Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Interview with Len Brown

In the summer of 2002, I had the opportunity to conduct a telephone interview with Len Brown, one of the guiding hands behind the 1962 Mars Attacks series of non-sports trading cards released by Topps. The series has gained a reputation over the years for ghoulish depictions of Martians annihilating cities, dogs, soldiers, and civilians, all gleefully painted by Norm Saunders.

Brown was responsible for writing the narrative that appeared on the back of the 55-card set, truly a labor of love. My interview provided quotes for a sidebar story to accompany a piece on M. Night Shyamalan's SIGNS, and I always regretted that more of Brown's comments about the contributions of Wally Wood and Bob Powell and the uproar the cards caused upon first release could never see the light of day.

But now they can. So enjoy this interview from five years back, and try to ignore my open gushing in the telephone presence of one of the movers and shakers behind ... MARS ATTACKS!

--Chris Schillig
January 2007

Chris Schillig: What’s the attraction to this card series, over and above so many others that you worked on for Topps?

Len Brown: I’ve met some folks down here in Texas who I didn’t know before I moved down here, and when they heard that I was involved in Mars Attacks –- and these are guys in their 50s now –- their eyes would light up. ‘My God, you did it?’ It seemed like it just struck a nerve because of its graphic nature, I suppose. There wasn’t anything out like that on trading cards probably for several decades.

There was a series that probably helped inspire this called Horrors of War which came out around 1939, 1940, and it told a story of Japan invading China, basically, and it was incredibly graphic in nature. My boss over at Topps back then was a fella named Woody Gelman –- like a surrogate father to me, basically, a tremendous guy, hired me, I knew him for the rest of his life until he passed away, and I met him when I was about 15.

Anyway, Woody was tremendously influenced by this Horrors of War set. I remember we would look at these cards and they were these scenes of politically incorrect, one after another, you know, kids getting killed, hands being chopped off, just really graphic. It was so graphic that we were told that the Japanese representative went to the Amercian embassy to protest these things. This was in ’39, about a year and a half short of Pearl Harbor. I guess that just the graphic nature, getting into kids seeing these images for the first time. If they turned on the TV they wouldn’t see anything like this, things much more benign.

I was on staff [at Topps] and I was helping the creative director who at that time was Woody Gelman and we would plot and talk about card series. A year before we had done a very similar card set in the same vein that found acceptance because it was based on the Civil War, and it was called Civil War. It was the centennial anniversary of the Civil War when we did that and it was also very graphic, lotta bloodshed. Because of the historical nature of it, it was accepted a lot better. We got letters from teachers thanking us for putting this stuff out –- the complete opposite. We never expected this reaction when we did Mars Attacks. We went from history to science-fiction with the same formula.

CS: Just as graphic as Civil War, but just more fanciful as far as the topic?

LB: Yeah.

CS: Tell me a little bit about any kind of backlash from the Mars Attacks cards.

LB: We actually back then had a file where we saved some of the bad press that was coming in from papers, newspapers. And it didn’t even go nationwide. I’m always surprised that people know about it as much as they do many years later, because we only issued it in the metropolitan area, I remember, in the New York, New Jersey, Connecticut area and I guess we issued some in California because the people I met down here in Texas grew up in California and had bought it there.

We did get letters from people complaining, ‘This is kid’s bubble gum, and I bought a pack of bubble gum for the kids, and I didn’t expect to get this.’ Of course, they were buying a pack of cards that came with a stick of bubble gum, so they weren’t being completely honest about it. But they were kind of shocked by the dog getting blasted by a Martian ray guns, which, you know, seems fairly benign today, but I guess to a 10-year-old kid it could be a little traumatic.

And then we’d even heard that a district attorney of some town up in Connecticut had contacted the president of the company and said, ‘How can you put out something like this?’ And when the president of the company got, I think, the D.A. card it was almost, like, the straw that broke the camel’s back and decided we’re not going to ship this any further. ‘It’s doing OK sales wise but it’s not setting the world on fire and I really think we should pull it.’ And he pulled it.

CS: What was the time frame? How long were these cards on the market?

LB: I would guess probably six months. Six to nine months. In those days, we didn’t issue a thing nationally, we sort of sent it to a specific market, a territory, and then if it looked good we’d roll it out further and further. We were in the process of rolling it out, but I guess, like the president of the company had said, it wasn’t setting the world on fire, it was doing OK, you know. And so, that was the end of Mars Attacks, but it certainly lived on.

CS: Who was the president of the company at that time?

LB: Joel Shorin. He made the call.

CS: You wrote the synopsis and the information on the back of the cards.

LB: The copy I wrote. The card set, though, was certainly plotted with me and Woody Gelman, who was my boss at the time. We would sit down and come up with something we would like to see – you know, a scene. First we had the story, a 55-card story, so we plotted that together. Without Woody almost championing it, this never would have happened. He was the head of the department. Back then I was about 21-years old. He loved science-fiction, I loved science-fiction. When we talked about doing a science-fiction card set, we actually talked about what the theme could be and we came up with stuff like, well ... the Invisible Man was a great concept, and then the Incredible Shrinking Man was a great concept, but we kept coming back to the War of the Worlds theme and we felt that would be the thing to go with.

Woody was a collector. I remember him bringing in those cards and saying, ‘I think we should have some of this. These cards have impact.’ And they do. You’ve probably never seen this thing called ‘Horrors of War.’ You might find it if you did a search on the Internet. I bet you’d find a web page where somebody has posted these pictures.

CS: And those were not a Topps set?

LB: No, it was not Topps. It was a company that I guess Topps eventually bought, years later, but it was not Topps.

CS: The cards originally didn’t even bear the Topps name correct? It was Bubbles -- ?

LB: Bubbles Inc.

CS: Was that done to distance Topps from what they thought might be controversial?

LB: That could have been, yeah. They did this once before. I remember they did this with Elvis Presley. You know, now Elvis Presley is Amercian pie and clean-cut, but when he came out they couldn’t photograph him on television –

CS: Shaking the pelvis and all.

LB: Exactly. And I remember, I heard –- I wasn’t at Topps when we did the Elvis cards –-but one of the executives had told the president of the company, I guess, that ‘Hey, are you guys really doing cards on Elvis Presley. That’s terrible.’ So they called it Bubbles Inc. back then, and I think that was the first time it was used.

CS: Then it was used again on Mars Attacks.

LB: Yeah.

CS: Were you still with Topps in ’89 when there was talk of doing re-releasing the cards?

LB: I was there, sure. I was involved in some of those.

CS: In ’94, they released the set that has art by Zina Saunders and other folks at the end. I guess that was closer to the movie time.

LB: I don’t remember the real reason. We talked about reprinting Mars Attacks for probably the last 15 years before we did it because we discovered this cult fandom that existed around it, and we felt that we’d probably have an audience now. So we actually did paint 11 more cards; we were going to do a set of 66 -– I don’t remember it was that many years, five years went by, between really doing it -– but for some reason, we got the paintings in and we just never moved forward at that point.

CS: Speaking of paintings, describe the art process. I know Wally Wood was involved in some of the layout work, and Bob Powell…

LB: Wally was probably the first fella we called in, who I idolized. He was like one of my favorite comic book artists. And Woody Gelman also thought the guy was terrific, and he had already been doing some work for us. And he used to do these comics for EC Comics called ‘Weird Science, ‘Weird Fantasy,’ and I remember one particular cover had a picture of an alien coming out of a flying saucer with a brain-like entity – a globe – and we always loved that image.

And we had Wally design –- he really designed the Martians for the Topps card set. He was always fairly busy and hard to really line up for a big series, so we then called Bob Powell, who had done a lot of work for us. Bob was a famous comic book artist, he used to draw ‘The Shadow’ and many, many other comics in the 40s and 50s, and Bob did the pencils based on roughs –- almost like really thumbnail sketches, better than stick figures, I don’t want to make it seem that primitive.

We would actually send these rough little sketches that Woody would sketch out, because Woody was an old animator and artist, had a great sense of design. He would send them to Bob Powell, Bob would then do several pencil versions of the scene from different perspectives, then we would choose the one that looked the most dramatic. Like, if we had sent the picture to Bob and it was a martian shooting a dog it would almost be this very rough design of it, and we’d get three or four little sketches back from Bob and then the one we liked the best we’d say, ‘Do a real tight finish on this now’ and he would do a finished pencil.

And from there, that pencil went to the painter, Norm – Zina’s dad, Norm Saunders. So it was a process. I think all the time that was put in on every picture really helped make it have its impact. It was planned and talked about and thought and it just didn’t happen off the top of anyone’s – you know, like at the snap of a finger. We really built it up so that each picture would have as much drama as it could.

CS: I always called these cards the greatest '60s movie that was never made.

LB: Exactly. Really, it was the history of science-fiction movies sort of pulled into one. There’s a point where one card has a giant robot, one card has a shrinking ray, giant insects. We were taking everything out of that genre and doing it as one card set.

CS: What’s your favorite card?

LB: You know, I like the very early ones. There was one card where the Martians are toasting – like, holding up martini glasses, which is pretty ridiculous when you think about it –- you know, their culture designing martini glasses –- and their sort of toasting the launching of their war ships going to the earth. I actually like a lot of those things a lot.

CS: How long did it take to create this series?

LB: Probably under a year, but I would say closer to nine months then six months.

CS: Did the writing go fairly quickly?

LB: The writing would be pretty quick. I don’t remember if I waited until all the paintings were in, but I had a feeling I did not. Probably when groups would come in and they’d be like 1 to 10, I probably would start writing the back of the copy, getting it ready.

CS: What was your involvement with the '94 set that has all the new artwork commissioned at the end?

LB: Well, the earlier 11, I was involved with, and I did work with Earl Norem and some of the other artists. By the time ’94 came around, I was busy with a lot of other stuff, and a fella named Gary Girani pulled a lot of the art together. He had been a staff member at one point and was now working freelance out in California for us.

CS: Were you involved in the comic book series at all?

LB: Yes. I ended up writing about six of the backup stories – I don’t know if you have any of the comics but we used to have flip covers on the early issues.

CS: I’ve got most of them, yeah.

LB: So you’re a fan of Mars Attacks?

CS: Absolutely.

LB: Not just a reporter doing a story.

CS: Exactly. I always try to pick stories I enjoy, then it’s not like work.

LB: That’s terrific. Jim Salicrup, who was our editor back then, had me write like little stories that weren't following the storyline in the bulk part of the book. I think they were like six page stories, and I wrote five or six of them. Little short stories about the Martian invasion. In fact, what we tried to do if I remember correctly, we took some of the cards –- we looked at some of the cards and told the story of a card in a comic. Because there was definitely a story about a dog, a six-page story, told from the dog’s point of view, either in issue two or three, that I wrote. So I enjoyed that, writing those comic book stories.

CS: Was that your first experience in the comic book realm?

LB: No, I’d written comics in the past, not an awful lot of them. I helped develop a series called T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents that Wally Wood drew back in the late '60s. DC just announced they’re reprinting it. In fact, somebody just contacted me to have me give them a little bio – I guess they’re going to write about some of the contributors. If I get payment for reprint rights, that would be really great.

CS: I was excited to hear they’re being reprinted. I’ve never had a chance to peruse them, but I’ve always heard they’re great comics.

LB: You know, I was in the middle of the beginnings of it with Wally, and I always thought it was a little overrated. I think it sold for a coupla years then the company went out of business. But you know it was Wally Wood who I think the world of, it was his first attempt –- I remember when he would come visit Topps I would always say, ‘How come you never do a super hero book?’ and he said, ‘Well, one of these days, one of these days.’ And then this new publishing company contacted Wally and because I’d always said superhero, let’s do a superhero, he contacted me and I wrote, I guess, three of the first four lead stories. But what he did do, which was sort of, almost an embarassment to me at the time although now I kind of laugh, was he named the character -– the character, Dynamo, the lead hero in these T.H.U.N.D.E.R. agents -- he named the alter-ego Len Brown, which is my name. And I remember going to comic book conventions and (people) saying, ‘Well, why’d you name the character after yourself?’ -– you know, almost like the height of egotism, and I consider myself a fairly honest guy, and I was always explaining, ‘Wally did that as a gag,’ you know, thinking I’d appreciate it. But I always found it a little embarassing at the time, but now, I smile and it’s just kind of funny.

CS: Were you satisfied with the movie version [of Mars Attacks]?

LB: It was campier than my taste would run. I would have preferred a combination of Independence Day and Mars Attacks – would have been the perfect invasion movie for me. I just found it a little too campy. It started out great, and then I thought it got a little bit silly. But I could understand why Tim Burton chose to go that way.

CS: I keep hoping somebody will do it again and do it right.

LB: Oh, boy –- thank you. I wish that too, but after being known as a box office disappointment –- I think it only grossed about $35 million…

CS: It opened big and died quick…

LB: Yeah. Word of mouth wasn’t good. I mean, I know some people tell me they genuinely loved it, they thought it was hilarious, they liked the comedy aspect, but …

CS: I would have liked it more if it weren’t called Mars Attacks.

LB: Exactly.

CS: But they did manage to get the images in there –- the giant robot and the shrinking ray.

LB: Yeah, and there were no giant insects. Remember, it opened terrific, where the flaming cows are actually seen. There were a few things that were right off the card. I remember saying ‘This is great!’ as I’m sitting in the theatre, but then it didn’t carry it through all the way.

CS: Len, when did you start working for Topps?\

LB: Started in 1959, I was 18-years-old. I was actually going to college, and I was just working there. Maybe 12 hours, 15 hours a week.

CS: And just never left…

LB: Never left. Retired about two years ago, when we moved down here. May 2000 was the end of my career at Topps.

CS: What is the future of non-sports card images?

LB: They’re just harder to get one of those out these days. I’d like to think they’ll still be coming out another 50 years from now, 25 years from now. But I understand the problems of doing these things. When we put these cards out, back in the early '60s, where I grew up, which was Brooklyn, New York, there’d be a little mom and pop store every second corner. And you could get these cards distributed all over Brooklyn very easily.

Nowadays, those stores really don’t exist too much, and most of the card sales probably come from comic book shops –- although comic book shops these days are not that fond of non-sports cards unless it is Spider-Man or something like that –- or Wal-mart or Target or some of the big chains, the mass merchandisers. Well, number one, I don’t know if they’d put out the real grisly series too easily, Their buyer would probably want to see the whole set before we put it out. Also I think that’s part of the problem: the distribution for cards has changed over the generations and gone that way, to the mass merchandisers, and if they don’t think a kid will know what it is ... a pre-sold concept is a lot easier to put out.

CS: That’s why Spider-Man works and Mars Attacks wouldn’t?

LB: I mean, we’re doing art cards. We’ve done Marvel sets and we’ve done Star Wars sets where we’ve created our own art for them, besides the movie cards. And it almost does seem to need that hook, that it’s a presold commodity, a known license to do it.

That’s not to say. I mean Civil War came out because it was the 100th anniversary of the Civil War. If it was not for Civil War being successful, I don’t know if Mars Attacks would have ever seen the light of day. So is it possible? It’s possible. I wanted to do, before I left, the last few years, because I love working with artists and I love creating cards the way they used to be created, kinda get the company interested in doing Tales from the Bible. You know, typical Bible cards, which can be as violent [as Mars Attacks]. You know, there’s some terrific violence in the Bible.

Mars Attacks images are copyright The Topps Company and are used solely to illustrate points made in the interview.

For more info on Mars Attacks, visit Zelda's Mars Attacks Page.

For more ramblings from Chris Schillig, visit his blog, www.leftofcybercenter.blogspot.com.