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Mars Attacks 50th Anniversary Featured on USATODAY.com

Thursday July 26, 2012
Mars Attacks 50th Anniversary Featured on USATODAY.com

The little green men and their chaos-causing ray guns are back.

Topps' original Mars Attacks card series celebrates its 50th anniversary this year with new comics, toys and artwork.

Topps

Topps' original Mars Attacks card series celebrates its 50th anniversary this year with new comics, toys and artwork.

Enlarge

Topps

Topps' original Mars Attacks card series celebrates its 50th anniversary this year with new comics, toys and artwork.
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Mars Attacks, the 1962 Topps trading-card set that introduced kids everywhere to a bunch of violent invading aliens and shocked a whole host of adults with its scenes of gore celebrates its 50th anniversary this year.

And no one's prouder than Len Brown, who as a fresh-faced 21-year-old wrote the stories on the back of each of the 55 cards.

"It does seem to have an afterlife," says Brown, who retired from Topps 12 years ago and moved from New York to a town near Austin.

"I've never been paid to sign my autograph never once. This time I got paid to sign 555 cards. I got a big kick out of that."

Limited-edition signed items are just a ripple in the mass of commemorative Mars Attacks stuff out this year.

John Layman (Chew) is currently writing an all-new Mars Attacks comic book for IDW the first issue had 55 different covers for each card from the original set. And Topps debuted a new line of cards at Comic-Con that included classic imagery and also new art by Russ Walks.

In addition, there are action figures, bobbleheads, plush items, statues, costumes and much more to celebrate the bug-eyed, big-headed Martians that took America by storm 50 years ago.

"The artwork is striking," Brown says of the continued appeal. "The subject matter is so startling. We were doing photorealism for kids of the most graphic sort."

Most youngsters today probably wouldn't think twice about seeing art of an alien blasting down a door and burning up a kid's pet or a guy looking down at his skeleton after getting hit by a malevolent extra-terrestrial. But it was a whole other world in 1962.

Back then, Topps mainly released series of football and baseball cards, and in between seasons would ship assorted non-sports sets. An "action-packed" Civil War set sold really well in 1961, Brown recalls, and it had horror elements such as lancings and blood. "It was a pretty rough series."

Brown, who had started at Topps right after his 18th birthday ("I peaked early," he laughs), and his boss Woody Gelman, who headed the new-products department, both liked sci-fi and wanted to explore a War of the Worlds-type scenario.

The two were inspired by Wally Wood's cover for EC Comics' Weird Science issue 16 from 1952 which featured three kids watching as helmeted aliens deployed from their mothership and, since EC was out of business at the time, hired Wood to create some art for Mars Attacks.

"I idolized Wally Wood. If there was a fire in my house and I had to run out of the house and grab one thing, I'd grab a box I have of EC comics," says Brown, who also brought in Bob Powell and Norm Saunders to finish and create most of the card art.

"We milked each picture," he adds. "Woody and I distinctly had a conversation where each picture should tell a story and should have impact, almost like an old pulp magazine."

But as popular as it became in cult circles, Mars Attacks never really went national Topps issued them regionally in the beginning (under the name Bubbles Inc.), with five-card packs for a nickel, and they were selling well until the newspaper articles started.

"We started to get bad publicity: 'How could you put out such gory trading cards for little kids?' It really frightened the ownership," Brown says. "After shipping it to a few different places around the country, that was the end of it."

The topper? When the president of Topps at the time got an earful from his friend, a district attorney in Connecticut.

Meanwhile, Brown and Gelman were receiving some mail about the cards, the majority of it negative. He remembers one batch of 30 came from a school in Wisconsin as part of what Brown thinks was a class assignment.

"We started to read one letter after another, and they were saying, 'You should put out educational trading cards. We don't like these space cards you're putting out.' One kid wrote, 'P.S. We really love them. Our teacher is making us write this.' We thought that was hysterical. He snuck in the secret to us," Brown remembers.

Mars Attacks didn't make a fortune for Topps, he says, but it made an impact. The next year, the company put out World War II-inspired Battle Cards, which had some blood and guts but pulled in the reins from Mars Attacks.

The company started to get mail again in the 1970s asking for more Mars Attacks cards, and then they were reprinted in the 1990s timed to Tim Burton's inspired 1996 movie Mars Attacks! with Jack Nicholson, Glenn Close and Annette Bening.

Over the years, Brown ran into people who remembered Mars Attacks from their childhood. Soon after moving to Texas, he met a musician who recalled Brown's days as a disc jockey back east, and after finding out his involvement with Mars Attacks, too, the musician waxed on about his memories.

"Even though they frightened the hell out of him, every day he'd buy some more," Brown says.

Of all the new Mars Attacks paraphernalia, the one he's most looking forward to is a new Abrams ComicArts hardcover book out in October, which Brown wrote an introduction for, he says. "I actually got paid again!"


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