Political Trading Cards -- A publisher is successfully selling sets of the satirical cards called ''Friendly Dictators"

When a New York journalist interviewed Portuguese president Mario Soares recently, she brought him a gift: a box of trading cards titled Friendly Dictators: 36 of America’s Most Embarrassing Allies. As Soares examined the 2-by-4-inch caricatures of Gen. Augusto Pinochet of Chile and Haiti’s Jean-Claude Duvalier, he howled with laughter and demanded, ”Who makes these things? WHO???”

Answer: Eclipse Books, a California comic-book publisher that has sold more than a half million sets of the satirical trading cards. In addition to Friendly Dictators, Eclipse has produced card sets starring the players of Iran-contra, the Kennedy assassination, the drug wars, and, coming soon, the S&L scandal. It will soon be possible to swap a Charles Keating for a Eugene Hasenfus.

The idea for political trading cards was born in 1987 when Berkeley violinist Paul Brancato was watching the Iran-contra hearings. Fascinated, he approached Eclipse execs Dean Mullaney, 37, and Catherine Yronwode, 44, with the notion that ”Iran-contra is just like baseball. Maybe if the public had trading cards we could figure out what position people were playing!”

Yronwode and Mullaney bought the proposal and hired Brancato to write the text and illustrator Salim Yaqub to create the caricatures. With a big seller on their hands, Eclipse began publishing new sets on other scandals. According to Yronwode, ”The exposure of hypocrisy sells, in a tabloid sense. I mean, if you’re going to poke fun at people, the only people worth it are the big guys.”

How does the intelligence community, often the target of these cartoons, respond? ”I’ve heard they buy and trade them,” says Yronwode. ”I hope they like them as much as the Mafia likes The Godfather.”