Tuesday, 14 June 2016

Topps Star Wars Cards - The Books

Topps N’ Swappers

Star Wars:
The Original Topps Trading Card
Series, Volume One

By Gary Gerani  ISBN: 978-1419711725

Star Wars - The Empire Strikes Back:
The Original Topps Trading Card
Series, Volume Two

By Gary Gerani ISBN: 978-1419719141

Star Wars Galaxy:
The Original Topps
Trading Card Series.

By Gary Gerani ISBN: 1419719130

“Got. Got. Need. Got. Need. Need. Got. Got.”

This was a familiar kind of dialogue between kids in the playground on our breaks at school in the late 1970s to the early 1980s. By that time, we kids weren’t running around playing ‘tag’ or ‘vigilantes’ anymore. Anyone my age and in an English speaking school is going to know exactly what that opening line is all about. It’s about trading cards or, as they were known back then when the moniker actually made more sense than it would today, bubble gum cards.

For my 1138th blog entry I thought I’d better at least cover something which is associated with Lucasfilm in some way and these last three books released by Topps were an obvious choice. The company started releasing these overviews of some of their old sets of trading cards a few years back and they were an instant hit... at least with me and, I suspect, more than a few people of my generation. The books are not coffee table volumes, more a paperback size, but they are hardbacks and their design is impressive. The book covers sport dust jackets of the packet design for the original cards made out of exactly the same wax paper that those cards came wrapped in, almost guaranteeing an immediate rush of Proustian nostalgia  for anyone of a certain age who handles the books. This emotional connection to an object via touch is not something that the digital world can recreate, I might add... it’s something which can only be found when handling printed material.

When I heard that Topps were similarly covering their early Star Wars cards, I got very emotional about that... and here’s why.

As a kid in the mid-1970s, I’d started buying packets of Topps Bubble Gum cards called Shock Theatre. These cards contained a, 'usually quite inappropriately gory for the target audience', photograph from a Hammer Studios horror movie, supported by a funny caption and, on the back, facts about the scene the photo was taken from, coupled with some truly corny jokes. And, of course, the thin, brittle stick of bubble gum that Topps bundled with all their trading cards, the gum actually being the supporting feature rather than the main event with the freebie that such cards were originally invented to be, for various reasons which I won’t go into here. Alas, I only managed to acquire about half of the run of these cards because it wasn’t long before various kids’ censorious parents (not mine, I’m happy to say) and the schools in the local area pretty much banned us young 'uns from buying them or bringing them to school. I think a quiet word was had with the various newsagents too as they seemed to suddenly disappear from the shelves at the same time.  Not a happy period because... I loved those cards.

However, I’d seen the movie Star Wars pretty much the week it was released over here in the UK, in the very last week of 1977, and in 1978 the Topps Bubble Gum cards were in our country and doing great business with the kids. Star Wars was already a pretty much unstoppable force and the teachers didn’t even try to put a blockade up against these. So it was “Got. Got. Need. Need. Got.” that was the order of the day as kids would arrange their doubles into piles that other kids needed, and then calculate how many cards they could swap and how closer to a full set that would get them (in the case of the kids with the richer parents, some were completing their second or third sets). I’m happy to say I completed my one set and still have them all to this day... the blue borders filled with white stars a typically 1970s design feature of that first run which remains a sight that I’ll always treasure.

As the next few years rolled by I bought and swapped and put together all the card sets that Topps deigned to release in our snoozy little country... the second red border set of Star Wars, the two sets of Superman The Movie cards (white border and red border), the Battlestar Galactica cards (which had a white border and was 132 cards in total, double the size of  the standard 66 card sets we’d had up until then), The Black Hole cards and the Star Trek The Motion Picture cards. After that, Figurini Panini took over the market with their much less well designed stickers and that was pretty much the Topps phenomenon in the UK over for maybe a decade... but I saved all my sets and have kept them to this day.

What we kids over here didn’t know at the time was that we were only getting a fraction of the movie card releases that our American counterparts were getting. What’s more, some of the sets were slightly different. The sticker cards that came as an extra with the original US packets were not included in the UK versions, for example. The Star Wars cards actually went on for five sets in the US... third set with yellow borders, fourth set with green borders and a fifth set with orange borders. What’s more... our UK second set of Star Wars cards, while still containing the same design and photos, had the photos in a completely different order to the US cards and, also, numbered the cards 1A to 66A instead of 67 - 132.

I always wanted these US sets and, who knows, if I manage to keep my day job for a while longer, I might be able to track them down at a price not too expensive at some not too distant point in the future. For now, though, these Topps volumes are an absolute necessity for people like me and I can finally see the content of those other cards and also know some of the thoughts that went into creating them as the book is written by the man who was responsible for picking the photos, overseeing the art studio, captioning the fronts and writing the back copy on those things. Furthermore, it turns out that this same guy, Gary Gerani, is a very accomplished writer in various fields (I think he co-wrote the movie Pumpkinhead, which I’ll now have to try and get hold of at some point) and, more importantly to me and kids growing up in the 1970s everywhere, he wrote an old tome called Fantastic Television.

Now Fantastic Television was an absolute bible for us young ‘uns in the 1970s because books about any sci fi or fantasy TV or movies were very hard to come by and this thing was filled with anecdotes and episode guides (the first time the concept of an episode guide was ever a thing we’d heard of here in the UK) to shows such as Star Trek, Batman, The Adventures of Superman and Lost In Space (among many others). I think I bought mine at an early specialist comic/book shop called Dark They Were And Golden Eyed which is a name people of a certain generation may also remember. So this Gary Gerani guy is a writer who I absolutely trust and, honestly, these Topps books are great.

Mind you... there are some not so great things about these books too but, you know, I’ll get to that in a minute.

The cute thing about these volumes is that, if you peak at the front and back covers underneath the dust jackets, you’ll see a photo cover of an enlarged stick of Topps gum. It’s a shame they couldn’t scent the pages of these with that lovely bubble gum smell too but, either way, the little burst of emotion on finding this is rare... a lot of thought and love has been put in to these books.

The author starts off with an introduction to the card series, how they came about and how he worked with Lucasfilm to choose the images. He also provides little commentaries about a lot of the cards under the reproduction of each picture and the best part is that he’s very truthful about the pitfalls and weaknesses of some of the cards and sets they put out. He also gives it some great context as to how some of them were arranged. Some of that stuff was clearly random in terms of trying to follow the storyline order in some of the sets but, for example, little things like the way the opening sequence of the first set introduced the characters as inspired by the opening credits sequences of those same old theatrical serials like Flash Gordon that influenced George Lucas to make the films in the first place, are really interesting. Definitely buying into the spirit of the movies by a team of people who obviously had as much love and respect for their product as the people who would be buying the cards.

The first and best (for me) volume in the series shows all five sets of the original Star Wars cards, fronts and backs, and one little niggle is that, since the reprints are slightly larger than the original cards, some of the print quality issues of scanning from an image that is already put together from a raster, dots-per-inch screen are shown up fairly badly. But, honestly, this is really only a minor grumble. There are many points of interest the author points out in this thick, little volume, which is attractively designed and has a unique page numbering system where both of each spread’s page numbers are only shown on the left hand page. For example, he proves he really knows his stuff when, on a card depicting the heroes of the first film popping their heads out of the Millennium Falcon cargo bay, he points out the similarities between John Williams’ music in this moment and the three note madness theme composed by Bernard Herrmann and used, possibly inadvertently, a few times in movies such as Psycho and Taxi Driver.

Other fascinating bits of trivia extend to the fact that the majority of stills used were taken by the on-set photographer, and not lifted from the movie itself, which explains the impoverished nature of the special effects moments in the earlier sets and also explains such things as why the day for night sequence of Artoo snatched by Jawas on Tatooine is brightly lit... because the photographer was not using the same filters on the scene that the cameras recording the film were. He also addresses the dynamic green tint to some of the backgrounds on the rebel blockade runner interior shots (I actually always loved those green tints as a kid, truth be told) and how shots from deleted scenes made their way into the card sets too.

On the fourth series he points out that, by that time, the title to the sequel to the first movie had already been announced, moving him to caption one of the Star Wars cards with “The empire strikes back!”... which is a cheeky but seemingly precognitive moment for fans who weren’t, in those days of no internet and less global connection, in the know. He also addresses a fourth series problem which I’d certainly never heard about until now... but obviously a lot of American kids were certainly aware of it. That being the problem of C3PO’s penis on card 207. Apparently the crew had strapped a golden, robotic cock onto Threepio as a prank on set and one of the photos had seemingly made its way into the Lucasfilm archives. Nobody noticed that he was sporting a very prominent erection until many customers... or more likely parents of customers... wrote in and complained. This meant that, in light of this cock up, the set was recalled, the photos reprinted with the most visible parts of the opulent member airbrushed out, and then re-released into shops. However, this was after some time and so, Gerani points out, the airbrushed version of the card is actually the rarer of the two. Both cards are reprinted here side by side, so the differences can be compared and studied for anyone who’s into pondering the reproductive systems of androids in a galaxy far, far away. This prank may also be why Han Solo goes on to refer to Threepio as ‘golden rod’ in one scene of The Empire Strikes Back I suspect but... who knows?

My second grumble about the first book is that the backs of the cards are shown as a running series, rather than with the fronts, leaving you without a clue as to which B Sides and A Sides matched up unless you have the original set lying around. So that’s something I think could maybe had been done better but I suspect I know why this decision was made and, again, it’s only a minor grumble.

The first book finishes with the original run of Star Wars Wonder Bread cards, which were great little designs themselves. We obviously didn’t have those in the UK either but I picked up a set for a very cheap price in the early 1980s at a very occasional event we were calling, in those days, a comic mart. I remember it was in Central Hall Westminster, where many Film Conventions are still held to this day.

The second book (the third published) shows all the sets for The Empire Strikes Back, including the oversize novelty cards that made up the final series. This also reveals how the various companies were duped when handed out scripts of the second film, and how the movie makers managed to keep the revelation that Darth Vader was Luke Skywalker’s father a secret so that even the people involved in making the various commercial tie-ins for the movie were in the dark about this moment until they actually went to see it for themselves. It also goes a great deal to explain why the cards were captioned less effectively in those scenes as a result but, you know, it’s up to you to decide whether the hold back was worth the trade off, I guess.

Alas, this book also suffers from a kind of reverse problem to the first in the series, in that all of the card reprints are slightly smaller than the original cards, this time around. That being said, the backs and front are shown next to each other for context this time... so that’s good.

The third book, which is not linked to these first two and was released second in order, is a much thinner book devoted to the first three sets of the Star Wars Galaxy series from the 1990s. Now this seemed like a good buy for me, since I only have the first two sets in my personal library. However, as I read on, it was clear to me that there may have been some licensing issues with various artists who worked on these sets of exciting new visions of the Star Wars universe. Only a limited number of the cards from each set are reproduced... possibly only half. There are also no backs. So anyone expecting a complete overview of those three sets should be warned, I think, that not everything is in here. Also... I don’t know why only the first three sets were picked on when, honestly, I think their have been at least seven sets of Star Wars Galaxy since they started. Still, this volume does contain some interesting facts about the artists and the scenes they created for this series so... if you are into reading up on your bubble gum/trading card history... then this book is probably something you should also check out.

These books are a solid recommendation from me for any fans of trading cards and pop culture throughout the years, young or old. And the absolute icing on the cake on these well designed, well written volumes is that each one contains a little, clear envelope containing four, exclusive to these books, Topps trading cards. So they are definitely worth having if you are into card collecting or even, like me, into casual card acquiring.

All in all, an enchanting set of volumes which will delight fans of these miniature slices of a cultural phenomenon in no uncertain terms. A fourth volume, Star Wars - Return Of The Jedi: The Original Topps Trading Card Series, Volume Three is due out this August so, if you are a fan of these books, get your pre-orders in now. These are absolute future classics that I think people will speak highly of for years to come. Collect ‘em all!

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