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Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Unstacking the Deck: Marvel Universe Series 1

Impel, 1990

Vital Statistics
162 cards plus 5 Hologram chase cards (Cosmic Spider-Man, Magneto, Silver Surfer, Wolverine, Spider-Man vs. Green Goblin).

White border framed front image, cardback features headshot, statistics, biographical info, and "Did You Know" box at the bottom.

Cardback Statistical Categories: Real Name, Group Affiliation, Height, Weight, Battles Fought, Wins, Losses, Ties, Win Percentage, Nicknames (when applicable), Arch-Enemies and First Appearance.

Categorically Speaking
Super Heroes,  Super Villains, Rookies, Famous Battles, MVCs (Most Valuable Comics) , Team Pictures, Spider-Man Presents.

Firsts and Other Notables 
Appearing as the speculator market for both sports cards and comic books was expanding rapidly, Marvel Universe Series I represents Marvel's first foray into the trading card market via a set of cards presented, essentially, as baseball cards but with superheroes, pairing the statistics prevalent on baseball cardbacks with biographical info culled from comic book stories and original art from some of Marvel's biggest artists. By no means the first non-sports trading cards, this is the first set of official Marvel Universe trading cards, and it begins a run of yearly sets that would last until Series V in 1994 and lead to spinoffs like X-Men and Spider-Man-specific sets, Marvel Masterpieces (smaller sets of cards featuring fully painted art by contemporary sci-fi/fantasy artists), and sets built around the work of specific artists.

This set is published by Impel (which in 1992 will rebrand itself as Skybox) which acquired the card license from Marvel. Eventually, Marvel will buy trading card company Fleer, and when the agreement with Impel/Skybox expires, Fleer will takeover the production of Marvel trading cards (and, shortly thereafter, Fleer will acquire Impel/Skybox for itself - a book could seriously be written about the rise and fall of the non-sports card market in the 90s and the various comings and goings of the companies involved). 

The card art for this series is entirely original, done by a variety of artists, though none are specifically credited anywhere in the set, so we're left to figure who did what just by sight. Art Adams, Walt Simonson, Sal Buscema, Mark Bagley and one-time Avengers artist Paul Ryan all clearly contributed work to the set. Reportedly, Marvel had few issues finding artists to work on these sets through the years, as trading card art was easier to do than comic book art, yet the boom market at the time enabled the artists to get paid handsomely for a relatively small amount of work. 

This is the only series of cards to feature the "Spider-Man Presents" category, a group of cards featuring original art of Spider-Man conducting vaguely humorous interviews of various heroes.


This is also the only set of cards to feature nicknames and battle statistics of each character on the cardback. In terms of the battle statistics, that's probably for the best, as those numbers had to be totally arbitrary, especially in the pre-Internet days.

Each of the cards in the "Famous Battles" subset is landscaped, meaning you have to turn your card binder (you do have all your cards in nine-pocket sleeves snapped into a three-ring binder, don't you?) sideways when you hit those cards to fully appreciate them.

One of the cards in this set is for Stan Lee, representing his only trading card in the various Marvel Universe sets.

Similarly, Aunt May warrants her own card, the only one of its kind in the main Marvel Universe trading card series. Humorously, her cardback statistics are specific to her: Pies Baked, Meals Served, Wrinkles on Face ("too many to count"!) and "Life-threatening Illnesses Recovered From."

This series is unique for featuring multiple cards of the same character in the same category; for example, Wolverine appears in both his then-current orange and brown costume, his original yellow and blue costume, and as Patch, his Madripoorian identity from the solo Wolverine book (incidentally, that card is also where I first learned about the whole Patch thing).

Each card is numbered on the back, and Captain America is given the honors of leading off this set with #1.

The hologram chase cards in this set (the second most-90s thing about it) are simply hologram recreations of the non-hologram card (i.e Wolverine's is his current orange-and-brown costume card); later series will use original art for the hologram chase cards.

Special thanks to and for online card pictures.

Class of 1990 
The rookie cards in this series (the subset most obviously-influenced by the cards spiritual ancestor, baseball cards) consist of Ghost Rider, Deathlok, Guardians of the Galaxy, the New Warriors, Nomad, and Foolkiller.

Interestingly, most of them are rookies only in the most technical sense, as with the exception of the New Warriors, all the other characters are simply new or updated versions of existing characters (most from the 70s), or, as in the case of the Guardians of the Galaxy, recent recipients of their own brand new series, and even the New Warriors are only collectively new, with most of their members (save Night Thrasher), like the Guardians, having been in existence long before 1990.

As we get deeper into the 90s and the speculator bubble continues to grow, leading to everyone trying to come up with the hot new character, we'll see a lot more legitimate rookies in later sets.

Of Their Time
In addition to the three Wolverines, Spider-Man gets three cards, one for his classic suit, one for the black costume, and one for Cosmic Spider-Man, a relatively one-off iteration of the character that, thanks to "Acts of Vengeance", was probably vivid in the minds of the makers of the set when it was in production.

Hulk gets two cards, one for his green look and another for his then-current grey look, while Storm similarly gets two, one for her punk Mohawk look and another for her more recent post-Mohawk attire.

Captain America's motorcycle gets its own card, as does Punisher's battle van and Lockheed, Shadowcat's dragon (as well as appearing in Shadowcat's card).

Professor X is depicted in his card standing up; by the time Series II rolls around, he'll be back in his wheelchair.

Doctor Octopus appears in his more contemporary business suit attire.

Quasar is said to have no arch-enemies, as he is soft-spoken and quiet.

Whomever wrote Mr. Sinister's cardback did a marvelous job of coming up with enough words to describe a characters who had appeared in essentially two stories at this point, and whose chief defining characteristic was still "mysterious".

Similarly, the back of the Excalibur Team Picture card manages to make that group sound far more purposeful than anything presented in the series itself thus far.

The "Famous Battle" subset in this series references specific battles, citing the issues in which they occurred on the back. As a result of when this series was released, all time "classics" like "Atlantis Attacks", "Evolutionary War" and "Acts of Vengeance", not surprisingly, get their own cards.

"Fall of the Mutants" gets its own card, but somewhat hilariously, it's essentially just a team shot of the X-Men as they appeared circa that storyline, while the X-Factor vs. Apocalypse card references their fight during "Fall of the Mutants".

X-Men vs. Freedom Force gets its own card, referencing their fight in X-Men #206.

We've noted before that with New Mutants in flux (with the arrival of Liefeld and Cable) likely around the time this series was being produced, the New Mutants team is not quite what it turns out to be, mostly because Rusty and Skids are included.

On the flip side, the current X-Men roster depicted on their card is more a look into the future than a look at the team as it was at the time these cards were released, though strangely, Guido (Lila's Cheney's bodyguard and future X-Factor member) is pictured on the front of the card, while former Morlock Sunder (who died during the Reavers' attack on Muir Island in X-Men #254-255) is listed as a member of the team on the back.

The X-Men get a second team picture, featuring the classic lineup circa issue #200 (in fact, the card image seems lifted directly from an Art Adams-drawn house ad from around that time).

The Brotherhood of Evil Mutants team card features Magneto, Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch, the short-lived iteration of that team from the "Dark Wanda" storyline in Avengers West Coast.

The Hellfire Club card refrences the recent shakeup of that group, with Magneto ousting Sebastian Shaw circa New Mutants #75 (though we've not seen or heard much from the Hellfire Club in awhile).

Favorite Cards

Dan Buckley on planning the card sets
“I love planning trading card sets because you just do maybe five or six a year and you lay them out over a year. It was a group of maybe five, six, seven of us. We sit in a room and talk about who we think are the artists that we’d want to get to do certain work and then our production guy Jim Boyle would say, ‘I think I could do this with foil. I could do this hole.’ We’d talk about the lead times associated with those things. And you could nail down the plans for trading card sets over a one to two week period for a year and it took a lot longer to get them together with the artist.”

Dietsch, TJ "Marvel 75: Trading Cards of the 90's" 9/1/2015

 Michael Pasciullo on planning the card sets
“It almost became a game to see how deep into the well you could go. But the best part was that this was about two years before the Internet hit, so we were doing this all from our own personal reading experiences. You couldn’t simply Google ‘Spider-Man Villains.’ Instead it was about remembering how cool it was when Spot showed up for the first time in an issue of PETER PARKER, THE SENSATIONAL SPIDER-MAN.”
Dietsch, TJ "Marvel 75: Trading Cards of the 90's" 9/1/2015 

Michael Pasciullo on recruiting artists
“The artists loved working on the trading card series for two very simple reasons: one, it was easier and faster to draw a trading card than a comic book and, two, they were paid very, very, very well. Marvel trading cards during the mid-to-late 90’s was a very successful and profitable business so we could afford to get the best artists and pay them well. I know one artist that bought a house from just the work he did on trading cards."

Dietsch, TJ "Marvel 75: Trading Cards of the 90's" 9/1/2015

Michael Pasciullo on finding info for the cardbacks
“That process was part Marvel, part personal knowledge and part research. And by ‘research,’ that meant either going into our own personal comic book collections to find information or going to the comic book store down the street from the office to see if they had the issues that we would need; try coming up with pertinent and factual information about Stegron without the aid of a Wiki.”

Dietsch, TJ "Marvel 75: Trading Cards of the 90's" 9/1/2015 

Teebore's Take 
The 90s were a weird time. The speculator market for both sports cards and comic books, driven by adults with disposable income hearing tales of the collectibles from their youth selling for big money, grew at a fevered pitch. The market was such that no fewer than six companies were making baseball cards (today, the market barely sustains one lone survivor, Topps), the X-Men consisted of an entire family of titles (five, and growing) and everything that fell between those two realms, from TV shows to movies to toys, earned themselves a set of trading cards. Impel's Marvel Universe trading cards, then, exist at the confluence of those speculator markets, the kind of thing that maybe never would have happened (baseball cards...but with superheroes!) if those two specific hobbies weren't in the midst of an ever-expanding (but destined to burst) sales bubble at the same time.

I've written before, briefly and long ago, about how the Marvel Universe trading cards served as my gateway to comics. A baseball card collector long before I got into comics (I was, of course, aware of at least the major characters in play at each company, because even in the 80s, as today, there was enough of a licensing presence from the Big Two that a kid could know Batman, Superman, Spider-Man, etc. from cartoons and toys and whatnot without ever picking up a single issue of a comic book), a friend from school made me aware of the existence the Marvel Universe trading cards (that same friend that year dressed as Gambit for Halloween, a character with whom, at the time, I had zero familiarity with but would soon come to know all too well). There were familiar faces I knew from cartoons and whatnot, but I was also intrigued by the ones I didn't know (Rogue, in particular, stood out to me as someone who looked cool but whom I knew nothing about. Mis-reading her name, I even briefly believed she was called "Rouge"), while the familiarity of collecting cards, buying packs, etc. grounded my explorations of the characters in familiar rhythms.

Before long, my collection of superhero cards led me to the source material (physically, in the case of at least one hybrid hobby shop, the late lamented Shinders, as the Marvel Universe cards were kept near the comic books, a section of the store I had previously avoided), and not long after that, I was hooked on comics (something I could read as well as collect, thus combining my love of books with my anal-retentive need to collect things), to the point that baseball cards quickly faded away (the last complete set I own is from 1992, though I remain an avid fan of the sport itself) in the face of comics' ascendancy. I continued to collect the superhero cards as well, Marvel and others, until after the bubble burst and the cards became more expensive and less ubiquitous, to the point where flipping through card boxes filled with loose singles is as much a part of my collecting memories as flipping through long boxes.

But, that tale is the tale of Marvel Universe Series II, the second set of cards released by Impel. This, the inaugural set, I collected as "back issues", so to speak, thanks in part to Shinders continuing to sell packs of the Series I cards alongside Series II for the same price (as well as loose single cards, some marked up as high or higher than the price a pack). As a result, I've always felt a bit cold to this particular set of cards, a series which doesn't seem as tight as Series II or the later X-Men-centric Jim Lee set. The repeated characters, in theory, are a nice way of illustrating Marvel's history and its capacity for characters to change and grow over time, but in practice, it waters down the set a bit; in Series II, there's only one Wolverine card, for example, and pulling that out of a pack felt like a big get, and later pulling a duplicate instantly gave you a potent trade chip. In this set, there is no *one* Wolverine card, so the excitement of getting one is lessened.

Additionally, the art in this series isn't as dynamics as in later series. There are standouts, of course, but far too many cards feature characters in fairly generic, unexciting poses, cast in medium shots that allows them to fill the space but with minimal excitement. More cards in later series feel like the characters are exploding out of their borders; here, the majority of characters look like they're just hanging out a little ways away. And, of course, there are the growing pains that are understandable in the first set of what is essentially an entirely new product: the win/loss statistics, which were eyebrow-raising in their dubiousness even as a kid, the Spider-Man interview cards, which seem like the creation of a production team that is nervous about the concept and wanted to include something that spoke more directly to the series' comic book origins but was still more than just a static image accompanied by statistics and biographical info, and the MVC subset, which is arguably the perfect representation of the collectible speculator market at the time and the most 90s thing about this set: collectible trading cards featuring the most valuable collectible comic books.

Yet most of these flaws are forgivable given the new ground being broken by this set of cards. The creators were essentially launching an entirely new thing almost from scratch, and missteps in that process are understandable. While not as dynamic (nor personally relevant) as the superior second series, Marvel Universe Series I is fun in a way later series, ones created once the kind of money involved in this venture was well-known, lack. There's a reason this is the only series to feature a Stan Lee card, the only one to playfully re-write the vital statistics on the cardback for someone like Aunt May. After this, the cards get arguably better, but they also get more serious, as they get released into an existing, ravenous market. While it's impossible to argue that a set of trading cards featuring comic book characters tossed into a market gobbling up anything even vaguely collectible isn't an obvious cash grab, the fact that this set of cards is helping create that market lends it some charms lacking in later series, as the creators clearly aren't quite sure what to expect, and aren't yet afraid of having some fun with it all.

Next Issue
Next week: Excalibur #29 & #30, along with Wolverine #32.


  1. Despite all the faults of this series - some of the art being basic (check out the art for the New Mutants and X-men cards here, among others), the battle statistics (how did Mr. Sinister have 599 fights? lol), etc - nostalgia goggles mean this series the one I look back on the most fondly. I remember when these cards were announced and even when I got my first pack. I even remember that one of the cards in that pack was the Leader!

    I didn't mind the multiple versions if different characters. It was cool to be reminded of the different versions of the characters. Plus, for a while, the older costume version was worth more than the current costume...

    I do like the layout and design of the cards, even if it isn't as dynamic as other formats used later. And when the art is good, it is very good, as seen is your examples here, but there many other good cards as well.

    I like Series II and III, Series IV...not much. And if you notice, the quality of the cardstock used gets cheaper with each year. Series IV is so cheap compared to Series I.

  2. I just dug up my collection of these last month. I have no clue where they came from, but I've had them since elementary school and it seemed like everyone had them in the early 90's. I also have comic books with the art for the first Marvel Masterwork set, as well as a "Jim Lee Sketchbook" which is nothing more than the art he created for an X-Men trading card set.

  3. The X-Men team picture is very similar to Claremont and Lee's vol. 1 hardcover, which I believe was to be a promo image of the team Claremont and Lee planned for the run leading up to Xavier's death in issue 300.

  4. I don't know if it's similar as much as it just uses most of the same characters...although it does seem interesting as to which characters are on the card. An interesting look possibly at what the X-offices had planned, and quite far in advance, before things just got derailed.

  5. Wait, these cards didn't have artist credits? That seems so weird ... I could've sworn I knew. I bought the whole set in one gulp, from a comics store that had assembled it all. (Convenient. I've never liked the "Trading" part of "Trading cards.")

    Anyway, I have a memory of being on the phone with a friend, and him asking me, "Who drew Wolverine?" "Who drew Hulk?" "Who drew ..." etc., and me checking a list and answering him. We eventually grew amused at how often my answer was "Paul Ryan." To this day my main association whenever I see that guy's name is me saying it over and over on the phone when I was twelve.

    So now I'm puzzled. Where did that list come from?

  6. Huh. I had no idea Dan Buckley worked for Marvel back in the late eighties/early nineties. He sure rose through the ranks!

    I like that the "Marvel Universe" logo for this set is shaped and styled like the "Secret Wars" logo. And I love the classic John Romita Spider-Man crawling atop it.

    I had a ton of these cards as a youngster. I think I got a full box of them for Christmas or something. This is the Marvel card set I remember best, though I had many of the others, too.

    Going solely from the pics in this post, it looks like Mark Bagley drew the majority of the set!

  7. So awesome! Your story brings a smile to my face as I reminisce about the good old days. I got into comics the same way.

    I was buying baseball cards in '89 at the local shop, which I think had a spin rack or two of comics and thats about it. Between them and the spin racks at the super market I had probably bought 10 or so Superman, Batman and random Marvel comics.

    The boom started and within a couple years the Baseball card store had a whole section dedicated to comics. At that point, Donruss packs had ballooned from the 50 cents they cost when I started buying to over a buck. Everybody seemed keen on comics, so I switched it up and started buying more of them.

    All my allowance was going towards baseball cards, comics and comic cards (by '94-'95, it was Magic the Gathering). At one point (in '94 I think), my town of 15,000 people had 4 stores that sold some combination of comic books, baseball cards, comic cards and trading card games. What a time!

    Then the bubble and by '96 there was one store and it was way more focused on Magic at that point. Sad face :(

  8. I remember these, and probably bought at least one pack of them, but despite what they said about getting top artists, I was underwhelmed by them. The art just seemed fairly crude to me--as opposed to when the Jim Lee X-Men card set was released. I LOVED that set--buying a full box in order to get the complete set, which I am still scratching my head as to where I misplaced it.

  9. Series II was my gateway, too. It and the Jim Lee X-Men set are my favorites, as evidenced by the fact that they are the two I still have complete sets of. I like the expanded stats on this set, but the art in Series II is just way better. Every Art Adams, Jim Lee or Erik Larsen card in that set is just gorgeous. I think it's the best set by a decent margin.

    I had a cousin who had a few of these but I think they were mostly gone from the comic shops by the time I was collecting. Funnily enough, when I saw them as a kid I thought it was so cool that someone had apparently gone through every back issue and cataloged every battle featuring the character. As wwk5d points out, the Sinister fight record is hilarious.

  10. I laugh at Mr. Sinister's success record. He can't take the X-Men of course, but if you lose like 400 battles, you start earning a certain epiteth.

    But yeah. I told you of the time when I mail-ordered some original comic books from a local foreign comics seller, and I don't exactly know what possessed me to do it because there is no such scene in Finland and my friends were more into these ice-hockey player stickers that came together with chocolate bars, but anyways they got a list of Marvel trading cards to sell, and I handpicked some of interest along the comic books.

    So, consequently still today I'm in possession of twelve or so trading cards from the 1991 X-Force series by Comic Images with the impeccable art of Rob Liefeld lifted right out of the comics, some of which comics I actually came to own when they later published some of the Liefeld NEW MUTANTS.


  11. // “Jim Boyle would say, ‘I think I could do this with foil. I could do this hole.’” //


    I had a few random baseball cards as a kid but was much more interested in what in the ‘90s ended up being called, at least for a while, “non-sports entertainment cards”.

    First up was the Star Wars set from Topps in 1977. ‘Cause I’m old. Duplicates were great not just for trading but so you could actually put the stickers on things and still have whole cards — while I didn’t know the term “mint condition” at the time, nor was I looking ahead to collect and preserve for resale later on being 6 years old, I still wanted a complete set. When the Empire Strikes Back cards hit in the summer of 1980, I was old enough to more seriously chase the dragon and spent way too much of the weekly paycheck I got working in my grandparents’ store on them, versus the haphazard way I assembled some of the original Star Wars set and the one for Superman: The Movie in 1978.

    After that I was pretty much disinterested in cards until the 1993 set for Batman: The Animated Series. I’d gotten some Wacky Packages and even some Pac-Man cards based on the cartoon to trade with my sister, but — excepting the Great Puffy-Sticker Phenomenon of 1980-81 — I had more than enough to buy, and largely just to covet, in comics and music and toys without adding non-interactive items like trading cards to the mix. Once I started working at a comics shop out of college, though, just as that ‘90s card boom expanded, I picked up some odds and ends that are still sleeved in a looseleaf binder somewhere around here, including DC’s Cosmic Teams, some Archies, and lots of random singletons or whatever the couple/few equivalent of that word is. The only Marvel set I bought was the Impel Uncanny X-Men set with Jim Lee art, on vacation in the summer of 1992, when I picked it up complete in a plastic box and my sister likewise got a full set of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast in a shop that had them on clearance.

  12. I know I am late to the party on this thread, but is there a comprehensive list of which artist drew which card? It is hard to find identifying info on the cads themselves..


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