Norman Saunders was a cover artist for the pulps. He painted lurid, action-filled scenes for the covers of Eerie Mysteries, Dime Detective, Wild West Weekly, Saucy Movie Tales, True, Saga, and Real. There’s an excellent site devoted to his work, curated by his son.

By the late 1950s, pulp magazines were in rapid retreat. Magazines in general started showing a preference for photographic, rather than painted, cover art. Saunders found himself working for the Topps Baseball Card Company, fixing flaws on trading cards and repainting the players’ uniforms when they changed teams. He made a living at it, but retouching baseball cards was not his calling. In 1961, the anniversary of the American Civil War, Woody Gellman – Topps’ head of product development – decided to produce a non-sports series on the subject. He asked Saunders to paint it, and Len Brown, a 21 year old science fiction fan who wrote the backs of the baseball cards, to come up with the text.

Based on Gellman’s and Brown’s suggestions, a sketch artist would provide an outline in a 4X6 inch frame on an 8X10 illustration board. Topps hired some of the best comic and pulp artists of the day, including Jack Davis, Basil Wolverton, Mort Drucker, John Severin, and Wallace Wood (all veterans of EC and Mad magazine). The sketch artist would deliver the board to Saunders, who painted it – making substantial changes and additions. Brown then provided text, in the form of a “contemporary” newspaper report (most of the battles were fictional). The cards were called Civil War News, and were released in packages of five, together with genuine, authentic Confederate banknotes, reproduced on parchment paper, and a piece of pinkish plastic, which children were expected to chew.

What made Civil War News worth collecting wasn’t the historical information, much of it bogus. It wasn’t even the Confederate banknotes, though walking around with a thick wad of the stuff, hundreds and tens and twenties in fake dollars, certainly made one feel like Paladin. The series’ unique selling point was its total grisliness. Most of the cards captured moments of intense hideousness: cannons exploded, killing their crews; soldiers were bayonetted or impaled on lances; cavalrymen tumbled from their horses onto spikes; wagon wheels crushed wounded men; little boys were hung as spies; sharks and alligators attacked. It was great stuff!

The cards were very popular. According to Saunders’ son, David, there was also a parental backlash, and Topps was flooded with letters of complaint. To mollify its critics, the company announced a card set titled Flags of All Nations. This gave Topps “educational” cover to produce an even more violent and blood-spattered trading card set: Mars Attacks.

Len Brown, inspired by a Weird Science cover, came up with the story (told in short paragraphs on the back of each card). Wallace Wood and Bob Powell sketched the outlines; Norman Saunders painted them. Apparently another artist, Maurice Blumenfield, painted five or ten of the 54 cards, which were then retouched by Saunders.

I’m sure you’re familiar with the plot of the Mars Attacks cards. It can be told quite quickly. Martians, knowing their Red Planet is doomed, mount a flying saucer expeditionary force and invade Earth. The attack focuses on major US cities and the US military, who are quickly routed. The Martians devastate China and England from the air. In the US, they land and engage in search-and-destroy operations. In addition to their deadly heat rays, the Martians deploy a frost ray, a shrinking ray, tidal waves, and giant shovels to clear the streets. Then, in a second attack wave, the Martians release giant insects, which prey on humans and assist in street clearing, a Martian priority. Surviving soldiers battle the insects with flame throwers. In Paris, a giant caterpillar destroys the Eiffel Tower. Amazingly, despite the Martians’ seemingly total dominance, humans are able to mount a worldwide rocket-based counterattack. Our forces atom-bomb the planet, then land and attack a magnificent domed city. Having destroyed it, we depart the planet. Mars explodes.

As an alien invasion story in the War of the Worlds vein, Mars Attacks is quite splendid. One can take issue with a couple of narrative points: are the giant insects strictly necessary? And how does mankind, having been so thoroughly pummeled by the Martians, manage to put together this massive rocket-based comeback? No matter. Mars Attacks compels the viewer the way The Triumph of Death does: as a massive and cohesive vision of the doom of man. Saunders’ invaders even look like Bruegel’s skeletons: skull faces in space suits, with massive, exposed, pulpy brains. (Saunders borrowed David’s Captain Video space helmet, placed a plaster human skull inside it, and used it as a model in his paintings.)

The Mars Attacks cards were a big seller, beloved by science fiction fans and malevolent little boys. One of the most offensive cards was number 36, Destroying a Dog, which as the reader might intuit depicts a space-suited, skull-faced Martian turning his ray gun on a poor pup, while Junior flails hopelessly, saucers hover overhead, and the mailbox burns… According to David Saunders, “The whole family and neighborhood friends loved to pose for Dad. He often dressed us in stage clothing and directed our acting roles under theatrical lighting. Our dog “Cindy” and I got to be zapped into ashes by a merciless Martian. At first Dad painted the scene with the dog roasted into a hideous charred skeleton, but Topps made Dad retouch the dog with a coat of fur. I’ve always wondered if the owner of that painting knew there was a more “x-rated” dog underneath that revision!”

In the late 1970s, in a comic book store in Hollywood, I encountered the original Destroying a Dog illustration board, for sale. The painting was four inches by six, but where the disintegrating dog had once been, was a US soldier – also disintegrating. Perhaps he was Junior’s older brother. Accompanying the painting was a card explaining that the painter had suffered remorse over the Martian animal cruelty, and painted over the pup. So – in the manner of certain Bruegels like The Massacre of Innocents – multiple retouchings changed the image’s impact, and meaning. I wish I had bought that painting. It probably cost more than I could afford, but… According to some sources, Topps had commissioned Saunders to repaint several of the most gruesome cards, so that a new printing of the series could be issued. Then a complaint from a Connecticut district attorney was received. Topps cancelled the second edition, and finally brought out Flags of All Nations.

No children bought these boring cards. But they gave Topps cover for one more grotesque saga: Battle! – a series of violent scenes from the Second World War in which Japanese planes machinegunned drowning airmen, beautiful women were flogged by swarthy Asians, schools were bombed, and Americans set Germans on fire with flame throwers. Like Civil War News, it was historical type stuff. Saunders painted some of the cards.

In 1966, a company called A&BC bought the rights to all three sets and released them in England. The first to come out was Mars Attacks. At the time, I wasn’t interested in trading cards, or bubble gum, but there was something about the images which fascinated an eleven year old boy: their delirium, their strong graphics, their gratuitous sadism. I set about acquiring a full set, buying cards and swapping them with my colleagues. Soon came the backlash. The cards were discussed in the venerable Houses of Parliament. Wertham’s Seduction of the Innocent was cited. Card number 16 was not mentioned. The cards were banned.

However, no system was put in place to return or destroy the corrupting cards, and I was able to make a deal with our local tobacconist to acquire what remained of his stock. Despite the Parliamentary ban, my collection was soon complete, my psychological ruin assured.

In the late 1980s I brought the cards to the attention of the producer John Davison, who had just made a popular ironic SF movie, Robo Cop, and was looking for another one. He got us a development deal with a company called TriStar, and I wrote two drafts of a script. On the title page of the first draft, the studio head, Mike Medavoy, wrote “This film will have huge grosses.” And yet it was not to be. Medavoy felt my scripts weren’t right, and wanted someone else to take a crack at it. He hired an English writer by the name of Martin Amis. I didn’t think this was a good idea, but what did I know? I was just the director, maybe. Or maybe not. Amis turned in a couple of drafts. I didn’t see them. Then he penned a piece in the New Yorker, in which he made fun of how stupid Hollywood studio executives are, with witty portraits of a thinly-disguised Medavoy, and other TriStar execs.

TriStar abandoned the project. A decade later it was picked up by Tim Burton, and made into a film. I don’t think either of us got it right. My scripts were too diffuse: too many stories running in parallel, and a nasty protagonist lifted from a Frederik Pohl short story, Children of the Night, whom actors didn’t want to play. Burton’s Mars Attacks! movie began with a brilliant scene based on card number 22: Burning Cattle. Thereafter, it became a celebrity fest, and suffered from being made at a time when all Hollywood movies had to be filmed in Las Vegas, for reasons unknown. Still, that scene based on card number 22 was key: for the right way to make a Mars Attacks movie would be to respect the cards – to have 54 discrete incidents. No stars. No continuous characters (most of them are swiftly killed). Just 54 two-minute scenes depicting, as the cards do, the war between Mars and Earth.

What a film that would be! And it is still to be made…

(Subsequently, Topps came out with several more Mars Attacks sets, including 2013’s Heritage Invasion, and a new one this year: Mars Attacks Invasion 2026, in which Elon Musk plays the leader of the Martians. There is also a ten-card Deleted Scenes set, featuring new paintings based on unused sketches by Wood and Powell, and captions by Brown, which you can have fun interspersing with your original set. The best of this add-on set, which merges the principal themes and aesthetics of Mars Attacks and Civil War News, is below.


Pablo and I talked on our podcast a couple of weeks ago about flying saucer films. My contribution was to watch EARTH VERSUS THE FLYING SAUCERS! – made in 1956, and more recently colorized. I enjoy colorized films, especially when they’re done well (MY MAN GODFREY and the Russian version of THINGS TO COME) and the work on FLYING SAUCERS was pretty good. And the visual effects were by Ray Harryhausen! Not that they are excellent. The death rays are pretty hokey, and the UFO interiors are absurd. But the flying saucers themselves, seen from without, ain’t bad.

Almost immediately, the MSM jumped aboard our bandwagon and have been babbling about flying saucers like the most avid choir. The official narrative, as Caitlin Johnstone observes, moved rapidly from “these really poor quality video shots of who knows what? are evidence of visitiors from outer space” to “these really poor quality video shots of who knows what? are evidence of Russian and Chinese high-tech drones and aviation and the poor US military need much, much more money to emulate them!”

Why anyone would believe anything the US military, or “anonymous intelligence sources” or their mainstream media flacks told them I cannot say. But the refrain “There must be something to it because it’s the US Air Force who are witnessing these incredible phenomena” is particularly absurd. Though I love flying saucer stories, and will soon write about my favourite, the Mars Attacks bubble gum card series, I don’t think the latest round of very poor quality video of who knows what? means that we have alien visitors. Nor do I believe it’s Russian or Chinese aerobatics. But I know there’s a lot of money to be made, by Lockheed, and Boeing, and Raytheon, and the generals who will soon retire and become high-ranking excutives in those corporations, by hyping “mysterious aerial phenomena” and claiming there’s a flying saucer gap.

As we now know, the original “UFO flap” of the 40s and 50s was a creation of the US Air Force. Why would this one be different? Back in 1994 I wrote an article about this for UFO Magazine. It was also published by the investigative journal The Fourth Decade. Since we are living through a manufactured re-run of the 1950s, with witch hunts and blacklists and anti-Russian propaganda of the most absurd kind, let me reprint a shorter version of that piece here:

System maintenance takes many forms. Could conspiracy theories serve to protect or benefit elite interests? One instance might be the origins of the "Flying Saucer" flap of the late 1940's - where the familiar shadows of certain intelligence figures can be seen.

Some years ago I had lunch with Jim Marrs, writer and lecturer on the JFK assassination. Our conversation was pleasant, familar, paranoid, inspirational -- and astonishing, when he remarked to me that "the real story, the real cover-up, is UFO's." He wrote a book about this, Alien Agenda.

Today, "Psy-Ops" designed to convince us that truth is a lie, and vice versa, are are part of our daily lives and the fabric of official discourse: designed to win elections, prolong wars, distract an already-alienated populace, and maintain business as usual.

To me the UFO business sounds a little like a "Psy-Op" too – partially because the Flying Saucer "scare" of the 1940's - the seed of the UFO reports and beliefs of the present day - was the creation of U.S. military intelligence.

From the mid 1940's, when the sightings began, all significant reports of flying discs and other objects - and the insistance that they "behaved like nothing on earth" - came from members of the U.S. military: first from the Air Force pilots and ground crews, later from the Navy. The "news" of the crashed UFO at Roswell came in the form of an official press release from the Army Air Force Base. George Adamski, the self-proclaimed "alien contactee," was a military man; he is buried at Arlington cemetery. Donald Keyhoe, a prominent Navy Commander, authored the book Flying Saucers Are Real, while Commander R.B. McLaughlin, a head of the Navy guided missile team at White Sands Proving Ground, N.M., wrote an article entlited How Scientists Tracked Flying Saucers for True magazine in March 1950. William Cooper, author of Behold A Pale Horse, claims to have been in Naval Intelligence, and accuses fellow UFOlogists Moore, Shandera and Streiber of being intelligence stooges.     

Whitley Streiber was a science fiction novelist before becoming a UFO celebrity. He shares, no doubt coincidentally, a Navy and science fiction background with Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard - who, legend has it, declared at a science fiction authors' conference in the 40's, "If a man wanted to make himself some real money, he'd get out of science fiction writing and start a religion."

Throughout the 40's, 50's and 60's, the most prominent UFO reports - though regularly debunked by the military - came from the military.   "Non-military" reports came from police, state troopers, "civilian" aviators (often military-trained), even "off-duty" CIA personnel. 

Edward Ruppelt, an Air Force captain assigned to investigate Flying Saucer reports for project Blue Book wrote: "during July 1952 reports of Flying Saucers sighted over Washington D.C. cheated the Democratic National Convention out of headline space." The reports came from Washington National Airport, and from Andrews Air Force Base. In 1957, a huge Saucer "flap" occurred immediately after the Soviet Union launched Sputnik II (Sputnik - which carried a doomed dog into orbit - was considered a scientific triumph for the Russians and a humiliation for the United States. The UFO excitement lessened the Sputnik story's domestic impact).

And who was running the "official" USAF investigation into UFO's, Project Blue Book - along with the allegedly "more secret" parallel investigations, Projects Grudge and Sign? In his Report on Unidentified Flying Objects, Edward Ruppelt writes, 
	"Early in 1951, verbal orders came down from Major General Charles P. Cabell, then Director of Intelligence for Headquarters, U.S. Air Force, to make a study reviewing the UFO situation..."

Anyone who has superficially studied the cast of characters surrounding the JFK assassination will have heard of General Cabell. Former Head of Air Force Intelligence, Charles Cabell was Deputy Director of Intelligence at CIA under Alan Dulles. He was fired, along with Dulles and Richard Bissell, the Director of Plans, following the Bay of Pigs fiasco. A native Texan with extensive business interests in the state, Cabell returned to his home town of Dallas, where his brother Earl was Mayor. A few months before the assassination of the President, Cabell addressed a group of businessmen at the New Orleans Trade Mart, as the guest of a New Orleans booster called Clay Shaw. After the death of JFK, Cabell became an employee of Howard Hughes.

It was popular after the Bay of Pigs failure to debunk Cabell: in Dulles' absence from Washington, Cabell had been left to carry the can. Understandably, the Bay of Pigs vets did not like their nominal leader: they called him "Old Rice and Beans." But Cabell was a military intelligence professional, the highest armed forces rep. in a supposedly civilian organization. It is unlikely that his interest in UFOs was frivolous. As a hard-nosed military man, the General may have desired to debunk them, as Project Blue Book usually did. But as a covert operations specialist, Cabell may have decided that "Flying Discs" would serve as a handy cover for "Black" USAF and CIA aviation projects, or for the recovery of crashed Soviet satellites and space probes. At least once such incident appars to have occurred. James Oberg wrote in Omni (Sept. 1993) that the "crashed UFO" rumor which arose in Western Pennsylvania in 1965 was most probably a "Psy-Op" spun to mask U.S.A.F. recovery of the crashed Soviet Kosmos-96 Venus probe:

	"In the 1960's, U.S. military intelligence agencies interested in enemy technology were eagerly collecting all the Soviet missile and space debris they could find. International law required that debris be 
returned to its country of origin.  But hardware from Kosmos-96, 
with its special missile-warhead shielding, would have been too 
valuable to give back...  What better camouflage than to let people 
think the fallen object was not a Soviet probe but rather a flying 
saucer? ... And if suspicion lingered, why UFO buffs could be 
counted on to maintain the phony cover story..."

In the 1950s, "Skunk Works" aircraft designer Kelly Johnson and CIA's Richard Bissell flew over Groom Lake, a dry lakebed in Nevada, and deemed it a good base for their top-secret, high-altitude spy plane the U-2. A few decades later, UFO true believers would gather on the highway near the USAF "black" base at Groom Lake, Nevada - nicknamed "Dreamland" - convinced that super-secret, alien-engineered craft were being flown out of there.

General Cabell is an enigmatic figure. I’ve seen only one photo of him, head and shoulders, square-jawed, in uniform. I have not seen his autobiography (unlike many contemporaries, Cabell didn't make it into print), although a copy apparently resides in Dallas, with his sons. He seems to have been seriously involved in the U-2 program. According to Michael Bechschloss' Mayday, Cabell may have been behind a covert op to give the Russians secret U-2 information, in order to wreck the Eisenhower/Khruschev Geneva Summit in 1960. After Clay Shaw was found innocent by a New Orleans jury, District Attorney Garrison claimed he was going to start proceedings against Cabell in connection with the JFK hit. But Garrison did nothing: presumably he had no jurisdiction in Texas. (Jim Phalen, a New Orleans reporter who took Clay Shaw's side in the trial, is mentioned in The Report on Unidentified Flying Objects as a friend of author Ruppelt's, calling from Long Beach with "a good Flying Saucer report...")

As Head of Air Force Intelligence, Cabell ran, through intermediaries such as Ruppelt, three differently-classified projects related to UFO's: Blue Book, Sign, and Grudge. This is sometimes cited as evidence that the Air Force "had to be covering something up." But the existence of not one, but three, Air Force investigations, potentially with three different explanations for the same event -- all of them potentially false -- also sugggests a classic intelligence-constructed "hall of mirrors" in which the "real" truth can be hidden, behind several veils, from foreign spies, and also from domestic watchdogs.

I‘ve never seen a UFO. So perhaps I’m too skeptical. But I have heard the sonic book of a once-top-secret USAF SR-1 Blackbird (successor to the U-2) flying low over Managua, Nicaragua, on election day in 1984, in a "Psy-Op" to convince the populace that bombs had begun to fall.

Back then, according to a Gallup Poll, one in seven Americans believed in UFO's, somewhat more than the one in ten who claimed to have spoken personally with the devil.  And since President Clinton's military budget was higher than his predecessors, there were still trillions of dollars to be made from high-tech, ultra-secret aircraft like the B-1B (which President Carter tried to cancel, but could not), the Northrop flying wing B-2, the TR-3A, the SR-75 Penetrator, and the XR-7 "Thunderdart" hypersonic spyplane. (Wild Blue Yonder: Money, Politics & the B-1 Bomber, by Nick Kotz, Princeton University Press, 1988). 

"Psy-Ops" involving UFO's and alien abductions may be the small additional surcharge we must pay, to keep our minds off the real bills.

Keep watching the sky!