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Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Unstacking the Deck: Marvel Masterpieces Series I

Skybox 1992

Vital Statistics
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).

Categorically Speaking
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.

Favorite Cards

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.

Green Goblin

Love the Spider-Man logo backdrop to highlight the characters' history together.

Moon Knight

Like his card in MU Series III, the way his cape forms around the border of the card is cool.

Mole Man

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.

Red Skull

Effectively aptures the character's more "horror movie" side.


Another iconic image. Love all the webbing.

Wonder Man

Another great illustration of character.

White Queen

Of all the overly-sexualized female cards, this one works the best.

Austin's Analysis
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 Issue
Next week, Ghost Rider #29 and Wolverine #61.


  1. The smell of these cards and opening a fresh pack are amazing. My cards still have that smell in their 9 pocket sleeves.

    This set was really hard to find in the Nashville/Franklin Tennessee area. There was a store called Pegasus that sold them and only got in about a box a week, they were more expensive so I was trying to piece together a set by packs instead of a full box.

    The Psylocke card was a promo and I remember my mom not liking the image, being over sexualized and not approving. I had to hide other cards like White Queen who I never thought her face wasn't painted well.

    I like the second Masterpiece set the best and really didn't like the third set. By that time they made two different alternative versions of each card and other inserts making it almost impossible to get everything without spending a fortune. Not a fan of that and really lead to me never buying another card set from Marvel. By that time, Magic was out and hot and why buy something that would sit in a binder when I could buy something to play a game and win cash or other cards? I think X-Men Metal cards or whatever set it was that the Kubert family did was my last card set I bought and I didn't even finish that one. I was fully into gaming cards, these cards had lost their luster or Magic.

  2. >>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.

    Not an unusual sort of thing for Marvel to do, back in the day. In the MARVEL UNIVERSE handbooks, back in the 80's, characters' "First Appearances" were cited. For characters that debuted during the Golden Age, the "First Modern Appearance" would be cited, instead (i.e. the first post-FANTASTIC FOUR #1 appearance). For all intents and purposes, the "modern" Marvel Universe began with FANTASTIC FOUR #1.

  3. I remember this set well! It was my favorite of all the Marvel cards I indulged in back in the nineties. My mom got me the full set from our local comic shop for Christmas one year (not the collector tin though, so I had none of the chase cards -- it was simply a set the shop had assembled and had for sale). I'm sure I still have the binder with all the cards around someplace, though it's probably in storage.

    This was my first exposure to Joe Jusko, who is still one of my favorite superhero/fantasy painters. And unless I'm mistaken, he painted the new 2016 Masterpieces (or is going to do the 2017 set) too, which is really cool. I may try to track those down.

    I seriously loved nearly all the cards in this series, so it's hard to choose favorites from a set where practically every one is a favorite, but I know that among the ones I looked at most were: Apocalypse, Captain America, the Hulk, Magneto, Mister Sinister, Psylocke, Rogue, Spider-Man, and Thanos.

    The only cards I really didn't like back then (besides the ones spotlighting characters I didn't know/didn't care about such as Major Victory, Sleepwalker, etc.) were Wolverine for his lack of a mask, and the Thing, who felt to me like a cheat (nowadays I find the card kind of clever, though I still sort of wish Jusko had gone with a full body shot or at least a full torso).


  4. The Namor card does list 1939’s Marvel Comics #1 as his first appearance, despite showing as you say the cover to his first modern appearance rather than his first-ever cover appearance on Marvel Mystery Comics #4, so it’s possible that although the Red Skull’s first cover appearance on Captain America Comics #3 is still decidedly Golden Age it was deemed suitable for presentation by the Powers That Be while the cover of Captain America Comics #3 with its Nazi flag was not. Or it’s just a flat-out inconsistency like the Captain Britain / Meggan situation(s) you mention, for which I have no good explanation. *shrug*

    Why shouldn’t Archangel’s first appearance be X-Men #1? Yeah, I get that his name’s different, but he’s the same guy, and paging through some card backs online I find: Havok’s card lists his first appearance as X-Men #54 even though his codename and costume didn’t come along until several issues later. Cover snafu aside, Strong Guy’s first appearance is listed as that of his civilian identity too. The Invisible Woman card doesn’t treat that identity as distinct from Invisible Girl. Even Major Victory’s card gives his first appearance as Vance Astro back in Marvel Super-Heroes #18. Granted, Weapon Omega’s first appearance is given as Alpha Flight #102 rather than Alpha Flight #1; I don’t know if his identity as Wild Child had yet been revealed, though. Most analogous to Archangel’s situation, Psylocke’s first (American) appearance is listed on the back of her card as New Mutants Annual #2, yet Betsy's entire body has changed since then same as Warren's. (The length of this paragraph and the amount of clicking around I did are really disproportionate to how important this is to me, by the way…)

    I can’t stand that Spider-Man piece and it’s purely because Jusko felt (or actually was) compelled to lean into McFarlane’s depiction. The bigger, more triangular eyes on the mask are a peeve of mine but what really does it is his completely sheer face, without any hint of a nose or other contours, as if his head were a giant egg. Funnily enough, I just came across my binder of comics-related cards and it turns out I have a promo card for this set with the Spider-Man art on the front.


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