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The ultraviolent 1962 ‘Mars Attacks’ trading cards that inspired the Tim Burton movie

In 1962, an insanely violent trading card series called “Mars Attacks” was painted by the noted pulp novel cover artist Norman Saunders. In sequence, the cards depicted the invasion of Earth (a pretty obvious Cold War allegory) by some just really atrociously violent Martians, who did a lot of shamelessly violent things to our fair planet’s inhabitants both human and animal, and the violent retribution visited upon Mars in violent retaliation.

They were pretty violent.

Even by today’s standards some of these are a little much, but in 1962 parents were freaking the hell out. And children were buying them in droves in response to the parental freakout because somehow parents never figure out how that works. From an informative article on the set’s history on

Cards depicting burning flesh, buxom women and dogs being zapped by aliens are bound to create an uproar, even today. The brainchild of Len Brown and Woody Gelman, this 55-card set conveyed the story of ruthless Martians attacking Earth.

At one point, Topps reportedly made efforts to tone down 13 of the most controversial cards, but after a complaint from a Connecticut district attorney, production was stopped completely. The commotion created by this set must have been somewhat surprising for Brown and Gelman, who previously collaborated on the equally gory 1962 Civil War News set.

Brown wrote the story on the backs of the Mars Attacks cards. Wally Wood and Bob Powell were enlisted to work on the sketches and renowned artist Norman Saunders painted the cards.

So you have some charred soldiers…



Charred corridors of power…

A human freakin’ TORCH...

Some 9/11 PTSD triggers…

Some piles of charred corpses…

... and Martians watching it all on TV and having a laugh.

THEN it starts to get rapey.


Even animals are fair game for charring.


And there’s a whole big long thing with huge insects set loose upon the world to maim and eat us all that I’m not even going to get into here because there are spiders and I have a spider thing, so SCREW THAT. Honestly, between the Martians sending massive spiders after us and zapping that dog, I’d say Earth’s response is justified:



All this lovingly rendered brutality was made, I hasten to stress again, for children in 1962. All that violence made its way into Tim Burton’s 1996 giddy, satirical movie adaptation Mars Attacks!, though little of the card set’s plot remained (no giant spiders, for one thing, which is totally fine of course). It’s an enjoyable movie with lots of fun moments, especially if you’re in a mood for nonstop cartoonish carnage. In an homage to Irwin Allen disaster movies, Burton cast every role with a huge star. One the one hand, not all of them were well suited for an amped up spoof of schlocky B movie tropes, but on the other hand, you get to watch pretty much all of them die, and some of the gruesomeness is quite creative. The film suffers from an overdose of ‘90s cynicism; there’s not a single likeable character, and that grates on the nerves a bit, but if all you’re in it for is watching bug-eyed macrocephalic aliens blow everything up real good, that’s easy enough to overlook. And as 1996 the-aliens-are-fucking-us-up movies go, Mars Attacks, for all its flaws, still kicks Independence Day‘s ass up and down the street.

The card set, meanwhile, continues to have an afterlife. A 50th anniversary set was published in 2012, under the name “Mars Attacks Heritage.” It’s still available, and it’s a bargain—the entire set costs a fraction of what some individual 1962 cards can go for. More recently still, the premise was repurposed as a tabletop miniatures game.

Enjoy Mars Attacks! whittled down to five minutes of essential mayhem.

Posted by Ron Kretsch
10:00 am



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