I admit that I was hooked at an early age. Society is not to blame, nor the dealer. Only I am responsible. I could have stopped at any time, but after I bought the first packet at the tender age of six, I wanted more. And I still can’t stop. I remember the crinkle of the wax-impregnated paper, the white powder clinging to the hard, pink slab. Most important, though, I remember when I first saw the face of a Martian.
It was the early 1960s. My parents could not afford a fallout shelter for our modest Mountain View tract home. My mother, a Russian immigrant, possessed a distinctly Dostoyevskian view of nuclear war. “If they drop the bomb,” she would often remark, “I will run outside, look up at the plane, throw out my arms and shout ‘hit me!’”
Being a native-born American, I demonstrated more of a survivalist streak. I knew, along with Herman Kahn and Edward Teller, that a nuclear war was survivable. I practiced my drop drills and kept my Civil Defense FALLOUT PROTECTION booklet close at hand. (I still have it today. In fact, I have two copies. I must have filched my sister’s in order to maintain a redundant safety mode.)
Nikita Kruschev scared me, if only because he looked like such an unimpressive little man. The awareness that the so-called “leaders” of nations possessing spacecraft and super-weapons looked less like Raymond Massey and more like Guy Kibbee put a dread of politicians into me early on. Nothing, though, prepared me for the face of true terror.
Mountain View was one of those Californian communities without a distinctive small-town feel. I only remember our home, the Monte Vista Drive-In, and a small shopping center a few blocks away. There was no downtown or main street of which I was aware. The market, however, was modern enough to stock a large array of candy goods, including baseball trading cards. In those days, we called them “bubble gum cards” because each packet of cards was wrapped in wax paper and contained a stick of pink bubble gum so hard that compared to it modern bubble gum has all the consistency of bovine cud. You kids today don’t have that anymore in your Mylar-sealed, hologram-stamped, two-dollar-a-packet trading cards.
My generation had it bare bones. The cards were printed on thick grey-brown cardboard coated on only one side. Check out a drink coaster in your local sports bar. That’s what a gum card felt like! As I later came to understand it, the presence of the gum magically transformed the entire a package into a non-taxable food item. The cards were considered a premium similar to the free prize inside a box of Cracker Jacks. This ingenious and venerable form of tax-evasion was lost on me at the age of six, though I have come to appreciate in our current hypertaxed era.
Now I was not a collector of sports cards. Baseball cards, that is; in those halcyon days, there were no other sports considered worthy of notice. No football cards, no basketball cards, and hockey was something the kids farther north did instead of rumbling. In fact, I don’t think I had ever bought or considered buying gum cards until… until I saw The Face.
I was in the market (nothing super about them in those days) with my mother, passing through the checkout line. There, by the boxful, sat bright packets of gum cards. On the wrapper, though, was not a baseball player but a glaring monster of unimaginable horror. The Face was hardly a face at all. Like a grinning death’s head it gazed with lidless eyes incapable of expression. Instead of black pupils, the deathly white eyes possessed fiery crimson spots at their center. Instead of a hard bone skull, the top of the creature’s head mushroomed into a huge exposed brain three times the size of any mere human’s. On either side of its skeleton jaw hung hideous fleshy things that might have been tendrils or just repulsive dewlaps.
It stared right at me from inside an inverted brandy snifter of a space helmet, its frightening, armored claw reaching toward me with unspeakable menace. In bloody red letters against a bilious yellow background dripped the ominous announcement: MARS ATTACKS!
I instantly fell in love.
Yes, love. In love with the sheer magnitude of the terror. I pestered my mother to buy a packet. It was only a nickel. (Take that, you self-righteous collectors who think a hundred bucks for a Nolan Ryan rookie card is some sort of bargain!) My mother acquiesced, perhaps in some moment of distraction, perhaps because I only said, “May I please buy some gum?” (In those days, mothers could not ask the inevitable modern followup: “Is it sugar-free?” It wasn’t. Nothing was.)
I ripped open the package, chipped the gum away from the top card, crumbled the noxious delicacy in my hand, and threw the pink shards into my mouth. There beneath the waxy impression of the gum slab lay a vision of Hell unparalleled in modern times; matched, perhaps, only by the demented paintings of Hieronymus Bosch. I don’t remember now what particular card it was out of the series of 55. It might have been #1, THE INVASION BEGINS, in which a Martian points toward a departing fleet of flying saucers as thousands of identical big-brained troops march to the ladders. Or it might have been #3, ATTACKING AN ARMY BASE, in which the saucers strike without warning, using blue-white death rays to roast soldiers as they try to escape their burning barracks. Men afire, one already the silhouette of a skeleton in the death ray, one still untouched, firing his carbine futilely against the impenetrable Martian spacecraft.
I like to think, though, that the first card I saw was #11, “DESTROY THE CITY.” In hues of garish yellows, reds, and oranges, a city street is aflame. In the background, a warehouse and a courthouse blaze out of control. A shadow of a figure tries to escape from a crushed and burning car. In the foreground lay a stack of smoldering corpses, some reduced to skeletons, some still half-human. Amidst the fiery devastation are four Martians in their green battle armor with red atmosphere tanks on the back (I’d say they were oxygen tanks, but God only knows what those fiends breathed. Probably carbon monoxide.)
One Martian points to his right while surveying the destruction with emotionless calm. The other three rush toward where he (it?) points, presumably to wipe out the last pockets of resistance. This was no attempt to conquer Earth, seize its industry and wealth, and subjugate its people. This was extermination. This was total destruction. This was the end of the human race.
When faced with the possibility of the annihilation of all mankind and all its works, World War III seemed much easier to handle. Other kids must have felt the same, for my friends and I hoarded, traded, and treasured these beauties with an even greater intensity than any baseball card collector could. After all, how could an action shot of Don Drysdale compete with #19, BURNING FLESH, in which a man stares down in screaming horror as a Martian laser rifle sears everything below his shoulders to charred skeleton.
The cards, for me at least, were a bizarre form of comfort. As bad as the Russians were, they were still human. They would attack us in ways that would leave something standing. (As the son of Russians, I always felt that the Russian people would at some point refuse to obey their slavemasters. I knew I would have. And I’m glad that, after more than three decades, my childhood hunch proved correct.)
After all, the feared World War III would have been just the Russians against the Americans. The rest of the world could crawl out of the ruins and rebuild. What a six-year-old saw in those cards, though, was a vision of doom overwhelmingly complete and total. Cards such as #5, WASHINGTON IN FLAMES, #8, TERROR IN TIMES SQUARE, and #26, THE TIDAL WAVE demonstrated the Biblical proportions of the slaughter.
The Martian fiends employed every possible weapon. The heat rays were a favorite, but they also blasted humanity with frost rays and shrinking rays. They turned enlarging rays on insects, releasing giant flies, spiders, and bugs to prey upon defenseless Earthlings. Sure, some humans fought back. A soldier protecting a woman from a giant green potato bug plunged his bayonet into its arm, releasing a goosh of ruby bug-juice, to no avail. Ants devoured commuter trains and a caterpillar twined up the Eiffel Tower, snapping it in half.
The Martians had still more weapons. They unleashed a giant robot operated by an impassive Martian in the cockpit. They even dropped a spiked claw-shovel out of the bottom of one saucer to scoop up fleeing pedestrians and crush them against brick walls. The monsters’ desire for total obliteration was beyond belief. They sank our ships, blasted our aircraft, burned our cattle, and — as a boy close to my age screamed in horror, fists beating uselessly against Martian armor — they even destroyed a dog!
Worst of all, the murderous creatures watched it all on video! Yes, card #13, WATCHING FROM MARS, displayed naked Martians sitting in recliners, hoisting wine glasses, leisurely observing a wall-sized TV screen as cameras mounted in saucers broadcast aerial scenes of the destruction of Washington, DC. Those unspeakable monsters gleefully cheered safely at home while high-tech weapons pounded a primitive people into blood and rubble. I knew right then that these foul invaders were not only inhuman, they were the antithesis of everything American. No human beings, no creatures with any conscience whatsoever could be so bloodthirstily cruel and insensitive.
And they had color TV, the lucky stiffs!
Most ominously, in such cards as #17, BEAST AND THE BEAUTY, and #21, PRIZE CAPTIVE, the Martians abducted Our Women, generally preferring full-figured blondes. Brunettes, on the other hand, composed the majority of female corpses. Ah, but which fate was worse? As a kid, I didn’t care. These were the mushy scenes. The war was much more interesting.
All the American victims were white. Though the saucers did make one cursory pass through China, no other races seemed to fall victim to the slaughter; this was not an equal opportunity massacre.
In the darkest hour of humanity, though, some hope glimmered, much to my youthful dismay. Flame throwers could destroy the insects. Several soldiers discovered that a bayonet could pierce Martian pressure suits. Then, at card #46, came what even this six-year-old could see was the Big Ripoff Climax.
In spite of the massive worldwide destruction, there somehow still existed military rocket bases all over the planet.
Notwithstanding the destruction of troops, ships, and aircraft, military units were still somehow able to move their ordnance onto rocket ships larger than the Empire State Building (knocked over way back in card #10). They blast off for Mars, reach it in just one card, and immediately begin nuclear saturation bombing of the Red Planet!
Even at six I could recognize a deus ex machina ending, even if I had no name for it. What about the Martian occupation force? Didn’t they put a blockade around Earth to shoot down any ascending rockets? And why couldn’t the Martian defense forces see the Earth troops coming? Every kid my age knew that it took at least six months to reach Mars via a Hohmann “S” orbit. (I did so know it. Any kid in the Space Age who didn’t was obviously wasting his time collecting baseball cards!) How could the aliens be caught unaware? Were the Martians as complacent on the home front as we were? Did their adults scoff at the need for bomb shelters? A lesson, then, to be learned by both sides.
Or perhaps something was rotten in Deep Space.
Did I care? Did I truly care at six that I had been strung along for 80% of a story into thinking that the Martians had been more powerful and thorough than they apparently were?
Nah… By then, I was eager for the Payback. And it came fast and furious. Terran forces nuked Mars, then sent in the paratroopers (thank you, strategic planners); they crashed through the domes of the cities with five-turret tanks. (#51, CRUSHING THE MARTIANS, is the most gory retaliation card and, compositionally, my favorite.) On the penultimate card, a Martian city lays in flaming ruin, dome cracked open, monorail hanging from its track, ash-grey roasted Martian head in the foreground. The Face reposes in grim death, no longer grinning its triumphant skull grin. My beloved alien race had been laid waste.
Card #54, MARS EXPLODES, must have influenced George Lucas; on it, spaceships rocket away from the shattering planet like dandelion seeds hit by the shock wave of a summer storm. For many, it was the glorious end to a nightmare. For me, it signalled the end of mankind’s unity against a common foe. I knew that Earthlings would return to their petty squabbles shortly after #55, COMPLETE CHECKLIST, turned over with the finality of a Tarot card.
I suspect that these Topps bubble gum cards (the company issued them under a pseudonym, Bubbles, Inc.) have had an impact more profound than we can imagine. The MARS ATTACKS! series must have even influenced presidential policy. I remember listening with surprise to President Reagan’s suggestion, years later, that the only threat that would truly unite humanity would be an invasion from space. Was this a warning from the highest levels of power? Should we indeed Keep Watching The Skies?
Mars is a lifeless planet. I know that now. The very space program that I supported brought me this most distressing news.
There are no Martians against which humanity will unite.
All I know now is that after a third of a century, whenever global disaster looms — whether it be Vietnam, Watergate, the greenhouse effect, Mideast war, or post-communism instability — I still occasionally turn to my carefully preserved MARS ATTACKS! collection and gaze at their images, thinking one simple, childlike thought:
I’m still missing five cards from the set and I want them!
My thoughts about Tim Burton’s movie version next time...
Labels: article, Virtual Syndicate