It's the ultimate vintage monster set.
Showcasing famous beasts like Dr. Frankenstein's monster, alongside cult classic creatures like The Giant Behemoth, the 1961 Nu-Cards Horror Monsters series is the most extensive vintage monster set ever produced.
"This set is the ultimate [undertaking] for a monster set collector because it has everything," said Kurt Kuersteiner, owner of www.monsterwax.com and www.monstercards.org. "This was a 1961 set, and [film studios] were still in the process of establishing what the rules and regulations were on copyrights and licensing. So there's no way that [Nu-Cards] had the license for all of the different movies that are featured in this set."
Kuersteiner notes that American International Pictures, Universal, Toho, Hammer Films and Metro-Goldwyn Mayer are among the film companies represented in this set.
The savvy monster card enthusiast points out that this two-series, 146-card set was likely released to capitalize on the popularity of the Creature Features movies appearing on TV in the 1960s. He also adds that this issue probably drew inspiration from the best-selling 1959 Topps You'll Die Laughing set. The fronts of the Topps cards feature cartoon monsters drawn by Jack Davis accompanied by humorous captions. Corny jokes adorn the card backs. Fifty-four years ago, parents feared that the images on these cards would traumatize children. It's believed that Topps added humor to soften the impact.
Nu-Cards adopted a similar formula for their 1961 Horror Monsters series.
"Nu-Cards copied that same format except they did something that was very, very different," noted Kuersteiner. "They didn't use an artist. They used photographs – actual photographs. No one had done that before."
First-series cards (#1 to #66) boast green-bordered fronts and red-orange backs. Along with a photo, the fronts also display the card number inside a small skeleton design and a caption, which was generally the movie or monster's name. The backs include a series of cartoon monsters above a frame that showcases an aptly named "Horrible" joke.
The first-series cards were initially distributed in two-card panels with white backs. The Non-Sports Bible identifies 19 different panels (a total of 38 different numbers). These panels were released in five-cent cello packs containing three, two-card panels and a single card.
"One thing that makes the first series cards difficult to collect in top condition is the fact that they were sold in panels originally. There was a perforation, so you had to tear them apart. So right there you're going to have condition problems," noted veteran collector Tom Pernice in a 2010 interview.
Marty Quinn, who owns the registry's top set, agrees.
"The strange thing about this issue is that the cards can be perfectly centered [on the fronts], but the way they printed the backs on the perforated cards, more times than not, caused the backs to come out off-center" he said. "This makes it very difficult to get anything above a [PSA EX-MT] 6."
Two-card panels that are still intact command a premium.
Single series-one cards with gray backs were later released in five-cent "Horror Monsters" packs. The wrappers joked about the fact that gum wasn't included, showcasing the wording: "Packed with GHOST GUM. You can't see it. You can't taste it. You can't chew it. But dentists say it's good for your teeth."
Completing a first-series set with card backs that are the same color is difficult. Hobbyists say that first-series cards surface less frequently than the second-series singles, and when they do come up for sale, the green borders are often chipped.
Quinn has been attempting to complete the first series (green cards) in high-grade for eight years.
"Cards from the green [first] series are much scarcer," he said.
According to the PSA Population Report, just six first-series (green bordered) cards have PSA MINT 9 examples, while many of the second-series singles have multiple PSA 9s.
One of the most popular first-series cards is the Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein single (#21).
"That's a premium card just because Abbott and Costello are on it," noted Quinn. "You have type-card collectors who collect Abbott and Costello memorabilia and stuff like that, so they'll fish around for that card [specifically], thus making it more popular."
Second-series cards (#67 to #146) boast orange-bordered fronts and green backs. Unlike the first-series singles, some of the captions on these cards are humorous, similar to those on the 1959 Topps You'll Die Laughing cards.
"There's one card [#95] where this bald guy who looks like an alien says, 'I ain't talking while the flavor lasts,'" noted Kuersteiner. "That was in reference to a Life Savers commercial that was making the rounds back in the sixties. [Nu-Cards] was very much attuned to the pop culture of the time."
The card number on the second-series fronts is located inside a circle, while the cartoon monsters on the backs (located above the "Horrible Jokes") are more professional and detailed than the first series.
Distributed without gum, these cards were housed in five-cent packs that say "Movie Monsters" and are more readily available than those in the first series. Kuersteiner notes that a four-card promotional panel was created for this series.
"This was the first monster series ever to have a promo card, or what some would call a dealer sample," noted Kuersteiner. "The fronts [on the promo cards] are identical to the Horror Monsters orange cards, but the top half of the back has a spiel that says, 'Authentic MOVIE MONSTERS. The only collection of real movie monsters – 80 different cards with 'horrible' jokes on the back of each card. ORDER NOW – So the kids can continue collecting the popular horror monsters.'"
While this series boasts cards of several famous monsters – including Dracula and Frankenstein – it's the lesser-known monsters that appeal to Kuersteiner.
"There are a lot of images that you just don't see in any other card set," he said. "The Queen of Outer Space (#140) is in there. That's not a very good movie, but you just don't see that anywhere else."
The Electronic Monster (#102) is a key second-series single. This card can be found with a rare bonus back that indicates it's "WORTH 100 WRAPPERS" towards the company's redemption prizes. Bonus backs are also reportedly available in denominations of 50, 25 and 10. Because collectors often redeemed these cards, they're difficult to find and command a significant premium.
Collectors that submitted the appropriate bonus card (or $1 and five wrappers or 50 wrappers) received a poster of the entire first series. Kuersteiner owns one of these prized posters.
"This poster is basically the print from the printing plate of the entire set of the green series – fronts not backs, the back is just blank. It's printed on standard poster paper, not on cardboard," he said, adding that he hasn't seen a poster of the second-series cards.
As with the borders on the first-series cards, the borders on the second-series singles are also prone to chipping, but Quinn says he sees a lot more high-grade second-series cards than first-series cards.
"It's a glaring disparity," he said. "I think this is because they produced a lot more of the orange series than the green series."
According to the PSA Population Report, the five most submitted cards from this set are from the scarcer first (green) series: The Headless Ghost (#16), Curse of the Faceless Man (#23), The Alligator People (#39), The Giant Behemoth (#47) and Horror of Dracula (#62).
"The green cards surface very infrequently, but when they do, it's always the same cards that seem to be available," noted Pernice.
A mysterious blue-bordered variety of these cards also exists. Slightly smaller than the cards in the first two series, these pasteboards boast a picture with a caption in a white panel below it. The caption text appears to be entered with a typewriter. Blue-bordered versions of cards from both the first and second series have been uncovered. The backs of these cards boast a similar design to their first- and second-series cousins, but it appears that the Nu-Cards address line has been blotted out.
"I don't know of anyone who has put together a full set of the blue cards," said Kuersteiner. "I don't think there is a full [146-card] set of the blue cards."
"I've never even seen a half set of the blue cards," he said.
The general belief in the hobby has been that the blue-bordered cards are the original prototype of the first- and second-series cards, but Kuersteiner disputes this. He believes that the blue cards are bootlegged cards printed by a separate company, and he offers several good arguments to support this.
"To me the real clincher is that the address is present on the blue cards, but it's been blotted out," said Kuersteiner. "I just think that makes no sense. Why would someone write the address and blot it out for the first printing of the cards?"
Despite their amateurish look, the blue-bordered Horror Monster cards tend to command a premium over cards in the first and second series. But any incarnation of these Horror Monsters cards still sells for far less than hobby juggernauts like the 1962 Topps Mars Attacks set. In 2010, the top Horror Monsters set on the PSA Set Registry at the time sold for $2,607.
"Sometimes you can go on eBay and get the Horror Monsters cards [in raw, ungraded form] for pennies on the dollar," said Quinn. "I don't know why the monster sets haven't really taken off. I still think one day they're going to be really popular."
So it sounds like now might be a good time to put together this extensive and trailblazing set.
"This set was almost as groundbreaking or earthshaking as the Funny Monsters [You'll Die Laughing] set that came out in 1959," said Kuersteiner, who adds that this is his favorite monster set. "The Horror Monsters set brought forth what was to become the formula for monster cards for the next decade and beyond."
Please feel free to contact Kevin Glew at [email protected] if you have any additional information or comments. A special thanks to Kurt Kuersteiner for his extra efforts on this article and to Marty Quinn for providing pictures for this article. Please note that the Population Report figures quoted and Set Registry rankings reported are those as of May 2013.