If I may be so punny: there's a lot to unpack here. I mean, if it were just you & I right now, we'd just talk about the cards. Except, this particular subject matter has a bit of depth and controversy, so the guy sitting next to you is gonna want more than nostalgic musings and old bubblegum cards. And so, for that guy, let's get a little highbrow. 

 To a child (and probably to adults as well), the further you get away from history, the more it begins to take on the vibe of fiction. You can read about something or watch a program about something, but there's a disconnect that's forged when facts are prepared and served at the same temperature as "entertainment," and it's up to you to determine how much emotional distance you're comfortable with between yourself and various hard truths. 

That's one group of folks. Another crowd is more-than-happy to invest their hearts & minds in the tragedies and triumphs of the past - that's the whole draw for them. For someone who doesn't get it, they typically fall back on the old phrase that they invented: "morbid curiosity." But to the initiated (like you & me) we understand a healthy fascination with human nature and all of its... idiosyncrasies.

Then, to a 9-year-old (like I was), they just like pretty pictures. Which finally (thank fucking god!) brings us to **drum roll** True Crime, Series 2: Serial Killers & Mass Murderers, released in 1992 by Eclipse.

Series One - titled G-Men & Gangsters - is nearly just as cool: to me it was like a hyper-realistic Dick Tracy (which, obviously, is not far from the truth). Dealing exclusively with Organized Crime in the early 20th century, the first half of the set was the "cleaner" story (even when it got real dirty). But the second half - full of cult leaders, psychotic loners, and sexual deviants - is when it got scary and gross. Y'know, for kids!

To the best of my knowledge, these cards were popular. So popular, in fact, that they were parodied in Addams Family Values

Of course, popularity is dangerous; the predictable outrage from the squares (and, understandably, the victims) only made the cards more sought-after. In a liberal approach, my parents went ahead and further educated me with their peculiarly vast knowledge of society's villains - which only intensified my interest (and repugnance).

Each "killer" card came with an extremely dense bio on the back, graphically detailing their crimes, their childhood, whether or not they were caught, etc. But to be totally honest, at the tender age of 9, that was all subtext. The whole reason for collecting them, loving them, and writing about them today is the staggering artwork by Jon Bright. Some of the cards depicted crime scenes or general abstractions, but they were largely striking, ghostly, oil portraits of each respective perpetrator, complete with the prescribed splatter of blood alongside the border. As a child, so as it is today, this whole aesthetic (and the subject matter in which it's rooted) is mashed potatoes & gravy for me. I wouldn't have been able to defend it at the time, but my "questionable" absorption of serial killers came from an (almost) entirely artistic appreciation standpoint. I mean, to be fair, the gruesome details behind each menacing mug was attractive in an exploitative way (and anything having to do with history - however small-scale - was gold to me). But in the end, the cards were just neat-looking.

There were 110 cards in this Second Series: a lotta famous faces, but even more obscure ones. And while I'd love to educate you all on some lesser-known atrocities, these 4 superstars easily received the coolest-looking artwork in the set -- so much so that, to this day, whenever I come across these notorious names, these are the images I think of.

- Paul


"John Wayne Gacy" (#67)

John Wayne Gacy was my gateway drug to this entire branch of bizarre knowledge. The very same year these cards were released, the two-part miniseries To Catch a Killer aired on Fox, with Brian Dennehy as Gacy. So the movie and the cards certainly set me up with the context, but this image - repurposed from the most famous photograph of him - was the irresistible brand logo. And that goes to show you how chillingly effective his methods were; he definitely convinced this little kid that he was more cool than scary.
"Charles Manson" (#71)
As you can imagine, it's very difficult for a child to wrap their mind around exactly what Manson was about. "So, how many people did he kill?" But again, between these cards and my folks (along with their copy of "The White Album," The Bible, and Vincent Bugliosi's Helter Skelter), I was confronted with a narrative that beat the shit out of any Growing Pains storyline.
"The Zodiac Killer" (#83)

If anything can make a case for how absolutely fucking spot-on this artwork is, just take a look at how seamlessly the Zodiac's handwriting marries into this image; it's as though he sent along a self portrait with one of his letters. And of course, the biggest draw for me (as it famously was for so many others) was the idea of a nameless, faceless bad guy.
"Jack The Ripper" (#101)
Speaking of faceless killers... Also, you gotta remember what a huge deal Unsolved Mysteries was around this time - so this depiction would just trigger the theme song in my head. This was also a case where there had been a miniseries a few years prior starring Michael Caine, so I was already hip to the spookiness of it. Still though, no movie or verbose descriptions could adequately depict the real life horrors of the crimes the way this shadowy nightmare does.

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