Eek! The Topps Company has been one of the oldest and leading purveyors of bubble gum packet trading cards, since the 1940s when it was Topps Chewing Gum, Inc. If my sixty-year-old memories are accurate, they went from five sticks of bubble gum and one trading card per pack to five trading cards and one stick of gum per pack. I and my pals tossed out the gum and traded the cards – fighter plane cards, Civil War battle cards, interplanetary exploration cards, and the like.
Len Brown, in his Introduction, describes how, as a 15-year-old in 1955, he wrote a fan letter to Topps and was invited by its creative director Woody Gelman to visit their offices. They maintained their correspondence, and in 1959 Gelman offered him a job as his assistant. Brown worked at Topps until he retired in 2000.
Brown was therefore the lead planner with Gelman of the 1962 set of 55 trading cards at first called Attack from Space, but ultimately changed to the shorter and more dramatic Mars Attacks. Brown was the author of the text on the back of the cards. Brown describes his influences (the big-brained alien on an EC Comics cover, and the similar aliens in This Island Earth), the artists who painted the cards, and that it was originally decided that some of the cards were too violent, and they were redrawn and toned down.
Not enough. Before they even had the chance to distribute the cards nation-wide, the first releases on the East Coast drew the kind of parental and newspaper editorial denunciations that were written about the “juvenile delinquency causing” comic books of the 1950s. “In 1962, Topps received about thirty letters from students attending the same public school. It was obviously a class assignment, as all the letters had the same basic message, ‘Mars Attacks trading cards are not suitable for children.’” (p. 10) The decisive event was a telephone call to Topps’ president from a district attorney in Connecticut who warned him against releasing more of the cards in that state.
So the cards were withdrawn from the market – with the predictable results. Mars Attacks became the most famous set of children’s trading cards ever produced. Everyone wanted what they couldn’t have. “Today, a complete set of the fifty-five original 1962 Mars Attacks cards in mint condition is valued at twenty-five thousand dollars. […] More extraordinarily, an original wax wrapper sells for over five hundred dollars, and an empty Mars Attacks display box (rarely found) is scooped up for over a thousand dollars! (ibid.)
Over the years, particularly in the 1980s and later, there has been Mars Attacks imagery and literature in many forms. Paperback novels. Comic books. Action figures. T-shirts. Magazine covers. And of course the 1996 Tim Burton movie.
This 224-page full-color book shows it all. The centerpiece is the original 55-card set, presented in double-page spreads showing the text on the left-hand page and the illustration on the right. “The card art from the original 1962 series that appears in this volume was taken directly from transparencies, which still survive. The card backs were scanned from an archival set that had been kept in storage at Topps since its initial release.” This runs from pages 11 to 121. Subsequent pages show 11 additional cards added for a 1994 limited reissue; 32 full-page paintings by noted 1990s-2000s comic book artists including Keith Giffen, Ken Steacy, Sam Keith, William Stout, Mike Ploog, John Pound, and Simon Bisley; original Mars Attacks art commissioned from Topps for magazine covers, paperback novel covers, etc.; 1962 original concept sketches; the box art and wrappers prepared for the unused Attack from Space release; and more. The introduction includes the EC comic-book cover that inspired Brown, the poster for the 1955 movie This Island Earth with its bulging-brained mutant, and the poster for the 1996 Tim Burton movie. There is a two-page afterword by Zena Saunders, the daughter of the original cards’ artist, Norm Saunders.
This is another “everything you want to know” book about its subject. Everyone has heard of the notorious Mars Attacks trading cards. Now you can see them in all their gory glory. Wired.com reviewed this book as “a lurid snapshot of sci-fi paranoia at its most pulp-fictiony.” This a book for nostalgia fans, for pop-culture fans, for sci-fi fans, and for those who want to know what inspired the Tim Burton movie.
Includes four Mars Attacks trading cards.
Disclosure: A free copy of this book was furnished by the publisher for review, but providing a copy did not guarantee a review. This information is provided per the regulations of the Federal Trade Commission.