Trading Cards, the Vampire on

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A scene from the movie Blood of Dracula, which was featured on a series of trading cards from NuCards in 1961.

Trading Cards, the Vampire on

(pop culture)

Trading cards, offered as premiums for various products (especially bubble gum) grew increasingly popular in the years after World War II, with those picturing sports figures from professional baseball and football taking the lead. Then in the 1960s, nonsports cards began to come into their own and it was in this era that vampires first appeared on them, although a few actors who had portrayed vampires had been pictured earlier. It is interesting to note that sports cards have included non-sport themes as part of their huge 400-plus card sets in recent years. In that light, in 1995, Topps’s Stadium Club football cards included a Vampirella Nightmare subset, and more recently Allen & Ginter in Baseball included “authors” like Bram Stoker (2008) and “myths” such as the vampire and chupacabra (2009) in their baseball cards.

Humor had provided a popular format for trading cards, and humor became the vehicle for introducing the vampire to the media. As early as 1959, Bubbles, Inc. put a vampire card in their series Funny Monsters (You’ll Die Laughing) with the caption that posed the question: “What have you got in a red perfume that smells like blood?” Topps, a major trading card company, entered the field that same year with a picture of Dracula in their Funny Valentines set. The trend continued through the 1960s with vampires being featured on Topps’s Monster Laffs Midgees (1963), Monster Greeting Cards (1965), and Monster Laffs (1966). One greeting noted, “You have a great heart—too bad there’s a stake in it.” While giving way to other formats, humorous cards would continue to appear, and the vampire theme dominated Topps’s series of Wacky Packages produced in the 1970s and 1980s (especially the 1985 set). Cartoon representations of Bela Lugosi and Christopher Lee were featured on humorists Gahen Wilson’s 1990 Monster Baseball trading card set.

Horror movies emerged as a popular theme for trading cards in the 1960s and possibly the first vampires in that decade were in the 1961 NuCard set that included cards from the 1950s movies The Horror of Dracula and Blood of Dracula. Two years later the vampires were given more space in the Famous Monsters set from Rosen Gum Co.

The two original themes that introduced vampires to trading cards came together in the first set of cards to feature vampires, the Munsters Mumbles set (Leaf Brands, 1964), created from the popular television show The Munsters. The set included 72 cards featuring Grandpa Dracula and Lily Munster with black and white stills from the show and an accompanying humorous caption. Card 37, for example, pictured Grandpa next to a clock asking, “It’s midnight, Lily, what’s for breakfast?” Or, card 12 featured Grandpa observing young Eddie Munster, “This kid plays like he’s out for blood.” Before the end of the decade, the popular television show Dark Shadows inspired two sets of cards from Philadelphia Chewing Gum Company featuring the cast and its vampire Barnabas Collins, with black and white stills. The 1968 set was produced without captions and the 1969 set was produced with captions.

During the 1970s, with black and white cards largely a thing of the past, Marvel Comics began to issue cards picturing covers of their highly successful comic books. The first Marvel vampire appeared in the 1974 series that included a cover from The Tomb of Dracula (No. 21). However, overall, vampires and horror were not a popular topic during the 1970s and relatively few appeared, with the exception of a new format known as the vampire card stickers. The picture on these cards could be peeled off and stuck anywhere the owner (presumably a teenager) desired, such as a notebook or the door to a bedroom or locker. The next Marvel set, the Marvel Comic Book Heroes (1975) from Topps, were stickers, and included both Dracula (complaining that “Flying drives me bats.”) and Marvel’s new vampire character Morbius (asking, “Which way to the blood bank?”).

Topps produced the decade’s most unusual set, the Monster Initials cards, each of which had two large letters that pictured a monster (including many vampires). After collecting a selection of cards, the letters, which were also stickers, could be removed to spell words that could be placed on school notebooks or other personal objects. And one of Topps’s most successful sets, the Wacky Packages, variations of which would continue to appear through the 1980s, included vampires on a can of “Bloodweiser” and “Fang Edward.” For the collector, the most desirable and rarest of the decade’s vampire cards were the two mid-decade sets called Shock Theatre, which featured stills from the two Christopher Lee Hammer Films movies, Frankenstein and Horror of Dracula, with humorous captions.

These fifty-one-card sets were printed as test sets (for the United States in 1975 and England the next year) but never widely distributed. They were of relatively high quality and included many pictures of the vampire superstars of the period. Topps would continue to dominate the trading card market through the 1980s although, like the vampire in the comics, the vampire in trading cards all but disappeared through the decade. Topps’s Farout Iron-ons, a variation on the sticker card, opened the decade with a “Dracula for President” card, and the Garbage Pail Kids set (1986) included the likes of “Haunted Hollis” and “Batty Barney.” However, it was not until the 1990s that vampire trading cards (indeed non-sports trading cards of all kinds) would significantly penetrate the popular culture.

Even if you set aside those cards tied to the popular role-playing card game Vampire: The Eternal Struggle (originally released as Jyhad), which with its several expansion sets now includes more than 2,000 vampire-related cards, still more than 90 percent of all of the vampire cards and sets ever produced have appeared since the beginning of the 1990s.

The new wave of vampire cards saw an improved quality of both the paper stock upon which the cards were printed and enhanced printing techniques. In fact, so good was the reproduction, that cards began to be presented as art objects in and of themselves, and a number of graphic artists allowed their fantasy art to be reproduced as card sets. Various card companies played with different materials including metal for making cards, and different methods of highlighting backgrounds (holograms, for example) were used for premium variants and chase cards. Chaos! Comics takes credit for introducing the chromium trading cards first used on the Lady Death set in 1994. Subsequent Lady Death chromium sets also included cards with Chastity, Purgatori, and the other vampires from Chaos! titles. In a few cases, such as the chase cards for the 1996 Munsters sets, shapes were radically varied.

The 1990s also saw the introduction of a number of different size variations from the standard trading card size. Previously, in the 1960s, a few miniaturized cards had appeared, but cards in the 1970s were enlarged to several different sizes from the standard to the 5-by-7-inch colossal cards.

Media led the way in the 1990s with cards based on movies and television. Heralding the new era of vampire trading cards was a 100-card set from Topps with stills from Bram Stoker’s Dracula, the card set appearing as the movie was released in the fall of 1992. The high-quality set was supplemented with a 16-card set that was distributed simultaneously with the Bram Stoker’s Dracula comic book, also published by Topps. A year later a similar set of 60 cards was released to celebrate the enduring popularity of the original television series Dark Shadows and its vampire Barnabas Collins. Not to be outdone, The Munsters, having enjoyed a revival on television that lasted into the early 1990s, became the subject of a new set of 90 cards from Kayro-Vue Productions in 1996, heralding a new comic book series that began in 1997.

A nostalgia similar to that shown for Dark Shadows would also be repeated in similar sets celebrating two decades of Hammer Films horror movies (1957–1974). In 1995 and 1996, Cornerstone Communications released two Hammer Horror series, each with 81 cards (individual sheets for saving standard size trading cards have slots for nine cards per sheet). While covering the whole range of horror movies produced by Hammer Films (The Curse of Frankenstein, The Mummy, The Wolfman), approximately half of the cards covered Hammer’s vampire movies that retained their fan following a quarter of a century after their initial release. Even before the Hammer Horror trading cards, Heritage Toy and Game published The Famous Hammer Playing Cards, which again covered a wide range of Hammer horror but played to the vampire titles.

By the beginning of the 1990s, comic book stores had become the major distributors for non-sports trading cards, and it is not surprising to find a variety of vampire card sets being a spin-off of successful comic books. The most successful vampire comic character of the decade was Vampirella, who appeared in a host of miniseries. In 1995, Topps published the first of four Vampirella sets: the 91-card Visions of Vampirella set. Trading cards as artwork was a significant subtheme of the set, which featured the cover art from both the Warren era Vampirella comics (1970s) and the newer titles from Harris Comics, supplemented by original, never-before-published art that Harris had accumulated. The original set was quickly followed with a seventy-two-card set in a larger size, the Vampirella Gallery, which followed the Visions of Vampirella format with art from both the Warren and Harris eras. The third set, Vampirella Master Visions, tested the new market for colossal cards featuring multiple cards from popular Harris artists John Bolton, Amanda Conner, Joe Lago, Joe Quesada, and Jimmy Palmiotti. A fourth set, returning to standard size, featured the artwork of Joe Jusko from the Vampirella: Blood Lust comic book miniseries.

The initial Vampirella sets explored ways of enticing collectors. In the standard cards, the word Vampirella was printed in red, however, a rarer matching set had the word Vampirella printed in gold. Each set had a number of even rarer chase cards which in the gallery set were printed on a chromium layer. The Vision of Vampirella had a second oversized subset of Vampirella pin-up art, while the Gallery set featured an extremely rare single hologram card featuring artwork by legendary Vampirella artist José Gonzalez.

While Marvel’s commitment to its vampire-related characters waxes and wanes; throughout the 1990s it has included the vampire hunters known as the Midnight Sons in its annual sets of trading cards. Beginning in 1992, the Marvel Universe annual issues from Sky Box have had cards for Morbius and Blade the Vampire Slayer, and with less consistency, Lilith and Blackout (another Marvel vampire). The most spectacular art appeared in the Siege of Darkness and Fall from Grace subsets for the 1994 Marvel Universe. Each subset of nine cards could be assembled into a larger picture of Morbius, Blade, and their supernatural allies and enemies.

Another successful comic book that served as a launching pad for trading cards was Wetworks from Image, who produced two card sets in 1995 (Aegis Entertainment, 107 cards plus chase cards) and 1996 (Cards International, eight cards). Wetworks was also regularly included in the different Wildstorm sets (drawing on a number of related Image series) through the mid-1990s. Brainstorm Comics was launched with the very successful Vamperotica series starring the sexy “Bad Girl” Luxura. In 1994 and 1995, Brainstorm published two Vamperotica sets of 18 cards each (which assembled into a large poster of Luxura). A more impressive 90-card chromium set was released in 1996.

Some of the finest trading cards, judged solely on their artistic merits, came from the many horror and fantasy artists who moved into the trading card market, many turning sets of their artwork into collections of fantasy art. In most cases, the sets put out by artists such as Chris Achilleos, Bernie Wrightson, Boris Vellejo, Greg Hildebrandt, Brom, DeVitio, Bob Eggleston, and Mike Plogg, included only a few vampire-related pictures in what was primarily a set of fantasy art. In many cases the vampire pieces were familiar, having previously appeared as covers or illustrations for vampire books and/or comic books. Bob Eggleston’s card set included the cover of both the books and comic books of Brian Lumley‘s Necroscope series. Boris Vellejo’s Dracula card had been the cover of TOR’s edition of Dracula. And Greg Hildebrandt’s Dracula cards from his “30 Years of Magic” set had previously illustrated images from two juvenile versions of the novel.

Premier graphic artist John Bolton, whose art has been very much in demand throughout the industry, created two sets exclusively of vampire-related art. Though relatively small, with only 12 and 13 cards respectively, his two Vampire Theatre sets were some of the finest trading cards ever published. In like manner, Steve Woron and Don Paresi, two artists who operate out of Illustration Studio in Connecticut and have specialized in drawing fantasy females, have adapted their work for several vampire-related sets, Vampires and Vixens (1993) and Vampyres: Predators of Eternity (1995), and have included vampire cards in other sets. Each individual card is a piece of art in and of itself.

The thousands of vampire trading cards published in the 1990s made it possible for card collectors specializing in the single topic of vampires to emerge, and companies continued to produce trading cards for them to collect. Then at the end of the 1990s, the emergence of the television show Buffy the Vampire Slayer occasioned the significant expansion of the collecting realm for vampire trading cards. In 1998, Inkworks began issuing its very successful Buffy the Vampire Slayer cards adding card sets for each season of Angel in 2001. Cards sets for each season were followed by various retrospect card sets built around particular themes, all capped with the reprinting of the seven seasons of Buffy cards in a special edition complete with coffin-shaped card box. In the end, Inkworks would produce some eighteen sets notable for their many premium cards. As was happening with other card sets based on movies and television shows, costume cards featuring pieces of costumes seen on the show became among the most sought after and hard to get chase cards. These cards have continued to hold their value after the show’s demise, not commonly done among by trading cards, some of the most ephemeral of pop culture items.

The Buffy and Angel cards dominated the decade, which saw a multiplication of vampire-oriented cards, both new sets and individual cards in non-vampire sets. However, by 2008, the publication of new Buffy sets had ended, and Inkworks, shortly before its succumbing to larger economic pressures and going out of business, issued a series of cards drawn from the first movie of Stephenie Meyer‘s popular Twilight series. The Twilight cards surpassed Buffy’s popularity and sold out immediately. Inkworks had underestimated the demand, and under-produced. The cards skyrocketed in value, and NECA, a company that specializes in movie-related merchandise, which already had a license for a whole range of Twilight paraphernalia, picked up the license for the Twilight trading cards. They reissued the first Twilight set (minus a few of the chase cards), which also soon sold out, produced the second set (related to the second twilight movie, The Twilight Saga: New Moon), and will issue future Twilight-related sets. Meanwhile, numerous Twilight-related promo cards (difficult to collect) have appeared from widely scattered sources.

Free when initially distributed, often at a particular comic-book or fan convention, they immediately became valued collector’s items.

The popularity of Buffy and Twilight, set the stage for new cards sets commemorating the popular vampires of Hammer Films, Dark Shadows, the Munsters, and Vampirella. Trading cards are an international phenomenon, and can be found throughout the English-speaking world, across Europe from France to Russia, and very popular in Japan. A number of series have appeared relative to Japanese anime/manga, including popular sets related to Vampire Princess Miyu and Blood the Last Vampire. Most popular has been the artwork of Yoshitaka Amano, who drew the images for Vampire Hunter D.

Unique additions to the world of vampire cards are the popular sketch cards, one of a kind trading cards hand-drawn by artists either as premiums for popular cards sets or as freelance works marketed directly to collectors, usually through various comic and fan conventions. In the 1990s, a few companies tried to market odd-shaped cards. Among the vampire cards, were a selected number of coffin-shaped cards, including one vampire set. As a whole, these were not well received, as they are difficult to fit into the plastic sheets in which collectors most commonly store trading cards, and have disappeared from the market.

Note: This entry was developed from the author’s own collection of trading cards and with the helpful reflections of Lee Scott of Salt Lake City, also a collector. Information on vampire related trading-card sets may be found at Jeff Allendar’s House of Checklists (http://nslists.com/jachlist.htm).