It only has 24 cards, but it definitely can't be assembled in a "flash."
No, the 1965 Flash Gordon Topps Test set is one of the most elusive and highly coveted non-sports issues.
"In 1998, I purchased a group of 16 Flash Gordon cards, so I figured the set would be a breeze to put together," said Marty Quinn, who owns the No. 3 set on the PSA Set Registry. "I soon realized that there are about three or four cards that are virtually impossible to find. It's one of those sets where the cards are so rare that it doesn't matter what your bank account is, the cards are just not out there to purchase."
While the set is often referred to a test issue, Kuersteiner doesn't believe that the Flash Gordon cards were test marketed in the traditional sense.
"I don't believe the cards were put out in a special white box with a sticker to see how they would sell at select stores. I don't believe it got to that point," said Kuersteiner.
The veteran hobbyist says that at least some of the cards reached the market via Topps Fun Packs.
"I do believe that some were put in Fun Packs and distributed on Halloween, because that's the way that some people have found them," said Kuersteiner.
Quinn owns what might be the only unopened Fun Pack containing these cards.
"I got my pack off a gentleman who got it in a 1974 Topps Fun Pack bag," noted Quinn.
Hobby pioneer Bob Marks discovered four boxes of Fun Packs with Flash Gordon cards in them in 1984. The cards were first wrapped in cellophane with gum and then wrapped again in a generic Fun Pack wrapper. The boxes – which were baseball card boxes – housed 24, five-card packs.
"It is possible that the packs were intended for Fun Pack holiday distribution and merely placed in the baseball box when they left Topps manufacturing company," reported Marks.
It's estimated that there are less than 10 complete Flash Gordon sets in existence.
In 1997, Marks discovered a Flash Gordon test box. Printed in electric blue with black and white photos of Buster Crabbe, who portrayed Flash Gordon in the 1936 to 1940 movie serials, this box indicated that packs were five cents each. There were, however, no packs in the box and Marks still hasn't seen a Flash Gordon wrapper. Marks believes that this was simply a proof box that never made it out of the production facility.
Why this series was cancelled before it was mass distributed remains a mystery. Kuersteiner suggests that it could've been licensing issues. In order to release their products, the makers of many TV and movie sets during this era had to secure both the photo rights and the story rights.
Kuersteiner points out that these cards showcase photos from the first two Flash Gordon movie serials produced in 1936 (Flash Gordon) and 1938 (Flash Gordon's Trip to Mars) respectively. In all, three Flash Gordon serials (the last, Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe, was unveiled in 1940) were produced. The serials starred Crabbe, as the buff, blonde-haired Flash Gordon, a hero whose origins can be traced to a newspaper comic strip created by Alex Raymond to compete with Buck Rogers in 1934.
The story on the card backs has been adapted from the movie serials and tells the tale of Dr. Zarkov, Flash Gordon and Dale Arden travelling via rocket ship to Mongo to stop Ming the Merciless, the ruthless emperor of the universe, from destroying the earth. Enroute to thwarting the evil emperor, Flash encounters crimson-skinned apemen, flying Hawkmen, clay people and robots.
Flash also defeats a ferocious ape-like creature in a Tournament of Death, with the aid of Princess Aura, daughter of Ming, who throws Flash a knife during the battle, enabling him to kill the beast. Aura falls in love with Flash and assists him in conquering her father. Prince Barin also becomes an important ally in Flash's conquest of Ming the Merciless.
"If you want to really go back and talk about the Godfather of science fiction, it's probably Flash Gordon," noted Quinn, adding that the first ray guns, flying saucers and space costumes likely appeared in these serials.
Kuersteiner expresses similar sentiments.
"Flash Gordon was the Star Wars of its day," he said. "In fact, when Star Wars came along, it was the Flash Gordon of its day. And that's what it was trying to do. Star Wars was trying to be like Flash Gordon."
Card fronts showcase black and white photos from the first two Flash Gordon serials.
"I think the black and white photos lend to the authenticity of the set," said Quinn. "I think people like the black and white. I think color would've resulted in too modern of a look for the Flash Gordon set."
The fronts also flaunt a caption and a planet logo. The orange backs feature a continuous story that has been adapted from the Flash Gordon serials. A card number, a caption and an art rendering of Flash holding a ray gun are also included on the card backs. The copyright information indicates "T.C.G. Printed in U.S.A." and "King Features Syndicate, Inc."
"In opening the packs, we discovered that four cards were decidedly short printed," explained Marks. "Cards #6, #10, #11 and #24 were noticeably scarcer than the others, with #10 and #11 being the most scarce."
Just five examples of card #10 (Barin, Flash and Aura) and six copies of card #11 (Time Bomb) have been submitted to PSA respectively.
Quinn says that card #14 (News of Ming) is also elusive. According to the PSA Population Report, card #14 has been submitted for grading just three times – the fewest of any card in this issue. In contrast, with 13 submissions each, #4 (Flash and Aura) and #9 Flash and the Hawkmen have been evaluated by PSA the most.
"Gripper" marks are one of the major condition flaws on these cards.
"Some of these cards come with what they call gripper marks on the borders. They come with notches on the borders that the machine made," said Quinn.
Marks says that one or two cards in each pack he opened suffered from gripper marks. Quinn adds that these cards are also often miscut, and Marks uncovered a lot of cards that were gum stained.
"At least one or two of the top cards of each pack were gum-stained," said Marks.
These condition woes, combined with the scarcity of these cards, can result in some fierce competition for Flash Gordon singles.
"You pay $200-and-something dollars per card, even with just 24 cards in the set, you're going to be looking at close to $5,000. Then you'll pay a premium for any tougher cards," noted Kuersteiner.
Quinn hasn't seen an auction for a PSA-graded card from this set for a couple of years.
"As far as advanced collectors go, they would love to have a Flash Gordon set in their collection," he said. "There are probably 150 guys out there who would like to start the set but they don't do it because there are no cards to buy."
A special thanks to Bob Marks, Kurt Kuersteiner and Marty Quinn for their extra efforts on this article. Please contact Kevin Glew at [email protected] if you have any additional information or comments. Marty Quinn provided pictures for this article. Please note that the Population Report figures quoted and Set Registry rankings reported are those as of press time.