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Trading Card Set of the Week – Star Wars Galaxy (1993, Topps)

December 5, 2014

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Hot upon the heels of last week’s teaser for the year-out Star Wars: The Force Awakens, here comes a relic from a more halcyon, peaceful era of Star Wars fandom. Remember the good old days, before the Expanded Universe and turgid prequels relentlessly watered down the galaxy far, far away? When the Emperor was just the Emperor, and only the most ardent Star Wars nerds called him Palpatine (which has always rung in these ears like a generic name for heart medication)? When the Force was a mystical glue binding all life in the universe, and not a condition decided by a midi-chlorian count, which turned it into something about as charming as space-AIDS? And when, yes, Han shot first, like anyone with half a brain would when confronted with a blaster pointed right at their mush?

Today’s Trading Card Set of the Week is a time capsule of that simpler time, before George Lucas got so insulated in his unfathomable wealth (not to mention a corporate hierarchy with no guts to respectfully dissent) that he lost his creative way, and committed unpardonable sins like “updating” classics with special effects that now look more dated than the analog wizardry they were meant to improve. Star Wars Galaxy: in 1993 it came, it saw, and it dazzled.

Any discussion of these cards and what they meant to fans weaned on the Lucasfilm oeuvre has to start with the fact that they were released pre-internet. Yes, it existed, but hadn’t yet exploded, and it was exponentially less a societal force (no pun) than it is today, when people start to get the shakes if they’re away from a connected device for more than five minutes. (The modern internet also lets grown men post videos of themselves weeping with joy at watching a trailer, which I find so disturbing I don’t even know where to goddamn start.) Without your pick of news and fan sites, Star Wars information was much harder to come by, and you had to settle for officially sanctioned products to sate your curiosity about the wider SW world. (I’ve never played an RPG in my life, but I used to buy the big Star Wars guides just so I could flesh things out in my head.)

The Star Wars Galaxy series served a two-fold purpose: both to present info about the characters, aliens, setting, et cetera of that universe, and most importantly, to showcase art new and old. The latter offered a visual celebration of a franchise that, to that point, had been pretty much an unalloyed success — Holiday Specials and Ewoks notwithstanding. And in this it succeeded magnificently.

The cards, produced by old collaborator Topps, who had issued the assorted sets and series for all three of the original films — we’ll probably get to some of those in the run-up to the new trilogy — were glossy and well-made, with an understated design that let the eyes focus on the artwork that was, after all, the selling point. Were they “deluxe,” as the box advertises? I’m not sure what a deluxe trading card is. I can tell you what a deluxe cheeseburger would be, but a deluxe Star Wars card is a more esoteric proposition. But whatever the descriptor, they looked good, and they sated a hunger for Star Wars cards that had existed since the last Return of the Jedi wax packs disappeared from shelves.

The 140 card set opens with a dozen-plus character cards, with portraits of all the major players in the original trilogy, all crafted by Hollywood vet Joe Smith. They’re nice likenesses, though the coloring leaves a bit to be desired — there’s a ghastly pallor to them that makes it look like every character depicted is either A) suffering from seasickness or B) just coming off an intensive round of chemotherapy. Leia appears to be half Andorian — either that or a corpse:

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The backs offered few revelations, though Boba Fett’s dropped a bit of knowledge about Mandalorean armor, which led many minds down an imaginative path regarding the Clone Wars, one which would be overwritten by the prequels (please note the Darth Vader silhouette around the card number):

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Design sketches are next, for vehicles, droids, creatures and humans — even a poorly received Wookie family from a long-buried, ill-advised network special:

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There are a couple of cards for the early designs of Yoda. This one makes him look a lot more mischievous than the finished product, with a dash of Rumpelstiltskin and Spike from Gremlins:

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Who steals the show but, of course, Ralph McQuarrie, Star Wars concept artist par excellence. His ideas put meat on the skeleton of an idea that Lucas had back in the 1970s, and probably had more to do with the eventual success of the picture than any other contributing factor. The highest compliment one can pay to his work is that people would line up to watch remakes of the original movies that were literal translations, a canvas to screen transference, of his visions. I don’t know that I’d stand in that line, but I’d definitely be curious about the finished product. Anyway — this card showing the Emperor zapping Luke is so familiar, so different, and so sublime:

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One of the surprising delights of the cards are those presenting promotional artwork for the films from around the world. Movie posters have become so bland, banal and standardized in the last twenty years, it’s easy to forget how they were once genuine works of pop art. Drew Sturzan may have a gentle painter’s touch, but no one would confuse his hazy collages with their flares and stares into nothingness with the insane creativity of old. Witness the card below, which shows an out-there Philipe Druillet Star Wars poster concept that turns Vader’s helmet into a Mayan pyramid of sorts, with stone Stormtroopers arrayed in a fiery gauntlet below:

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Like Star Trek, Star Wars has its share of kitsch: collector’s plates, etc. In the spirit of Christmas, here’s a McQuarrie image culled from a holiday greeting card — C-3PO has always been a droid of effete mannerisms, but never has he looked more feminine, like a Playmate gearing up for the X-Mas party at Heff’s mansion:

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The last fifty or so cards are contemporary works from a selection of leading comic book artists: George Perez, Gil Kane, Joe Quesada, Keith Giffen — the list goes on. It’s hard to pick one to represent them all, but Sam Kieth’s interpretation of Salacious Crumb, Jabba the Hutt’s cackling hanger-on, is pretty much perfect — more Muppety, but still with the look that makes you want to smack him with a rolled up newspaper:

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The backs of these cards have photos of the artists, or odd self-portraits. Kieth’s has, not surprisingly, one of the latter:

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The six-foil enhanced chase cards came two to a box (though on occasion there were three per). All feature art by the always welcome Walt Simonson, who also did work for the base set. They form a 2×3 puzzle collage of all the main characters when assembled. Han Solo is maybe the character best suited to Simonson’s style (note that you can see Vader’s cape and lightsaber as well as R2-D2’s projection of Princess Leia bleeding over):

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This is a fun set, with a design you can only quibble with — sometimes the borders feel like they’re squeezing the artwork, and you just wish that Topps had gone full-bleed with them all and let the images breathe. And by God, there’s no Admiral Ackbar — maybe he sensed a trap and high-tailed it out of his portrait sitting. But they more than hold their own with higher end cards of the time, like the Marvel Masterpieces, which are perhaps the high-water mark of the period. You can still find unopened boxes for a little over twenty dollars, maybe less, and full sets are priced accordingly. They’re worth every penny. There have been a number of sequel Galaxy sets over the years, right up  to the present day, but they’ve never quite had the magic of this first foray — rather like how we haven’t had the same degree of movie magic since the original films.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. December 6, 2014 10:33 pm

    I don’t have the trading cards, but I do have the awesome oversized booth The Art of Star Wars Galaxy that features much of that artwork from the card set. Over the past twenty years I’ve gotten the book autographed by several of the artists, including June Brigman, Walter Simonson, George Perez, Bill Sienkiewicz, Al Williamson, and Michael Kaluta.

    FYI, Kaluta did illustrate a very cool card featuring Admiral Ackbar and the Mon Calamari…

    http://www.tradingcarddb.com/ViewCard.cfm/sid/75144/cid/5338758/1993-Topps-Star-Wars-Galaxy-98-Michael-Wm.-Kaluta?PageIndex=1

    • December 6, 2014 11:32 pm

      You’re correct about the Ackbar/Mon Calamari card — I meant more a standard portrait type deal. “Ackbar in Repose” or something. If you can pick Ackbar out of that one, you have keener eyes than I do.

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