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Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Unstacking the Deck: Fleer Ultra X-Men Series I

Fleer 1994

Vital Statistics
150 base card set (including the checklist card), as well as several insert/chase sets: a nine card "team portrait" set that combines to form one image, a six card foil-etched "Fatal Attractions" set, a six card foil-etched "Greatest Battles", and a six card foil-etched X-Overs set. Additionally, there is a six card Team Triptych that is exclusive to packs sold from Wal-Mart, and a five card "promo pack" sold with Sega's X-Men video game (which contained versions of the base set cards with the Sega logo on the back).

Categorically Speaking
Super Heroes, Super Villains, Original Team, X-Overs, Team Tryptichs, Deceased, Wolverine's Greatest Battles

Firsts and Other Notables
Fleer is the company which, in the early 80s, helped breaks Topps' monopoly on the production of baseball cards, and by 1991, with the sports card market in the midst of a booming sales bubble (helped, in part, by the opening of the market by Fleer), it released its first "Fleer Ultra" set of baseball cards, a high-end series produced in smaller quantities than the "regular" Fleer set, featuring thicker card stock and silver ink (not unlike how the Marvel Masterpieces card sets are, essentially, an upscale version of the regular Marvel Universe sets). In July of 1992, Marvel purchased Fleer outright, which is why this series (and subsequent X-Men series) are produced by Fleer instead of Skybox, as with the previous sets (though Marvel would, in turn, purchase Skybox as well, in 1995, with both acquisitions often cited as two of the numerous bad business decisions that led to their bankruptcy in 1996).

As a result of the acquisition, what is essentially the third series of X-Men-specific trading cards is rebranded as the first series of Fleer Ultra X-Men cards, with Marvel applying Fleer's high-end "Ultra" imprint to the set, the end result being a series that is more reminiscent of the Marvel Masterpieces sets than the previous two X-Men sets, in terms of production, design and cost (and, in fact, pretty much all of Marvel's trading card sets moving forward will be similarly high-end, relative to the previous non-Masterpiece sets).

Like the Marvel Masterpieces sets, these cards are high-gloss and feature fully painted art from a variety of artists, including Dan Brereton, Julie Bell, Bill Sienkiewicz & Jim Steranko, amongst others.

Cardbacks list the character's real name and group affiliation, along with a brief (third person) bio, alongside a "mutant power profile", which repeats the image from the card front, partially rendered with a grid-overlay, and a list of the character's powers. The name of the artist who painted the card is listed, but the characters' first appearances aren't. Team leaders are designated as such as well.


The Super Hero cards are roughly grouped by team affiliation (with the Blue team followed by the Gold team, followed by Excalibur, etc.), with the last dozen and a half hero cards devoted to unaffiliated characters or members of non-X-teams (like the Six Pack). The villains are listed in a random order.

Picking up on a design element from the previous series, the team sets in this series are arranged as "triptychs", in which three separate cards combine horizontally to form one image.

In addition to displaying the various X-teams in this manner, there is a triptych celebrating the wedding of Cyclops & Jean Grey showing the couple through the ages.


In lieu of team-based greatest battles, this series features only battles involving Wolverine. While some are of a recent vintage or stretch the definition of "greatest", its a testament to Wolverine's exposure at this point that a full subset can be devoted to his fights through the years, and most of them are significant enough to warrant inclusion. That said, these cardbacks fail to cite the relevant issues featuring the battle depicted on the front, which seems like a missed opportunity.

The team portrait chase set features art from renowned fantasy artists the Hildebrandt brothers (who will provide all the art to the next Marvel Masterpieces series).


The "Fatal Attractions" chase set highlights six moments from the recent crossover, roughly one per chapter (though X-Factor #92 is left out, in lieu of giving X-Men #25 two moments - Wolverine losing his adamantium and Xavier mindwiping Magneto).


The "Greatest Battles" chase set, done in a similar style to the Wolverine's Greatest Battles subset,  is inspired by the animated series, featuring cards like Cyclops & Jean Grey vs. Callisto and Gambit vs. Bishop.


The "X-Overs" chase set is merely silver foil embossed variants of the standard X-Overs subset.

This set contains a couple of notable misprints, including the Original Team Beast cardback being printed in the wrong direction, and the Iceman card missing its number on the back.

In light of the recent exodus from Excalibur of all the Alan Davis-created characters (including Captain Britain & Meggan), the group is represented in this set only by Nightcrawler, Shadowcat, and Phoenix.

In addition to his "regular" card, Wolverine also gets a "Weapon X" card, depicting his appearance in the "Weapon X" story from Marvel Comics Presents.


Former New Mutant Mirage, not seen since New Mutants #87, receives her own card, with the biographical data teasing her connection to the new MLF member Moonstar.


The "Fall of the Mutants" X-Over card lists all the issues involved in the story, including the X-Factor & New Mutants issues, but the image on the front depicts only the events from the X-Men chapters of the story, and the cardback summarizes only that chapter of the story.


Collection Recollection
This series and the next Fleer Ultra set are nostalgic favorites of mine in part because, for both series, I received a "wax box" (essentially, a box containing dozens of "wax" packs, out of which stores would sell the individual packs) of the cards for Christmas in '93 and '94, and thus was able to complete each set (a couple times over) with relative ease (though even with a wax box, I still wasn't able to get more than a few of the series' numerous chase cards).

Beyond the ease of acquiring the Fleer Ultra sets (instead of having to scrape together extra money to buy enough packs or shell out for pricier individual cards I needed), getting a wax box for Christmas was extra fun because I convinced myself to ration out the packs (rather than opening them all at once), such that I'd just open four or five packs a day, and as a result, spent most of the week after Christmas getting to crack open new packs every day without ever leaving the house. To this day, the unique smell that accompanies these kinds of glossy cards makes me think of Christmas, and the little tree on my desk in my bedroom under which I would place the wax box as I made my way through it.

A Work in Progress
Wolverine’s card still lists him as possessing adamantium claws & bones (even though the "Fatal Attractions" chase set depicts him losing the metal).

Cable is still said to have bionic components.

Shatterstar's regenerative abilities, recently referenced in X-Force #30, are listed alongside his "shoot energy from his swords" power).

Feral is still listed as a member of X-Force and included in the X-Force section of the Super Hero cards.

Adam-X the X-Treme is listed as being half-Shi'ar, something not yet established in the comics (he's been said to be alien, and hinted at being specifically Shi'ar, but not declared so definitively).

Maverick is said to posses the ability to see the immediate future; his mutant power is actually kinetic energy absorption.

Magneto is listed as the leader of the “mutants of Avalon”, even though other characters have "Acolytes" listed as their group affiliation. Also, his "main" card makes no mention of Xavier wiping his mind.

Cyber's power is said to be the ability to detect distinct brain patterns, something not mentioned in any of his comic book appearances.

Despite early issues of Cable hinting at Apocalypse being named En Sabah Nur, no real name is given on his cardback.

Similarly, Stryfe's real name is listed as unrevealed.

Graydson Creed's card still depicts the character as he appeared in Stryfe's Strike Files (with a round head and visor sunglasses), rather than as he appeared in Uncanny #298 or the Sabretooth miniseries.


The newer Mutant Liberation Front all receive individual cards, with all the holdover members from Stryfe's group having real names listed, in some cases the first time these characters have received real names (like Reaper being Pantu Hurages).

The Deceased subset includes some relatively new additions in Mesmero (who died in X-Men #21) and Mastermind (who died in X-Men Annual #17).

It also includes a card for Mimic, the long-forgotten character who was the first new member of the team after the original five, who is listed as inactive on the back, rather than deceased.


The Wolverine vs. Hellfire Club card depicts Wolverine's fight against Cole, Macon & Reese in Uncanny #133, though it also shows the White Queen directing their attack against him, something that didn't actually happen (as White Queen was in one of her frequent comas at that point in time, after battling Phoenix in issue #131).


Of Their Time
Longshot & Dazzler are both still getting cards, despite having not appeared anywhere since the final Jim Lee-drawn issues of X-Men.

Psylocke's real name is listed as "Betsy Braddock/Kwannon", and Revanche receives her own card.

Iceman is depicted in his more recent "spiky" form.


Even though the Blue/Gold distinction amongst the X-Men has, in the comics, mostly faded away at this point in time (mostly in the wake of "Fatal Attractions"), this series still uses it to separate the X-Men into two groups.

Sabretooth is both included in the Super Heroes subset, and appears alongside the rest of the Blue team on their Team Triptych card, even though he is still technically a prisoner, and will never really join the team in any official capacity.

Random gets his own card, with X-Factor listed as his group affiliation (even though he's technically more hired help at this point). Also, his  "forearm blasters" are listed as a power separate from his "randomness" power.

Askani, with a real name of “Jen Askani”, has her own card.


Ditto Cable's son Tyler, who gets included with the Super Hero subset despite having been an arms dealer determined to kill Cable. His power is listed simply as telepathy, instead of the hyper-specific "read minds and display memories visually" power he was said to have in "Fathers and Sons".


In addition to Cable & Domino (listed with the rest of X-Force), the remaining four members of the Six Pack (Kane, Grizzly, Hammer & Bridge) each get their own card.


Colossus, wearing his Acolyte uniform, leads off the Super Villain subset.


Haven, on the strength of her recent story in X-Factor, gets her own card. Not surprisingly, so does Exodus, as well as the big winner of the "new character annuals", X-Cutioner.


Ahab, presumably on the strength of the upcoming "Is Rory Campbell destined to become Ahab?" mystery in Excalibur, receives his first card, as does Matsu'o (looking particularly Wolverine-esque), in the wake of his involvement in the Psylocke/Revanche story and membership in the Upstarts.


Black Tom is depicted in his revamped "wood" form for the first time.


Caliban, not seen since "X-Cutioner's Song" but soon to return in the comics, is featured.

One-story wonders Slayback (from the Deadpool mini) & Sinsear (from the early issues of Cable) both get their own cards.


The Wolverine vs. Thing card depicts their then-recent fight in Fantastic Four which resulted in Wolverine slashing Thing's face, leading to Thing wearing a silver helmet to disguise the injury (and help it heal), which is something that felt like a big deal at the time but, in hindsight, really wasn't.


Favorite Cards
Beast


Effectively captures the classic dicthomy between the character's intelligence and animalistic powers. It's not surprising this one was used in a lot of the promo pieces for the series.

Archangel


Strong sense of action/movement on this one.

Sabretooth


I love the fourth-wall breaking element of Sabretooth slashing the card front.

Cable


Great Sienkiewicz piece that captures both the mysteriousness & militancy at the heart of the character.

Cannonball


Like the Archangel card, a strong sense of action/movement that also tells a story in a single image.

Polaris


Another solid Sienkiewicz image that does a lot with what is just a portrait.

Arcade


Manages to capture both the character's inherent menace & cartoonishnes at once.

Nimrod


Dynamic image with an interesting perspective to it.

Original Team Beast


Like the "main" Beast card, captures the dichotomy of the character. Plus, it's always nice to see John Romita Sr. art.

Fatal Attractions


Love the layout to this one, though I'm not sure why Cyclops is featured (it's not like he did a lot in that story.

Cypher



Great to see Doug represented, especially with such a haunting image that overcomes the limitations of the character's less-visually dynamic power.

Austin's Analysis
It continues to be tough to beat the initial, all-Jim-Lee-drawn first series of X-Men cards, but in a lot of ways, this set nevertheless represents the zenith of Marvel's subset of X-Men trading cards, combining the fully-painted art and high-quality cards of Marvel Masterpieces with the breadth of the full Marvel Universe sets, the result being 150 high gloss, thick cards with consistently strong art (it's easy to beat the lackluster second set of X-Men cards, featuring far too much - ie any - Mark Pacella art, and this set does that, easily). That the X-Men alone can support a set of this size says something about the scope of that universe in 1994, but with seven (soon to be eight) regular monthly series, a quarterly giant size series, and a handful of limited series and one-shots each year, there's plenty of material to mine.

Certainly, some of the inclusions in this set are laugh-worthy with the benefit of hindsight (did every member of the Six Pack truly warrant their own card?), for the most part, this set makes good use of its size, exploring not just "hot", of-the-moment characters but also presenting at least a passing representation of X-Men history and the current state of all the teams, including subsets for the original X-Men, the various X-crossovers, and dead/inactive characters. And while turning over the majority of the cardbacks to a weird CAD-style "work in progress" rendering of the front image seems like a waste, the rest of the series' design is strong, letting the art shine by not cluttering it up with too many extraneous elements.  All in all, this is a pretty solid set: of its time, certainly, but not excessively so, featuring consistently strong art and high-quality production values that makes the whole thing feel special.

Next Issue
Next week, the X-Men Wedding Album special.

6 comments:

  1. I also got a wax box for my birthday (celebrated at our family thereapist's office). I was very excited that almost all of the classic New Mutants were represented save poor Karma. Magma and Warlock's cards are still among my favorites. My mom and therapist did make a remark about Magma's card being like something you'd see in Playboy a remark which still puzzles me to this day.

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  3. I’m pretty sure the contemporary action figures were also bundled with this series of cards. I still think that the Cyclops card has one of, if not the best, representation of the character ever. The art in it is amazing.

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  4. Somewhere I have a nearly complete set of this line. It was the only time I really got into card collecting, and it's probably because (a) the story cards were a good guide on what to look for as I started going through back issue bins and (b) it was my first real exposure to Sienkiewicz's art. That Polaris one is really cool, especially since at first glance the part of her hairband under her eye looks like a tear & makes you wonder what's going on with her.

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  5. // Askani, with a real name of “Jen Askani”, has her own card. //

    !!!

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  6. Hmm, I thought I'd dropped out of the trading card scene after the previous set, but I do recall having some of these as well. Maybe this was my last set? Maybe not? I guess we'll find out!

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