Once upon a time...

"Topps Ugly Stickers"
By Pete Boulay
In 1954, Mad magazine switched its usual cover for issue #11 with one that spoofed Life Magazine. Instead of the gorgeous movie star or model, MAD featured Basil Wovelton’s own version of a beautiful girl. With Lena the Hyena’s cratered face and crooked teeth, millions of youths were immediately hooked. The release of MAD paperbacks in the later 50’s and 60’s exposed more kids to Wolverton’s art. In 1965, Topps contacted Wolverton to paint some images for an upcoming sticker series. After Wolverton painted about ten images for the series, negotiations broke down and Wolverton refused to paint any more images for the set. The working title for the set was called “Finks” probably after the popular Fink Buttons.
Len Brown, who worked at Topps for many years, remembers the Ugly Stickers well. “Ugly Stickers was one of the biggest items that we ever created. Back in those days, we never thought of issuing multiple series, so there was just one basic series released and it just sold and sold. It wasn't until Wacky Packages took off several years later that we thought of continually creating new subjects and keep the product alive.”
Basil Wolverton
Basil Wolverton did do some of the artwork in this series. Wally Wood (of EC Comics/Mad fame) also did a lot of the design work. A young fellow in his mid 20s from California (first name was Tom, but unfortunately I can't remember his last name) did a lot of the paintings over the pencils. Tom had a great sense of color and we felt he added a lot to the look of the final product. We flew Tom in from the West Coast and he worked on painting the series for several weeks. Unfortunately, we learned about a year later or so that he was tragically shot to death in an accident.” (Does any avid Wrapper readers know who “Tom” could be?)
When asked about Norm Saunders involvement with the project, Len had this to say: “Any item that Topps produced after Civil War Cards (which was Norm's first job with us) could have had Norm involved. We recognized his talent and would call him in to help "salvage" some underwhelming artwork many times. Of course, we often started with Norm, knowing how talented and dependable he was.”
Wally Wood
David Saunders, the son of Norm Saunders, recalls the complete story of the “Ugly” beginning: “It all started normally enough. Dad came back from a call to Topps with a new project to make a set of cards that had no working title. It was based on a particular style of monstrous creatures. Dad had brought home some pictures of the preliminary designs that he was assigned to use as role models for inventing additional creatures. Dad did not know they were designs by Basil Wolverton, but I did recognize them because I loved MAD magazine and I treasured my copy of issue #11 with Wolverton's astonishing portrait of Lena the Hyena. I showed it to Dad and told him that Basil Wolverton was a famous cartoonist to kids my age. I thought it was a great project. There was no name for the set at that time. Dad was assigned to create 20 designs of creature in the same general style of a few samples of Basil Wolverton's art that he was given. Right away, Norm began to design crazy creatures inspired by Basil Wolverton's style of cartoon character. After dinner, Norm stayed in the kitchen until late at night and designed about twelve creatures, scribbled on scrap paper torn from brown paper shopping bags. The next day Dad showed me his designs and asked me which ones were best. Dad told me how he began to realize that Wolverton's designs were ingenious.
Norman Saunders and David Saunders
"They look simple and crude, but they are incredibly well-designed. It's really hard to make something like these!” By the time I got back from school, Dad had transferred the best one onto a piece of illustration board and had painted it to look realistically formed. That first one Norm had made was eventually card #44, showing a blue spaghetti-haired monster. The following day Norm took it down to Topps to get their approval to confirm that he was working in the right direction. Topps loved it and told him to make as many more as possible. Dad came back from Topps happy and he was about to begin painting more of them when he got a very disturbing phone call from Wally Wood. After Dad hung up he was visibly shaken. Dad told me that Wally Wood had called to tell him that Topps was exploiting Basil Wolverton and the artists had to stand united to refuse to work for Topps unless they lived up to their signed contract with Basil Wolverton.
Card #44
Dad was intellectually pro-labor, so the appeal (was) irresistible. Norman Saunders never crossed any picket line to patronize any business where workers were striking. But Norm also never had any "contract" with Topps, so he had asked Wally Wood what Wolverton's contract had demanded, and what had Topps failed to do? Wood said that Basil Wolverton had a signed agreement with Topps to sell them the permission for one-time-use of 10 copyrighted designs for $1,000. Dad was flabbergasted. He was paid around $10 for each finished card. Dad did freelance work for Topps in 1965 for minimum hourly wages of $2. Wally assured Norm that they would all stand to earn better money from Topps and royalties, if they acted united. Wally Wood said, "Wolverton is right to ask this kind of money and demand respectful treatment from Topps for our life's work!"
Wally told Norm that Topps had first invited Basil Wolverton to submit some ideas for a card set of 44 crazy creatures. When Wolverton finally delivered the first ten examples, Topps loved the pencil designs, but Wolverton had also brought in a contract that retained the copyright for the artist and demanded $100 for the one-time use of each image. Topps signed the deal, but instead of proceeding to assign the remaining 34 images to Basil Wolverton, they went behind his back to Norman Saunders and hired him to design those creatures in the style of Basil Wolverton because they preferred to pay Norm his cheap wages instead. Wally told Norm that he was being tricked by Topps. Dad agreed not to make any more of the designs he had been assigned, and then he hung up. He had joined an artist's "strike" against Topps. But we were too poor to afford such risks! The next day Topps called. It was Ben Solomon, the notoriously stingy business manager. He said, "Norm, you'll never work for us again if you go against us!" Norm told Ben he was doing his best to come up with some more designs but they were much harder to make than he had first thought. The ideas just weren't flowing out. Norm said it might take a while, knowing that Topps never had any time to wait for any jobs. Dad joked afterwards, "It's now more of a 'slow-down' and less of a 'strike!'"
Ugly Stickers display box
Over the next two weeks his determination slacked and swayed as he smoked and sat idle for the only time in his life. He feverishly checked the want ads for illustration jobs. Wally Wood called one or twice to report on developments, but it looked bad. Then word came from Topps that they finally agreed to buy the ten preliminary designs from Basil Wolverton outright. They now owned the copyrights, but they would never work with Wolverton again. The set was re-conceived as including monstrous creatures that did not need to be in the style of Basil Wolverton. So Wally Wood designed 17 creatures and Norman Saunders designed 17 creatures. Norm painted (many) of the cards in the set. Norm's #44 became the image used on the display box and the wax wrapper, because Topps no longer wanted to produce a set of cards that promoted Basil Wolverton, while they still wanted to capitalize on his fame among kids.
12-piece puzzle with design for card #3
Dad's design of the crawling eye for #3 was featured on the 12-piece bonus puzzle. Dad had asked me, "What's the scariest monster in the world?" He and I had just recently watched "The Crawling Eye" on the Million-Dollar Movie, a show on WOR-TV Channel Nine in NYC. That film had terrified me, so I told him how creepy it seemed to me, and he painted that creature from his recollection of the movie.
So Norman Saunders actually had a very big part in this UGLY STICKERS series by the time it was all done. Dad did not even know the set would come out as stickers. Of course, none of the artists were allowed to sign any of their work, but most kids knew right away that the series was identified with Basil Wolverton.
For the collector seeking out to collect Ugly Stickers, there are a lot of choices. Like many of Topps popular sets, there are reissues, which tend to be more affordable to collectors. For the completist, there’s OPC and U.K.issues too, as well as spin-off items.
To be continued in the tabs above...