Thursday, October 4, 2012

Mars Attacks! An appreciation

First, get the "Ack!  Ack!  Ack!" out of your brain.

I have nothing against the Tim Burton version of Mars Attacks!  It's a hilarious take on the premise and it's all worth it just to see SPOILER Tom Jones save the day.  "I can fly a plane."   Good stuff.

But for me, the true enjoyment of Mars Attacks comes in the kitschy, pulp sci-fi collectible cards that Topps released back in the early 1960s.  It was an intriguing idea in my opinion, an entire narrative arc told through individual cards.  If you collected all of the card sets, then you got the entire story.

And what a story.  Once more, Earth is subject to an invasion by Martians.  Not a terribly new idea, but I am sucker for an "us vs. the aliens" pulpy bit of sci-fi.  Mars Attacks had that sensibility in spades.  The Martians had enormous brains and skull-like facial features.  They wore clear, bubble-like space helmets, and of course they arrived in flying saucers.

The mode of attack, however, for these Martians, was a bit unique.  True, their saucers destroyed buildings and landmarks with laser beams or "death rays" as I believe the cards called them.  But the Martians had other tactics of terror and destruction.  One of their methods of attack was to enlarge normal Earth insects to monstrous size and then control the newly-formed behemoths to due the bidding of Mars.  This builds upon the popular and oh so delicious atomic horror trope of B-movie sci-fi from the time period.  Then there are the robots.  The enormous, Robby-like robots, that the Martians deploy as additional weapons against us.

We fight back, but it's futile at first.  Our conventional land, sea, and air forces aren't much against laser-firing spaceships and monster bugs.  That's why SPOILER we take the fight to Mars.  In wonderful, old-style rocketships that are straight out of Buck Rogers, the story becomes one of "Earth attacks" as "our boys" invade the Red Planet and then nuke it from orbit.  After all, that's the only way to be sure.

What really made all of this work was the painted work of artist Norman Saunders.  It all looked so vivid and real yet with an almost a Norman Rockwell brightness to it.  It might have worked a bit too well.

The cards were derided by parents who cried out with agita at the art's graphic nature.  Blood and gore were prevalent throughout the series.  For example, one card features a US Army soldier carrying a bazooka.  He gets hit by a Martian's laser beam and bursts into flames while screaming.  The caption for the card?  "Human Torch." Flame on!

There were also sexual overtones to the cards.  Oftentimes, women were depicted in situations of capture or distress, often with their clothing shredded.  All of this caused Topps to halt production of the cards, partly due to pressure from a Connecticut district attorney.

We've come upon the 50th anniversary of the Mars Attacks cards this year.  It's a milestone in science fiction.  Various reissues and celebrations are going on, such as a new comic book line from IDW and Wired is holding a contest giveaway for a hardcover collection of all the art from the cards.  The site retroCRUSH has a nice gallery of all the cards.

Good thing the landing of the Curiosity rover proved there are no Martians on Mars.

Or did it?

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  1. On Facebook, DePaul Joe said: "Do you remember the Dinosaur Attack cards? Same basic concept, except a science experiment goes awry and brings dinosaurs into the modern world, and bloody carnage ensues. They came out with them when we were in grammar school. Wish I still had those."

  2. I certainly do remember them! I didn't like them quite as much as Mars Attacks, but they were cool in their own right. Maybe I'll need to do post on them as well.