TOP MARVELS

Marvel Comics and Top Trumps Part I

Welcome back dear fiends to the 'Orrible 'Ouse of Terrible Old Tat! While a new year may well be beckoning, rest assured that all of the crew here at the 'Orrible Old'Ouse have our eyes firmly looking to the past, where things may not have been better but certainly on many occasions were more amusing! Now on this blog, several years ago, we ran a lengthy series on the infamous Horror Top Trumps sets (which may well be resurrected in a new form at some point this year), however they weren't the only cultish decks available. And today we're going to have a look at another must-have pack!

Now in case you don't know, Top Trumps is an enduringly popular species of card game, and the basics are as follows. Every deck has a theme, such as cars, tanks, animals, and each card features an particular item complete with a picture, sometimes a bit of text, but always with a list of statistics. To play the game, players pick one of these stats from the top card in their hand and compares it with the other players' card. Whoever has the highest or best stat wins that round, with the winner collecting the vanquished cards and adding them to his hand. The game ends when one player has got all the cards (or someone has a massive strop). It's a very easy game to learn, quick to play, and the game has been adapted to many themes over the years, ensuring that no matter what floats your boat, at some point there's been a Top Trumps deck to suit your interests. And yes, there have been adults only naughty decks produced over the years!

However while the leading brand and game generally goes under the name of Top Trumps, thanks to the way the game evolved - namely being spawned by earlier card games such as Quartets and Ace Trumps (a history which is explained here) - no one company or individual own the copyright. Hence many different companies have produced Top Trumps-a-like games. In fact, even in 1977, the year Dubrec launched Top Trumps in the UK, within months rival companies had started producing their own Trumps-a-like games. And as it happens, one of the coolest decks to own back in the first flowering of Top Trumps mania, and one of the most fondly remembered, wasn't an official Top Trumps deck.

But to set the scene, we first have to step out of the toy shop, carefully step over that hazardous pile of white dog poo, and pop in the newsagent next door. Just as in America, Britain had a flourishing comics industry entertaining the nation's kids, and just as the market in the US was dominated by two titans, Marvel and DC, weirdly enough, it was the same state of affairs in the UK, with another DC - DC Thomson, publishers of venerable heavyweight titles such as The Dandy and The Beano, fighting it out with arch rivals IPC for dominance of the British comics market. However in the 1972 the titanic twosome's fortunes were threatened by the sense-shattering arrival of a bold new outfit. Can you guess who that was true believers?

Now American comic books had been finding their way to this septic isle for many decades beforehand. Famously in the war-years, US comic books were packed into the crates as padding. However thanks to the vagaries of shipping and having no proper national distribution network, while you could find copies of US comics featuring the likes of Batman and Spider-man in UK shops, it was somewhat a haphazard affair, and the mighty superheroes of Marvel and DC were better known through reprints by UK publishers such as Odhams Press or Alan Class Comics. However these reprint deals had petered out at the end of the 1960s, and hence in the early 1970s, Stan Lee decided it was high time to bring Marvel back to British shores.

He realised that aside from the expense of shipping comic books to the UK, and lacking a proper means of distribution in Blighty, there was another tricky problem. And that was that UK comics were very different to their US cousins. Rather than been published monthly, British comics appeared weekly. They were twice the size, and rather than featuring the adventures of one character each issue, British comics were anthologies running several strips in every week. With characteristic insight, Stan realised that for Marvel to break the British market, they needed to radically rethink their comics. Like the Skrulls they would have to shapeshift to infiltrate the UK comics scene. And so, Marvel UK was born, an outfit based in that London, but taking orders from the Big Apple, with a remit to publish classic tales from the House of Ideas, but in a format that blended in with the home-grown British titles. Hence in early 1972, a new weekly comic appeared in newsagents up and down the land, The Mighty World of Marvel, which served up adventures featuring The Hulk, Spider-man and The Fantastic Four.

It was soon joined by Spider-man Comics Weekly later in 1972, with more titles being added to the roster over the next few years. Pete Parker got a second title all to himself, The Amazing Spider-Man, The Superheroes featured tales of the X-Men and the Silver Surfer while The Titans brough British kids the adventures of Captain America, the Sub-mariner, Captain Marvel and the Inhumans. Outside the land of the spandex brigade, Marvel UK also thrilled kids with a Planet of the Apes tie-in comic and more exciting still, delivered spooky action with Dracula Lives that featured a selection from their horror lines. In 1975 a young chap called Neil Tennant was put in charge - yes, the same Neil Tennant who is now half of the Pet Shop Boys - and his two year reign saw Marvel UK begin to produce their own UK-grown material for the Marvel Universe with the debut of Captain Britain in 1976.

So then by 1977, the year Top Trumps was released, nay, unleashed upon the nation's kiddiewinks, Marvel UK had a thriving stable of titles and were giving IPC and DC Thomson a run for their money. Plus they had given Britain its very own Marvel superhero to boot! Marvel was no more an exotic import, but was now well and truly part of British pop culture. Now the initial decks in the Top Trumps range were very much vehicle obsessed, with packs themed around cars, motorbikes, tanks and planes. However some bright spark in a rival company noted how these card games were selling like hot cakes and had the smart idea of producing a game that might appeal to something other than the petrolhead market...

NEXT TIME! Discover how kids in the '70s could play their own version of Civil War decades before Marvel had come up with that epic storyline!

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