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Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Unstacking the Deck: Marvel Masterpieces Series II

Skybox 1993

Vital Statistics 
90 cards (including checklist card) with an eight card subset of chase cards.

Card fronts feature series title on the top, with the character name on the bottom, with no other borders.

Cardbacks feature character's real name, group affiliation (where applicable). first appearance ( including publication date and art credit), with the cardback text laid over a scene from the character's first appearance. The bottom of the cardback lists a "In the Beginning" factoid.

Firsts and Other Notables
Whereas the first series of Marvel Masterpiece cards were all from artist Joe Jusko, for this series, Marvel enlisted multiple artists (including Jusko again).

The chase cards for this series feature characters from X-Men 2099. These are "Dyna-sketch" cards, and even for someone relatively fluent in meaningless 90s marketing speak, I have no idea what that means (they're vaguely metallic and sparkly, I guess? Maybe a little bit embossed/textured too?).

Somewhere along the way (probably in Wizard), I seem to recall this series' Iron Man card becoming a recurring joke as, from a certain point of view, it could be said that Iron Man is farting.

Jim Steranko (I believe) draws the Human Torch, Captain America & Namor cards, in a very art deco/40s propaganda style, which when placed side by side, form one image, a nice acknowledgement of the relationship between the three characters as, essentially, Marvel's founding superheroes (at least the ones still in publication in some form) from the 40s.

Ghost Rider's real name is stated as Dan Ketch (the 90s Ghost Rider), but his first appearance (and accompanying image) is listed as Marvel Spotlight, which was the first appearance of Johnny Blaze as the original Ghost Rider in the 70s.

An additional upside to the cardbacks featuring art from characters' first appearances is that you get to see some fun design/layout choices, like how Forge's card prominent features "sassy leg-cocked 80s short-shorts wearing Forge". It also leads to some fun and occasionally sad/horrifying juxtaposition when going from a character's current look on the front to an image of the character in all their 60s/70s glory on the back.

22 of the series' 90 cards feature someone from one of the four main X-books, broken down as follows:

X-Men: Wolverine, Cyclops, Storm, Archangel, Beast, Psylocke, Rogue, Gambit, Colossus, Longshot (sort of), Bishop, Jean Grey

X-Force: Cable, Domino, Cannonball, Shatterstar

X-Factor: Forge, Polaris, Havok

Excalibur: Captain Britain, Nightcrawler, Phoenix

Wolverine is said to be the first operative to come out the Canadian Weapon X program, an acknowledgement of the expansion of that program beyond Wolverine in recent Wolverine stories.

Cyclop's start with Jack O'Diamonds is referenced, a rare acknowledgement of those old Silver Age "origin of the X-Men" backups (it's quite possibly the first place I encountered the idea that Cyclops hung out with someone called Jack O'Diamonds before joining the X-Men).

Psylocke's first appearance is listed as Uncanny X-Men #213, which is neither her actual first appearance (if you include Marvel UK), nor her first American appearance (which is New Mutants Annual #2).

Gambit's "in the beginning" fact states that before joining the X-Men, he committed crimes in New Orleans alongside Sabretooth, which is both not quite true, and a surprising place to reveal something like that, considering Gambit's past with Sabretooth (already teased) will soon become more prominently featured in the X-books.

In contrast, Stryfe's "in the beginning" factoid sticks to the middle ground, declaring Cyclop's son was sent to the future and returned to the present as either Stryfe or Cable (which is pretty much where we're at with that plot in contemporaneous comics).

Colossus' group affiliation is still listed as the X-Men, not the Acolytes.

Polaris appears wearing her most recent X-Factor costume, with Shatterstar in his post-"X-Cutioner's Song" Capullo-designed one.

It's said that Cyber made Wolverine forget their original encounter, which isn't exactly something I remember from Cyber's first story, but I also don't pay terribly close attention to many of those Marvel Comics Presents stories, so maybe that got setup somewhere in there.

Phoenix' first appearance is listed as X-Men Annual #9, which is neither Rachel Summers' first appearance (X-Men #141), nor the issue when she comes to the present (New Mutants #18), nor the issue in which she adopts the mantle of the Phoenx (X-Men #199), but rather, the first time she appeared wearing a Phoenxi-esque costume.

Somewhat curiously, Longshot gets a card in this set, despite not appearing since X-Men #10 (over a year ago publication-time) and not having any significant appearances planned in the near future.

The Grim 'n' Gritty 90s
In addition to the X-Men 2099 chase cards, this series features six 2099 characters in the set proper (Hulk, Spider-Man, Punisher, Doom, Ravage and Vulture).

Stryfe, presumably making a posthumous victory lap, gets his own card in this set despite being more or less done as a character.

Other notable card inclusions:

Future Marvel movie star Blade, who received his own series around this time for the first time.

Vulture, who at this time was poised, I believe, to get a de-aged makeover in the Spider-Man books, and is one of the few classic Spidey badguys to get his own card in this set.

Cyber, riding high on his pair of Marvel Comics Presents stories and X-Factor appearance.

Leather-clad, lightsaber-wielding Black Knight, who's pretty much the central character of the early 90s Avengers.

Vengeance, who is basically Ghost Rider but even more EXTREEEME!!!

Favorite Cards 

I like the different layers to the image, the way Beast is weaving in and out of the laser blasts.

US Agent

Nice action-orientated image.


Spider-Man's card is kind of a dud, but Spider-Woman makes up for it.


Another strong Magneto card, with some of the propaganda influences seen in the Human Torch/Namor image.


A lot of characterization for a character we still don't know a lot about.


Fun perspective on this one.


A more serious image than the character probably merits, but I like it.


Not sure who the artist is, but I really like the almost-animation quality to it.

Austin's Analysis
While the first series of Marvel Masterpieces earns points for consistency (featuring as it does art from only one artist) and functions better as a "greatest hits" set of cards (featuring fewer "hot" characters and seemingly striving to present a more "classic" assortment of cards), I actually prefer this second series to it. In part, that's because I was able to assemble a complete set via packs as a kid (as opposed to buying a full set from a collectible store as an adult), and in part because the variety of artists makes for a more engaging set (even though the different art styles do lead to some stinker cards: this is possibly the only Marvel card set to not feature a strong, iconic Spider-Man card). The lack of a border on the front of the cards makes for a bolder image, which helps the artwork pop more throughout the set.

But what really sets this above the previous one is the "first appearance" info on the backs of the cards. Because I got into comics through trading cards, and "first appearance" was always one of the things listed on the cardbacks (like batting average or ERA on baseball cards), I came into comics with a mild obsession with characters' first appearances - memorizing them and, when possible, reading or buying them. And back in those days, before the internet and Marvel Unlimited and the mass proliferation of trade reprints, it was particularly difficult to track down the first appearances of all but the most significant/popular-at-the-time characters. As a result, the reproduced art on the backs of these cards represent the first time I saw some of these characters' initial appearances, and thus served as a sort of quick-and-dirty primer on Marvel history. That alone added a ton of value to the series, enough to make up for some of the less-exciting artwork or questionable, of-their-time character inclusions.


  1. The Crystal card looks like Bret Blevins.

    1. An artist I have mixed feelings about: I pretty much adore his style, but his New Mutants run - likely due to the writing, but still - brings me to revulsion.

  2. Speaking of Xi'an, how slim are the chances you'll be covering X-Men 2099? (If in an earlier post you already declared NO, STOP ASKING, sorry for missing it.)

    (wait. how many people would actually ask about X-Men 2099?)

    1. Funnily enough, in September X-Amination about EXCALIBUR #68 the book was tangentially touched in the comments. (So if I counted correctly, the answer is "one", and there would be about two guys answering him.)

    2. "(wait. how many people would actually ask about X-Men 2099?)"

      I would, largely cuz I remember really liking it & still mean to review it myself someday. But I'd fully understand if it's not reviewed, since what I've returned to feels like an X-book in name only.

    3. Totally not tooting my own horn, but I did a half-baked X-Men 2099 overview a couple years back. I'd love to see a more comprehensive analysis of the series from someone who knows 1000% more about X-lore than me, though it's not like Austin doesn't already have enough canonical X-titles queued for their turns under the lens. (How close are we to Generation X now?)

    4. I have no immediate plans to cover X-MEN 2099 at this time - as Mela said, it doesn't really tie-in with the other X-books in any significant way (aside from cribbing the name and general ethos), and I've got enough regular series to cover already, especially with all the extra junk getting churned out at this time.

      That said, I read the entire series back in the day as it was being published, and remember it fondly-if-vaguely for the most part (at least until the latter third or so of it, when the entire 2099 line floundered as the market crash caught up to Marvel) so I would like to revisit it someday. For now, I'm considering it one of those series only tangentially-connected to the X-Men (like CHAMPIONS, ALPHA FLIGHT, NEW DEFENDERS and DAZZLER) that, if I ever found the time for, would review issue-by-issue behind some kind of paywall (like Patreon), or as new content for a book collecting pre-existing (but revised) X-aminations (which is something I've long wanted to do but have never had the time/money for, and which Marvel would probably put the kibosh on anyway because it wouldn't really work if I didn't also reproduce the selected artwork featured in the reviews).

      Oh, and by my figuring, we should hit the launch of GENERATION X sometime in the later half of 2018, even with the sprawling of the line and me scheduling myself fewer "three review" weeks in an effort to stay sane (and get Force in Focus back up and running).


  3. Yeah, Blevins’ signature is on the Crystal piece. And Steranko did all three in in that Invaders triptych. George Pérez’s signature is on the Beast card, which is at least a small surprise given the context and the medium, although his style is definitely evident.

    I don’t think an obsession with first appearances and other significant events is rare among comics readers, or at least die-hard fans/collectors. My own go-to for that was the Overstreet Price Guide — I’d buy one every two or three years, often picking up a dealer’s used copy at a con for a discount when the next was soon to be published.

    No comment on Iron Man but the Silver Surfer on that pack art reads to me as “Whoa! How do I stop this freakin’ thing?!?”

  4. It's a bit Bond girl-y, but that Domino card really does offer more personality than the first year or two of her narrative appearances combined.

    1. Especially when you recall that, technically, most of her appearances to date were of someone else pretending to be her, leaving us with very little of the real Domino.


    2. Agreed (with both of you) but the flesh tone in Domino’s face there confused me since I think we’ve only seen it depicted as chalk-white in the comics to date — even when Copycat-as-Domino got into the bath with Cable, seeming to confirm that the (lack of) color really is her skin rather than body paint or some kind of ultra-skintight costuming.

  5. I have very fond memories of this card set. I collected full sets of all of the X-Men trading cards, but for the Marvel Universe ones, I only bought a couple of packs. I remember thinking that these ones were really fancy and special -- and I also remember them being more expensive than some of the other trading cards I had bought before. I seem to recall a very dynamic Abomination card in this set that introduced me to the character.

    1. Yeah, I should have mentioned that like the previous set, these two were high-gloss cards, with thicker card stock than the
      "regular" Marvel Universe cards (a style soon-to-be-adopted by the X-Men cards in their upcoming Fleer Ultra set), and as a result, the packs were more expensive than the regular card packs, while also featuring fewer cards-per-pack (six here, versus the eight or ten cards/pack you'd get in other series' packs).


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