Book Review: 'Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back: The Original Topps Trading Card Series - Volume Two'

(C) 2015 Abrams ComicsArt and Lucasfilm Ltd (LFL) 
The Story So Far....

A long time ago in a South Florida apartment far, far away, I started collecting Topps' Star Wars trading cards.

It was the fall of 1977, and we were "in between" houses; Mom had sold our three bedroom, one-and-a-half bathroom home (with its huge backyard) in September and bought a townhouse in the Fountainbleau Park complex of condos, based on a couple of visits to the model home and on the floor plans provided by Trafalgar, the General Electric-owned developer that was building the new Eastwind Lake Village subdivision of Fountainbleau. I wasn't keen on the idea, but I was 14 at the time and not in a position to question my mother's decisions. The developers had promised my mother the house would be ready by October, but bad weather and issues with the builders caused delays. Now we were stuck in that apartment till January, perhaps even February of 1978.

I wasn't thrilled about living in that small apartment at the El Portal complex; it was a bleak two-bedroom affair, which meant that because Mom had one room and my older half-sister Vicky had the other, I slept on a cot in the living room. I was not used to living like that, nor did I feel any sense of joy about the move. The only thing I looked forward to once the house was ready was having my own room again.

For these reasons - and many others, I must admit - I looked for anything that would provide any escape from the angst I was feeling. And George Lucas's Star Wars was that magical vehicle.

I've written elsewhere about my rather late embrace of Star Wars fandom, so I won't repeat that account here, except to point out that it was while we were living in that dark, cramped, and uncomfortable apartment in Sweetwater that I saw The Making of Star Wars special on ABC-TV, and that soon after that I saw the record-setting film itself at least three times before we moved to our new house in Eastwind Lake Village. 

While we were in our Sweetwater "exile," I didn't have much of a Star Wars collection. I remember reading the Del Rey paperback edition of the novelization. I also remember borrowing Issues 1-3 (maybe even #4, as well) from Carlos Vega, one of the few kids my age that lived in our building. 

As I wrote in my review of Star Wars: The Original Topps Trading Cards:

 [B]ecause the home video revolution was still a few years away, fans could only "bring the movie home" in a bare handful of ways:

  • The novelization by George Lucas (actually written by Alan Dean Foster)
  • The aforementioned Marvel Comics adaptation
  • Topps' Star Wars trading cards

Topps is, of course, a New York City-based candy and gum manufacturer founded in 1934. It is perhaps best-known for its sports-themed trading cards, but the company also makes cards based on pop culture, including hit film and TV franchises. Savvy trading card fans will also tell you that Topps is where Wacky Packages and the Garbage Pail Kids originated.

Anyway, sometime around November 1977 I began crossing a busy thoroughfare in Sweetwater, Florida known as Andrews Boulevard (aka SW 109th Avenue) to buy Star Wars trading cards at a nearby Safeway grocery store.

We left the apartment and moved into our new townhouse in late February of 1978. As soon as I found a convenience store within walking distance where Star Wars trading cards were sold, I went there every weekend. By then, though, I was also collecting the new action figures from Kenner, so I didn't buy too as many of the cards-and-stickers as before. I limited myself to getting packs from all five of Topps' Star Wars Trading Cards series, but not as obsessively as I had in 1977. When Topps closed the production line down in 1979, I felt no sense of loss; I was too focused on getting action figures and their assorted vehicles, playsets, and carrying cases. 

The Empire Strikes Back

By the time Star Wars - Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back premiered in May 1980, my love for the franchise had grown exponentially. By then I was collecting items that interested me or allowed me "to take the movie experience home." VHS videocassette recorders were just then becoming a hot household item, but they were still expensive - the cheapest I saw at the time cost upward of $800.00 - and I only knew one neighbor who owned one. (She and her husband were real estate agents and made really good money!) As a result, I bought the novelization by Donald F. Glut, the soundtrack album on LP, the Marvel Comics adaptation, and, of course, packs of Topps' trading cards. 

A selection of Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back "Star File" cards and the title card for Topps' 1980 Red Series. (C) 1980 Topps Chewing Gum Company and Lucasfilm Ltd. (LFL)

This time, though, I wasn't as obsessive about the cards and stickers as I had been with the Star Wars cards early series. Yes, I liked the new metallic border look that the editor of Topps Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back cards, Gary Gerani, and his team designed for the cards. I also loved the quality of the photos provided by Lucasfilm (the "Star Wars Corporation" had been absorbed by its parent company by then), and as a reader, I enjoyed the copy Topps provided on the reverse sides.

This card's "dialogue" was written before Gary Gerani, Topps' editor for this card series, had even heard Yoda speak. 

In Series One, for instance, Gerani made Card #1 a "title card," a feature that became the norm for Topps' movie tie-in trading cards. On the front, the card depicted a publicity shot of Lord Darth Vader flanked by two Imperial stormtroopers; the reverse side had an introductory blurb that repeated, word for word, the text of the film's title crawl from an early draft of the Leigh Brackett-Lawrence Kasdan script:

After the destruction of its most feared battle station, the Empire has declared martial law throughout the galaxy.

A thousand worlds have felt the oppressive hand of the Emperor as he attempts to crush the growing Rebellion. 

As the Imperial grip of tyranny tightens, Princess Leia and the small band of freedom fighters searches for a more secure base of operations....

I was also fond of the "Star Quotes" feature Topps added in later sets. These, of course, were lines of dialogue taken mostly from The Empire Strikes Back, although later in the production run Topps' writers included quotes from the original Star Wars movie.

Alas, even at a time when Star Wars action figures cost an average of $2.99 each (compared, boys and girls, to $15.99 for a Black Series 6-inch figure in 2018), I had to spend my allowance wisely. I could not simply buy everything that had Star Wars plastered on it, so cutbacks had to be made. I chose to not get too many Topps trading cards-and-stickers sets.

And, that, dear reader, was the death blow for my Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back card collection. My visits to the Camelot hobby store in the nearby shopping plaza didn't quite stop; I bought a couple of Star Wars  model kits there,  and before the elderly owners retired and sold the store, I purchased my first Playboy magazines there. But except for a handful of Return of the Jedi trading card packs I bought at that store in the summer of 1983, I didn't ask the clerk for "my usual Star Wars cards."

The Book

In 1980, following the success of Star Wars (1977) and five tie-in trading card series based on the blockbuster film, Topps released three new series of collectible bubble gum cards to coincide with the release of The Empire Strikes Back. Now, for the first time, all 352 cards and 88 stickers are reprinted in a single deluxe volume. Reproducing the fronts and backs of each card, this collection includes character pro­files, story cards, movie facts, quotes, trivia, and puzzles featuring beloved characters and scenes from The Empire Strikes Back. Also included are four bonus trading cards, the Photo Card series, rare promotional images, and an introduction and commentary by Gary Gerani, the original editor of Topps’s Star Wars series.  - from the dust jacket blurb

On April 16, 2016, Abrams ComicsArt, an imprint of Abrams Books, published Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back: The Original Topps Trading Cards - Volume Two. Edited by Gary Gerani, this follow-up to Star Wars: The Original Topps Trading Cards tells the story of how Gerani and his team of artists and designers created three "basic" cards series, as well as the larger format Photo Card series and other special issues. 

In addition, Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back: The Original Topps Trading Cards - Volume Two features every single card (352 in all)  and sticker (88 of them) in beautiful full color, including views of the front and reverse side of the trading cards. 

The reverse side  of Yoda's "Star File" card (#9 in Series 1). Note that Yoda's age is given as 973 and that his species is unknown. (C) 1980 Topps Chewing Gum Company and Lucasfilm Ltd. (LFL)
Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back: The Original Topps Trading Cards - Volume Two is, like the previous book in the series, a compact yet sturdy hardcover book. It is not oversized like many coffee table books published by Abrams, but at 548 pages and a weight of 2.2 pounds, it's not a lightweight volume, either. 

It is, however, the best way to own the Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back trading cards without spending a fortune seeking actual cards in mint or near-mint condition in, as I like to say, "the wild."  

The illustrations reveal the cards and stickers that Gerani admits are far better than the 1977-1979 Star Wars sets. He gives credit not only to improved equipment and graphic design at the Topps end of things, but also to Lucasfilm, which provided the Brooklyn-based trading card maker with all the photos and character information needed to make the series visually appealing and informative without giving away any important plot points George Lucas didn't want fans to know till after they saw the movie.  

The design of the book mimics details from the Topps trading card packaging. The dust jacket that comes with the book looks like the wrapper of the Series One cards, and it is made from paper that looks and feels like the ones the company uses in the wrappers. The font and illustrations also are done in the same style. And, if you remove the dust jacket, the artwork on the book cover is a "stick" of bubble gum, rendered in the traditional Topps pink!

All in all, Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back: The Original Topps Trading Cards - Volume Two is a treasure trove of information about one of the most popular tie-in products made during the Classic Trilogy era. It's a worthy addition to any Star Wars fan's library. It's also a window into the wonderful world of trading cards and the role they play in recording American pop culture. 

So, until next time, dear reader, may the Force be with you.