Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared on Charles Dee’s blog Potato Weather.
The Topps Company is best known for their annual sports trading cards which they have produced since 1938. But they have always maintained other lines ranging from current events to historical themes to novelties. They had dabbled in science fiction before when in the early 1960’s they decided it was time to do a series loosely based on H.G. Well’s The War of the Worlds. Their initial title for the series was Attack from Space, but they wisely scrapped that for the more headline worthy Mars Attacks.
They went into production with the highly regarded pulp illustrator Wally Wood as artist, but they felt his designs were too restrained for what they wanted. They brought in Bob Powell who had illustrated their Civil War series. He gave them what they wanted, lurid scenes of mass destruction balanced against more intimate human/alien encounters. He modeled his Martians on the giant-brained creature from the Jack Arnold film This Island Earth, and he set them about alternately bombarding the great centers of human population and hunting down survivors in devastated suburbs and the blasted countryside.
Management at Topps became concerned as soon as they saw early samples of the final artwork. Too violent and too sexy was their judgment. Hemlines came down and necklines rose. Aliens and the giant insects they created could die as horribly as the artists wanted, but humans transformed into flaming skeletons were a problem. The breaking point came in a scene where an alien — the heartless, inhuman bastard — blasted a boy’s dog with his heat ray. The dog absolutely could not be shown as a flaming skeleton. For some reason repainting Rover with a full coat of fur, albeit flaming fur, passed muster.
Management was right to be worried. As soon as the first pack of five cards hit the news stands, complaints began coming in. The whole thing was too violent for kids and too suggestive for the general public. The artists began painting out some of the blood in the not yet released packs, but a call from a district attorney in Connecticut brought production to a halt. The series would be prosecuted as unfit for children.
Artists experimented with toning the whole thing down, a process that largely involved replacing female victims with men. This made for inadvertently bizarre images, since the new drawings did not receive new titles. “Prize Captive” depicted an alien abducting what looks to be a teenage boy. The man stolen from his bed in “The Beast and the Beauty” could be that same boy’s father. What does this say about Martian sexual proclivities? But these cards never went into production, nor did the series ever see national distribution.
Instead it became legendary. The cards have always been on the collector’s market, but Tim Burton’s not very good film from 1996 gave rise to a new level of interest. A copy of card number one, “The Invasion Begins,” sold at auction for $80,000. Topp’s had sold off the original artwork in the 1970’s for what I am sure at the time seemed like a good amount of money. Currently on E-Bay, a prototype of the unused Attack from Space packaging has been marked down to a mere $188,000. A set of cards — missing 39 cards! — is $11,000.
The new Mars Attacks book from Topps presents a brief history of the cards, facsimiles of the original 55 along with the story line, some original drawings, and more current artwork created for recent spin-offs. It is a worthy 50th anniversary celebration. I especially like Card 13, “Watching from Mars.” Martians kick back with red martinis and watch the destruction of the U.S. capitol on a large-screen TV. Pitchers of that red martini mixture show up later in a 1990’s image of a Martian/human wet t-shirt contest. Where is that Connecticut D.A. when you need him?