Every week this summer, we’ll be bringing you a new installment of a 12-part series of reviews of meaningful comics found in the collections of our writers. “Long Box” refers to the lengthy, white cardboard boxes most comics find themselves stored within – bagged, alphabetized and numerically ordered.
These reviews, then, are the tales of those collections: illuminating characters, artists, writers – even eras – in addition to the personalities of the very owners of those fine collections.
Artist: Norman Saunders
Published by: Various
There was a time in the early nineteen nineties that I partially turned away from comic books. No, really, it’s true! That doesn’t mean that I stopped collecting comics. On the contrary, I was probably buying more than I ever had before.
In the early part of that decade the gimmick idea of the multiple-version cover or special foil-embossed, glow-in-the-dark and silver or gold tinged cover came to pass. Also, disastrously, the idea of purchasing multiple copies of a particular issue, a sort of economic speculation that the price of a comic would quickly rise in price, came to prominence and I, like many others, got caught up in all the hype. I’ve personally got umpteen versions of Justice League #1 and Spider-Man #1 boxed away right now. But so does everyone else – so they’re not worth what we all thought they might be. The hype during this time caused the comic book bubble to burst as the fad, well, faded. Titles were cancelled, writers, artists and editors lost jobs, publishing companies went bankrupt and the industry was left crippled in the latter part of the decade.
It was during this time that I discovered a new type of collecting: trading cards. And the first ones I bought were based on characters I was already intimately familiar with: Batman and Robin.
In 1966, the Topps Chewing Gum Company released a series of pop-art inspired Batman trading cards based on the popular television show starring Adam West and Burt Ward. Each card, painted by book, pulp and poster artist Norman Saunders, depicted the superheroes in cliff-hanging situations while telling an aspect of a larger story on the back of the card. Of course, the collector had to purchase extra packs of the cards in order to see what would happen next in the very loose but linear narrative. The cards were so successful that Saunders was commissioned to paint an unprecedented second and even third set of cards! Each set followed the same winning formula.
I bought those cards at varying prices in the early nineteen nineties. Some were $4, others were $8 while still others were $12. Each! I put them away, in numbered order of course, in protective plastic sleeves. Today, depending upon what shape the card is in, they could fetch a little bit more than what I originally paid.
If the painting style of the Batman “The Bat Signal” card, seen above, seems familiar, it’s because it is. It definitely seemed familiar to me during that period of collecting and after a little research and a few questions asked of comic and card store owners, I realized that Norman Saunders was also the painter of the famous Cuban-Missile-Crisis inspired, Mars Attacks! series of trading cards, also published by Topps, back in 1962.
Mars Attacks! was, of course, made into a cult film by Tim Burton in 1996, featuring an ensemble cast including Jack Nicholson, Pierce Brosnan, Nathalie Portman, Sarah Jessica Parker and Tom Jones! It was as crazy as the scenes from the trading cards that directly inspired it.
Still, beyond the Mars Attacks! comparisons, Saunders artwork reminded me of another series of cards and stickers that I collected in the early 1980’s. Taking me back to Grade 1 and 2, Saunders was also responsible for artwork that was traded between classmates before, during and after school: the Wacky Packages series of cards, which lampooned marketing and advertising trends, had longevity going for them.
Originally conceived in 1967 by Stan Hart, the main writer for Topps and a contributor to Mad Magazine (evidenced in the ridiculous nature of the Wacky Packages themselves) and Saunders, the cards were of a personal nature to the artist himself. Saunders had historically been rebuffed by the Madison Avenue ad executives and these cards were a sort of revenge.
Using his innate skills at painting realistically, Saunders tapped into his stranger and sometimes horrific expertise with past projects, creating some timeless and gruesome works of skewered pop-art in the process. Whether it was Kentucky Fried Fingers, Jolly Mean Giant Peas, Ratz Crackers, Chock Full O’ Nuts And Bolts Coffee or Slum Maid Raisons, each image made the viewer/collector laugh or wince or shriek – all the while evoking the real life product and contemplation of the advertising process.
The cards and stickers of the Wacky Packages project would remain in collective consciousness for over two decades and even make a resurgence in public consciousness at the beginning of this century.
Norman Saunders wasn’t all about pop-art. The pulp and horror magazines of the 1940’s and 1950’s may have brought his name to prominence but Saunders was a fine artist at heart. His landscape and figurative paintings of the U.S. Midwest and his later works depicting Italy, Scotland, Wales and other areas of Europe conjure, to some degree, the paintings of acclaimed American painter, N.C. Wyeth.
Today, the works of Norman Saunders have a special place in the hearts of the collectors of vintage pulp magazines and trading cards. His name is synonymous with those pieces of artwork and many contemporary painters and illustrators, working in those types of media or even those emulating those types of media, cite him as a strong influence.
Those Batman trading cards opened up a whole new world for me, and a whole new appreciation for art and Norman Saunders.