The “Mars Attacks” Circle of Life

One fateful day in 1962, during a trip to a local corner drugstore on Chicago’s north side, a colorful box of garish trading cards on the counter suddenly caught my eye. Prominently featured on its red and yellow pop-up teaser top was a menacing bug-eyed alien flanked by the faux blood-dripping logo: “Mars Attacks.”

Intrigued, I plunked down my nickel, eagerly tore open a pack, and was immediately mesmerized by the most amazing trading cards I had ever seen. I’m sure I walked home in a near trance, thoroughly absorbing the colorful imagery on the front of the cards, and stories on the card backs. The Topps trading card company, in a brilliant bit of marketing savvy, put teaser images in a small box on the reverse side of every card highlighting the next card in the sequence, so if kids like me didn’t have that card, they knew exactly what they were missing.”

Resistance was futile for my eight-year-old brain. Like some sort of inescapable pop culture black hole, “Mars Attacks” had pulled me in — hook, line and sinker. I somehow scraped up another nickel or two – probably by scrounging pop bottles from area garbage cans so I could cash in on the bottle deposit money – and bought some more. But with duplicates starting to pop up, and more and more exciting teaser images tantalizing my brain, I needed some big money if I ever wanted to complete the set. 

 I don’t recall ever taking paper money out of my mom’s purse before or since that day in 1962, and I’m not even sure how much I took. All I know is after raiding the forbidden vault I went back and bought as many packs as possible so I could complete the entire set. Later, while in my room pouring over my ill-gotten gain, I remember my mom calling out to my sister and I from another part of our apartment asking if we knew anything about some money missing from her purse. My sing-song “No, mom,” was almost reflexive at that point, as past experience had long-since conditioned me to the fact that an admission of guilt meant certain doom.

 In retrospect, I have no idea what happened to that “Mars Attacks” set, as it was gone long before the 1960s came to a close. But the powerful memories those cards left behind was the catalyst for my life-long interest in the space program, Mars, science fiction, and most of all, drawing comics.

 One need not look any further than my sixth-grade compositions folder to see how indelible an influence those cards had. My teacher at the time had us do illustrations for every composition we did, and of the 19 surviving compositions I still have, 12 were science fiction-related and four specifically were about encounters with Martians. Before the sixth grade, I didn’t draw much, and when I did, it was always in the form of stick figures. As you can see from the composition illustration accompanying this essay, that all changed during the 1965-1966 school year.

 

But it wasn’t until about a year later when my interest in drawing really took off after I was bit by the Marvel Comics bug and became a “Marvel Zombie” almost overnight.

 “Mars Attacks” cards became a dim memory at that point, as my world began to revolve around “The Marvel Age of Comics.” Yet, while superheroes were now my big focus, science fiction, space and aliens were never far from my mind, and remained a common theme in my artwork.

 In the early 1970s, I discovered the infamous 1950s comic books published by Entertaining Comics. EC comics were extremely well-crafted, but very edgy for their era, and in 1954, during a series of bipartisan congressional hearings about juvenile delinquency, their lineup of comics received major scrutiny – scrutiny that led to public uproar, and a later demise of every comic book in the EC line-up save one: “Mad Magazine.”

Yet, while many comic book fans I knew in my era gravitated towards EC’s horror comics, I was drawn towards their science fiction titles. I saw my first ECs at the monthly mini-conventions held at the long-since demolished YMCA on Chicago’s near South Side — just outside the Loop. At some point I discovered Wally Wood’s great cover for EC’s “Weird Science” #16 and immediately thought something like, “Hey, that looks very similar to the ‘Mars Attacks’ cards!” — not realizing then that Wood had a hand in the initial design sketches for that trading cards series.

 I made some decent spending money behind a dealers table at those cons, wheeling and dealing the comics I’d been buying for the past half-dozen years with paper route or birthday money. At five bucks a pop for tables, and attendance mushrooming to the hundreds each month because Chicago at that time still did not have a major comic book convention, anyone could be a successful dealer, and even fanzine publishers regularly rented tables to sell their hand-crafted fan publications.

 One mini-con Sunday, I noticed someone had a set of “Mars Attacks” cards for sale — along with a number of duplicates. I worked out a deal where I picked up the set for $50 in trade, and re-discovered those wonderful cards all over again. They inspired me to do a Weird Science/Mars Attacks homage cover just a few years later, in 1977, for a friend’s fanzine, “Unpublished,” — a cover which is also reproduced in this essay.

 At some point during the 1970s, I confessed to my mom about my purse money transgression back in 1962, but she didn’t remember the incident. My older sister, however, said she vividly remembered the card set, and said it gave her nightmares.

 In 1978, I joined the U.S. Air Force, and my comics and collectibles – including my replacement set of “Mars Attacks” cards – went into long-term storage. I wasn’t reunited with my pre-Air Force possessions until the summer of 1982, when I was reassigned from my first duty assignment, RAF Bentwaters, United Kingdom, to Beale Air Force Base, Calif.

 However, things had changed in the four intervening years that my pop culture treasures had gone into storage.  I was now married and had a baby in the house, and money was very tight. In addition, despite the fact we’d been married for more than three years when we arrived at Beale, my wife had never seen what I had in storage. While she knew I liked comics and was a published artist, she panicked when a huge truck pulled up to our modestly-sized home in base housing to deliver my 56 boxes of stuff. Luckily, due to a shortage of smaller on-base housing units, we had been assigned a three-bedroom house rather than our authorized two-bedroom size.

 As I unpacked the boxes, it became clear that I needed to “thin the herd,” collection-wise, and a short time later I again put on my dealer’s hat and started selling my collectibles at comics and card shows in the nearby San Francisco Bay area. One of the casualties of my first show was my replacement set of “Mars Attacks” cards, and its duplicates, which I sold for a considerable amount of money. At that point, the set had not yet been reprinted, and full sets in the condition mine were in were very difficult to find. While it was sad to see that set go, the upside is my wife’s eyes were opened about the value of such collectibles and she never again questioned my hobby-related dealings.

Years passed and “Mars Attacks” faded from my radar again. That all changed in 1994 when Topps reissued the set and published a comic book series. I suddenly had “Mars Attacks” fever again — especially when I found out a big-budget film by Tim Burton was in the works.

 Then I saw the film. Being a purist fan of the card set, I naturally hated it. I was well aware that, for the average filmgoer who knew nothing about origins of “Mars Attacks,” the film probably seemed like a typical quirky, but fun, Burton film. But to me, it was a travesty — a film which borrowed the look of the Martians and their saucers, and threw the rest of the card set universe away. In doing so, Burton lost the entire spirit of the card set, and turned the premise into a silly plaything for his filmmaking ego.

Another thing Burton did that torqued this veteran off was his “hero revisionism.” In the 1962 card set, the militaries of the world were the main hero in the battle against the Martian invasion, and after a grueling fight against seemingly impossible odds, saved the day.  Not so in Burton’s re-boot of the “Mars Attacks” universe. In his version, everyone in the military was a clueless, hapless, ineffective buffoon, and it took a lone, outcast teenager to save the day – a disenfranchised youth who I’ll be money was modeled after Burton himself. Also missing in the film were the giant insects, and the enormous, lumbering robotic weapons of mass destruction (with one fleeting exception). Added was a bunch of weird, Burton-esque nonsense that did nothing to enhance the storyline. In the end, the spirit of the card set wasn’t all that the film lost — it was one of the few Burton motion pictures that lost money at the box office.

About a year or so after the film came out, during an unaccompanied, remote assignment to Osan Air Base, Republic of Korea, I started kicking around the idea of doing a “Mars Attacks” homage drawing — not based on the film, but based on the original card set. I liked the thumbnail concept sketch I came up with, and soon went to work on the drawing. More than 80 hours later, I finished. I featured the illustration in issue #7 of my fanzine “Maelstrom,” published in 1999, and posted it online in succeeding years on various message boards when “Mars Attacks” was the subject of discussion.

Unknown to me, in 2012 my illustration was apparently noticed by “Mars Attacks” fan and venerable comics creator and historian, the late Bhob Stewart, who then shared it with a Topps art editor, Colin Walton, who was working on the 50th anniversary “Mars Attacks Heritage” card set reissue. Walton then sent me an email out of the blue, asking me if I wanted to draw “sketch cards” for Topps’ special commemorative set.

I was floored. At the time, I didn’t know what the hell a sketch card was, but I didn’t care. I didn’t hesitate to say yes. It was serendipity, and I probably would have paid Topps to let me participate. Instead, they were paying me!

 I committed to drawing 100 sketch cards, which are used as collector incentive cards in card sets these days. And while every “hobby box” of 24 packs has one randomly inserted sketch card, in retail boxes, the odds of getting a sketch card is one every 96 packs. The reason sketch cards are so collectible is not only are they scarce compared to other cards in the set, each is a one-of-a-kind piece of original art.

A total of 131 sketch card artists participated in the “Mars Attacks” 50th anniversary set, and after looking through the list of mostly younger illustrators, I’m pretty sure I was the only one in the group who actually bought “Mars Attacks” cards when they were originally released in 1962.

 In June of 2012, I received a check from Topps for the “Mars Attacks” gig. And, so all would be right with the universe, when I cashed it, I pulled a ceremonial $20 bill aside and, in front of the whole family, presented it to my mom in a custom-drawn “Mars Attacks” birthday card for her 80th birthday. Needless to say, we all got a big laugh!

For me, the “Mars Attacks” circle of life was now complete!

Epilogue: Since 2012, I’ve drawn sketch cards for two additional “Mars Attacks” trading card sets for Topps – “Mars Attacks Invasion” in 2013, and “Mars Attacks Occupation” in 2015. I’ve also drawn sketch cards for five different Topps “Star Wars” card sets, and an upcoming comic book-related set for another trading card company. Since that fateful email in 2012, I’ve now created more than 775 original art sketch cards. Not bad for a guy who, just seven years ago, had to Google “sketch cards” to find out what the heck they were!