EXCLUSIVE: Topps, Earl Norem Tell The Origin of "Mars Attacks Invasion"

This October, comic and collectibles shops will find themselves invaded by Martians all over again -- for the first time.

If the idea seems screwy, it's all part of the black comedy tone of Topps' "Mars Attacks" franchise, which is seeing its first full expansion as a trading card set in 20 years with next month's release of "Mars Attacks: Invasion." The 100-card set not only replicates the look and feel of the classic 1960s cards full of green-brained aliens and seductive spies. It also unveils the origins of the Martian's plans for earth for the first time as envisioned by the artists the likes of Greg Staples, Glen Orbik, Ed Repka, Alex Horley, Hilary Barta and -- in a series of images released exclusively to CBR News -- Earl Norem.

"When we were looking at 'Mars Attacks' for the 50th anniversary last year we couldn't help but notice that it had almost everything you need for one of these big sci-fi franchises nowadays:  great visuals, great villains, courageous Earth heroes, an epic conflict...but what it didn't have was a very deep story," explained Topps Licensing Manager Adam Levine who oversaw the cards' creation and wrote their stories. "It was just a very basic series of visuals showing Martians, monsters and ray guns destroying the Earth and killing humans.   Really that's all you needed back then!  There was never any thought to the kind of "world building" that companies do today, because in those days the stories were one-and-done, and they'd move on to the next thing.

"Because the story left little room to continue (it ends with the Martians -- and Mars -- getting totally annihilated) we knew we'd have to, to use a dirty word, reboot the whole thing. In doing so we had an opportunity to open up the universe a bit, give the Martians some more depth, a history, a motivation, and expand on the more basic narrative presented in the '60s. But it's essentially the same 'Mars Attacks' everyone remembers: those ugly big-brained Martians, flying saucers, ray guns, giant insects, you name it."

For his part, Norem was glad to come back to commercial painting gigs even though the 90-year-old legend is in semi-retirement. "I was looking for a little project to do over last winter, even though I was pretty much retired. But I managed to get these done. I hit the deadline!" he laughed.

The artist's history painting everything from Marvel Comics to Transformers children's books to men's magazine covers to concept paintings for Mattel's early He-Man toys all laid groundwork for the kind of images Norem produced for Topps this time around. The "Invasion" cards show previously unseen clashes between Martian agents and humans including the "Gang War" card where they clash with '30s gangsters and "Race to Space" where they sabotage early American attempts to land on the moon.

"I think Earl has a knack for easily visualizing a concept -- coming up with a really simple yet visually striking composition that tells a complete story without any words. There's drama and power in his work that conveys real gravitas to the situations," Levine said, noting this his favorite of the artist's new series is "Definitely 'Abduction at Sea,' no question!  That was actually the second version Earl did for us.  The first sketch, based more closely on the assignment we gave him, turned out a little more static.  Earl was unhappy with it and asked if he could try again, this time taking some liberties with our initial description of the scene and doing with more of his own flare.  When it came back we were all floored.  Easily the most intense of the bunch.

"Over his full career it's impossible to pick just one.  But while he's known to comic fans for his covers on 'Hulk' and 'Conan,' I've always been a huge fan of his pulp work, and there are two that always stuck with me: one showed a man and woman on a catwalk in a factory confronting mobsters, the other of a man and a woman kissing, with the woman's back in full view in a mirror across the room, suggesting something more was going on.  Both were direct inspirations for 'Gang War' and 'Alien Assassin' [in this set.]"

Norem himself said that he's enjoyed the "Mars Attacks" work out of the many accounts he worked for over his long career. "I did some comic books for Topps and some covers for the 'Mars Attacks' comic books, and the trading cards have great covers too," he said. "The comic painting was always one of my favorite things to do. It makes you think young. Even when I was in my 80s, it kept me thinking young, and that's maybe why I've lasted this long...I remember stuff that I did years ago like this. It's tougher to get it done now, but I can still do it. My hands are arthritic, and once in a while I drop a brush while I'm working."

Levine noted that the overall contributions of all the artists worked together to present a set that both paid homage to the original "Mars Attacks" while also moving the franchise forward. "The unification comes more from the stories on the back.  We knew it would be impossible to have one artist do the entire series, at least not on the timetable we had to work, so the idea was to compartmentalize the set into small themed subsets that could stand on their own, but assemble into a larger tapestry when read and viewed together.  Ed Repka -- known for his creepy creatures, aliens and monsters -- handled a set about the Martian Science Division and their gruesome creations; Glen Orbik was specifically selected to help bring a real pulp sensibility to a set about a new set of space mercenary characters.  So each artist brought a unique look and feel to the series, and it worked out really well.

"We very much view 'Mars Attacks: Invasion' as the main engine and primary story, with the comics and such being more of an expanded universe that grows the world and gives fans more personalized tales of the Martian invasion of Earth," he added. "If fans respond to this card set, we know exactly where we want to take this story, both in the cards and in the comics.  The card set itself ends in I think a surprising way, and i hope fans will want to see what we've got planned for a follow-up.  There are also some interesting stories and new characters in 'Mars Attacks: Invasion' that scream for comic book spinoffs...I know one of our goals for this set was always to show scenes that were never done before, so Martians vs. Mobsters was a lot of fun (even if John Layman's run got published first, the bastard!)."

And while "Mars Attacks" rolls on, Norem is happy to have a new generation of fans rediscovering his work online. "I had a big stack of stuff in my studio because the copyright laws give the artwork back to the artist. I didn't know what to do with all this stuff, so I had a friend put it on eBay, and people were buying it!" the artist said with surprise. "I guess I was rediscovered that way. I'm down to putting up mostly pencil drawings now. I got rid of all the Marvel stuff I did pretty quickly except I have a few pencil drawings left and some Conan covers that I'm holding onto until the economy gets a little better. I got rid of all the men's adventure magazines paintings that I did when I first started freelancing. I still have some stuff I did for 'Reader's Digest' and paperbacks. But I'm gradually getting rid of most of the stuff that I've done. I just kept a few things that I like to prove how I once had it!"

"Mars Attacks: Invasion" debuts in October from Topps.

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