Licensed to Cash-In: Topps' Jurassic Park

Licensed to Cash-In: Topps' Jurassic Park

The 90s were a wild time in the world of comics. With the main two comic publishers deep in the depths of the Dark Age with pouches and guns galore, other comic companies began to sprout up right and left. Most of these fly-by-night companies were founded by stars of the industry striking it out on their own, investors with dollar signs in their eyes, or some random entertainment company who decided to diversify into a crowded market with dollar signs in their own eyes as well. While talent never minded working with these companies, original ideas and unique properties were often rare. This left it down to licensed comics, and unlikely properties were snapped up right and left with some of the real pros of the comics world making the final product.

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Case in point, Topps Comics’ Jurassic Park comics.

Topps Comics grew out of the actual trading card company Topps in 1992 like a third arm sprouting out of someone’s forehead. Most of their marketing strategy seems to have been capitalizing on some of Jack Kirby’s old discarded comic designs, making spin-offs out of licensed comics, and picking up just about every comics license on the planet. Topps Comics’ library consisted of exactly three unique titles out of their publishing history, one of which was a sexified female Zorro… and another was based off a pair of Playboy models.

But hey, the third one was Cadillacs and Dinosaurs. It wasn’t a total loss, at least.

When it came to licensed properties, Topps was able to snag some of the biggest ones of the mid-90s. Mars Attacks, the X-Files, Bram Stoker’s Dracula (the movie), James Bond’s Goldeneye outing, and (of course) 1993’s Jurassic Park. Despite being mostly-disposable cash-in books, a few of them are highly sought after by collectors, like the X-Files comics.

Topps Comics made one hell of a marketing blitz with Jurassic Park. The concepts of “zero issues” were big in the industry at the time, with DC eventually literally making an entire event to create zeroth issues for their entire line under the name Zero Hour next year. Since just about any zero issue sold thanks almost entirely to short-sighted investors, a zero issue was created to hype up the four-issue miniseries releasing with the movie. Wrapped in a plastic bag with a few trading cards, the comic also had an extra-gimmicky flip book format where the comic had to be flipped halfway through to read the other story. However, the money wasn’t just shoved into the marketing and the license. The all-star talent was shoved in as well, with Walter Simonson himself on the script.

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Joining Simonson in the adaptation of the blockbuster hit of 1993 was Gil Kane on pencils, the legendary George Perez on inks, Tom Smith on colors, and John Workman for lettering. The two prequel tales had Mike DeCarlo or Dick Giordano on inks with Renee Witterstaetter on colors for both chapters.

The introductory chapters in issue zero featured character introductions for the lawyer Gennaro, the hacker Dennis Nedry, and John Hammond. As it was sold prior to the movie’s launch, it contained some massive spoilers in the case of Nedry being a sell-out to a rival company. As for the adaptation itself, the book seems to have been based on an earlier draft of the script. A lot of minor changes exist in the overall story, including deleted scenes being included in the overall story. One of the bigger differences was the addition of a romance between Alan Grant and Ellie Sattler, which was just plain weird.

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The art was very solid, but character likenesses seemed distinctively off, leaving the books feeling almost like a bootleg version of Jurassic Park at one point.

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The pacing was probably the worst aspect of the book, with the dinosaurs only escaping at the end of issue 3. Of a four issue run. This meant over an hour of the movie was compressed into about 30 pages of comic, and the first two issues wound up being incredibly boring from an “is anything happening yet” standpoint. It is possible that Walt Simonson was planning for a long run as an adaptation, but was shortened by the time of the first issue’s release as they were more concerned with capturing an audience rather than making a successful adaptation.

After five issues, and tons of sales with the Jurassic Park hype train trundling along at full steam, Topps Comics decided to continue past the movie with a sequel series. By this time, collectors had distorted the market by late-1993 into a hellscape of first issues selling millions of copies in the hopes that investing in dozens of those issues would eventually give a return as high as something like Action Comics #1. Of course, the fact that Action Comics #1 was printed in 1938 and things like time and paper recycling drives in World War II had reduced the available copies to a scant handful was something no one ever considered. As such, Topps would continually re-launch the spinoff series to Jurassic Park to increasingly reach for chances of high sales… something that would only continually confuse and enrage a lot of well-intentioned readers.

To make matters worse, despite the fact that Jurassic Park was a blockbuster movie with marketing out the wazoo, Diamond Comic Distributors reports only approximately 6,700 copies sold at the time for Jurassic Park’s second issue. Admittedly, there were multiple comics distributors at this point, and it likely did not include comics sold on the newsstands at the time. However, being ranked at only 284 out of the top 300 comics sold by Diamond did not bode well for Topps. With Topps being reported at holding less than 1% of the comics sold in 1993, the struggle to sell as many issues as possible was a real thing for them.

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The initial sequel “series,” Jurassic Park: Raptor, would only last for two issues before immediately giving way to the four-issue Jurassic Park: Raptor Attack. This was followed by the four-issue Jurassic Park: Raptor’s Hijack, and eventually would be rebooted into the nine issue Return to Jurassic Park. By late 1995, the hype for Jurassic Park had essentially ended, and the book’s plot had gone so far off the rails that it was decided to just end the comic line. After all, it wasn’t like a second movie had been planned when the first movie had launched.

Replacing Walter Simonson was another industry legend, Steve Englehart. However, the art teams were far less reliable than the original adaptation. Art on the books would vary wildly as artists were shuffled through faster than a speed dating session on crack. This would include some incredibly well detailed and lovingly-rendered (but highly off model) art from Armando Gil and Dell Barras…

Raptor #1 Sample.jpg something that was incredibly cartoony but expressive, from Chaz Truog and Paul Fricke.

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By this time, artists no longer really tried to get the likenesses of the characters right. This, combined with the shuffling of artists themselves, really helped kill a lot of continuity between books.

This series of titles would see Alan Grant and Ellie Sattler return to Jurassic Park. Weirdly, the island had been taken over by the US Government, and they were helping make sure the dinosaurs were treated humanely and worked as advisors to make sure few people died. Of course, a third party tried to steal dinosaurs from the island and wound up taking some Velociraptors… and both Alan and Ellie as well. Kidnapped on a cargo plane, the Raptors would escape, kill the crew except for the movie characters, and the first comic ended with Alan and Ellie crashing into the jungles of Central America, with Alan declaring his love for Ellie.

With a new number one on the cover, Raptor Attack would pick up right where Raptor left off… without bothering to fill in new readers. This series would focus on Alan and Ellie trying to survive after being rescued by a Central American drug lord who now wanted to use the Raptors as his personal enforcers and bodyguards.

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Honestly, despite the comic going completely off the rails from the movie, Steve Englehart has done some utterly compelling work here. The Raptors are used to slaughter rescue attempts by the US Government, and then escape into the wilderness when Alan and Ellie perform their escape as well. Interestingly, Englehart shows the Raptors as potentially compassionate, recognizing that the two paleontologists only wish to help the Raptors rather than capture them or kill them.

By this time, one of the strangest decisions Englehart would make for the Jurassic Park comics showed up. Robert Muldoon, famously slaughtered by Velociraptors in the movie (and the comic adaptation)...

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...was now miraculously alive!

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Also, famed sex symbol of the 80s Jeff Goldblum was now back in the comic as Ian Malcolm, despite having no connection to dinosaurs beyond being on the island. While it’s very likely that Englehart did watch the movie, it’s increasingly hard to tell if any of the plot twists were his idea, or if one of the higher-ups at Topps Comics wanted to bring “the gang” back together to try and increase sales again. The final story of the “Raptor Trilogy” focused on the last two raptors coming together to breed while a nature scientist endears themselves to them… and betrays them to corporate greed.

Steve Englehart would stick on for the final relaunch of Jurassic Park, Return to Jurassic Park. With him would be penciler Joe Staton, inker Steve Montano, and letterer Brad Joyce. Renee Witterstaetter would remain on as colorist, as she was also the editor of the book. The first four issues would also be Englehart’s last, as he would depart from the book then.

The story didn’t have an overarching title but instead went for variants on the phrase “No Man’s Land” as it proceeded. Once more, Alan Grant and Ellie Sattler would return to the island of Isla Nublar for vague reasons about mysterious happenings on the island. With them would be the resurrected corpse of Robert Muldoon and an original character hunter named Edgar Prather to find out what was going on. The story ends remarkably abruptly, with no real conclusion to the conflicts brought up aside from the four escaping from the island once more.

There’s a distinct possibility that Steven Englehart was booted from the book at this time. If you look at some Jurassic Park fansites, you can find some rough draft scripts that Englehart had written. The summaries show that Lex and Tim, the kids from the movie, had taken some dinosaur eggs home during the events of Jurassic Park. Somehow. Now hatched, there were some Procompsognathus were running around Southern California. Captured by a local cop, the Compys were now on the menu for an endangered species gourmet group. Looking for the dinosaurs, Lex, Tim, Alan, and Ellie would be eventually kidnapped by a local right-wing paramilitary group only to be rescued by new original character Edgar. From there, the US Government would be after John Hammond… and the summaries I could find end there.

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Instead, we got Heirs to the Thunder. Written by Tom and Mary Bierbaum, Armando Gil returned as the penciler for the series. Inkers varied between the team of Fred Carillo and Steve Montano, or just Steve Montano on his own. Unfortunately, no letterer was credited during these final four issues.

Rather than a subsequent story that continued Englehart’s storyline, the grand idea was to tell the story of an Alan Grant knockoff and Marvel’s Jubilee dealing with a mad scientist living on the island of Jurassic Park during the movie. The scientist worked in secret, apparently making custom dinosaurs with the intent to sell them to the hyper-rich. Things like dog-sized triceratops, feathered dinosaurs, and ‘tame’ carnivores, all of which are a somewhat fascinating discussion that could be had on the morality of genetic manipulation… until everything falls off a cliff after an intense action sequence.

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The second half of the Bierbaum issues covers what happens with the not-Grant and Jubilee coming back to the island with some members of the military. This apparently happens around the same time as the previous Raptor trilogy but features renegade members of the army trying to steal dinosaur eggs and framing the main characters.

Sales figures weren’t horrible, being at an estimated 5,000 copies from Diamond distribution alone. Again, this doesn’t count newsstand sales (which Topps flooded with their comics back in the day) or sales from other comics. Still, it hit the top 200 of comics sold in January of 1996, above most other comics sold by Topps back in the day. For some reason, Topps chose to make one last issue before canceling the series.

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Titled Jurassic Jam, this final issue featured pretty much every major artist that Topps had worked with to this point. Rather than list everyone, I’m going to show the page below to see how convoluted this book became.

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Jurassic Jam tells the tale of a stegosaurus stampede that nearly killed Dennis Nedry before the events of the movie. While harming other scientists, the book’s main victim is actually the reader trying to make sense of the book. While a jam book is often a fascinating thing to look at, there needs to be some kind of focus on the book so that the reader can follow. Some jam books have chosen to give each artist their own story. Instead, the book feels like a cast of shapeshifters afflicted with ADHD, with almost no one looking the same page after page. It’s quite unfortunate since this book really could have been awesome.

Now with photographic covers to avoid paying artists.

Now with photographic covers to avoid paying artists.

Topps did make one last use of the Jurassic Park license: 1997’s Lost World was out, and they made a four-issue adaptation of the movie. Once again, plastic wrapping and trading cards became the hype of the day. Don McGregor was brought in as the writer for this conversion, with Claude St. Aubin and Jeff Butler sharing duties as penciler. Claude St. Aubin would also ink issue four, with Steve Montano and Armando Gil both inking other issues. Ken Lopez would work on lettering while coloring was provided by the company Digital Chameleon.

Character likenesses were hilariously off-model now, with literally no actor being really represented. The best, though, was Jeff Goldblum’s mustache making him look like a melted Raul Julia as Gomez Adams.

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Sales were actually far better than Jurassic Park’s spinoffs had been, with the first issue selling over 16,000 issues and hitting 151 on the sales ranks. However, sales would certainly slip and drop over 6,000 from the first to the third issue, dropping off the sales chart entirely by the final issue. As such, there were no Lost World spinoffs created.

It might also have been the cost of the license, however, as Topps Comics would go out of business the following year in in 1998. At best, they only ever had 3% of the market share in sales. This wouldn’t affect the Topps trading card company, and they’re still going strong today, though mostly selling to collectors of cards or in bulk rather than the kids they used to focus on. Unfortunately, Topps Comics have also descended into obscurity and back issue bins, with no re-releases or collections since the Topps company folded the comics division in 1998.

IDW has put out a few comics in the years since, but Jurassic Park’s subsequent movies of III, World, and the Fallen Kingdom have not received comic tie ins or direct sequels since. In a way, the tie-in comics of Jurassic Park are the ultimate 90s thing. Overblown, overhyped, with some of the best talents money, could be thrown at. It really felt like a bunch of action figures being played with, but some of the stories were truly compelling from a concept standpoint. However, like some of the sequels of Jurassic Park, the execution is where things went wrong.

Still, some of these issues are well worth hunting down, if only for Central American drug lords using Velociraptors to assault the local government.

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