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Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Unstacking the Deck: Marvel Universe Series II

Impel 1991

Vital Statistics
162 cards, plus five hologram chase cards (Spider-Man, Hulk, Punisher, Doctor Doom, Fantastic Four vs. Mole Man).

The front of the cards, feature an orange exterior border for heroes, gray for villains, with a shifting interior border color surrounding the central image . The card back features a headshot next to the power rankings, a bar graph displaying each character's aptitude in six areas: strength, speed, agility, stamina, durability, and intelligence. Beneath that are vital stastitics, linclduing group affliation (where applicable), height, weight and first appearance (the character's real name is listed below the head shot). Beneath that is the biographical data, with a "Did You Know?" fact along the bottom.

Categorically Speaking
Super-Heroes, Super-Villains, Arch-Enemies, Weapons, Legends, Rookies, Teams, Power Ratings. and checklist card.

Firsts and Other Notables
The second series of Marvel Universe trading cards released by Impel, these cards were on sale chiefly in 1991, with 12 cards to a pack. Artists involved include Art Adams, Jim Lee, Ron Lim, John Romita Jr., Erik Larsen, Mark Bagely, and Steve Lightle (though I have no idea if that list is comprehensive; those are just the artists whose work I recognize for sure).


The innovation of this set is the Power Rankings, which assigns a numeric value to one of six attributes for each hero and villain, in the style of the old Handbook entries. Three cards (double sided) at the end of the set provide points of reference for each value).


Replacing the "Famous Battles" of the previous set are "Arch-Enemy" cards; like the "Famous Battles", these cards are landscaped, but instead of focusing on a specific battle, they intend focus on long running rivalries and feuds (though the art is sometimes specific in terms of which battle it's depicting; the X-Men vs. Sentinel card, for example, features the original X-Men in their graduation uniforms, circa the Sentinel story in X-Men #57-59, while the Wolverine vs. Hulk card features Orange-and-Brown Wolverine and Gray Hulk, a clear nod to the McFarlane-drawn Incredible Hulk #340, even though the text on the back speaks to their rivalry in general).


Two new categories appear exclusively in this set: Weapons, which provides information on specific gear like Thor's hammer, Wolverine's claws, and the Mandarin's rings, and Legends, featured deceased characters (specifically the original Captain Marvel, Bucky, the original Green Goblin, the original Ghost Rider, Kraven and Dark Phoenix).


Included amongst the teams are two villain teams: the Masters of Evil, and the Marauders, notable simply because the glory days of both teams were behind them in 1991, which was also the case in 1990 as well.

Spider-Man gets the #1 card, taking over from Captain America.


One of the arch-enemy cards is Spider-Man vs. J. Jonah Jameson, which is nice touch.


Thanks again to WillParedes.com for online card pictures. 

Class of 1991
The rookie cards in this set consist of Darkhawk, Sleepwalker (both of whom had their own series launch in 1991; apparently Terror, Inc. didn't make the cut), Rage (who was still a member of the Avengers and hadn't joined the New Warriors yet) and two teams: X-Force, and the New Fantastic Four.


X-Related
90s X-characters Cable, Gambit, Jubilee and Psylocke all receive their first cards; Cable is the only member of X-Force to get a solo card.


The biographical info on both Cable and Gambit is hilariously short, leaving noticeable amounts of empty space on the card back.


Gambit's card notes that he only steals from thieves, something I don't believe the comics had established but which was likely included to smooth over his background as a thief.

X-Factor appears on their cards wearing their pre-Portacio yellow-and-blue uniforms, but does have them in the X-Factor team card.


Iceman's "Did You Know?" references his inhibitor belt, which he pretty much stopped wearing around the time these cards were on sale, and which he isn't wearing on the front of the card.

Havok appears wearing his traditional black costume, since he hasn't really worn anything consistently other than that lately.

Interestingly, the "Did You Know" fact on Sabretooth's card teases the idea of his being Wolverine's father, right around the same time the idea is put to rest in Wolverine.

Both Mojo and Sauron get their own cards, in anticipation of both having relatively big years in 1992 (Mojo will get both a Wolverine and X-Men story, as well as be the main villain of the '92 annuals, while Sauron, last seen in Marvel Fanfare #4, will turn up as part of Toad's new Brotherhood of Evil Mutants).

The X-Men vs. Magneto card features an assortment of characters from the Non-Team era, even though that particular iteration of the "team" never faced Magneto.


Similarly, the X-Men team card must have been "taken" before the group reunified with matching uniforms.


The back of X-Force's card lists their headquarters as unknown; an attempt to build mystery, or was nobody involved with making these cards told where their headquarters would be?


The Marauders card makes a deal out of their having taken the Morlock tunnels as their base, even though that was pretty much just a one time deal, in "Inferno".


Of Their Time
Spider-Man has the Avengers listed for his Group Affliation; this set was released during his stint as a reserve Avenger (Daredevil, for comparison, has no Group Affliation listed, showing it's not a case of every hero needing SOME affliation listed).

Also, Spider-Man's cardbacks mention his parents' background as spies, something that will feature in a major story arc the following year.

Namor's card features him riding the super-villain Griffin, a nod to the events of this then-current solo series; for many years, I just assumed Griffin was some kind of Atlantean creature Namor was riding.


Namor's ankle wings are said to be akin to fins, and it's noted that he recently lost them.

Hawkeye's card features him wearing his short-lived redesigned costume from Solo Avengers/Avengers Spotlight.


Death's Head gets his own card, part of the push Marvel was giving their UK line around this time.


Thor's card is for the Eric Masterson version of the character, who will go on to become Thunderstrike.

Thanos' granddaughter Nebula gets her own card, due to her involvement in '91's Infinity Gauntlet event.


Both Punisher and Ghost Rider (who was a rookie in the previous set) have had their profile elevated in the previous year, resulting in more of their villains popping up in this set, including Saracen (we all remember Saracen, right?), Deathwatch and Blackout.


Minor Spidey villain Calypso is also featured, likely due to her role in "Torment", the story which began Todd McFarlane's Spider-Man series.


The new Fantastic Four merit a rookie card, though they turn out to be mostly a one-season phenom, so to speak.

Favorite Cards


Teebore's Take
While the first series of Marvel Universe cards was just a bit before my time (I completed my initial set via "back issues", so to speak), this is the set of cards I bought into initially, and is, in fact, responsible for getting me into comics (and thus, responsible for me writing this right now). After a friend at school entreated me to check out these comic book trading cards, I picked up a pack while also getting some baseball cards (from a weird kiosk-y thing at my local mall, essentially a series of waist-high display cases containing single cards, with packs on top, wedged under an escalator; the store is long gone, though the mall is still around, and I now live closer to it than I did back then). I don't remember every card in that initial pack, but I do remember it contained Silver Surfer (whom I knew from his Toy Biz action figure but often got confused with Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends Iceman, whom I knew better), Nebula, Calypso (thereby convincing me that two relatively of-the-moment villains were bigger deals than they were), Thanos, and Rogue (my first introduction to both her and the Sentinels, who appeared on the card; for awhile, having misread the card, I thought her name was "Rouge".

As a result, this remains my favorite of the base Marvel Universe sets, though there are reasons beyond just it being my first. It takes the basic approach of the first series and improve upon it: the vital statistics are much more vital, eliminating things like the obviously-arbitrary win/loss records. The design in general is sharper, and the art more dynamics, featuring most close-ups or action shots. Categories like "Weapons" and "Legends" are improvements on things like the Spider-Man interview cards and "Most Valuable Comics" subset. The skills bar graphs are nice nod to the cards sports card origins, while also working as perfect fodder for fans engaging in "who's stronger?" debates (the only downside are the Power Ratings cards, this series' batch of straight-up filler cards). And while this set suffers even more from being "of its time" (Calypso gets a card, but Juggernaut doesn't?) and is less expansive than the first series (with each hero only getting one card), the end result is that each card feels more integral (pulling a Wolverine out of a pack is a bigger deal, because there's only one in the entire set) and the set, as a whole, feels more like a snapshot of the Marvel Universe as a whole rather than just an assortment of its most marquee and popular characters.

Given where the series goes from here (Series III is even bigger in size and much messier in design, while the subsequent series all suffer from a distinct design flaw in that each set of nine cards functions in service to a larger single image), it could be argued that Series II represents the apex of Marvel's base trading card series, improving the innovations of the first series, without getting too cutesy or far-reaching.

Next Week
Excalibur #40, Wolverine #43 and Wolverine #44.

14 comments:

  1. I had a lot of the series 1 cards, but I think I (or my parents) must have been burnt out after that set, because I had relatively fewer from this set. By series three, though, I was back in it in a major way -- and I remained "in it" through a few more sets after that.

    Looks like Mark Bagley did a lot of art for this set. I see his work on several of the images you posted (X-Men v. Sentinels, X-Factor, X-Men, and Saracen). Around this time he seemed to be Marvel's go-to guy for stuff like this; he also drew a bunch of OFFICIAL HANDBOOK profile pics for the early nineties update issues.

    I have literally never seen that Hawkeye costume in my life. How odd.

    The ad you lead this post off with is such a strange dichotomy -- the classic John Romita Spider-Man in the foreground, with a much more contemporary Larsen Spider-Man on the card. That foreground Spidey was, I think, some older licensing art, because Romita had changed the way he drew the wall-crawler's eyes by this point, as evident on the "Spider-Man vs. J. Jonah Jameson" card you posted.

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    1. I'm pretty sure the Hawkeye costume was only ever used in SOLO AVENGERS/AVENGERS SPOTLIGHT. It's also not terribly different from his classic look (I didn't realize the card was featuring the newer costume for a long time).

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  2. Death's Head gets his own card, part of the push Marvel was giving their UK line around this time.

    Quite a push it was too, our Finnish anthology book had more than one 100-page issues dedicated for Death's Head II in mid-90's. If I remember correctly there was a later generation Strucker making himself a huge monstrosity by dark magic and the wreck of the original Death's Head.

    Gotta love Hulk and Wolverine doing the fastball special in the New FF card. You can just feel Hulk throwing a teeeensy bit harder than strictly necessary.

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  3. This is the first set I bought, too. I was nine at the time and man I had a blast with these. I bought them at a nearby comics shop that was run by a very stereotypical 'Comic Book Guy' and he even looked like the Simpsons' character. (I remember him asking me not to touch any new releases on the shelves so they would remain mint condition). I'd buy packs and singles with my allowance money. And some of my best memories are reading through my big binder of them curled up at my grandparents' house. In short, these cards are some of my most vivid comics memories.

    The art is just fantastic. Anything by Adams, Larsen and Lee has remained pretty much my iconic version of that character. Doc Ock, Rogue, Hobgoblin and Adam Warlock are probably my faves.

    I bought a set a while ago and will read some them to my 3 year old daughter before bedtime every now and then. In short, I love these cards!

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    1. I too have fond memories of being curled up with the binder, paging through the cards. Sort of like a mini Handbook.

      I hadn't thought of reading these to my son at bedtime, though. That's a great idea!

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  4. This was a great set...all of those Art Adams cards are incredible, and Larsen and Romita(s) also have a nice showing.
    I mentioned earlier a television ad for this set during the summer of 1991. I searched Youtube for a while but could never find the thing.

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    1. I definitely think the art in this set is much stronger across the board. More Adams, the Romitas, Larsen & Lee, lots of Bagely. Great stuff.

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  5. Haha, I had the same reaction to that Namor / Griffon card - I believe it was featured in an old issue of Wizard.

    I'm about four years younger than you, Teebore, so my first real forray into superhero cards was with Flair Ultra X-Men 94, but still the design and power ratings from this set stirs up memories.

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    1. I have some pretty vivid memories of the Fleer Ultra X-Men sets as well...they'll be making an appearance here eventually.

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  6. A very interesting snap-shot of "what was hot in 1991".

    "Similarly, the X-Men team card must have been "taken" before the group reunified with matching uniforms."

    Much like Series 1 card, both seem left-overs of the non-team era, but also, they seem to reflect the plans CC may have had before he left. Don't forget, there was promo art going around the time featuring characters like Guido and Havok being a part of the X-men (and the promo art was done in many cases like Jim Lee).

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    1. Now that you mention it, I am kinda surprised that Jim Lee Havok/Guido team never made it on a card in this set.

      There was a set of Jim Lee-centric cards (released before the official set of Jim Lee X-Men cards) that was produced by a different company than Impel. The card art was lifted directly from existing Lee art in the comics (and the cardstock was flimsier), but I remember that set did have a card featuring the unused "new" team, taken from the unused ad that now shows in the backmatter of a lot of Jim Lee/X-Men trades.

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  7. I think it Guido was featured in the Series 1 pic...and was labeled as Sunder instead?

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  8. The Weapon X memory-implant revelations render the very idea of Did You Know? boxes on Sabretooth and Wolverine cards kinda hilarious.

    // Gambit's card notes that he only steals from thieves //

    They could’ve phrased “crooks, gamblers, and other criminals” better, as not only are the first and last rather synonymous but the middle one basically lumps my Great Aunt Edith in with the Kingpin.

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