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.