Civil War News - Interview with Len Brown
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An Interview with Len Brown - April 1998

{Paul} Hello fans, enthusiasts and collectors of the Civil War News set of trading cards [by Topps]. I'm here with Mr. Len Brown, writer and author who was involved with their creation back in the early 1960's. Good evening, Len.

{Len} Pleased to be here with you.

{Paul} Lot's of people out there have collected these cards over the years. Collecting them is still a big hobby. I'm sure everyone is very interested in hearing from one of the creators of that set.

{Len} It was a very exciting project for me to work on.

{Paul} I suppose, Len, let's start off with some basic background on yourself. Where do you work now, what do you do, are you married - have any children. Stuff like that.

{Len} Believe it or not, I am still with Topps, 38 years since the day I started, while going to college. I am married now, living outside of Princeton New Jersey.

{Paul} Has Topps changed much in the years you've worked for them? Do they still produce non-sports cards in the manner of the Civil War News (CWN) set?

{Len} I am still involved with doing trading cards at Topps, though currently we aren't doing nearly as many sets as we used to. We have scaled down the activity. Unfortunately, mostly to cards based on movies and television shows. A terrible philosophy has emerged in the last year or two.... one which I dislike and don't subscribe to...but many of the folks in marketing compare trading cards to trolley cars and feel that they are a thing of the past.

{Paul} If it's not breaking any company secrets, can you tell us what is on the 'drawing board'?

{Len} For 1998, we only have two more sets on the schedule. I hope that can change as we move forward. We are currently developing a series based on The X-Files motion picture and plan a second series of Xena-Warrior Princess Cards. Currently the idea of producing an all art card series isn't in favor, primarily because of the high cost to develop an all painted series.

{Paul} What is the principle cost in creating art-type sets of cards? The planning, painting, printing ......?

{Len} The top illustrators are able to command high prices for their artwork. If we were to do a series of 60 trading cards, we would have to hire a writer/editor. He would work with the artists. All told, a small series like that would cost at a minimum of $35,000 just for the pre-press. I haven't any idea what the printing and manufacturing costs, but I would guess to get a minimal run of cards, Topps would have to lay out $100,000. You know, in those days we paid $50 for each painting so times have definitely changed.

{Paul} Wow, expensive. Do the sets of cards pay for all the costs involved? Nowadays, card collecting is big business. When I was young, we collected them for the fun of it. Today, people collect as an investment.

{Len} I have always felt that once cards became more expensive than a candy bar (and they are currently 2 to 4 times more expensive than a Milky Way), the state of collecting changed. No longer would a kid stop off at a store for a snack after school and buy a chocolate bar and a pack of cards. It has come too expensive.

{Paul} Can you tell us a little bit about the production crew for the CWN set in the early 60's? Who worked on the cards and in what capacity? Was each individual card a group project that all worked on, or did each member of the group have certain tasks/cards which they were responsible for?

{Len} The Civil War cards were edited by Woody Gelman. He was my boss and one of the most wonderful human beings I have ever met. We worked out of The New Product Development Department at Topps. There were just three of us plus a secretary. Topps was a pretty small company in those days. Basically Woody and I planned each picture together and then we sent a rough sketch (which Woody would draw) to a pencil comic book artist....a fellow named Bob Powell who was very prolific in those days. Bob drew 'The Shadow' comic book for years as well as many horror comics in the 1950's. Besides Woody Gelman, a fellow named Stan Hart worked in New Products. Stan didn't get that involved in the individual cards the way Woody and I did. Interestingly to me, Civil War Cards (and that's the name we called them----The Civil War News came about because we decided to chronicle the event via a newspaper journal on the back of each card.) Years earlier Topps had produced a series of cards called Scoop and each card back used a real newspaper logo. But the papers did not appreciate that, so when we did the newspapers for Civil War, we just used a generic banner called CIVIL WAR NEWS. It was never meant to be the name of the card series, but collectors have certainly picked up on that. The wrappers and boxes never called it Civil War News. Bob Powell would do quick sketches.... 2 or 3 for each scene that Woody and I would describe. When he sent them back to us, we would select the one we thought was most dramatic and then he would do a very tight rendering of that scene on illustration board. The size was 5" X 7". Then the pencil illustration was sent to a painter and the artist would paint right on top of the light pencil drawing. Most of the series was painted by an artist that Topps had used for many years---His name was Maurice Blumenfeld. He was very slow and as we had a schedule to meet, we hired another artist to help finish the series. That was Norm Saunders and the beginning of a very successful relationship between Norm and Topps.

{Paul} So then as I understand it, you and Woody would arrive at a concept for each card, send it to Bob Powell for penciling, then the card would go to the painters .... first Maurice, then later Maurice and Norm Saunders for finishing.

{Len} That was the way it worked. It was a long process, with a series being worked on for perhaps 6 months. In those days, there weren't tough deadlines. When a series was finished, we would then print it. No real corporate planning or structure. And best of all, no one really got in our hair. No one looked over our shoulders.

{Paul} Did Topps regard the Civil War News set of cards a 'success'. Were they happy with sales?

{Len} Yes, the cards were considered very successful. I have no idea how many boxes or cases were produced. In those days, if you got re-orders after the original shipment, that was considered very successful. And because of the success of Civil War Cards, we were then asked to produce another series of trading cards the following year---that request brought the world Mars Attacks.

{Paul} You indicated that the CWN set took you about six months to complete from beginning to end. When did your team start working on the cards?

{Len} I would think sometime in 1961 because it was the centennial of the Civil War. By the way, when we spoke to children who were buying the cards, we would find out that they really loved the Confederate Money that was inserted in every pack.

{Paul} You know, the cards were very graphic and violent for their day. My mom made me throw a couple of them away. The memory of certain ones still haunts various people even today. Was the violent nature of the cards intentional (to evoke a reaction) or was it just a couple of young guys looking to make the set "action packed"?

{Len} Woody was a great editor and had a good feel for what was commercial. He had previously been an animator for Paramount Pictures and wrote and drew comic books before coming to Topps. He had a great instinct for what kids liked. And Woody felt that a straight educational series of cards based on The Civil War would not "turn on" the kids. He remembered collecting a series of cards in the 1930's called HORRORS OF WAR.

{Paul} You had, then, an idea of the indelible impression the set was going to have. Obviously to the point that 35 years later the images still are vividly remembered by those who collected the set.

{Len} He felt that Horrors of War made a big impact because of the graphic violence that was shown. Woody felt that boys would react strongly if we did a combination Civil War Chronicle with the feel of those old Horrors of War cards. We hoped that they would sell....we just tried to make them appealing to 10 year old boys and up. We suspected that they would find the gore pretty exciting and would want to collect the entire series. But we NEVER imagined that these cards would be collected years and years in the future. I stand corrected...I have a feeling Woody would have thought they would be collected years later, because he knew how The Horrors of War and early trading cards were still being sought after decades later. I just enjoyed working on the cards, but I thought it was kind of "here today...gone tomorrow." WRONG!!! By the way, are you familiar with the 3rd card set in the Norm Saunders trilogy? A year after Mars Attacks we did BATTLE (World War II).

{Paul} No, I'm afraid that I never bought any of the Battle set. We moved around quite a bit and it was sometimes hard to locate some sets of cards in different areas of the country. And as time moved along my interests turned in other directions. The CWN set is really the only set I ever hung onto, though I did have cards from a considerable number of different sets. Those are all gone now, I'm sad to say.

{Paul} You said that you're still working with Topps. Are Woody, Norm, Bob and Maurice still there too?

{Len} I wish I could say yes. Unfortunately, they have all passed away. Maurice committed suicide shortly after the Civil War series was completed (perhaps a year or two later). Woody, who was like a father, brother and friend to me, died at the age of 62 in 1979. It was a tough loss and I think of him often. He hired me at Topps and of course meeting him when I was a teenager changed my life. Bob Powell died in the late l960's and Norm Saunders we heard died in the 1980's. I have since met his daughter, a talented artist and she has done some nice work for Topps during the last few years. Her name is Zina Saunders. But that's the last living connection. Ooops, I'm sorry, I am forgetting two other folks. Stan Hart left Topps years ago, we stay in touch and still see each other occasionally. Stan moved to Hollywood, wrote The Carol Burnett TV show for years and won an Emmy. He still writes for Mad Magazine. The fellow who headed up Topps art production department was Ben Solomon. Ben would often stand over Norm Saunders, when Norm brought in a finished painting, and Ben would have Norm make corrections...i.e. more contrast...brighten the colors, etc. Ben was a former business partner of Woody's and they came to Topps at the same time. Ben has retired and is living in Florida.

{Paul} So you're the last of the original crew..... Now that Mars Attacks has been 'immortalized' on film, chances are THAT is what you'll be most remembered for. Does that bother you?

{Len} I am the creative director of Topps and always trying to get them interested in issuing new trading cards. But management is definitely more focused on candy products and sports cards. My love is and always has been non-sports. My favorite trading card set was always MARS ATTACKS. It was not a success at the time --- we got lots of bad press and complaints and we did not issue the series in many parts of the country because of that. Those who saw it, never forgot it. The images were probably more graphic and gory than anything in the Civil War cards. I was delighted that Mars Attacks came to the attention of Hollywood. Heck, I have all the neat toys that came out from Trendmaster. Ultimately, I did not like the campy humor that pervaded the movie.... but there were moments of the film I really enjoyed. The creatures looked great---the way Norm Saunders had painted them. I even got to write a number of Mars Attacks comic books that Topps published. I think I wrote 5 or 6 short stories. I have loved science fiction all of my life. If that's what I am remembered for, so be it. I also co-created a comic book with Wally Wood called THUNDER AGENTS and I think early issues of those sell for $50 - $100. So, I guess those were the two marks I made in pop culture.

{Paul} You indicated that you met Woody Gelman as a teenager. I take it that you were in your late teens when you worked on the Civil War News set. If you had one card which was your personal favorite, which one would that be?

{Len} I truly love one of the first Norm Saunders paintings which depicted lots and lots of little bricks [The War Starts, #3]. I was going to look up the title or number. You may be right.... maybe I can take a peek at your card pages...and I always thought the scene of a soldier getting impaled on some weird looking wooden gate (not actually a gate, but some defensive weapon). [Painful Death #21] Painful death could have been about a dozen different ones I guess. Death was only too painful on those cards ---- The favorite Maurice Blumenfeld card to me was the soldier on horseback stabbing someone in a dining room [Death Barges In #37]. "PULLED TO SAFETY" was another favorite painting of mine that Norm did. Woody imagined that scene. He was great coming up with some of those "gory" images. And he was the gentlest guy you'd ever meet. I worked with him for years and he never raised his voice.

{Paul} Some of us collectors had noticed distinctive styles -- differences, if you will, between different cards. I take it that this was Norm's style vs. Maurice's style.

{Len} Yes.... they definitely had different styles. I can look the series over and let you know which were Norm's. He used more dramatic coloring and much more detail.... especially in the backgrounds. He worked and made a living in the 1930's and 1940's as a pulp cover artist. He did lots of cowboy and detective and horror covers. Someone should put out a coffee table book of his works.

{Paul} That's a great idea. I think it would sell very well nowadays. Folks who didn't have the opportunity to buy the sets, or who lost them over time, could relive their childhood through the book. I know I would buy it. By the way, who did the stories on the backs of the cards?

{Len} Uh-oh, I was afraid you were going to ask that. I slaved over the backs.... but what I am not proud of was that I misled lots of children to think that these were true events that took place during the war. Most of them were just fictional. We planned the pictures.... composed the scenes out of our imaginations..... after the paintings were done, I wrote a little story about the front of the cards---then I would look up a town or date that seemed appropriate and would try to publish a newspaper back as if it were a real event. I remember getting a letter from a schoolteacher years ago, thanking us for helping the children in her class to learn about the Civil War. Yet, sad to say, facts never got in the way of telling an interesting story.

{Paul} That's okay, Len. The stories were great. I enjoyed reading each of them -- true or not. Were there any stories that were factual? I remember a particular card; "The Silent Drum" was about a drummer boy who was killed. Or were they all made up?

{Len} There might have been a few accurate stories that were written up. I suspect "The Silent Drum" was fictional. We were just trying to tell an interesting story about the picture on the front. If I had to guess, I would say 80 to 85% of the stories were complete fiction pieces. The battles were based on fact, but the incidental details were really fiction.

{Paul} Well, the stories were good, factual or not. I know you've already told us a little about the art medium. Could I get you to be a little more specific? In other words, was the art done in acrylic, oil, watercolor, or something else?

{Len} I was never that technically minded about the painting. I know it was NOT oil or water color. I think there were a kind of paint called tempera. I believe that was what was used. Watching Norm paint them was amazing.... He used a large magnifying glass to do the little details with a very fine paintbrush.

{Paul} Once your team produced the original card set how did Topps go about manufacturing and packaging them for retail sales?

{Len} The cards were printed on huge sheets----132 cards on a sheet. We used outside printers for that. They were then sliced on cutting machines, collated and packed in with 5 cards, a piece of bubble gum and a piece of confederate money. I believe there were 24 packs in a box in those days. Can you imagine going and buying a box for $1.20!!! Those were the days. Today, one pack would sell for almost twice the cost.

{Paul} Yes, times have indeed changed.

{Len} Topps used a company in Baltimore in those days to print their cards---believe they were called Lord Baltimore Press. And then they used a printer in Philadelphia. It wasn't that easy to find a printer with a press large enough to print those huge sheets.

{Paul} Those big sheets of cards, were they all of one particular picture, or were the different pictures mixed?

{Len} All of the different pictures were mixed. If you had a full sheet, you would probably have half of the series with a lot of repeats. For some reason, we used to print two different sheets. I think it had something to do with improving the collation. So 44 cards would be on the first sheet of 132 cards and the other 44 would be printed on a second sheet. That's why a lot of Topps series in those days had either 66 or 88 cards in the set. 66 cards would mean a sheet with have two complete sets on one sheet. And the 44 cards of Civil War (half the series) would appear three times on one sheet.

{Paul} You anticipated my next question. I was going to ask why Topps decided on a set of 88 cards...

{Len} It was to try to collate the cards the best way in the individual packs. I'm not sure we were that successful, because over the years, I have always been asked how duplicates would get into packs. Or someone would buy a pack with the exact same five cards that would have appeared in a pack they bought the day before. We tried to avoid it, but it was a losing battle. Even as recently as a couple of years ago, we would occasionally have complaints. We believe we have finally mastered the collation problem.

{Paul} On the wrapper.... Who designed it and how did you arrive at it's theme?

{Len} That was designed in house. We had a small art crew with a couple of artists who were very good in packaging. Jane Fitzsimmons, now married and retired for many its Jane Lieman...I believe she designed and did the artwork for the box and wrapper on Civil War Cards. It's an educated guess, because she was the most talented of the staff folks and she did lots of designs in the early '60's. The theme was suggested by Woody Gelman on those products.

{Paul} I personally remember a 5-cent wrapper, which I think was red -- but I've also seen a yellow 1-cent wrapper. Were there two issues of the cards or did the price change sometime during the marketing process?

{Len} I remember the 5-cent wrapper. I am sure we also did a penny wrapper in those days too. We wouldn't ship the penny product to many cities, as it was less profitable. But in those days, we used to issue 6 cards in a package for a nickel or 1 card for a penny. So, you can see the benefit of spending the nickel. But by the l960's, we were phasing out the penny product. I think we did a 1-cent product for Mars Attacks, but that was probably the last of them. Sports cards commonly came in 1 cent and 5 cent packs in the l950's and early '60's.

{Paul} You mentioned the Confederate money earlier. Who had the idea of including Confederate currency as an insert?

{Len} I think the confederate money was Stan Hart's idea. He was very creative and had introduced inserts in sports cards in the early '60's. He felt that extra "prize" would get kids excited. And as I mentioned, we always heard from kids that they loved the confederate money. Many of them thought it was real.

{Paul} I know I did when I was a kid. Where did you get the pattern for making it?

{Len} My recollection is that we contacted a company that designed stocks and bonds. They had many different patterns available. We turned their artwork over to the art department, and Ben Solomon oversaw the art production of the money inserts.

{Paul} So is it an authentic copy, or just an artists conception of what the money looked like?

{Len} I don't believe they were 100% authentic. We purchased some antique confederate bills and reworked the designs a little bit. It was a combination of several elements. I think they came off looking pretty real because we stayed close to the original. In those days we were afraid of just "counterfeiting" the Confederate money, even though they were no longer considered real currency.

{Paul} You know, Len, I can still imagine the smell of the gum if I sniff the cards - did you guys ever eat any of it?

{Len} All the time. It was always around. Usually it was Bazooka as opposed to the hard card gum. You know, I have in the past, actually tried to chew some of the gum that would be in a sealed pack 20 years later...and it just turns to powder, completely pulverizes. Listen, the sad thing is Topps doesn't even produce card gum anymore. It's a thing of the past.

{Paul} Yes, someone had mentioned that it's because the collector's were complaining that the gum stained the cards and left imprints on them. Any ideas, Len, of how many complete sets [of the cards] were produced?

{Len} That's very tough to answer. I would like to assume that purchasing a box would produce at least one complete set...sometimes our collation wasn't that good. I would guess that we did at least 5,000 cases, with 24 boxes in a case. So that would come to 110,000 boxes or sets. That would have been a successful series in those days. And again, we know management viewed the Civil War Cards as a success.

{Paul} How long did Topps produce the cards?

{Len} In those days, we never issued products nationally. We had five or six different territories across the U.S. We would roll out to the first one---if the product sold through well, we would continue across the country. That would take anywhere from 4 to 8 or 10 months, would be my best educated guess.

{Paul} Interesting. Did you have a favorite 'test market' then, a place where you would always first run a set of cards to determine if they were going to be successful?

{Len} Yes.... we would run a very small test in about 6 different stores in Brooklyn. One of my first duties at Topps was testing cards. I would drop off 6 or 10 boxes of a new release at each of the stores and then call them every day about 4 PM (usually so we would have had the after school crowd visit the store) and then get an idea of how the product was selling through. Civil War did well at that level. Then, if we were confident it was a hit, more often than not, we would ship into the New York region..... this included the boroughs and upstate New York. This would represent about 10% of the country, in sales. If it sold through there well, then we would roll out more product in the other territories.

{Paul} Sounds like a good way to test the market. Okay, so the Civil War cards were a hit from the beginning. Did you have some sets of other cards that didn't get past the Brooklyn test area? Or were just about all the sets that were published successful?

{Len} Over the years we had too many sets not make it past Brooklyn. I remember a couple that I particularly wanted to see succeed that didn't. Back in the 1960's, television was running the old Buster Crabbe serial, FLASH GORDON, a lot on afternoon TV. We thought that kids would collect a set. I loved working on it because I had seen these serials since I was 10 years old. But when we put it in the shops in Brooklyn, it just didn't catch on. We also did a King Kong test set, based on the old black and white classic film. No luck with that one either.

{Paul} Perhaps it wasn't the cards themselves, but rather the lack of an eye-catching wrapper. Did Topps try different packaging if the original market test failed?

{Len} We were pretty convinced, rightly or wrongly, that the kids would either love the cards or just not be interested in them, strictly on what the subject matter was. When we tested in Brooklyn, the retailers would give us a good spot on the counter, so kids would see the product. If it was something they were interested in, they would plunk down their nickel no matter how poorly the wrapper and box were done. We felt that they either loved the idea or they didn't. Usually we could tell in a day or two. If they didn't start buying it immediately, it was probably because we were trying to sell something that the kids just didn't care about. I think we might have on very rare occasions tried a different wrapper.... but that was certainly an exception. Also, the wrapper was the toughest thing for us to produce. They took a while to print.....we got those big waxy wrappers on huge rolls from a different supplier than the ones who printed cards. It was done on a slow press and the wrappers would often be the delaying factor in getting out product. So we usually started the wrapper packaging very early in the life circle of the release.

{Paul} Did Topps sell its entire CWN product, or do they still have unsold cases in a warehouse somewhere. Lots of collectors out there may be interested in them.

{Len} Listen Paul, I would be most interested in that myself. I certainly wish we had a factory with even a couple of boxes of Civil War cards stacked away. But, sad to say, the answer is no. I can tell you a real horror story---they [Topps] had some 1952 baseball cards left over after the season ended and they actually dumped it in the East River, rather than pay warehouse storage charges. Do you have any idea what a case of 1952 baseball cards would be worth today? Well over $100,000. If one came up for auction, I bet it would sell for over a quarter of a million bucks. The Mantle Card alone is worth $40,000 plus. And if someone got lucky, there might be several Mantle cards in a case. Not to mention some of the other high priced cards from that series. You might see the case go in auction for over $500,000. But anyway, to answer your original question, Topps did not save old cases of product.

{Paul} That's too bad, I'm sure that some of the folks out there were hoping. You probably know about a 'British' set of these cards [CWN]. They contained the same artwork and stories but were slightly smaller in size. How did that ever come to happen?

{Len} Yes....We worked with a company in England: A.B&C. Limited, I believe their name was. They found it more efficient to print the cards a little smaller. They reprinted many of our 1960's sets, only a little smaller. I remember seeing them do Mars Attacks that way too. I think they paid Topps a royalty plus a cost for the artwork. They had great success with Civil War cards we were told. That surprised Woody and myself because we wouldn't have thought that British children would give a hoot about our Civil War...But I guess blood and guts and good artwork will win every time.

{Paul} Yes, I've heard from folks in England, Canada and Australia about the sets of cards they either have or used to have and remember. Are there any other card sets put out by TOPPS that used Norm Saunders? Some people vaguely remember a WWII set called BATTLE? Also a "Dinosaur" set in the 70s?

{Len} Yes, I think I mentioned Battle to you when we were chatting. The World War II card series didn't sell particularly well and that sort of ended the trilogy of great painted card sets. We focused much more on humor than blood and guts going forward after that. I believe Battle Cards came out in 1964. The Dinosaur Attack cards came out in the latter part of the '70's. There was a lot of interest in Dinosaurs and we thought a blood and guts series like the old ones would be unusual enough to bring us some real business. Basically the cards were not too successful. Topps tried to support it too. We had ads on television, which was unheard of in those days for a trading card series. Yet, it never broke through as a card series in a big way. Just hard core collectors seemed to love them. The series was certainly inspired by Mars Attacks. As a matter of fact, when Tim Burton had Warner Bros. acquire the rights to the Mars Attacks film, they also bought the rights to Dinosaurs Attack. But nothing ever came of a movie- I supposed Jurassic Park did it best.

{Paul} Perhaps they'll do a sequel to Mars Attacks if the movie does well. But you're right; Jurassic Park is tough to beat. Returning to the CWN set, how do you feel knowing that a simple "folk art" style (pulp fiction "poster" painting) is becoming recognized as a "high art?"

{Len} I have always personally always thought that "Pulp Cover" art was a legitimate art form. Same for Movie Poster art. Previously it was only the "crazy collectors" that would seek out the originals and early on, you could buy the cover paintings for a small price. Now days, these things command a great value --as well they should. I know a collector in New York City who just had a book published on Pulp Art. His apartment is like a museum. I say he should charge admission to let folks in. He has literally over 100 pulp covers all over his huge apartment...including the ceiling!!! Many Norm Saunders originals too. Paul, if you come to New York City, I'll take you over there. Your eyes will pop.

{Paul} That's a deal. I'm not sure when the next time I'll ever get to New York is, though.

{Paul} Any insights into Norm Saunders.

{Len} Norm is one of the most talented painters to have come out of the pulp school of illustration. When I met him we would often chat about his love of early illustration. I believe he told me he owned several Norman Rockwell paintings. He had many influences, including the great Saturday Evening Post cover artist, Leyendecker....I forget his first name. But Norm was very fast and prolific. He seemed to enjoy his work, but would always be ready to move on to something else. When we met him, Norm I believe had just retired and was collecting social security. He just did the Topps stuff to keep a hand in art. We weren't paying great rates in those days, so it was just almost more like pocket money. I don't think he was actively soliciting work from publishers. Besides, by the 1960's, the market for pulp art was at a minimal. So those years he was turning out great stuff for Topps was really his retirement years!!! I do want to mention that he did a tremendous amount of work on one of our most successful series - WACKY PACKAGES. Are you familiar with those product parodies that became a real rage in the late '60's and '70's? And also, Batman trading cards in the l960's. He painted over 100 Batman cards when the TV show was hot. Have you ever seen those?

{Paul} I remember the Batman show very well. It was hot when I was in eighth grade. If you weren't watching it, you were considered a 'nerd'. The other set, Wacky Packages, I seem to remember but I never collected them. I had many cards, but the only set I really strove to collect completely was the Civil War set.

{Len} You found your love early in life. I enjoyed the civil war cards and feel I worked very hard on them, but because I wasn't into history as much as I loved science-fiction and comic books, I guess Mars Attacks and Batman were the favorites of the ones I worked upon.

{Paul} Well, I wouldn't exactly call it a 'love in life', but I found the cards very absorbing in a way which is difficult to describe. When I was a boy of 10, I had collected the complete set to include the index card. I had traded this away, in the manner of all boys everywhere, for something else I wanted at the moment. I did, however, immediately begin to collect the set again. I remember that I was only a few cards short of the full second set and was walking with my mother in the apartments where we lived. I noticed one of the Civil War cards I was missing and in new condition lying on the ground. It was "Massacre", probably one of the bloodiest ones in the set. I grabbed it up, but my mother made me throw it back on the ground. She said it was 'dirty' [meaning full of germs or something], but I always figured that the picture shocked her and she didn't want me to keep it. Years went by, 35 or so. I had kept the entire collection with me from that time in Arizona. But I was still missing five of the cards. It wasn't until recently -- just after the Civil War News Collectors Card page went up that I found a dealer who had the five I was missing [including "Massacre"]. I sent away for them immediately. When the package of the five cards arrived here, I was like a kid again. I couldn't wait to tear open the package [carefully of course]. In fact, I opened them while I was driving back from the post office .... I couldn't wait. I even imagined that I could smell and taste that pink bubble gum again. Of course, on four out of the five I couldn't even remember their titles, but "Massacre" had always stuck in my mind. Now I have the complete set, and treasure it immensely.

{Len} That's a great story! It gave me goose bumps just reading it. There's nothing like the enthusiasm of boyhood and you were able to relive it that day. I know exactly how you felt...the excitement and nostalgia all rolled into one. That's what makes collecting so wonderful. As a boy, there were things I loved. Something called BIG LITTLE BOOKS, EC comic books, and in trading cards, I loved a series called SPACEMAN which Bowman published when I was 10 years old. I also loved RED MENACE, which came out during the Korean War. A painted series from Bowman. I think people who miss out ...who don't have that passion for collecting something like that...are deprived. It's a unique feeling and really a wonderful one. I guess I don't collect stuff as passionately these days as I used to, but I still have some things that I truly love. Cards, comics, music and movies were all so important during my early years. These days, I still visit a comic shop every week...and am amassing a movie library, including many of the films I loved as a boy. (early serials, B-westerns of Gene Autry and Roy Rogers), etc. I wouldn't trade that for the world.

{Paul} Yes, collecting has it's own magic. The thrill of the hunt, the exhalation of the discovery, and the pride in looking at the 'trophies' later on. Has TOPPS ever considered a "RE-ISSUE of the CWN set?

{Len} It probably came up briefly years ago. We had reprinted our Batman cards in the late 1980's and then we reprinted the Mars Attacks cards a few years ago. We discussed reprinting Civil War and Battle, but then talked ourselves out of it. We would ask how many sets we thought we could the optimistic best, it didn't seem like it would give Topps the success it would need. Do you think we could even sell 1,000 complete sets of CWNs? And if we did, that wouldn't be cost effective for us.

{Paul} I don't know, Len. Times have changed, kids are more sophisticated now, and the entire climate surrounding trading cards has changed. I know that there are many people out there who would be interested in the cards, but whether Topps could sell enough to today's youth is a question which would be difficult to answer.

{Len} The price of cards today would probably keep the average 10-year-old from buying Civil War cards. I think it would only appeal to the hard core collector. But who knows -- maybe someday we can try to reprint another set. It's not that far fetched. The artwork exists and that is such a big expense going forward with anything these days.

{Paul} You're probably right on the cost of the cards. A nickel was a lot of money to a kid when I was young. We used to spend our weekly allowance [25-cents] on cards, candy and comics [comics were only 12-cents back then]; then we would go out looking for empty soda bottles to sell to the stores. Of course today you don't have soda bottles any longer.....

{Paul} With all of us enthusiasts rapidly getting older...will there ever be another series quite like it? And who would he think might be the best person's work to watch for?

{Len} Probably the next painted series for Topps will be based on the next Star Wars film. We hope to have the rights to produce trading cards on the 1999 film release. You know, we did do a bunch of successful painted card sets in the early 1990's with a series called STAR WARS GALAXY. We would contact important comic book artists and have them render their favorite scene from the early trilogy. Many of them were very passionate about Star Wars because they grew up seeing the film. We had a hit with 3 or 4 series of art cards.

{Paul} And who might be the next Norm Saunders, or Len Brown, or Maurice Blumenfeld?

{Len} These days we have several different artists that we like a lot. We hired The Hildebrandt Brothers (they are twins) and they painted an entire series of cards based on "Shadows of the Empire" a Star Wars novel. It had moderate success. But the cost for the art was very high. By the time we were done, it was close to a quarter of a million dollars, just for the paintings. Also, because things are so different these days, Topps would probably never allow the time for just one artist to do an entire series. It would take us about 9 or 10 months to get the series out just having one artist paint every card. You know, we did do a wonderful series called UNIVERSAL MONSTERS about 5 years ago. We picked 10 artists and each one did 9 cards based on a Universal Horror Movie. For instance, we had Mike Mignola paint 9 Bride of Frankenstein cards (I later bought two of the originals from him and have them hanging proudly in my den.) That might be a more plausible way to work. We are still very much in touch with many of the fine artists in comics and illustration. If something came along that felt right, we would be able to do a series. I guess I am sending out a mixed message about future projects. I just feel that everything has a cycle. Eventually there will probably be a time when we feel it makes sense to produce a beautiful art painted card series.

{Paul} Well, Len. This has been great talking with you. I'm sure the folks reading this will have a much better picture of the team that produced the CWN set of cards and the actual work that went on 'behind the scenes'. I also think I understand the card-making process a lot better now. I want to thank you sincerely for having this discussion with me and allowing me to share it with the other fans of Topps card series though out the world via the internet.

{Len} I enjoyed the discussion immensely. I hope I was able to convey that cards were produced caringly and with love. Yes, we wanted to have a commercial hit, but Woody and myself took great pride in putting the series together. And the finished product is now going to survive in cyber-space because of your wonderful web page. I know I will be pleased to have a place where I can go to revisit the images. Thank you so much Paul for your devotion and effort in seeing that CWN isn't forgotten.

{Paul} Thank you, Len, and good night.

(Len Brown, co-creator of the Civil War News set of cards is the current Creative Director at Topps and is living in New Jersey with his wife Abby. They plan to retire eventually and relocate to Austin, Texas.)


How The Mars Attacks Series
Relates To The Civil War News Series

MARS ATTACKS was a bubble-gum card set produced by "Bubbles, Inc." (an alternate company name for Topps) in 1962.

The cards were the idea of Len Brown and Woody Gelman. Some of the early pencil roughs were done by Wally Wood, a well-known artist for E.C. Comics. The final cards were pencilled by Bob Powell, and the painting was done by Norm Saunders. Norm was one of the most prolific and creative artists of the pulp era. Len is still at Topps as Editor in Chief of Comics.

According to Len Brown, the cards were inspired by a combination of an old "Weird Science" comic book cover showing a large-brained alien coming out of a flying saucer and H.G. Wells' "War of the Worlds" story. Due to Brown and Gelman's earlier success with a historical but gory card set called "Civil War News" that the kids loved, they knew they had the formula for a smashing success. They would combine the sci-fi Martian scenario with the graphic gore of a kind of interplanetary civil war. Instead of North vs. South, it would be the Martians vs. the Earthlings

The Mars Attacks set consisted of 55 cards (54 pictures plus a checklist) depicting the invasion of Earth by desperate Martians, whose home planet was about to explode due to pressure building up in the planet's core. Although they had superior advanced technology, the Martians couldn't stop the inevitable destruction of Mars. Therefore, the Martians needed to find a new home planet. Their obvious choice: Earth!

MARS ATTACKS cards depicted sadistic Martians in amazing spaceships attacking defenseless humans with super weapons. Freeze rays, heat rays, shrinking rays, and gigantic robots decimated the Earthlings. The Martians also unleashed bloodthirsty Earth-insects that had been enlarged to 500 times their normal size. Whole cities were destroyed in the blink of an eye. The Earth was doomed. But after almost total destruction, the never-say-die Earthmen somehow mustered enough strength to launch a counter-attack on Mars. When the physically stronger Earthmen landed on Mars, they easily overcame the puny Martians and retaliated with a vengence. The Earthmen were finally victorious and escaped back to Earth just as the planet Mars exploded into millions of tiny asteroids!

The cards, which sold for 5 cents a pack in 1962, were quickly denounced by parents who were shocked by the bloody, gory, graphic (cool!) pictures, and were pulled off the market after a very short time. The cards that survived the years are now worth up to about $2000 or more for a mint set! A single wrapper (the first thing that was thrown away when an eager 8-year old ripped open the pack to see the fantastic cards) may be worth $1000 or more now!

Bob Heffner's Civil War News HomePage - All logos and images (TM) & Copyright (c) of The Topps Co., Inc.