?There was a time not so long ago that a few quarters could buy you a pack of trading cards based on your favorite film or TV show that would come complete with the requisite stale piece of gum and a sticker to place on your bedroom door that would stay there for decades to come. But the days of picking up some Three’s Company or Star Wars cards at the corner store are just as much of a memory as rotary phones or dial-up Internet. To find trading cards based on your favorite franchise now, you have to trek to the local Wal-Mart/Target or swing by a comic store. Not that the experience is even close to what it used to be. Today, the average pack of non-sport cards costs $1.99, the gum has been jettisoned and the cards are now printed on high quality stock that kids would never considering putting between their bike spokes — if they ever played outside that is. Not to get all Grumpy Old Man on you, but trading cards — particularly those of the non-sport variety — feel like a relic of the past that fades into history more with each passing day.
Bucking this trend are Topps stalwart Wacky Packages and Garbage Pail Kids lines. Because of the intoxicating allure of nostalgia, parents who grew up with these have passed them along to their kids while single folk check them out because it allows them a welcome reprieve from the monotony of their hopeless lives. Basically, they are fun for everyone. Both lines experienced a period of dormancy before they were revived and met with huge success. This raises the question of what other cards from long ago could be dusted off and reborn for our times. Thus we have this look at 10 non-sport trading card lines that are worthy of getting another chance in this reboot-happy age (yes, some of these are actually stickers, but they are still sold alongside of cards so there’s no need to nitpick).
10) Fright Flicks
?Did you ever think that the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man would have been cooler if he sassed the Ghostbusters? Okay, nobody did. But that didn’t stop Topps from releasing Fright Flicks cards. Each pack included nine cards that featured images from horror/sci-fi films accompanied by a groaner of a joke on the front, spooky “Did It Ever Happen?” ghost stories on the back, a sticker and a piece of gum. Best of all, the mix of characters included in each pack was diverse enough to please everyone from the novice horror fan to hardcore Chainsaw and Dave from Summer School types.
9) Ripley’s Believe It or Not!
?The late, great Robert Ripley made an empire out of bringing implausible-yet-true facts to the masses. For reasons best left to the cultural anthropologists to explore, the 1970s and 1980s were especially good for purveyors of strange information. While children of the Reagan era raised on In Search Of… were forced to endure Jack Palance presenting Fortean tales in the creepy Ripley’s Believe It Or Not! television series, kids from the previous decade got to enjoy the oddness without the nightmares thanks to a fondly remembered 1970 trading card set from Fleer (a previous Ripley’s Believe It Or Not! set was released by the Parkhurst company in the much more innocent year of 1953). Ultimately, it doesn’t matter what is going on socially or what year it is. There will always be an audience for tidbits about spontaneous human combustion. Trading card companies, take note.
8) Dinosaurs Attack!
In 1988, the creative team at Topps were struggling to come up with another line of cards that would capture the public’s imagination the same way that their then-waning Garbage Pail Kids ones did. Inspired by the success (and controversy) of their Mars Attacks line, the company decided to do for extinct beasts what they previously did for Martians. The result was Dinosaurs Attack!, a set that consisted of 55 cards and 11 stickers packed with prehistoric mayhem. Despite having the same great graphic design and dark humor of its spiritual predecessor, the line was a dud. It turns out that the giant asteroid that caused these dinos to go extinct came in the form of poor timing. Had the cards been released five years later amidst Jurassic Park mania, its fate would likely have been much different. For now the line lies dormant, waiting for a pop culture paleontologist to dig it up, dust it off and present it to a new and more enlightened world.
7) Ugly Stickers
?With art from comic greats Wally Wood and Basil Wolverton — whose work on DC’s Plop comic damaged my prepubescent mind in immeasurable ways — as well as by Wacky Packages illustrator extraordinaire Norman Saunders, Topps’ Ugly Stickers were the perfect way to torture your sibling/friends/classmates if you came of age in the 1960s. The concept was simple; each sticker featured a grotesque monster paired with a boy or girl’s name. If you got one that featured your brother’s name, you could chase him around with it with taunts of “look how uuuuggggly you are, nah nah nah nah nah nah.” Good times (after the line initially ended, the concept was brought back and released as 1979’s Monstickers line of puffy stickers). In these days of strict anti-bullying campaigns, there’s zero chance that these will return. Looks like you’ll have to find another way to irritate the shit out of your loved ones.
?Shel-Tone, the folks behind the button-pushing Bloody Visions serial killer trading cards also were responsible for this Tod Browning-approved line that showcased images of circus folk and other societal fugitives and refugees whose only crime was to be born different. Exploitative? You betcha. But there is a genuine beauty in some of these photos as well. Some packaging art for the two series in the line was created by Drew Friedman. If you have any doubt at the wonder these people possessed and radiated, do yourself a favor and pick up his book Sideshow Freaks. There will be more on Friedman and his decidedly left-of-center view of the world later in this list. Meanwhile, if you’d like to buy some of these hard-to-find cards yourself, you can do so via Shel-Tone’s website.
5) Weird Wheels
?Throughout the years Topps has released several car-themed series that featured real hot rods (such as the Way Out Wheels line), but the company’s best foray into the world of automotive cards is Weird Wheels. Released in 1980, this sticker card set featured images of strange, supernatural and just, well, weird cars. Looking for King Kong riding a jalopy? Then check out the Konk Kar. How about an alien in a Studebaker? Sure thing pal. Topps had all of your monster mobile needs covered with this line. Much in the way that Fleer’s Crazy Labels were a rip-off/homage to Topps’ Wacky Packs, Weird Wheels was inspired by Donruss’ Odd Rod line of the late 1960s. Your mileage may vary as to which of these lines is superior, but derivative or not the Weird Wheels cards take me on a trip back to my childhood every time I see them.
4) Comic Book Heroes/Marvel Super Heroes
?Initially released as Comic Book Heroes before getting re-branded as Marvel Super Heroes, these sets featured beloved characters making jokes that are so cheesy they wouldn’t even have seen publication in The Marvel Fumetti Book. In other words, they’re completely awesome in every way (sample joke: everybody’s favorite Asgardian standing in an action pose stating “Don’t Make Me Thor”). Without any semblance of shame let me say that I would happily throw down $1.99 for a back of these suckers if Topps somehow reissued them. Anyone who wouldn’t is either lying, Dan DiDio or just allergic to fun.
3) Bubble Funnies
?Admittedly, this entry is a total cheat as they aren’t cards per se. But I think you’ll agree that these are too fantastic not to be granted another go around on the pop culture carousel. You see, in 1981 a mysterious company known as Amurol Products released trading card-sized comic books known as Bubble Funnies. Each of the ten-page comics came packaged with a stick of hard pink gum that was certain to help young readers lose their baby teeth. Sadly, only six Bubble Funnies were ever released — The Amazing Spider-Man, The Incredible Hulk, Captain America, Spider-Woman, Archie, and Sabrina the Teen Age Witch. Even though these were just a mutated version of the Bazooka Joe concept, I can’t help but feeling that pocket comic books packaged with gum are still an idea whose full potential has yet to be realized.
2) Mars Attacks
Ack! Ack! Ack! When Topps’ Mars Attacks cards were released in 1962, they realized the fears of every parent and preacher who feared that kids’ pursuits like comics and trading cards were a one-way ticket to hoodlumville. The cards, painted by the peerless Norman Saunders, reveled in violence and gore. They were daring. They were original. They were… really hated by people who didn’t get the joke. A firestorm of controversy ensued and their production was halted. You know the rest of the story. The cards became a cult phenomenon that inspired a great-but-uneven Tim Burton film and merchandising aplenty. There’s validity to the argument that the original cards are perfect, and the 45 new cards released in 1994 were completely superfluous. But the invasion will never truly end, and maybe that’s okay. For anyone wondering why this didn’t take the top slot on this list, that’s an easy question to answer. It’s not a matter of if Mars Attacks will be back, but when.
1) Toxic High School
?Students vomiting in punch bowls at the prom. A beloved student slips on a banana peel during a class trip to the Empire State Building and plummets to his death. Classmates French kissing in French class. Cross-dressing coaches. Etcetera. Such business was the order of the day at Toxic High School. This Topps line from 1991 takes all of the bad attitude and general misanthropy of the Garbage Pail Kids and mixes it together into one parent-displeasing Slurpee that is beloved by kids of all ages. The aforementioned Drew Friedman illustrated these, and with his art on the series he established himself as a sort of Picasso of puke. There’s a lot of throw up humor in the 64-card set, so if gross-out laughs (and a general disdain for authority and institutions) aren’t your thing you definitely shouldn’t enroll at Toxic High. This set wasn’t a success for Topps and a commissioned follow-up series never saw the light of day. That coupled with the realities of our post-Columbine age mean that a revival seems unlikely. Not that these cards are condoning violence. Instead, they critique high school life in a sharply funny and relatable way. This is high satire here folks, even with all the toilet humor. Barf.
Chris Cummins is a pop culture writer and Archie comics historian who has contributed to The Robot's Voice, Den of Geek US, Philebrity, Geekadelphia, Uproxx, and Unicorn Booty. He is the co-producer and co-host of Nerd Nite Philadelphia, and is regularly involved in producing and hosting New York Super Week events. In 2014, Chris began Sci-Fi Explosion, a mix of live performance, trivia and funny clips celebrating the weirdest in science fiction that regularly travels around the United States. He wrote the introductions to the compilations Archie's Favorite Comics From The Vault and (with Paul Castiglia) Archie's Favorite High School Stories. You can find Chris on Twitter at @bionicbigfoot and @scifiexplosion.