Wednesday, December 21, 2016
Unstacking the Deck: Marvel Masterpieces Series I
100 cards (including checklist), 5 "spectra" chase cards, 5 "Lost Marvel" bonus cards.
Cardfronts are full bleed, with a small gold border and the character's name in gold. Cardbacks are lanscaped, listing the character's real name and first appearance followed by biographical data. To the left of the bio is a picture of the comic on whose cover the character first appeared (which can be different than the comic the character first appeared in, if they didn't appear on the cover of that issue).
No categories or subsets for the cards in this set, just 99 cards featuring heroes and villains in vaguely alphabetical order.
Firsts and Other Notables
This is the first set of Marvel Masterpieces, a subset of Marvel trading cards that is still technically being released today (the most recent set was released in 2016, but the series took several years off - notably between 1996 and 2007 - and I've never even seen any of the cards from the later sets). It represents Marvel's "prestige" card set (in sports card terms, this is Upper Deck to the regular Marvel trading cards' Topps or Donruss), in that each of the cards features full bleed art, glossy images, thicker card stock, and comes packaged with fewer cards per pack than the other sets, at a higher price point per pack.
Like the Jim Lee X-Men set, each card in this set features art from one artist, in this case Joe Jusko, a renowned fantasy/sci-fi/comic illustrator, chiefly in the areas of pin-ups and covers. The art is also fully painted.
Unlike previous sets, this series just features cards of the characters, without any additional categories (ie teams or battles or rookies), and the heroes and villains aren't separated from each other.
Because the set is only 99 cards (featuring artwork) yet encompasses the entirety of the Marvel Universe, it's a little more exclusive in terms of which characters make the cut than, say, the larger Marvel Universe Series III set (though as detailed below, plenty of "of their time" characters still snuck into the set alongside stalwarts like Spider-Man and Hulk).
In addition to the five "battle" chase cards randomly inserted into packs, there are five "Lost Marvel" bonus cards only available in factory-tin sets of the cards, of which roughly 35,000 were released. The five "lost" cards are Scarlet Witch, Feral, Deathbird, Typhoid Mary and Jubilee. The battle chase cards are Thing vs. Hulk, Silver Surfer vs. Thanos, Wolverine vs. Sabretooth, Spider-Man vs. Venom, and Captain America vs. Red Skull.
Also like the Jim Lee X-Men set, the art from these cards was later released in comic book form across four issues.
One of the interesting things regarding the "first cover appearance" used on the backs of characters' cards is that in some cases, like Namor, his first cover appearance on a "modern" comic (in this case Fantastic Four) is used, yet for Red Skull, a Golden Age Captain America cover is used.
Similarly, Captain Britain has his first American cover appearance (in Marvel Team-Up) used, but Meggan has her first cover appearance on a Marvel UK title.
This is the first set of Marvel cards (not counting the X-Men specific set) to not have the Spider-Man card amongst the first nine cards (ie the first "page" if the cards were put in a binder) of the set.
Given the smaller number of cards yet wider focus of this set, not every member of of every team is represented. The original X-Men and the core of the Giant-Size team (Wolverine, Storm, Colossus, Nightcrawler) get cards, as do the original five members of Excalibur. Rogue, Psylocke and Gambit get cards, but Jubilee is relegated to the "lost" subset. Bishop does warrant a card.
Havok, Quicksilver and Strong Guy are the only X-Factor reps, while only Cable and Shatterstar (with Feral in the "lost" subset) represent X-Force.
Longshot doesn't get a card, but Dazzler and Mojo do. Curiously, while the back of Shatterstar's card mentions him coming from an alternate future world obsessed with violence, Mojo isn't mentioned at all.
The first cover appearance for Archangel is X-Factor #24; I appreciate that they didn't use X-Men #1.
Sabretooth appears in his original costume rather than his more recent Jim Lee one.
Strong Guy's first cover appearance is shown to be Uncanny X-Men #254; that was actually Sunder, not Strong Guy (this card back led to a lot of confusion for me about who was on that cover/in the story when I was younger).
Feral's costume appears to be more like what she'll wear after Greg Capullo redesigns everyone's costumes post-X-Cutioner's Song, which is still a few months away, than what she was wearing at the time.
Wild Child, who will eventually join X-Factor post-"Age of Apocalypse", gets a card as Weapon Omega, one of Alpha Flight's few representatives in the set (his inclusion in the set also counts very much as an "Of Their Time" nod).
Of Their Time
As with Marvel Universe Series III, a number of "big in the 70s, given their own series in the 90s glut" characters are featured, including Johnny Blaze, Luke Cage, Deathlok, Morbius, Adam Warlock, Guardians of the Galaxy's Major Victory, and Nomad, along with more 90s-specific newer characters like Darkhawk and Sleepwalker. Silver Sable, who debuted in the 80s but received her own series in the 90s, has her own card as well.
Hobgoblin's card features him in his demonic persona from "Inferno".
Mandarin's biographical info references his then-recent loss of hands and subsequent death.
Thor's biographical information references his status as Eric Masterson, but the Thor pictured on the card is the non-Masterson iteration of the character (sans beard and masked helmet).
Northstar's cardback seemingly references his homosexuality by obliquely citing how he's always been different, "in the way he skied to Olympic his victories, as well as in his personal relationships", which is either an attempt to reference it without coming right out and saying it, or built on an assumption that everyone already knows the character is gay and it doesn't need to be said. Given how recently the character came out relative to when this set was released, the former seems most likely.
I just love the way this illustrates his power, and the manic look in his eyes.
Telling a story instead of just being a static pinup image.
Love the Spider-Man logo backdrop to highlight the characters' history together.
Like his card in MU Series III, the way his cape forms around the border of the card is cool.
Effective representation of the character's status as lord of the mole men.
Subtle image that captures the essence of the character.
This makes me want to read an underwater-set Namor seris.
Great expression of the character's raw power.
Like the shakeup of the usual format. Another "telling a story" card.
Once again, Sabretooth makes the cut thanks to an iconic image.
Effectively aptures the character's more "horror movie" side.
Another iconic image. Love all the webbing.
Another great illustration of character.
Of all the overly-sexualized female cards, this one works the best.
Without a doubt, this is one of Marvel's most prestige set of cards. From the heavy stock to the glossy finish to the (mostly) outstanding art, this raises the bar for all future card sets. Unfortunately, it's also a pretty good representation of the booming, destined for bust, comic and trading card market, as it represents the third ongoing, yearly set of trading cards released by Marvel (after the original Marvel Universe set and the X-Men-specific set). And while the quality of cards is undeniable, it also represents a change in the way the cards are sold: less cards for more money per pack, part of a trend across the industry to offer more quality for even more money while still offering less (in terms of number of cards). A booming market can support a prestige imprint like this, a crashing one can't, and the desire to flood the market with so many sets will eventually, in part, bring about that crash.
Because of that higher price point, this is the first set of cards I've examined to which I don't have a terribly deep personal or nostalgic connection. Due to the price and lower card-to-pack ration, I never assembled a full set (I still don't think I have one, and despite the hilariously low prices on most trading cards these days, this set still commands a decent price online), and thus, I have more fondness for some of the later Marvel Masterpiece sets (especially the Hildebrandt Brothers one), which came out at a time when my disposable income had increased and I could afford to assemble a full set.
Thus, I've always admired this set more from afar than anything, but there's no denying it's lovely. Jusko has a tendency to overly sexualize the female characters and is guilty of giving a few too many characters a grimace that looks more like they're trying to squeeze out a poop, but for the most part, the cards are lovely. And the improved quality really does help sell the artwork, from the full bleed art to the thicker stock. Even the "first cover appearance" on the backs is a nice touch, and in many cases, represents some of my first looks at the comics pictured there. And despite never completing a set of my own, I can still smell the unique aroma of these cards (presumably caused by the glossy finish) if I close my eyes, and it brings a smile to my face, even if it is an aroma associated more with longing than possessing.
Next week, Ghost Rider #29 and Wolverine #61.