Card 21: 'Prize Captive'. Artist: Norm Saunders.

MARS ATTACKS

Original medium: Trading cards
Published by: Topps
First Appeared: 1962
Creator: Len Brown
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Trading cards, which started in the 19th century as give-away promotional items distributed with tobacco products and/or small snack food items (eventually specializing in bubble gum), found their most widespread popularity among fans of professional sports leagues. But there have been many non-sports cards, containing pictures and facts about popular TV shows, comic book and/or pulp magazine series, toys or even politicians. All that's required is that each card stand on its own as a discrete collectible, not overlapping with other cards; and that the series as a whole be numbered, so collectors can check each card, …

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… as acquired, off a list. When they'd become firmly established as artifacts of popular culture, cards began sporting storylines of their own, requriing no external frame of reference at all to support them as collector's items.

A pioneer in such free-standing card series was Topps (Bazooka Joe), the bubble gum company that later did cards based on Star Trek and the Batman TV show. Topps's Space Race card set appeared as early as 1958, the same year as Adam Strange, Sky Masters and other commercial responses to the early Space Age. In the early '60s, they pushed the boundary of acceptable violence with a series about the American war that was just then having its centennial. In '62, they applied the same approach in the genre of science fiction.

In 1962, product designer Len Brown based a storyline on a cover Wallace Wood (Cannon, Sally Forth) had done years earlier for EC Comics. (Wood later returned the favor by naming a T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agent's secret identity after Brown.) He pitched the idea to Woody Gelman (Famous Studios, Nutsy Squirrel), who was then in charge of Topps's Product Development Department. Later that year, it appeared on candy counters nationwide in a 55-card set titled "Attack from Space". Customers were unexcited, so the name was changed to "Mars Attacks", and it clicked.

The final pictures were painted by Norm Saunders (who did comic book covers for Fawcett Publications, Classics Illustrated and elsewhere), from drawings made by Wood and Bob Powell (Cave Girl, The Man in Black). Gelman and Brown had collaborated on the story, which was designed to resemble a 1950s B-grade sci-fi flick, with Brown writing actual text for the backs of the cards.

A major generator of interest in its juvenile customer base lay in the imaginative and gruesome ways the Martians treated Earth people. Before long, Topps was under attack by irate parents, wishing to limit the sex and violence available to their children. The company first toned down 13 of the most objectionable cards, then cancelled the series entirely.

Making the cards unavailable only made people want them more. Interest soared, and remained high while dozens of other card sets came and went. Two decades later, in 1984, Rossem Enterprises issued a partial reprint — the original versions of the 13 censored cards. The same year, entrepreneur and card dealer Renata Galasso reprinted the whole set. In 1988, Topps worked with Pocket Comics (which has nothing to do with the old Harvey Comics title) to produce a 54-issue mini-comics adaptation of the Mars Attacks storyline, but distribution was poor, and only four issues came out.

In the 1990s, Topps branched out into the comic book business, with adaptations of Xena, Exosquad and more. Between 1994 and '97, they did more than a dozen and a half Mars Attacks comic books. Also, in 1994 they put out an expanded card set, with enough new entries to make a total of 100 cards.

But 1996 was the year of its true media break-out. On December 13 of that year, Warner Bros. (Steel, The Catwoman) released the feature-length movie version with an all-star cast, including Jack Nicholson (The Joker), Glenn Close (Cruella DeVil), Danny DeVito (Phil in Hercules). Michael J. Fox (Stuart Little), Natalie Portman (Evie in V for Vendetta) and many more. The director was Tim Burton (The Nightmare Before Christmas). The B-movie-inspired plot remained unchanged. Two novelizations were issued — Mars Attacks: Martian Deathtrap and Mars Attacks: War Dogs of the Golden Horde — as well as a set of plastic model kits.

Not bad for a bunch of penny-apiece items that were only on sale at all for only a few weeks, a half-century ago.

— DDM

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Text ©2010 Donald D. Markstein. Art © Topps.