Over the years, I’ve come to better understand that my upbringing wasn’t like most other kids who grew up in the 80s and 90s. There are, of course, plenty of similarities that we can all connect with; the TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES and GHOSTBUSTERS stand out. So does the Image Comics revolution where we all went out and bought six copies of YOUNGBLOOD and waited to get rich or that weird year when every kid just walked around Chinese throwing stars in their bookbag.
But then there are pieces, important pieces, of my maturation that appear to be rare. Watching FRIDAY THE 13TH when I was seven. Spending weekends with my brother learning how to make a nasty looking knife wound with a plastic machete, latex, fake blood, and cotton. Preferring The Monkees over the New Kids on the Block. Just little odds and ends that, again, I wasn’t the only one out there doing this, but in my four block radius, I kind of was.
An important thing to any kid in that time was cards. You had your kids who collected baseball cards or movie cards and kept them in a shoe box. You had the ones who snagged every card series from Marvel and DC and, being into bagging and boarding already, had special binders for them. Every kid loved the GARBAGE PAIL KIDS, each of us searching for the card with our name, and holding it proudly when we finally got it. All of these cards our parents were cool with. Yeah, the GARBAGE PAIL KIDS were kinda gross, but in that MAD MAGAZINE way. Nothing too controversial.
Then came 1988, and an eleven-year-old me stepping into a Queens bodega called Te-Amo and seeing something new. It caught my eye right away, the primary colors of that wrapper seeming to jump off the counter, screaming at me to buy it. With a single quarter, my life was changed forever.
While the journey of DINOSAURS ATTACK! started in 1988 for me, for the Topps company, it started in 1962. Looking for a way to cash in on the 100th anniversary of the American Civil War, Len Brown and Woody Gelman created THE CIVIL WAR (better known today as THE CIVIL WAR NEWS), a card set that would teach kids about the Civil War through text and super gory paintings. Gelman used the 1938 card set from Gum, Inc. THE HORRORS OF WAR as the inspiration for THE CIVIL WAR. Each pack of THE CIVIL WAR came with five cards and a recreation of the paper currency of the Confederate States of America. In all, there were 88 cards and 17 CSA dollars to collect.
THE CIVIL WAR was a success, but kids weren’t buying them for the facts included on the back of the card, it was all about the nasty art. Seeing there was a market for violence marketed at children, Topps created a sci-fi version of THE CIVIL WAR, using aliens vs humans as a way to get real gross with it. The cards, called ATTACK FROM SPACE!, (and renamed MARS ATTACKS! when the market expanded), were a huge hit with kids, but a huge problem for parents.
The gore of THE CIVIL WAR, in the eyes of the public, was OK because the kiddies were learning about something, but the gore of MARS ATTACKS! was clearly just for fun, and American parents weren’t having it. Before long, MARS ATTACKS! was pulled off shelves. In 1965, Topps went back to the historical and gross cards with BATTLE, but the market had moved on.
Since the early 70s, Renata Galasso had been running a successful baseball card business. She started off by buying packs of Topps baseball cards, building full sets, and selling them through the J.C. Penny catalog. As her business grew, Galasso started to produce her own cards, sticking mainly with baseball but occasionally playing in other markets. In 1984, she reprinted the MARS ATTACKS! cards and sure enough, there was a market for them.
Seeing the success Galasso was having, Topps got to work creating a new card set that played with the same goretastic art style. Developed by MARS ATTACKS! veteran Len Brown, along with Art Spiegelman and Gary Gerani, DINOSAURS ATTACK! was born. Herb Trimpe took Gerani’s sketches and, with the help of John Nemec and George Evans turned them into 55 cards. The cards were then painted by artists Earl Norem and XNO. The 11 stickers were created by Paul Mavrides and Harry S. Robbins.
The series complete, the cards went into production and hit the shelves of delis, bodegas, gas stations, and hobby shops across the globe. Bringing us back to little Derek standing in Te-Amo face to face with a new obsession.
I don’t remember the sticker I got with the cards. I don’t remember four of the five cards that were in the pack. There is one, though. One card, that I will never forget gawking at for the first time; “A Kid Strikes Back”. The image, a little girl using a bazooka to blow out the chest of a rampaging dino, saving her little brother as the city behind her burns and a soldier lies dead next to her, seared itself into my brain.
I spent every penny I had on buying packs of DINOSAURS ATTACK!, loving the gore and laughing at the dark humor (like card 43, “Business Lunch”). The back of the cards gave us the story told through newspaper and television reports, logs kept by scientists, comic strips, and occasionally just straight up first person narration. Getting the cards, getting all 55 so I could make sense of the story, it was all I could focus on. I needed to know everything, and I refused to read the backs until I had them all. When I fulfilled my quest – when I had all 55 cards and 11 stickers – the world of DINOSAURS ATTACK! opened up to me.
The story is pretty thin but endlessly cool; a group of scientists in space, being dumb scientists, open a time portal to the past and bring dinosaurs to the current day. As the dinos wreak havoc on Earth, the scientists work to find a way to reverse the time portal, but their efforts are being hampered by the Supreme Monstrosity, the god of dinosaurs. In the end, the humans win and the dinosaurs are killed or sent back to their own time. Of course, the story wasn’t the point; this was all about being as nasty as possible. Blood, guts, torn off limbs, people being eaten and ripped apart – this is what DINOSAURS ATTACK! was all about, and they pulled it off beautifully. Almost every card shows a nightmarish scene straight out of the minds of madmen made to get kids to laugh and be squeamish at the same time.
There was no hoopla over DINOSAURS ATTACK! Parents didn’t get up in arms over the extreme violence depicted in the cards like they had 26 years earlier when MARS ATTACKS! came out. Sadly, this time it was the kids who caused DINOSAURS ATTACK! to disappear from stores when they didn’t buy it. The card market had been slowing down by 1988, with even GARBAGE PAIL KIDS coming to an end. The Marvel and DC Comics cards would continue for a few more years, but they would fade away as well. Only sports cards were able to live on without a break in production.
When card collecting did come back into fashion, the industry had shifted. No more were cards made to tell a finite story, the new movement, the new money makers, took a hint from the undying sports cards market. These new sets were all about an ever growing collection used to battle your friends. MAGIC: THE GATHERING was the first monster hit for this new type of card collecting, with POKEMON following a few years later. GARBAGE PAIL KIDS came back after a 13-year break and while they are still produced today, there doesn’t seem to be the same excitement over them as there was when I was a kid (at least based on how none of the kids of my friends own any).
Maybe someday we’ll see a reprint of the DINOSAURS ATTACK! cards – next year is the 30th anniversary after all – but it seems unlikely. Luckily, the internet never lets things die, and a man, a hero, named Bob Heffner has taken the time to make a site dedicated to DINOSAURS ATTACK! where you can look at every card and sticker, including my personal favorite, the parasaurolophus eating a baby.
To see all the gruesome goodness, visit Bob’s site here.
*All Photos: DINOSAURS ATTACK! Topps Trading Cards