"ACK! ACK! ACK!"
If that sound conjures up the image of a large-brained alien pointing a ray gun at humanity then congratulations, you have had the good fortune of seeing Mars Attacks, the 1996 film from Beetlejuice director Tim Burton. However, we're not here to talk about Burton's star-studded movie that bombed at the office and with critics; the alien invasion movie that won out that year was Independence Day.
No, we want to talk about the superior Topps trading card game upon which the film was based. Unveiled in 1962, Mars Attacks consisted of 55 collectible cards depicting a Martian invasion of the Earth. But this wasn't the hokey, man-in-a-rubber-suit type story made popular by the popular sci-fi B-movies of the 1950s and '60s. The pictures and events shown on the Mars Attacks cards were graphic, violent, and sadistic. Humans and animals alike were murdered with impunity, their flesh roasted as if their attackers were preparing for a Martian barbecue.
Who do we have to thank for such indelible imagery? That would be the men of the Topps Product Development at the time, Woody Gelman and Len Brown. Gelman hired Brown when the latter was just an 18-year-old kid from Brooklyn. Brown would go on to work for the company for more than 40 years before retiring in 2000 to move to Austin, Texas and start his own radio show. At 76, he is the only living member of the original duo as Gelman sadly passed away in 1978.
A moderate success in the 1960s, Mars Attacks has endured all these years later with some of the original cards selling for upwards of $3,000 at auction. Further sets of cards and merchandise are still being made from the property, which is well over half a century old.
In honor of Topps turning 80 this year, SYFY WIRE rang up Len Brown in his Texas home to talk all about his iconic trading cards, from their inception and legacy to that time he tried to nab a cameo in Burton's movie based on his creation.
So, to start off: How did the idea for Mars Attacks come about at Topps and what was your responsibility for the brand?
Len Brown: Back in those days, there was a lot of science fiction movies being made. It started [with] Woody Gelman, who ran the new product development and I worked for him. We talked about maybe doing a horror series of trading cards because horror comics were really big a few years prior, then they all got banned, the EC Stuff all got banned. We thought, 'Hey, maybe we can get away with doing a horror series,' but management was a little nervous when we told them what we were doing, so instead, we felt like, 'Well, science fiction's been big' [like] War of the Worlds.
The movie that inspired me a lot when I was growing up was a Universal Picture that actually had a creature that [was] very Mars Attacks-looking, sort of a big brain head: This Island Earth. It was one of the early color films made by Universal [in 1955] and I remember really loving it. So, we were trying to figure what a Martian should look like and I showed them a picture from one of the magazines that were coming out, Famous Monsters of Filmland or something like that. I showed it to Woody and he liked it and we had some sketches made up about doing a possible series of cards on a Martian invasion.
Can you talk a little about the process of coming up with the story with Woody Gelman?
Woody was, besides being the nicest man I ever met in my life, a kind-hearted soul and a great boss, he was also a very creative guy and came up with a lot of ideas. He believed that each card should look like a movie poster. You at the card and there's some story being told without reading the back of the card and see what's happening. [He wanted] something that would make some impact when you looked at the card. So, we would try to come up with a scene of tension, high drama, and we sat around and brainstormed a lot of those ideas.
Then we brought in a couple of artists to help who were also pretty good at brainstorming, people from the comic field. One was Bob Powell who had done a lot of work for Topps in the past; he was a pretty respected comic book artist in the '40s and '50s. And then Wally Wood gave [us] a hand also. It was just great fun to work on, I remember looking forward on Sunday night, knowing I'd be going into the Topps office on Monday morning and working on this stuff again.
What was the justification for having such graphic content on the cards?
Well, we had done a few sets that we had created ourselves. When I came to Topps, [the company] was doing some creation of their own subject matter and we knew MAD Magazine was a very popular comic book and then a magazine. We did a bunch of funny humor cards with a bite to it, we had a Jack Davis series — he was a famous MAD artist, or at least he was to our group. We had him do a funny Valentine's series of cards, but they were nasty Valentines.
On the front, it would say "You oughta be in pictures." It would show maybe a movie camera and somebody posing in front of [the camera] and then when you flipped the card over, the punchline was "because you look so much like Frankenstein!" We always felt visuals were important, why would kids buy trading cards if they didn't wanna collect them and enjoy the visuals.
So, we tried to get down to a kid level and we both felt we knew what kids liked … We put out enough [sets] that sold well and we had a certain amount of freedom in product development to pretty much do what we wanted to do, but we did have to get permission from the president of the company who was very conscious about getting very bad press for the company.
Do have a favorite card or part of the Mars Attacks story that you love the most?
It's funny, I moved to Austin because of the music. One of the people that I got to know was a pretty popular local artist and when he heard that had I worked for Topps Chewing Gum, he said "Well, I remember a set I collected as a kid. Boy, did I love it!" He's about 10 years younger than I am, but he remembered Mars Attacks. This was in 2000 and the one that he brought up and one that so many people bring up is the card where a dog is getting blasted by a ray gun from a Martian.
That's a tough thing for a young kid to look at and not pull back in almost abject horror, but being fascinated by it at the same time anyway. That always seemed like a very notable one, but there were so many good scenes that we felt we brought to the series, there's really not just one. We were looking for shock impact and Woody said "They should look like movie posters" and catch the attention of anyone mildly interested in the subject matter.
What were your thoughts on the Tim Burton movie based on the game and were you consulted at all for it?
I tried to get involved, wrote a note to Tim Burton's office. Tops was very excited to hear a [film was being made about a] property that they created as a little trading card set and was only moderately popular — it did not make a fortune in its initial release. We were very excited about it. But I didn't really care for the movie that much. It started out where they actually depicted a scene that was on the card, which was called “Burning Cattle” where the cows had been set on fire by Martian ray guns … And that was in the movie and I remember when it opened I was thinking "Wow! This is gonna be great!"
But then, it just got to be, to me, a comedy, it didn't take itself that seriously and obviously, that's what Tim Burton wanted. I had written him a letter, a note, saying I was the co-creator of Mars Attacks. [I think] I asked him in that letter if I could appear in a scene if I came down, thinking it would be really neat. He never did answer it, I called his office, I spoke to his secretary, and she remembered my letter coming in and she said Tim didn't get it. He never responded in any way to anyone at Topps.
You mentioned the musician who remembered the burning dog card. Have you had any memorable interactions with fans over the series throughout the years?
LB: Oh, a lot, especially because Topps ultimately got into comic books and we'd go to the comic conventions. We did like 50 issues of [The] X-Files as a comic book and it was pretty successful for a while. When I'd go to comic conventions, the fans being fans, knew that Topps had done Mars Attacks and it had its cult following and this [was] in the '90s, a period [when] we were actually putting out comics and attending the comic conventions. They would ask about a lot of their favorite cards. They would love to talk about it and it was fun, I'd be signing autographs and comic book covers for them.
What is your proudest contribution to Mars Attacks and what do you think the biggest legacy of the card game is?
Well, its longevity. I guess we never expected when we were working on it in the early '60s that [there'd] still be a Mars Attacks product coming out 40, 50 years later. We next expected the long-term—when we did a trading card set, it either sold or didn't sell. If it sold really well, we might do a second series, which we did on some of our '50s sets that did well.
We had a series called Ugly Stickers that was very, very successful and really far outsold Mars Attacks. Ugly Stickers was a huge hit and it was mainly the drawings of an artist who hired from the outside named Basil Wolverton, he was a very talented artist who was very good at creating just creatures, scary-looking, odd-looking, humorous-looking creatures.
Have you worked on any sci-fi, fantasy, or horror properties other than Mars Attacks? If so, what are they?
Besides creating our own property like a Mars Attacks, we would license Star Wars and probably [released] more series of Star Wars than any other property … I can't tell you how many Star Wars sets we'd done based on a particular film. That was such a phenomenon when it came out in '77. We licensed Alien, we did Alien cards, the original movie and probably the second one also. And Star Wars was still involved, even today. Now that Disney owns it and they're putting out one or two a year, which seems a little ridiculous by the old way of doing things, but they're making money for Disney or they wouldn't still be doing it or putting out cards at the same time of the latest motion picture.
We always felt [that] cards were primarily a boys' product, but girls occasionally would latch on to something too. They might've bought funny Valentine's or something like that back in the '50s and '60s. We [also] had a lot of success with teenage idols as a card set. One of the biggest sets we ever did was in the '80s when Michael Jackson came on the scene. We got the rights to Michael Jackson cards and that was huge.
We tended to look for the big blockbuster science fiction stuff. We felt there was a market for that. There still seems to be.
How do you feel about the original Mars Attacks cards becoming such coveted rarities and selling for upwards of $3,000 at auction in some cases?
I gotta say I'm sort of proud about it. I feel, between Woody and I, it was part of our legacy in a way … We're still putting out reprints of the original series, they're brainstorming new subjects [to keep it going] … I'm happy it's still around in the form it is. Topps seems to realize what they've got and we certainly didn't realize it when we created it.
Continue on to the gallery below to see some of the original cards!