Back To Back Fun!
By Kurt Kuersteiner (© 2002 Monsterwax Monster Trading Cards) for The Wrapper Magazine
Looking for a new way to enjoy your card collection? Try turning them over. Yeah, that's right. Try sitting down and READING the text. Don't skim through it or skimp on the details. Take it all in like a fine glass of wine (abeit Bubble Gum flavor). It is, after all, half of the card.
As obvious as this might sound, many collectors are surprised to discover the pleasures of card backs. Maybe it's because they started collecting cards as kids and associate reading with school work. Or maybe today's video games have created a national epidemic of Attention Deficit Disorder. Whatever the reason, collectors often miss 50% of the fun if they don't take a few moments to "read all about it".
I'm amazed how many card veterans don't read the backs. I know one - and I'm sure he knows who he is- who claims he NEVER reads the backs. This guy has a room devoted to cards, has spent thousands of dollars collecting them, and already has many of the best sets in his possession. Yet he's never read the backs.
Forgive the flagrent editorializing, but not taking a moment to enjoy the backs is like- well- it's like buying Golden Age comics and never opening them up to read. Some people actually collect them just for the covers.
Now don't get me wrong: I love the artwork as much as anyone else, but reading the text doesn't take away from this pleasure in the least. It adds to it.
Would you enjoy an air flight movie more by unplugging the earphones and cutting out the sound? Okay, maybe certain movies staring Danny Devito would sound better silent, but overall, something would be missing. That something is what the French would call ambiance... "The totality of motives, patterns or accessories surrounding and enhancing the central motif or design."
Back in the Good Old Days, card backs were FILLED with text, tiny little text trying to squeeze in as much info as possible into a few square inches. Classic sets like Lone Ranger, True Spy Stories, and War Gum were jammed packed with text. Reading these stories is like reading a small drama, yet it takes hardly any time at all to complete. Even Horrors of War, Bowman's amazing 288 card masterpiece, is made up of only 288 paragraphs. That's less than any typical newspaper.
But it's also a hellofa lot more exciting, because cards can jump around to the most dramatic points of history to tell a story. Sometimes, the text is even better than the art. Such is certainly the case with Don't Let It Happen Over Here, a 24 card set from 1938. The artwork is - to put it kindly- crude. But the text... WOW! Here's the back to a card entitled "Communists Shot Like Beast".
"In the Spring of 1937, hundreds of Communists in Peiping, China, were hunted down like wild beasts. When captured- they were bound hand and foot and carried outside the city wall. Thrown face down on the ground in rows. Soldiers walked calmly down the rows shooting bullets into the heads of the helpless wretches. No mercy shown. Those who cried out in fear met a slower death. Their ears were shot off by the soldiers for target practice before they were killed. If one of the bound men lay too calm, he was kicked in the ribs, jeered at and left to be shot later. Many went insane and screamed in terror as they waited their turn to be killed."
Forgetting for a moment that the Communists murdered 28 million of their comrades a few years later, it's easy to see how this text got the reader's blood pumping. The set is filled with equally thrilling tidbits of trivia. Did you know a Nazi coup was expected in Paris in January 1938? The story is edited as tight as the famous baby carriage-on-the-Odessa-steps sequence in Eisenstein's classic Potemkin film. And of course, this series affords plenty of unintentional humor as well. Great yucks you would miss if you only looked at the card fronts. For instance, did you know that "In our country there is no nation that would dare cross our borders. Nor would they do so, because we are friends, like one big family"? (This must have been before Mexican illegals made crossing our borders a national pastime.)
The 50s saw classic examples of compelling card text as well. There was Fight the Red Menace, Jets-Rockets-Spacemen, Wild Man and the ever-popular Scoops. Topps Incorporated was coming into it's stride at that time. They imitated the Bowman style but not to the full extent. Topp's art wasn't as detailed as Bowman's, and neither was their text. Here's a sample from Topp's Bring 'Em Back Alive.
"The ship's cook had just slaughtered a pig. As the squeals and smell of blood reached my untamed black leopard, he tore at his cage. Suddenly, I saw the black cat emerge from his half-demolished prison. As I scrambled for my rifle, the leopard leaped overboard. "A shark," cried Ali, as the ebony jungle citizen sank beneath the waves forever..." Short, but definitely dramatic. It turns a rather dull drawing of a leopard jumping overboard into a real-life tragedy.
Quality text began to decline in the 60s. With Bowman out of the picture, Topps maximized their profits by increasing titles but cutting cost and effort. Artwork was being phased out in favor of photos. Text backs were getting replaced with the dreaded "puzzle backs" or the easy to compile "joke backs". But occasionally, Topps really rose to the occasion, both art-wise and story-wise. Civil War News, Battle, and the immortal Mars Attacks are a few of the most famous examples.
Len Brown revealed years later that many of the supposedly "true stories" posted on the backs of Civil War News were bogus, but some of these tales are very true to life and moving. Having grown up in the South and hearing tales of Union atrocities handed down from those who witnessed them, it was very easy to envision these bloody moments in history unfold around me. Take for instance card #25:
"A mother wept hysterically as she helplessly watched the execution of her 15 year old son, in Eden this morning. The boy, Johnathan Peters, had been found guilty of stealing Federal secret documents and selling them to a Confederate colonel. Shaking with emotion, Johnathan's 6 year old brother Will, had to be dragged off the scaffold by two soldiers. The victim seemed completely undisturbed by his fate and awaited his execution bravely. His apparent coolness brought him respect from the spectators. The inhabitants of Eden felt that the death sentence was unduly harsh, considering the age of the youth. 'Military justice must be served,' an Army official was quoted."
That's as potent as anything from the award winning Ken Burns Civil War documentary. But then again, I'm a little biased: I was almost 6 when I heard the story, and my brother was 15. Whether the details of that account were accurate or not, it captured the essence of an era when even women and children were not safe from the noose. Being accused of spying was all it took to receive a military trial and death at dawn. (Fortunately, this tragic chapter closed with the war, but only after the execution of Mary Seuratt, a woman who's capital offense was being the landlady of John Wilks Booth.)
There were many other poignant tales published by Topps at that time, and not all of them were historical in nature. Some of the more imaginative creations appeared on the backs of monster cards. Both Terror Tales and Outer Limits were quite enjoyable. Terror Tales included stories in the style of Ripley's Believe It or Not. (Don't believe 'em; their definitely fake. But this secret is well disguised with a generous helping of names and dates to lend an air of authenticity. In fact, some of the names were Topps employees!) These same stories were recycled again a couple decades later on the back of Fright Flicks cards (1988). The Outer Limits stories had nothing to do with the TV show. But that didn't stop them from trying to tie in with the photos on the front. Some were quite clever while others were not. Here's "Man from Galaxy X":
"A visitor from a far-off Galaxy explores Earth while his damaged space vehicle is being repaired. The alien watches as the tiny Earth creatures work in peace and harmony, building a community of homes for themselves. Returning to his spaceship, the man from Galaxy X is pleased at having seen such cooperation between the Earthlings. The alien took off in his spaceship, never realizing that he has been watching a colony of ants and not human beings."
Of course, the proud tradition of fun text didn't end in the 60s. Though less frequent, it continued to pop up over and over again in a variety of reincarnations. Almost any Dinosaur set has fascinating facts on the back, and in some cases, fiction. The classic Dinosaur Attacks (1988) blended the ongoing narrative form (used so effectively in Bring 'Em Back Alive and Mars Attacks) with the newspaper facsimile format (of Scoops and Civil War News). It tells an exciting and often funny story of modern day Earth being assaulted by man-eating dinosaurs. Toxic High School (1991) is another famous satire series from Topps that mixes great text with great graphics. The result is an incredible assortment of backs, every bit as artistic as the fronts.
A great number of non-Topps sets also explored the realm of clever writing. Some of my oddball favorites include Crackpots & Visionaries from WFMU (1992), Aliens & Earthlings from Non-Sports Illustrated (1993), and R.I.P. by Kitchen Sink Press (1994). All three claimed to tell true life stories of strange people or weird supernatural situations. Spooky!
One of the least original card sets introduced a completely original card production concept. Classic Pulps by Sperry Mini Mags (1992) contained absolutely no original art or text. It was comprised entirely of old Pulp Science Fiction magazine covers, and excerpts from the stories on the reverse. No research, no commentary. About the only original card in the series is the checklist (which is not at all impressive). However, the super art and engrossing excerpts carry the rest of the series. It makes you want to run out and start collecting classic pulps. Here's a "taste" of card #66.
"The thing came into view!
"Large, much larger than the man- an amorphous mass of blueberry jelly which even now threw out several pseudopods as it rolled forward. A giant amoebae, grown impossibly huge by science unknown to mankind. But that wasn't the worst of it. The thing had eyes!
"A score of them, perhaps. Large, unblinking, they seemed to scrutinize the man. Then the pseudopods flashed out quickly, caught his ankles. Soon the man was immersed up to his knees, screaming, soundlessly.
"The thing climbed, engulfing the man to his waist. Climbed... His legs became hazy, indistinct. Even as he stood there, screaming, he was being digested!"
Eerie music, please...
And speaking of music, collector Ed de Hertel of San Francisco came up with a good idea on how to enhance your card pleasure with sound. He suggests playing appropriate music in the background while viewing them, especially movie sound tracks. It really adds to the experience. Try using Bernard Herman compositions like "Day the Earth Stood Still", Spaghetti Western music like "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly", or James Bond sound tracks. (I'm sure the Star Wars and Star Trek collectors won't need to be told what to play.)
On that (musical) note, it's time to conclude this text. Just remember one thing: If you find yourself getting bored with your collection, before spending more money buying new cards, try spending more time reading the cards you already own. You might be surprised what's been hiding behind them all these years.
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