The people at Topps who put together the original runs of Star Wars trading cards had a difficult task. According to Star Wars Year By Year: A Visual Chronicle, the first set of 66 cards appeared in August of 1977, a mere three months after the film’s premiere (and right around the time that the first bootleg Star Wars merch appeared in the back of Rolling Stone). There were five sets of cards for the first film, and 330 cards in total. That’s a lot of captions and images to try to draw from a two-hour film, particularly one which was lauded for the simplicity of its storytelling and its directorial style.
There were plenty of production stills to work with as well, but there’s still only so much blood in any given stone, and they certainly have my sympathies; it reminds me of a horrible copywriting gig where I had to come up with a couple different hundred ways to re-write the same basic marketing spiel for an alarm company. At least the Topps folks got to work with Star Wars.
I’m going to jump around in continuity, mostly because it makes for better jokes, but if you’re curious, they were released in this order: Blue (001-066); Red (067-132); Yellow (133-198); Green (199-264); and Orange (265-330). This is all courtesy of the probably-not-strictly-licensed Star Wars Stores site.
1. Exclamation Points Make It Exciting!
It’s just a basic rule of English, isn’t it? Whether it’s a Tusken Raider on a very slow-moving bantha…
… or just a random shot of Mark Hamill looking concerned.
And how about Han Solo being overjoyed?
Why’s he overjoyed, anyway?
Exclamation points can also make seeming mundane business transactions seem action-packed!
Oooh, which one is he going to buy?
And if you’re still not convinced that sales can be exciting…
There are two things which can be dynamic when seen in motion, but lose something when they’re reduced to a single frame, without a beginning, middle, and end: winks, and explosions. Y’know the running joke in Arrested Development of Lucille winking by just closing one eye and keeping it closed? That’s pretty much how all pictures of winks look to me, no matter who’s doing it. Just plain creepy.
Anyway, explosions aren’t particularly exciting if you don’t at least know how the ‘sploded thing looked before. (I realize that the owners of the cards, as well as readers of Topless Robot, most likely know the context of each picture. But roll with me here.) Not even if it’s a mighty explosion…
…or a stormtrooper getting blasted…
…or another stormtrooper also getting blasted…
…or the chasm shoot-out, which looks very unhealthy what with all the smoke…
…or my personal favorite, a laser rife blasting…something. Allegedly.
And, of course, they all have exclamation points, because excitement!
3. Hey, You Said That One Thing!
It’s just not a good idea to try to conjugate the words “Star Wars” beyond the title. Hence…
…and if those aren’t bad enough, but clunkiest is an attempt to make a “star war” a thing:
Yeah, no. On the other hand, the Topps copywriters apparently scoured all the promotional materials they could, and possibly even the shooting script, hence this next card probably making at least one young fan go, “Huh? Dark lord of the what now?”
Note that “Sith,” or possibly the entire phrase “The Dark Lord of the Sith” was already trademarked, just in case. From what I can tell by poking around in the Trademark Electronic Search System, the full phrase is not trademarked, and the worth “Sith” wasn’t trademarked until 1997. These are the kind of things I can spend waaaaaay too much time researching.
This is the one that really gets me, though:
I’m honestly not sure when the green series of cards was released — the only date I can find for any of them is simply 1977, and it’s possible they were indeed all released that year — but I’m guessing this is just a coincidence, especially since the second film was known simply as “Chapter 2” for much of pre-production (according to what I remember from Dale Pollock’s Skywalking: The Life and Films of George Lucas, which I don’t have handy at the moment). If you’d had to come up with hundreds of distinct captions within a very limited framework, you might have accidentally come up with the words “the empire strikes back” by accident, too.
4. Enh, There’s No Up or Down in Space, Right?
I’m cheating a little by expanding strictly beyond the ’77 Topps cards to include the ’78 Wonder Bread cards, but it’s to illustrate a recurring bubagoo in past decades when it came to sci-fi and print media: pictures were frequently printed upside down. Or sideways. Or backwards. Or all of the above. A very common sight was the Death Star’s superlaser poking down from the top of the frame:
The goof aside, the Topps people were good about shifting between landscape and portrait orientation depending on the needs of the picture. Wonder Bread, not so much. As a result, the X-Wing looks like it’s jumping to its death…
…and you can probably explain away Vader’s TIE Fighter as spiraling away after getting hit…
…and this Star Destroyer is doing its best impression of the Titanic.
5. Thinkin’ About Stuff.
Come for the space battles, stay for the suspecting!
The, um, yenning!
And, most excitingly, the cross-armed wondering!
6. Fatigue Sets In.
I really do wonder why more of the cards didn’t just quote dialog from the movie.
Is it a labyrinth, by any definition of the word? No, but…look, it’s something to say, all right?
Quote-Jawa-unquote? Heck of a time to bust out the scare quotes, guys.
What’s a thing that Luke’s character is doing in a general sense?
What’s another thing that’s doing in an even more general sense, but with more closely cropped picture?
And what’s another word for what Han Solo is? We’ve used pirate, scoundrel, rogue…
Yeah, that’s a good one.
7. How the Star Sausage is Made.
By the latter half of the orange set, they pretty much gave up on trying to find new things to say about the same movie stills, instead turning to some very cool behind-the-scenes picture.
Some are hilarious…
…some are a tad creepy…
…some are just of more random ‘splosions…
…and some probably provided comfort to young boys late at night. As it were.
And speaking of such things…
8. C-3PO is Happy to See You.
This isn’t really a theme at all because it only happened once, but it deserves mentioning all the same. In the green set, this appeared…
Yeah. It was, unsurprisingly, soon replaced by a more family-friendly version.
According to Snopes quoting a since-disappeared quote from StarWars.com, it is not an airbrushing prank by a bored Topps worker, but rather a piece of the costume which happened to fall off and line up juuuuuuuuuuust right when the picture was taken.
What’s the truth? I hope we never find out.
Previously by Sherilyn Connelly: