Collecting Cards From Uranus!
By Kurt Kuersteiner ©2007Monsterwax Monster Trading Cards for The Wrapper Magazine
The 1980s was a busy decade for cards. Topps still produced some excellent art sets like Garbage Pail Kids and Dinosaurs Attack . There were a growing number of TV and movie photo sets as well. It was the last decade before everyone and their brother started making and collecting cards (which lead to the bubble bursting in the 1990s). However, creating your own card set back in the 1980s was uncommon. Fortunately, that didn't stop one collector from doing it. His name was Bob Ting, and he first wrote about his desire to make a parody of Mars Attacks way back in Wrapper issue #44 (July 1984).
Two years later, complete sets of Uranus Strikes hit the market. Then in 1987, packs were made and sold in boxes, officially designating the series as trading cards. It's been twenty years since those purple packs first invaded the USA. Having always admired the series, I decided it was time to track down the man responsible...
Easier said than done! Do you know how many Tings there are in the US phone books? The Chinese only have 100 approved last names. (An emperor decreed it back in the Song dynasty nearly a thousand years ago, and for the most part, it's stuck ever since.) Ting is the #48th most common name out of that 100. And Bob is one of the most common American first names! So you can imagine how many wrong numbers I dialed before throwing in the towel with frustration.
Months passed, then one day, I ran across an old Wrapper ad for Uranus Strikes and noticed the California address where Ting used to live. Lucky for me, he was still living in the same town. (It's just another reason to collect and read those old Wrapper issues!)
When I finally reached Ting, he was surprised I went through so much effort to track him down , or that I wanted to interview him about Uranus Strikes. He was a little reluctant at first, but once we started talking, the memories began flowing back-- and so did his excitement for the series.
I asked Ting about his inspiration for the series. "Uranus Strikes is clearly a parody of Mars Attacks, which is my favorite set," he answered. "Other than parodying specific cards and the storyline, the characters have nothing to do with the Martians. I remember doing a number of sketches, and for some reason, I wanted (to combine) a horse with a fish. And it sort of evolved from there. I wanted to get some kind of brain matter in there. I also wanted to keep some kind of buggy-eyes, your typical alien."
Ting fondly remembers Mars Attacks from his youth. His parents ran a small mom and pop grocery store, and each day, after dinner, he would go there to work. "I remember we had a gumball machine where you put in a penny for a gumball, and there were two windows on the side that would distribute a card with our gum. And that's where I was introduced to Mars Attacks. They were fantastic gory cards that really caught my eye. My brothers also collected Civil War News cards by the same illustrator (Norm Saunders) and that just stuck with me.
"It wasn't until many, many years later when I happened to see them again in a card shop and all those memories came back. I got back into them and tried to acquire as set, subscribing to The Wrapper and seeing what else was around in the market... I ended up photographing all 55 cards and mounting them in a frame, like an uncut sheet... but I tucked my own set far away from the sunlight."
Ting's enthusiasm for Mars Attacks didn't stop there. He decided to parody it, and he managed to not only begin the project, but finish it all on his own. He painted the 36 pieces of artwork using Acrylics. Like many artists, he is critical of his own work. "I think it fell short of what I wanted. I wanted the illustrations to be stronger. I think I did an okay job, but I think there was a lot of room for improvement... I think I personally held back on making the set too violent, but when I was looking at some of the other cards sets that were coming out at the same time, my set was probably a little sedate. Because it was more on the humorous side, I probably could have pushed it further." Sedate? Many fans would dispute that. 25 of the 36 cards feature blood, death, or violence!
Ting also mentioned one of his biggest disappointments with the cards was the actual card stock. He had them printed in Hong Kong, but the finished cards that the printer sent were much thinner than the thick samples he had ordered from. "That was a major disappointment for me. I wanted something hefty, to feel like the cards from back when I was a kid, and you used to stick them in your bicycle spokes."
On the positive side, Ting was pleasantly surprised to find out that the boxes required no glue, but fit together and locked into place using tabs and such. "They came up with a brilliant tabs & fold design that I've never seen in other boxes." Each box contained 48 packs with six cards per pack.
Ting downplays the success of his series. "If it weren't for the price guide, I doubt if anyone would even remember this thing." I would personally disagree, although it's true that I first found out about the series in the 1990 Chris Benjamin Price Guide. But once I saw it in there and read Benjamin's glowing review of it, I knew I had to get one for myself. The only problem was how? I didn't know about The Wrapper back then, and eBay didn't exist. So I called card shop after card shop until I finally tracked a set down in San Jose. I drove the hour or so to get there and bought it on the spot. I wasn't disappointed with my purchase, either. The four-armed aliens were really cool, and the tongue-in-cheek humor was pretty funny, especially when juxtaposed with the bloody violence. The backs included stories, puzzles and photos of upcoming cards, just like Mars Attacks. It was a great addition to the actual Topps set (of which I had a reprint of at that time).
Older Wrapper readers may remember how Mark Macaluso raved about this series. I always assumed Macaluso had been involved in producing the boxes. (He had done that with a few other series.) But such was not the case with Uranus Strikes. Ting designed and produced everything himself from A to Z.
"The whole thing about the set itself was just to have fun," Ting recalls. "I was trying to think about all the things I liked as a kid. I liked sending in for premiums; box tops, you know, things like that. So I thought since I was responsible for producing this entire set, I'd have some fun and make them little give-aways.
"Originally I had produced, I think it was 4,000 sets," Ting continues, "I tried selling them originally as complete sets through The Wrapper. After a while, sales dwindled as everyone who wanted one got one. So I realized to sell the remainder of what I had, I had to sell smaller mixed packs in a display box, which I could sell to specialty stores. When I did that, I decided to insert coupons which they could send back to me to get premium prizes. They were cheap things. There were a number of coupons with different numbers for different prizes, like a memo pad that said 'A Memo from Uranus.'"
Ting went on to explain that other prizes included a metal Uranus badge, a Uranus T-shirt, a 3-D poster, a framed unfolded wrapper, an 8 x 10 inch color print from the box cover, or even a ceramic bank! (It featured the image of the GPK Uranus alien found on card #36.)
"Because I was a designer and I had worked with printers in my line of business, I used my connections to print up some of these things. Except it still wasn't cheap! The 3-D posters --I had to print hundreds of them! And we didn't even know if the 3-D effect worked until it actually came off the press!" (He needn't have worried. The poster turned out fine and the 3-D effect was perfect.)
Ting explained the prize redemptions: "If you ever sent in one of the coupons, you didn't just get back an item, you also got this little piece of paper that explained the story. I really got carried away. I probably should have done less items."
Reflecting on the overall project, Ting says, "It's certainly not something that would allow you to quit your day job. I remember when doing this set, from start to finish, it took me three years. I remember my wife coming by late at night while I was painting and she's like, 'I'm bored.' But every night, I'm sitting in my room painting! So there's that period where there seemed to be a lot of night time work."
I asked Ting if he ever heard anything back from Topps about his set. He doubted they ever even heard of it, but even if they did, he didn't expect any problems. "I didn't want it to be a Mars Attacks 2 . It wasn't like a Mad magazine parody using the same Martian characters and creating a different scenario. I wanted to create something new, but obviously, it kind of echoes Mars Attacks."
Some cards echo specific images from the Topps set, most notably the "Prize Captive" card (#13). Only in Ting's spoof, it's a circus fat lady who grabs the alien! "That one wasn't too politically correct by today's standards", Ting admits, laughing. Another fun homage is card #16, where the fleas are enlarged into giant blood sucking monsters! "I wanted to do at least one card that referred to the giant bugs, because they did so many of the giant bugs in the original Mars Attacks. " (There was also card #17, Humongous Insects.)
Uranus Strikes includes many pop cultural references, including a card that spoofs the famous Jaws poster (#12), and a slew of other cultural icons, including the Bowery Kids (#15), James Bond (#24), Ed Sullivan (#9), Sergeant Bilko (#20), Bullwinkle's Boris and Natasha (#14), Norman Rockwell (#29), Mickey Mouse (#10), and even one with the biggest celebrity of all, Wrapper editor Les Davis (card #4, where he's getting attacked by a flying saucer).
During the time of Uranus Strikes, Ting worked in Marketing. Today, he designs art for the game industry and enjoys his job. "This is essentially a lot of fun because you're creating entertainment, and this goes back to what I was trying to do with the card set. I was trying to- without being part of a huge staff or big machine- create entertainment so that people would enjoy it and be willing to fork out a couple of bucks for it."
Like many of the card manufacturers of the past, Ting may have originally charged just a few dollars, but that is no longer the case in today's secondary market. A complete set of Uranus Strikes currently retails for $45, and the unopened boxes book for $250!
Looking back at the 1980s, it would be no exaggeration to say Uranus Strikes was one of the most creative card sets of that decade. Granted, it wasn't painted by Norm Saunders and it wasn't sold with gum, but it had eye-catching art, a clever story, and very funny gags. It also does what all the best card sets do: It makes you want to flip over the cards and learn more. The fact that this was the first and only series from just one individual working at home is all the more amazing. It's a testament to how good cards (like Mars Attacks) continue to inspire and influence future generations of fans. Perhaps Uranus Strikes will do the same!
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