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Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Unstacking the Deck: Marvel Universe Series IV

Skybox 1993

Vital Statistics
180 cards (including the checklist), plus nine red foil chase cards featuring characters from Marvel's 2099 imprint, and one rare Spider-Man vs. Venom hologram card, available in three different colors (red, green or the rarest, blue), inserted at the odds of one in every 180 packs.

The big change in this series that the bulk of the cards, comprising the various heroes and villains cards, are 1/9 of a larger image that forms when each batch of nine cards are placed in a nine-pocket plastic sleeve.

As a result, the border around each card varies, depending on where in the grid it falls (so the middle card has no border, the bottom right card a border on it's right and bottom, etc.), with a line across the top of each card denoting whether the character is a hero, villain, rookie, or alien race, along with the Marvel logo with the year inside it.

The back of each card is laid out in landscape, with a large headshot and a smaller full body image of the character in the center. Their real name and team affiliation is listed, followed by their ranking (by numeric value) in four ve categories: Strength, Intelligence, Fighting Ability, and Speed. Beneath that is a one sentence origin for the character, along with their first appearance. On the very bottom of the card is a "did you know" fact for each character.

Categorically Speaking
The bulk of the cards are category-free, with an "Unsolved Mysteries" subset and "Famous Battles" tacked onto the end of the set.

First and Other Notables
Since the last set of cards was released, manufacturer Impel changed its name to Skybox, making this the first set of cards released under that name (eventually, Skybox will be bought by Marvel, who had already purchased Fleer, resulting in the company name officially becoming Fleer/Skybox).

Each contains ten cards (down from the previous series' twelve), featuring art from a variety of then-current Marvel artists, including Brandon Petersen, Joe Madureira, and Ron Lim, amongst others.

The Unsolved Mysteries category, including genuine (at the time) mysteries like who the X-traitor is or the sixth member of the Infinity Watch is, speaks to the propensity and profile of such ongoing mysteries at the time, and how they serve as high-profile storytelling engines for multiple series (though the subset is padded out a bit, with stuff like "what Dr. Doom's face looks like").

The Famous Battles subset, meanwhile, gets mark for its breadth; alongside newer conflicts, like Cable vs. Stryfe, it also highlights some classic and less-talked-about stories, like the Warlock/Man-Beast conflict from Warlock's 70s stories.

The set of chase cards expands to nine, and highlights Mavel's then-recent 2099 imprint, which reimagined classic Marvel characters (and Ravage, Stan Lee's last original Marvel creation) in a futuristic setting.

Given the series focus on nine panel grids, each unofficial subset of nine cards is loosely themed (so most of the X-Men appear together, most of the Avengers, etc.). But given either their nature and/or current events in their titles circa 1992-93, some characters end up grouped with some strange bedfellows. For example, Thor, who was mostly apart from the Avengers at this time, is grouped with the "mystic" characters like Dr. Strange and Sleepwalker, Hulk and Doc Samson get lumped in with Silver Sable, the Wild Pack and Deathlok, while Daredevil gets grouped with Spider-Man, rather than with other "street level" characters (and future Netflix Defenders teammates) like Luke Cage and Iron Fist.

Thanks again to Will Paredes' website for the card scans.

Class of '93
Siege, Goddess, Turbo, Slayback, Shock, Lyja, Black Axe, Bloodseed, Wild Thing, Death Metal,

Moses Magnum's cardback says that he received his powers from Apocalypse, a reference to the extra pages added to the Classic X-Men reprint of his encounter with the X-Men.

Cannonball's immortality is referenced on his cardback.

Slayback, who will make his first appearance in Deadpool's solo series, receives his own card.

Cable's full name - Nathan Dayspring Askani'son - is given on his cardback.

Mr. Sinister, Sabretooth and Apocalypse are all lumped together on the X-Force "page", along with Stryfe, who receives a card despite being dead.

There's an X-Force page (though it only features three members of the team), and an X-Men page (featuring both Blue and Gold members), but the rest of the X-books, plus Alpha Flight and Psylocke, get represented in a sort of miscellaneous mutants page. Curiously, Micromax is one of Excalibur's representatives. Also, Psylocke's first appearance is listed as her first American appearance, a distinction few other cards (including Captain Britain's) make.

Beast's "did you know?" fact says he is an accomplished keyboard player, something I don't think has ever been referenced before or since.

Magneto's real name is still listed as Magnus, despite the upcoming "Erik Lensherr" retcon.

Gambit's full real name, Remy LaBeau, is also given.

The Shi'ar get their own card in this series, as part of a nine-panel "aliens" set, though most of the info ties in with their involvement in the Avengers' "Operation: Galactic Storm" crossover.

Not surprisingly, the X-Men account for several of the mysteries in the "Unsolved Mysteries" subset, including the identity of the X-traitor, Wolverine's origin, Nigthcrawler's origin, and Cable's origin (which had been mostly revealed at this point anyway), making four of the nine mysteries X-related.

Wolverine vs. Cyber is included as a Famous Battle, as is X-Force's early Liefeld-drawn battle with the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants.

The X-Factor/Hulk crossover "War and Pieces" also receives its own Famous Battle card.

Of Their Time
Phoenix appears wearing her green and yellow costume, not her Dark Phoenix variation, while Nightcawler is wearing his newer RCX-created costume.

Similarly, Falcon is wearing his 90s era costume.

Splice, one of the central villains of Wonder Man's solo series, get his own card, and "chief villain of the Wonder Man solo series" is arguably the best representation of "90s market glut".

Or, instead, "Marvel UK", Marvel's line of European characters who get their own nine card spread; few of those characters will last the year.

Shock, the EXTREME!! new Mr. Fear, gets her own card, and is really the only Daredevil-specific villain to do so.

The Fantastic Four page is another candidate for the most 90s, simply for the way it showcases how classic characters were being affected by the trends of the decade, featuring masked Thing, leather-and-pockets-vest-wearing Mr. Fantastic, and Extra Sexy Invisible Woman.

Similarly, this is the set which features the leather jacket-clad Avengers in all their glory.

The Avengers page also features villains Proctor (who was the central Big Bad of the Harras/Epting run), as well as Bloodaxe and Red Skull, whose cards remind us that the Avengers had two red skull-themed villains running around at this point in time.

Cage villain Hardcore rocks a pretty 90s flattop.

Marvel's Scarecrow, a short-lived and thinly-veiled-knockoff character reinvented during the 70s horror boom, receives his own card, as the character came back to prominence as part of the "Midnight Sons" line.

The Midnight Sons (one of Marvel's top selling "lines" at the time) get their own nine card page as well.

In addition to the four X-related mysteries, most of the Unsolved Mystery cards are based on stories deeply rooted in the 90s, like the question of who the sixth member of Infinity Watch is or the mystery behind Spider-Man's parents (which turn out to be evil robots).

One of the Famous Battles cards features Punisher battling Thorn, and I don't even know who that is.

The whole "Tony Stark fakes his death, Jim Rhodes becomes Iron Man then War Machine" storyline gets a Famous Battle card simply titled "War Machine".

The "Spirits of Venom", an unremarkable and little-remembered crossover between the Midnight Sons and Venom, is considered a Famous Battle.

There's also a Venom vs. Wolverine card, based on the utterly superfluous Marvel Comics Presents story.

Favorite Cards

A rare instance in this set of a classic character whose card manages to capture the essence of the character and still look good on its own, as a single card.

As a kid, I had no idea who this character is (and I still barely do), but something about the idea of a guy using a bird-themed suit of armor appealed to me (the card itself is fairly meh, but I remember my fascination with this character as a kid, and my anger that his cardback did so little to tell me about him.

 In fact, the New Warriors nine card grid might be my favorite of all the grids, despite not having a terribly deep connection to the characters. I like the way it plausibly splits the image into three tiers: the gargoyle, the skyline, and the sky.

Closeups are little used in this set, and this one is reminiscent of the character's strong Marvel Masterpieces card.

It's hard to not to nail a Magneto card. Something about the character lends itself to iconography.

Austin's Analysis
Without a doubt, this is my least favorite of the five standard Marvel Universe card sets (and it's my least favorite even if you factor in the X-Men and Marvel Masterpieces spin-off sets as well), for three specific reasons. First, by dint of when it was released, this is the most "of its time"/90s of all the sets, filled with characters who earned cards on the backs of ultimately-shortlived, bubble-feeding series, including nine cards dedicated to the Marvel UK imprint. Combined with the drop in overall card count (180 vs 200), this set feels like there's a lot of C-listers included at the cost of more notable, evergreen characters. Second, in terms of design failings, this series continued the previous set's decision to use a landscape orientation for the back of the cards, resulting in more awkward card/binder turning to view the backs of the cards, and also eliminated the vast majority of text from the cardbacks. In a pre-internet era, with the only current Marvel Handbooks available the exceedingly-dry Master Class set (which has its own design and accessibility issues), these various card sets served as a kind of slimmed down encyclopedia for a lot of fans, and stripping out the biographical information from the cards takes that away (arguably when it was needed most, given the number of characters appearing in the set for the first time).

Finally, and most significantly, the nine card/page "mosaic" format is a severe detriment to enjoyment of this set. While some of the overall images are nice, and it's fun to see the different ways the artists created varying backdrops (to varying degrees of success) which enabled them to place characters in three vertical tiers, the mosaic approach essentially robs the individual card of its meaning. Between the awkward borders (with a card having anywhere from zero to two borders on varying sides, depending where in the nine slot grid it falls) and carryover art (with the background image of each card incomplete, and occasionally, containing pieces of another character), it's near impossible to judge each individual card on its own merits, and appreciate it as a single entity. Instead, the series ends up feeling more like one of those pinup art books instead of a set of trading cards. Plus, the nine card grid approach, combined with the sheer volume of characters represented, effectively dispatches the various subsections within the set: there's no more standalone rookie cards, or team cards, or weapon/technology cards, or even a super-hero/super-villain grouping.  Just a bunch of cards featuring 1/9 of a picture, along with the mysteries and famous battles subsets at the end.

The final result is a set that feels incomplete, both in terms of information provided and art, with cards for even stalwart characters like Spider-Man or Captain American unable to stand on their own because, by design, they are just one part of a larger image. It's a cute gimmick, and yeah, some of the nine panel grids look nice when paging through this set in a binder. But in so fully committing to the gimmick, this series completely fails to function as a set of trading cards. The best sets manage to look good as a whole while each card still functions as a complete entity unto itself. In trying to do something different with the nine panel grid, this set ultimately sacrifices the part in service of the whole.


  1. 90s pouchy Reed Richards kind of looks like he's just getting geared up to go on a safari.

  2. Please no one spoil me the sixth member of the Infinity Watch; I'm in middle of process finding out now that I got access to the tie-ins which I didn't back in the day.

    1. It was F.A.C.A.D.E.

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    3. One of my favorite bits in Dan Slott's Spider-Man is when F.A.C.A.D.E. is going to reveal his identity and Spider-Man decides he doesn't have time and just swings away. That is exactly the level of respect that story deserves.

    4. Kavanagh, Mackie and Austen are the unholy trinity of writers

    5. "One of my favorite bits in Dan Slott's Spider-Man is when F.A.C.A.D.E. is going to reveal his identity and Spider-Man decides he doesn't have time and just swings away. That is exactly the level of respect that story deserves."

      Kind of a dick move on both Spider-man and Slott's parts, considering how F.A.C.A.D.E had killed Lance Bannon. Not the biggest or more most important supporting character, but still.

    6. Teemu -- I hope you're enjoying all the "Infinity" stuff. Jim Starlin's work is some of my favorite Marvel material from the nineties.

    7. I'm confused mainly. I can't get over how superb Starlin's work in the seventies were, and among all the various 70's revival stuff in the 90's Starlin's material is from the more competent end of spectrum, but some stereotypically 90'sriffic stuff seems to seep in.

  3. I get the feeling they are broadcasting the recent battles as greatest battles. I remember back '93 reading the 'X-Force VS Brotherhood' battle entry and thinking it the real deal. Then I read the story and was unimpressed. Personally, all the CC-penned-Bro battles were superior.

  4. The card for Scarecrow is the villain from the Tales of Suspense Iron Man story.
    He was later brought back for the "Midnight Sons" imprint.

    That Scarecrow is different from the 1970s supernatural character, who would be renamed the Strawman during the early-1990s, to differentiate him from the villain version.

    1. Ah, I did not know that. I think I assumed the 60s Scarecrow got reinvented in the 70s as part of the horror fad, then disappeared along with the fad, only to get dusted off for "Midnight Sons".

  5. "Mr. Sinister, Sabretooth and Apocalypse are all lumped together on the X-Force "page", along with Stryfe, who receives a card despite being dead."

    How interesting that Joe Madureira was the one who drew that group. Granted, he is doing the upcoming Deadpool limited series.

    I don't mind the 9-panel design of series. It probably could have worked better had there been more capable artists working on the series.

    The bigger issues for me that drag it down are how in-the-moment it all is, what with all the C and D-listers getting cards, the fact that most of the recent battles and mysteries are too recent to be classics.

    Granted, who doesn't enjoy a genuine oft-cited and fondly remembered classic like Spirits of Venom?

    The other issue is the quality of the cards themselves by this point. Or, lack thereof. Such a decline in card-stock quality from the first couple of series...

    1. Yeah, I don't talk about it as much as I probably should, in part because I'm reviewing this cards via my old binders (so I'm not actually touching/holding the cards themselves), but there's a noticeable tactile difference to this series, with the cards seeming thinner and flimsier.

      The next series (and the upcoming "Ultra" X-Men series) corrects this somewhat by using a thicker cardstock, but they also package it with a glossy finish and other "upgrades" to make the card packs more expensive. So it's kinda win/lose.

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  7. I know I got some of these, but I have very little recollection of them. I think this is the point where I phased out of collecting trading cards in favor of collectible card games. I think I figured that if I was spending money on cards, they should have more uses than just being stared at.

    "Similarly, this is the set which features the leather jacket-clad Avengers in all their glory."

    And charging out of Avengers Compound, still my favorite headquarters for the group. I like the mansion; it's a classic, but I've always loved the design of the compound and the fact that at the time the Avengers lived there, they had a huge support staff in matching jumpsuits to keep the place running.

    (I really like that the MCU Avengers seem to have borrowed the whole "compound/support staff" concept from this era of the comics.)

    1. I think this is the point where I phased out of collecting trading cards in favor of collectible card games.

      I'm probably about two years away from being completely out of the cards at this point (in favor of OverPower and simply, more comics), though the "what else are they good for?" factor was already in play (it's what initially led me from baseball cards to comics, after all), especially as the cards started focusing more and more on 90s-specific/one-and-done characters whose backgrounds weren't as developed and my own knowledge of comics history increased, eliminating the cards' secondary usage as a kind of stripped down, de facto Marvel Handbook for me.

      I've always loved the design of the compound and the fact that at the time the Avengers lived there, they had a huge support staff in matching jumpsuits to keep the place running

      Strongly agree all around!

  8. In spite of the nine-panel layout, the design this year looks very similar to the Series III line. Kind of surprising to see so many Joe Madureira cards. Someone at Marvel keeping him busy so that Image couldn't snatch him up?

    1. I'm not sure how prominent Madureira was at this point. His star was clearly on the rise, and when he hit it big, he hit it BIG, but I could see his involvement in this set being as much about him trying to get all the work he could (especially since it sounds like the trading card work was great money) as it was about Marvel trying to keep him busy and locked down.

      Then again, at the pace things happen, it's entirely possible Harras had him pegged for UNCANNY (or some other book) already, and they were just trying to get him work while they worked out the logistics.

    2. He did the Deadpool limited series, which came out a few months after these cards, no? Between that and all the various fill-ins and covers her will be doing in the X-office, it does seem like Harras or someone else saw something about him and wanted to keep him in the X-offices orbit.


  9. // Siege, Goddess, Turbo, Slayback, Shock, Lyja, Black Axe, Bloodseed, Wild Thing, Death Metal //

    Wow. I’m barely 4 for 10 in having any idea of who those characters are — wait, no; 3 for 10, after realizing I’d mentally subbed in Wild Child for Wild Thing and then realizing I’d pictured the wrong Marvel character named Wild Thing...

  10. I think I remember Spider-Man being my least favorite of the set-pieces--he's just such a deep rogue's gallery, but two symbiotes, two goblins, and Cardiac, who's not TERRIBLE as far as 90's villains go, but Rhino is the only real classic villain on the list. (And he's not even a Ditko one)

    The X-Men one definitely has the most evergreen ratio, probably helped by not including any rookies whatsoever, but also probably because the X-Men in that era was so huge, cartoon and everything, even faded stars like Gambit and Bishop have remained high profile.

    The "miscellaneous mutants card" kind of makes sense, if you Venn diagram it a bit. Two of the three teams are Commonwealth-based, two (maybe three?) are National teams, and while Psylocke was clearly put in this grid instead of the main X-Men one was because she wasn't on the show, she did serve as Captain Britain.

    The "X-Force" one could also be said to be the dark, seedy side of the mutant world, with various connections through Department H, the Summers family tree, and some of that "X-ternal" stuff which I think was ultimately dropped. But it ultimately came down to wanting the core X-Men facing off against its iconic villain on the franchise's 30th anniversary.

    I guess you could conflate Hulk with Silver Sable and Deathlok if you remember this was during the Pantheon days, when he was engaging with a lot of corporate intrigue. Namor/Tiger Shark are a little harder to square, (Avengers membership notwithstanding) but I guess the West Coast team was a little easier to put on an oceanfront battlefield.

    She-Hulk with a lot of the street-based characters is probably the clearest case of "We don't know where else to put them" conundrum.

    Speaking of, this would be her final appearance in the mainline Marvel Universe series--as it would be for Quasar, Galactus, Mister Fantastic, Nightcrawler, Rachel Summers, Havok, Red Skull and, depending on how you look at it, Doctor Doom.


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