a previous blog post centered around the notebooks I’d fill with dragon cartoons during class at that age. Today I’d like to revisit the other half of my high school dragon cartooning- the trading cards I made and took home to laminate.

In the United Kingdom, we tend not to have middle schools, which are quite common in the United States. There are exceptions of course, but particularly in state schools (which Americans call public school) education is partitioned into two blocks. There’s Primary School education, which takes you up until the year you turn eleven, and then there’s Secondary School education, which takes you from that point to the year you turn sixteen (eighteen if your school offers Sixth Form, which is completely optional). I feel like the lack of middle school is important to this story, because so much change happens between the ages of 11 and 16. There’s a big difference between the attitudes, interests, and behaviors of an eleven-year-old kid and a sixteen-year-old one. The former has more in common with a Primary School child and the latter has more in common with an adult. The same space is being shared between wild, squeaky-voiced brats playing tag and broody, overly self-conscious proto-adults covered in body hair.

The dragon cards I made are illustrative of the fact that, during my first year of Secondary School, I still had a prepubescent sensibility. It’s a period of time that really fascinates me, because everyone changed at different rates, but no one had yet lost touch with their childlike persona. We also weren’t the passive objects of change either. We had been given many talks about puberty and knew it was happening while it happened. We may not have understood it very well, but we talked about it, we anticipated it, we joked about it. We tried to resist or accelerate aspects of it. I was in the camp of trying to stay a little kid forever, Peter Pan style. I felt like I was always the last to know anything. What was cool, what wasn’t. What to say, what not to say. What to wear, what not to wear. But what I find interesting about this transitory period was the fact that, while all of these schoolyard mores were being established, we hadn’t yet settled into the distinct cliques so endemic to the teenage experience.

Primary School felt like a democratic space, where any social combination was possible. Boys played with girls and it wasn’t weird. Groups formed easily and quickly. Birthday parties often involved the whole class. On some level it felt like everyone was friends with everyone else. Things changed in Secondary School as we began to discover our unique identities and interests. We started to surround ourselves more with likeminded people- but the changes didn’t happen all at once. The first year of Secondary School still saw a lot of mixing between different kids. Kids I hung out with often at the age of eleven became strangers to me at the age of sixteen, as we naturally drifted apart due to differing priorities in life. As I said earlier, I didn’t lean into adolescence. I tried to resist it. My dragon phase is evidence of that- not so much because it existed, but because I was so damn open about it. In my Rough Books blog post I wrote about how surprised I was that I’d once had the nerve to adopt dragon-drawing as my public identity.

My memories of drawing dragon cards in class are unanimously happy ones. They’re a relic of that strange dark age where we weren’t quite children, but we weren’t truly teenagers either. However, it wasn’t a happy time for me in general. I got bullied and shamed for my physical appearance a lot, especially in those early years of Secondary School. But I was never teased about my dragon cartoons. The guys at school I was afraid of and whose approval I sought were always particularly affectionate towards my dragon-drawing activities. There was something about it that people just seemed to dig. I like to think that despite the pull of adolescence and the pressures to fit in, to appear detached, to seem mature, we were all still joined by a residual childlike sensibility. And maybe something about me drawing dragons with such gusto tapped into that sensibility.

I started the whole business on a field trip to Wells Cathedral early in the first year of Secondary School. Before we returned home, I bought a small, square-shaped pad of plain paper from the cathedral gift shop. I didn’t plan on making dragon cards with it, but something about the style of the pad excited me. You flipped open the dark green leather front with a picture of the cathedral on it and you had a chunky wad of clean white squares, not much bigger than a coaster, each of which you could tear out. The possibilities to do something creative were too much to resist. Not long after the purchase, I began drawing a dragon on each square and writing a fictional description of each species on the back.

I also gave each a set of stats, so that two or more players could battle the dragons against each other until the winner held all the cards. The system was based on a popular British card game called Top Trumps, of which my family and I had several packs. They were great fun to play on family holidays, and an absolute lifesaver when we were bored out of our minds on crowded ferries to France and back. My most prized pack was a 2001 edition for The Simpsons, which was my favorite show as a kid. I loved the wide cast of whacky characters, and what intrigued me about the Top Trumps set was that all these characters were now rated on various attributes. Professor Frink and Lisa would score highly on intelligence, and I remember Chief Wiggum scored highest in the fatness category, narrowly beating out Barney Gumble. But there were also even more subjective categories too, like “Biggest Nerd” or “Most Lovable”. It was interesting to me that that sort of thing had been quantified. I tried to do the same with my dragons.

I rated them each on things like speed, strength, and fire. I wrote about their habits and preferred methods of attack. And I always drew a picture on the back that depicted where they lived. Sometimes it was a map, sometimes an annotated cross-section of a volcano, other times it was a landscape that I tried to make 3D-looking. I did all of this during class, usually if I was bored and thought I stood a good chance of getting away with it. It was my way of mentally checking out from everything around me.

One time during a science class, someone had a litre bottle of carbonated water that they kept on the table. Through some mishap, the bottle erupted Krakatoa-style in the middle of the lesson and foaming liquid went everywhere. My dragon cards were stacked neatly by my workbook and were seconds away from being caught in the onrushing water. I grabbed them, and a friend of mine who was out of range of the flood instantly leant over and extended his hands towards me. I placed the stack of cards safely in his hands without a word as the water soaked my work. It’s one of my favorite memories because I was so touched by the urgency with which this friend sprang into action, with his reflexive instinct to protect my cards, and the way he held them in his hands with such care. It was after this incident that I started laminating the cards that were finished. It was my aunt who suggested the idea since she had a machine at home. I would give her the cards on weekends, and she would return them to me beautifully laminated. Aside from being safe from being torn, crumpled, stained, or wetted, they looked cooler and more official. Not long after this, my parents bought me a laminator of my own and I wasted no time making things just so that I could see them transformed by the machine.

The science class story is a special memory for me because of the way it shows how involved my friends were in the dragon card project. Some of my friends would ask me to tear out a card for them so that they could draw their own dragons to add to the deck. They would proudly sign it with their name before giving it back to me so that I could write the bio and stats on the back. You can see some of them in the photo below. For the purposes of privacy, I’ve obviously gone ahead and concealed the names.

The percentage on the front indicates how rare each one is, which in retrospect I guess is kinda confusing seeing as how the rarer dragons had a higher percentage. Usually this corresponded with how deadly each one looked. As you can see from the top-right, one friend opted to draw a dragon that looked more peaceful, whereas another friend (bottom-left) depicted one that is obviously quite menacing. I tried to draw the widest range of species possible, usually based on real world regions. I had dragons that I tried to make look more appropriate for a bamboo forest in China, and others you could imagine in the fjords of Norway. I gave them names that were sometimes similar to the ones in Harry Potter, including some unique physical feature and the country it was from. I made aquatic dragons, feathered dragons, serpentine dragons, subterranean dragons, you name it. One friend started a dragon but never finished it. I liked his outline, because it looked so unique. Not wanting to tamper with it, I simply kept the outline as it was and called it a “spirit dragon”, which became a bonus card players could use to buff their stats. You can see it below:

Everyone likes a good dragon. As you can see from the photos, there are so many ways of drawing them, which I find really interesting. To me, the cards are representative of the last gasp of childhood, before conformity set in, where everyone was still willing to engage with their creativity and contributed their unique ideas to a diverse pool of imagination.

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