Mars Attacks Interview w/ Len Brown!
By Kurt Kuersteiner (© 1996 Monsterwax Monster Trading Cards) for The Wrapper Magazine from issue #146
Many myths surround the Mars Attacks card series. The more popular something is, the more people talk about it. But the more folks talk about it, the more the facts get distorted. With all the renewed interest in Mars Attacks (the 1994 card series, the recent movie and currant merchandise) it seems like a good time to go back to the source and hear how it all got started.
The following excerpts were taken from an interview between J.D. King (a writer for Blab magazine) and Len Brown (the anonymous Topps employee who authored Mars Attacks). It was held on June 18th, 1986, in King's home, and was printed the following year in Blab magazine.
Was Mars Attacks your first real job working for Topps? How old were you?
I was hired a few years before Mars Attacks. It was Oct. '59, three weeks before my 18th birthday. I knew Woody Gelman at Topps, and he asked me to work there part-time, while I was going to night school.
...For Mars Attacks, wasn't E.C. a specific influence? On the phone you mentioned that you were trying to sort of do an E.C. comic story in a bubble gum format.
Yeah. Also, I remember cutting out- I can't believe I actually did this- a Wally Wood Weird Science cover where these three boys are hiding behind a rock watching flying saucers land with aliens coming out of them. I cropped this cover to bubble gum card size and showed it to Woody Gelman who ran the department. I said, "Wouldn't stuff like this sell on cards?" He thought I was onto something, that kids would like well-drawn science fiction bubble gum cards. He was every bit as instrumental in Mars Attacks as I was. We'd sit and talk about each scene.
The roughs were drawn by Bob Powell and the finished art was by Norm Saunders, right?
Bob did do the roughs. But then he did tight pencils. He actually laid everything out. Norm would paint on top of it, I guess.
You mean that Saunders didn't do any of the layouts for the series?
Well, basically, they were all laid out by Powell.
That's amazing. Especially since Saunders was a highly prolific illustrator who did a ton of covers for those old pulp magazines from the 1930s and '40s.
He probably could have been a good layout man himself, but we never thought of using Norm that way. I don't know why. Now it seems so obvious because he did do great, dramatic covers.
Also over the phone, you said Wally Wood did some earlier roughs.
Okay, yes. Wally did a first set that never worked out. As great an artist as he was- and I'm a bigger fan of Wally's than I am of Bob's- he just didn't seem to lay it out the way we wanted for "peak drama". And Powell actually made each card look almost like a pulp magazine cover, with the correct angles, etc... And Wally's were these scenes that you'd be looking at that just didn't have this "moment of impact." So we ended up going with Bob. Wally did, however, work out what the Martians would look like. In a conversation with Wally, I brought up the film This Island Earth and its Metaluna Mutants. I told him how much I always liked them. He said, "Oh yeah, they were neat," or something to that affect. So I said, "Do a takeoff on them for the Martians." He did and that became the Martians Powell was given to do.
...Was Mars Attacks the original title for the series?
No, the original title was Attack from Space. But then we felt that a two-word title would have more of an impact than a three-word title. So we changed it to Mars Attacks.
...There were other E.C. artists that have worked for Topps. Who were they and did you have a hand in hiring them?
Well, Woody Gelman brought in Jack Davis before I was working there, I guess. I don't know how Woody latched onto Jack. George Woodbridge worked for us once. Will Elder was up there and did some stuff for us. I can't recall exactly what, though. John Severin did some stuff. Today, George Evans does bubble gum wrappers and illustrations. That may have been it. Most of the time we were looking for "cartoon" artists as opposed to "straight" artists, so it helped to be versatile. Davis could do both and so could Severin. Basil Wolverton also did a number of things for us.
...When Mars Attacks was released, how did you feel about the controversy surrounding it?
I couldn't believe it! Then I felt horrible that it went off sale pretty quickly. I don't think the series was ever distributed nationally, which may be why it's so scarce. We never sold that much of it. Initially what happened was, we printed up a very small amount of cards and test marketed them in a few stores, and they tested really hot. They really sold in the stores! So we figured we were going to have a big hit on our hands and went ahead with it. It didn't ship for too long before we started to get bad press about the series, continually. And Topps was very sensitive about it in those days. They still are.
When we were working on Mars Attacks, the president of Topps saw some of the paintings and thought they were terrible because we had a lot of scantily clad women, like on the covers of those old pulp magazines. The women were always in ripped nighties, and there was plenty of cleavage showing. [Laughter.] So the president had them repainted. Also, we painted more flesh back on some of the skeleton-type pictures. So they toned it down, but it was still pretty violent.
We did three series in about three years that were almost pulp magazine-type serials. Civil War was the first, and that sold very well. So after we realized that there was a market for these "action painting" series, we came up with the science fiction one.
But Civil War didn't tell a story like Mars Attacks.
No, Civil War was just scenes with phony, and I mean phony battles. [Laughter.] On the backs of the cards, we had the "Civil Wars News" and I'd write "news reports" for it. We'd dream up a scene, some gory scene. [Laughter.] I'd find some town in Virginia in a Civil War book, and from there it was dreamland. "April 15th..." [Laughter.] I'm sure kids thought this was the real history. And we had teachers writing us, thanking us for teaching history!... After Mars Attacks, we did one other series called Battle, which was on World War II. And we used that "action painting" technique with Saunders doing the art. It, too, was very violent and very gory.
Saunders did Civil War too, right?
He did some of them. We discovered him very late in that series. Someone else had been painting them who was only doing a fair job. And when Saunders came along and did maybe ten or twelve cards for the series, but they were gorgeous! He did his tightest work! I think he really wanted us as an account. He did incredible, detailed, tiny work. I remember a picture of a fort where you could just count every brick! I mean, it was amazing!
Weren't his original paintings done only about one and one-half times larger than the printed cards?
Yeah, that's what was so amazing about Norm. He was able to paint a great amount of detail in such a small area. And he was quick. He was able to produce about one painting a day.
Did Norm paint the entire Mars Attacks Series?
No. Towards the end we were running late on our deadline, so we pulled in a couple of other artists to help out. Unfortunately, they will always remain anonymous because they weren't staff artists. But Norm did about 80-90% of the cards. (Ed. note: Maurice Blumenfeld is known to have contributed images to that set, and Norm was supposedly instructed to touch them up.)
...Did Topps bother to revise any of the cards after the series started receiving so much static?
I think all of the revisions were made before we ever released the series. If not, then some of the other versions would have certainly resurfaced by now.
What about card #36- "Destroying a Dog"- Which was rumored to have been toned down after its release do to complaints by the ASPCA?
I suspect it was changed before its release. You know, fans make suppositions. Sometimes, one person will talk about something as if it's fact, and a rumor will get started.
In the 7th edition of the Overstreet Comic Book Price Guide, there is a full page ad that states: "Wanted: Fine items such as the rare 56th Mars Attacks Card," and it shows this pitifully rendered card titled "Earth's Retribution." Is this card a counterfeit?
I can assure you there were only 55 cards in the series. Back in those days all our cards were printed in increments of 11 because the printing sheet ran 11 cards across. So we wouldn't have had room to do a 56th card. But people have counterfeited gum cards. There was a counterfeit Pete Rose card printed up and passed off as a Topps baseball card.
How long did Mars Attacks last before the plug was pulled? Months?
Yeah, about five or six months. Back then Topps was a small company and never distributed Mars Attacks nationally. Even today they usually don't go national all at once.
...Do you feel overlooked since your name was never attached to the series?
Not really. I can't say I don't have an ego, because when you wanted to interview me, it made me feel good. I never became particularly famous working at Topps. There's a great deal of anonymity, and it's intentional. The company managers guard the creative staff from the outside world. They don't want competitors knowing who does what.
Some interesting insights, huh? Not all of Brown's remarks are endorsed by Topps. Check out the backs of cards #77-99 of the 1994 re-release for original sketches and Topps official version of events. The differences are few but significant. Special thanks go to Monte Beauchamp for allowing The Wrapper to print excerpts from Blab. (The original piece goes on for 11 illustrated pages.) Thanks also go to Denis Kitchen for his help obtaining permission.
And here's another interview with Len Brown on the subject of Mars Attacks! As well as an article on Norm Saunders.
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