What was it about these trading cards that made them so irresistible?
I grew up calling them Monster Cards, although that is merely a generic description. Collectors often refer to them as You’ll Die Laughing cards. That is also incorrect. For many years, the proper name for this bizarre series eluded me, as I had discarded the colorful wax paper pack wrappers shortly after every purchase, and I was only five at the time. In fact, the fabled Topps collectibles were marketed as Creature Feature in 1973 with an initial run of 62 trading cards, followed shortly thereafter with a second series of 66. The images on those cards are still familiar to me all these years later.
The Creature Feature gimmick was as elementary as its target demographic. Black and white stills from old Universal Pictures horror films were given ridiculous dialogue captions. The reverse, printed in purple ink on gray card stock, featured a fanciful illustration of jovial monsters gathered around a tombstone, upon which was inscribed a terribly corny joke. Despite the heading You’ll Die Laughing, it’s unlikely that the lame attempts at humor provoked so much as a mild snort, let alone a lethal guffaw.
1st Monster: “Where I work, you can hear a pin drop.”
2nd Monster: “Really?”
1st Monster: “Sure. I work in a bowling alley.”
1st Monster: “Did you hear that my brother stepped in front of a train?”
2nd Monster: “Was he killed?”
1st Monster: “Oh no. The train was backing up at the time.”
1st Monster: “When you sold me this cat, you said he was splendid for rats. But he wouldn’t touch them.”
2nd Monster: “So isn’t that splendid for rats?”
You can almost hear the rimshots, right? But no matter. If Topps had left the backs of the cards blank, it would have done little to diminish the winning formula they had applied to the front. Firstly, an economy of design made the layout stand out from every other trading card series, sports-related or otherwise. There were no splashy graphics, nor even a hint of color. Each card was dominated by its movie still, which was framed by a thin, white border. The designers wisely avoided marring the image with speech balloons, opting instead for captions printed in a slightly cheeky font just below each photograph. Thus, the viewer was immediately hit with the full visceral impact of the photo, which was sometimes campy but just as often gruesome. Then, a beat later, came a line of disarmingly silly dialogue.
Unlike the stale jokes on the reverse, the ridiculous captions juxtaposed with frightening images could definitely elicit a laugh. For example, on card #19, a menacing mummy leans over an apparently dead woman stretched out upon the grass (NO SLEEPING IN A PUBLIC PARK, LADY!). On card #8, Lon Chaney’s eerily grinning Phantom of the Opera points offscreen as a damsel in distress cowers beside him (AND WE’LL PUT THE NEW CHAIR IN THAT CORNER!). On card #31, Frankenstein’s monster has the Wolfman in a stranglehold (WHAT DO YOU MEAN MY MOTHER HAS A MUSTACHE?). And on card #62, a man discovers a rotted corpse in a bed (WAKE UP MISS, WE’VE RENTED YOUR ROOM!).
If you were the right age, this was a seductive combination. What kid isn’t fascinated by the iconography of horror films? The images are strange and disturbing, but then so is much of the world to a young mind. Overcoming one’s fear of stereotypical horror imagery produces a sweet illusion of control amid the chaotic prospect of forthcoming adult life. I’m not afraid of this! we boldly repeated to ourselves, and Creature Feature cards were there to ease the transition. How scared can you be of a demonic skeletal lady holding court like a satanic queen when she appears to be thinking MY GIRDLE IS KILLING ME! ?
Unbeknownst to me at the time, the back cover art that framed the bad jokes was a vestige from a previous Topps series. Funny Monsters debuted in 1959 with color illustrations by the legendary Jack Davis, whose work for EC Comics, MAD Magazine, and a host of advertising and marketing commissions would make his distinctive style a readily recognizable facet of American pop culture. Only a few of the 1959 captions were recycled for 1973, but a side-by-side comparison reveals something interesting. While Davis’ humorous illustrations were wonderful, the joke works a little better when juxtaposed with a serious movie still.
The 1973 Creature Feature cards are a comedic improvement over the 1959 Funny Monsters simply because the images were never intended to be enjoyed for laughs, and that adds a delicious element of subversion to the endeavor. It’s basic comedy arithmetic: Amusing illustration + amusing caption = funny. However, frightening image + amusing caption = funnier.
In the end, though, the funniest thing about Creature Feature cards may be a subtle touch that went unnoticed by consumers. According to Kurt Kuersteiner in an article for The Wrapper Magazine, Topps edited many of the stills, replacing the faces of actors with those of Topps employees. Monster faces were left unaltered. Somewhere inside that strange decision must have lurked a stark financial and legal reality.
True story? Take a look at these close-ups and judge for yourself:
As this was quite a few years before doing a Photoshop head swap became a teenage rite of passage, it’s unlikely that the image manipulation was apparent to young Creature Feature collectors. I certainly never noticed it. However, there was always something about those images that was subtly surreal, though I could not articulate it. Now I think I understand it at last. What’s stranger than horror movie stills with goofy captions? The anachronistic appearance of 70’s hairstyles within scenes that were shot decades earlier.
Ergo, frightening image + amusing caption + fashion anachronism = funniest.
Creature Feature cards are comforting nostalgia to me today, and I suppose their retro look provided me with something of the same sensation even when I was five. To put them in their proper context, they were marketed during a far less jaded era, before the advent of graphic slasher films and glamorized violence in video games. It was a time when most kids never saw an R-rated movie unless they dared to sneak into the theater. Just before the ubiquity of cable television and home video, and long before Internet access to truly horrific images.
Would kids go for them today? I think so. If I benefited from the illusion of control amid chaos as a young lad in the comparatively innocent year of 1973, consider the measure of reassurance craved by the children of 2010. It’s a crazy world. We could use a few funny monsters.