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Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Unstacking the Deck: Marvel Universe Series V

Fleer 1994

Vital Statistics 
200 cards (including the checklist card), plus three chase card subsets: four card holograms, nine card "Power Blasts" and ten "Suspended Animation" cards featuring cel-like renditions of characters from Marvel's current animated series.

The front of the main hero/villain cards feature an image of the character, with a solid color border running top to bottom on the left hand side, with the character's name in the top left written in shiny foil lettering.

Like the Marvel Masterpieces and the recent Fleer Ultra X-Men sets, these cards are pretty on thicker stock, with a glossy finish.

The hero/villain card backs are all landscape orientated, with a short bio above a power ratings graphic on the right (the power ratings *really* need an "energy projection" category, to balance out characters who may not be super-strong or great fighters, but still powerful). On the left, a “moment of truth” featuring a significant event from the character’s history (depicted via an original art recreation of the event) with the issue in which it occurred, above the character’s names and group affiliations. The card’s artist(s) is also listed on the back.


Categorically Speaking 
Freeze Frames, 9-Block Battles, Heroes & Villains

Firsts and Other Notables
This is the final set of "regular" Marvel Universe cards; though the speculator card market (in both sport and non-sport cards) had at this point, like the comic book speculator bubble, already burst (even if the companies involved weren't fully aware/accepting of that fact yet), Marvel will continue to make assorted trading card series after this one. However, having already spun off a number of different series in addition to the main Marvel Universe set (like the X-Men "Fleer Ultra" cards, Marvel Masterpieces, and the upcoming high end Flair sets), it is those series, and not this original Marvel Universe line, that will be continued moving forward.

The first nine cards of the set are a “Freeze Frame” subset, so called, I believe, because they feature a drawn image (by Pat Oliffe) superimposed over a real world photo.


The next 81 cards are broken up into nine “pages” of nine, called 9-Block Battles, with which each page featuring a different recent Marvel event/crossover (like “Fatal Attractions” or “Suicide Run” and the nine cards connecting to form one central image (similar to how the previous set’s hero and villain cards were divided into groups of nine to form one collective image).


Somewhat humorously, the story summaries on the back of the nine part images don’t always line up - for example, the “Fatal Attractions” card featuring Cable being attacked by Magneto summarizes the part of the story when Magneto rips out Wolverine’s adamantium, which seems like a failure of design.

Unlike the previous sets, this is the first to not lead with the hero/villain cards before delving into other categories (with the exception of the bizarre Series IV, that didn't really have properly distinct hero/villain cards).

The hero/villain cards are grouped by teams/character families (so all the X-Men and their villains, then the Spider-Man characters, etc.), alphabetically within the group (so Banshee, then Beast, etc.). The “family” groupings somewhat presage the future reorganization of the comics publishing, in which the editor-in-chief position is abolished in favor of multiple equal editors running little “families” of titles.

Punisher is in his own “family” of one.

Black Knight’s moment of truth is from the UK Marvel Super Heroes Book in which he appeared with Captain Britain, a rare reference to Marvel UK material.


Hawkeye’s group affiliation is none, as this set was released after he quit the Avengers West Coast, and he wasn’t part of Force Works.

Quicksilver is listed amongst the Avengers

Force Works gets it’s own group (featuring the characters newer, 90s-riffic costumes), as opposed to being grouped with the rest of the Avengers. War Machine is included with group, but his cardback lists no group affiliation.

Daredevil, Hulk and the Fantastic Four (and their villains) all get put into a miscellaneous “Marvel Universe” grouping(seems like Punisher could have gone there, too).

Notable artists who worked on cards in this set include upcoming Generation X penciller Chris Bachalo, future superstar Stuart Immonen, New Warriors penciller Darrick Robertson, both Andy & Adam Kubert, and even George Perez contributes a couple cards.

Class of '94
This is the first set to neither feature a set of Rookie cards, nor call out new characters in some fashion. Regardless, such stalwart new characters receiving their first (and probably only) cards include Spider-Man supporting characters Nightwatch & Solo (both soon to be featured in  Sony films, presumably), Warrant, Salome, Psi-Lord and Trauma.


X-Related
Not surprisingly given their sales dominance at the time, the X-Men are the first group featured in the heroes/villains category, despite being alphabetically last and already having their own series of trading cards dedicated to them.

On sale a few months before the launch of the series, the Generation X characters are nevertheless fully represented in the heroes section, with each member of the team (including Mondo, who doesn’t show up for awhile, and then, not as a member, so clearly the set is using promotional material as a source) getting their own card, all drawn by series artist Chris Bachalo.


Meanwhile, X-Force is represented by Cable, Shatterstar & Warpath, X-Factor by Polaris & Random, and Excalibur by...Shadowcat.

Colossus appears in his Acolytes uniform.


Cyclops’ Moment of Truth is sending Nathan into the future.


Exodus’ card confirms he killed Cortez (for now) during “Bloodties”.

In the wake of their climatic storylines the previous year, Haven, Siena Blaze & Gamesmaster receive cards.

Juggernaut’s Moment of Truth is rescuing Black Tom.


Mondo’s moment of truth never actually happens.


Mystique’s cardback acknowledges the recent reveal of her relationship to Nightcrawler & Graydon Creed.

Jean Grey gets a card under the name Phoenix.

Random’s arm guns are called out as a separate mutant power from his “adaptation” power.

Of Their Time
Obviously, all of the “event” cards are very 90s drive, but of the group, the “Fall of the Hammer” (a crossover amongst all the 2099 titles) and “Crash & Burn” (a storyline in Iron Man that seemed mostly designed to briefly feature more popular characters (like Venom) in the book seem particularly 90s in retrospect. This set is also how I first learned about the “Suicide Run” Punisher crossover that featured multiple different “kinds” of Punisher (a la DC’s “Reign of the Supermen”).


This is the first set of cards with a heavy representation of the 2099 characters, as they receive their own subgroup.

Vulture is featured in his brief de-aged form (which is also how he appears in the Spider-Man animated series).


Strange, a character created by Dr. Strange and resembling Dr. Strange's 1970s "superhero" look, receives his own card in this set; Dr. Strange himself, does not.

Thor's card features him wearing his first crappy 90s costume, Daredevil in his short-lived armor, and Invisible Woman in her skimpy 90s attire.


Legacy, son of Captain Marvel, receives his own card, the only character from the '93 annuals (which, of course, featured a trading card for the new character introduced in the comic) to be so featured in this set.


Favorite Cards 
Cable


Strong design on this card, as it almost seems like the colored border is a wall Cable's got his back up against.

Cyclops


Having Ron Lim draw this card gives it a very "animated series Cyclops" vibe for whatever reason.

Gambit


A variation on a pretty iconic Gambit image (the multiple card hurl with energy trail) well rendered by Gambit's regular artist.

Chameleon


Clever depiction of Chameleon's power.

Ghost Rider


Mostly, I like the almost 3D perspective of Ghost Rider's chain flying off the card.

Black Widow


Steve Epting draws most of the Avengers cards (as he was the regular artist on the book at the time), but I like his rough-and-ready, battle-worn Black Widow most of all.

Iron Man


Comes dangerously close to being lost in the busy background, but George Perez (who is a master at busy backgrounds) helps make the character pop.

Austin's Analysis 
The final set of Marvel Universe cards, the line which started Marvel's trading card output, is thankfully a marked improvement on the terrible previous set. The "nine card collective image" approach that so damned that set remains, but thankfully, the series also returns to presenting traditional single card images devoted to assorted Marvel heroes and villains (ie the trading card's bread-and-butter), helped in part by increasing the overall number of cards back to 200, which gives the series more wiggle room. The more art-heavy cardbacks of the previous series are improved as well, bringing back the biographical information that made these cards so invaluable to new readers (or readers familiar with only certain corners of the Marvel Universe). The "Moment of Truth" blurb is an appreciated addition as well, expanding on the traditional "first appearance" notation to share a specific, important piece of the character's history beyond the general biographical information.

The set isn't without its problems. The overall design of the cardfronts can crowd the art, and in far too many cases, the shiny foil names are obscured or hard to read (which is less a problem with Iron Man than, say, Psi-Lord). Placing the hero/villain cards behind the 9-Block Battles seems backwards, and the 9-Block Battles themselves are, of course, very of their time. The cardbacks are still landscape while the card fronts are portrait, meaning each card (or the binder holding the cards) has to be turned to read the backs. And the fact that there's essentially only two categories (with the Freeze Frames feeling largely like either an aborted chase set or a superfluous addition to the hero/villain cards) makes the set feel less complete, despite the larger number of cards; the absence of the Rookies & Teams categories, along with something along the line of previous sets' Weapons & Technologies or Unsolved Mysteries, is felt.

Thus, while the story of Marvel's trading cards is far from over, this particular branch of them - which is, really, the trunk of Marvel trading cards - comes to a close with neither a bang nor a whimper. Neither the worst or the best of the lot, Series V manages to both improve on the poor design of the series' nadir, while falling to exceed (or even reach) the aesthetic & entertainment highs of the best sets. Given the state of things - and things to come - in comics and the larger collectible market in 1994, managing to end a venture on, if not a high note, then at least not the worst possible note, is something of an accomplishment. It is an appropriate conclusion to a product born of a very specific time via a pretty heavy marketing hand, which nevertheless was hugely influential, on the industry as whole, but especially on me.

Next Issue
Regular X-aminations return with Uncanny X-Men #314, X-Factor #104 and Wolverine #83!

10 comments:

  1. Black Knight's moment of truth is from the UK Marvel Super Heroes Book in which he appeared with Captain Britain, a rare reference to Marvel UK material.

    The comic in question was Hulk Comic - the Marvel Super-Heroes stories came later and involve reality crossing and the numbering was much higher (starting with #377).

    This would appear to be from the US Marvel Super-Heroes (#17 actually had the cover date November 1968), though there was a period of Hulk Comic from #31 to #41 when a delay on the Black Knight strip led to modified reprints of both the Black Knight and Captain Britain's origin.

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    1. D'oh! Thanks for clearing that up. Makes more sense, given the general disregard of Marvel UK stuff.

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  2. Even though I had tons of cards from previous sets, I only had the Rogue "freeze frame" card from this one, most likely packed in with one of the action figures.

    Those power rankings for Polaris seem pretty weak, as do a lot of characters overall. She has basically the same ranking as Mondo, a character who never actually did anything (outside of one story), but who could be stronger if he tried. I doubt Polaris holds back all that much. Plus, she has the ability to "fly" because of magnetism? I know this is presented inconsistently, but doesn't she and Magneto levitate due to metal components in their outfits? Her "racy" X-Factor costume was designed with this in mind.

    Speaking of Mondo, I wonder if his non-presence in Generation X was planned, or if it was due to storied being derailed by events, artist absences, or changes in creative direction. Mondo appears more in Age of Apocalypse than he does in the regular Marvel U. Replacing the book with another 4 issues in hurt the momentum of the book. I always wonder about the stories we may have gotten if Lobdell and Bachalo had stayed on the book, particularly involving their original ideas for for certain characters. I can't wait for you to cover this era of books.

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    1. To be fair, it's not like Lobdell and Bachalo left only a few issues in. Lobdell's final issue was 28, and Bachalo's was 32. They were both on GENERATION X for more than two years -- though Bachalo had lots of fill-in artists along the way. I do think "Age of Apocalypse" threw their plans out of whack early on, but for the most part I would guess that what we got from Lobdell and Bachalo was pretty much what was intended, aside from the weirdness of Mondo.

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    2. Reading them as they came out, it somehow felt a lot shorter than two years. I just remember being disappointed whenever Bachalo had a fill-in.

      As far as things not panning out, I'm thinking of the M/Penance retcon that came about immediately after Lobdell left. "M" was only ever supposed to be a gestalt of two little girls, and Penance was a deaf girl with PTSD from Yugoslavia. It threw out everything established about them up to this point and made them a convoluted mess during the M-Plate story.

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    3. Those power rankings for Polaris seem pretty weak, as do a lot of characters overall.

      Yeah, Polaris is a good example of how characters w/energy-based powers are underpowered in this set, as there's no category that really reflects that type of power.

      I know this is presented inconsistently, but doesn't she and Magneto levitate due to metal components in their outfits? Her "racy" X-Factor costume was designed with this in mind.

      I believe the "official" explanation for how magnetic characters fly is their power gives them a wider range of electro-magnetic manipulation, and they use that to negate gravitons. Polaris' racy costume was more about giving her the ability to manipulate it so she could create shields, grab stuff with it, etc. (and be racy).

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  3. This was the set I bounced off of, as I do remember a few individual cards (I think they re-used some of that Fatal Attraction stuff from Overpower), I remember basically nothing about the design. Also I liked the previous series' "focus" on four skills that the character actually had; if you cut off "energy projection," Polaris seems like a real loser, and you give her a bunch of useless (to her) stuff like "stamina" and "speed."

    But the perfect balance was Series 3, now let's all get some frosty chocolate milkshakes.

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  4. Wow, I was so sure I had packed it in following the previous series, but some of these cards look super familiar to me! I probably just bought a few packs to check them out. I know I certainly didn't have anything near a full set.

    "Colossus appears in his Acolytes uniform."

    And he's categorized as a Super Villain! I'm not sure anyone in the X-Office actually intended him to be considered a bad guy during this period... just confused. And regading the uniform, that kind of looks like it was drawn to be his original costume (or the Jim Lee version), but was colored like the Acolyte uniform!

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  5. // Black Knight’s moment of truth //

    … is from the 1968 US Marvel Super-Heroes #17, like Tim said.

    // Not surprisingly given their sales dominance at the time, the X-Men are the first group featured in the heroes/villains category //

    “First” is really an arbitrary concept here since the cards are released all at once, distributed randomly in packs, as opposed to being published in numerical order. That’s a bedrock principle of the whole phenomenon. Lower numbers could be seen as pride of place, sure, but it’s not like anyone would think the X-Men were being shafted by alphabetical order, say, or even solo heroes coming before teams.

    // Meanwhile, X-Force is represented by Cable, Shatterstar & Warpath, X-Factor by Polaris & Random, and Excalibur by...Shadowcat. //

    So the other characters just don’t appear?

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    1. “First” is really an arbitrary concept here since the cards are released all at once, distributed randomly in packs, as opposed to being published in numerical order.

      Yeah, I was thinking of it in terms of having the cards laid out in nine pocket pages in a binder (in numerical order, of course), in which case the X-Men are the first group of characters you come across.

      So the other characters just don’t appear?

      Correct. Nightcrawler, for example, doesn't have a card in this set. But Nightwatch does, which totally makes sense, right?

      Delete

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