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Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Unstacking the Deck: Marvel Masterpiece Series III

Fleer 1994

Vital Statistics
140 cards (including the checklist card), plus a ten card holofoil insert set, available in four variants (red, bronze, silver & gold), a ten card Masterprints insert set, and a nine card PowerBlast insert.

Additionally, there is a parallel set in which all 140 of the main cards are produced with the Hildebrandt brothers' signatures reproduced on the front of each card in gold foil.

Cardfronts are full bleed, featuring only the character name center-bottom and the Marvel Masterpiece logo on the top left corner, both presented in gold foil.

Cardbacks are landscaped, featuring a zoomed-in reproduction of the cardfront image, along with a brief character bio and a behind-the-scenes quote from the Hildebrandt brothers regarding the creation of the card specifically (or the set in general).

Firsts and Other Notables
All of the cards in this set are drawn by sci-fi/fantasy artists Greg & Tim Hildebrandt, twin brothers best known for their various Lord of the Rings calendar illustrations and assorted book covers & movie posters (including a UK reproduction of the original Star Wars theatrical one-sheet). 

Each image includes a signature from the Hildebrandts on it, with each card alternating between "G & T" and "T & G", something the brothers said they did in order to give them each equal credit for the overall work.

In the wake of Marvel's acquisition of Fleer, this set is produced by them, after Skybox did the first two.

The characters are presented in straight alphabetical order.

Captain Universe, the cosmic force which takes on various hosts to function as a specific entity, receives its own card, likely due to its upcoming role in a promotional comic (in which readers could pay to customize the issue such that they served as the host of Captain Universe in the story, with minor details changed depending on the results of a questionnaire filled out by the reader).

Jack of Hearts, a character who hadn’t really been around since the early 80s (and who would later briefly join the Avengers) gets a card.

Per one of the notes on the cardbacks, Nightcrawler was the first card the brothers painted.

Nebula appears in the form that would later inspire her appearance in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Both Thanos & Thing get up skirt shots.

Collection Recollection
This series was released at a time when I still believed I had some level of artistic skill, and would use figures from trading cards or comic book panels/covers as guides in my own drawings. For whatever reason, a number of cards in this set seemed reproduceable via my (meager) skills, and as a result, quite a number of the character drawings I did for the super-powered characters in my very first novel were based on this series.

Of the 140 cards, 36 of them are X-related (not counting villains, including the X-Men of 2099). The team breakdow is as follows (with X-Factor once again getting the short-shrift).

X-Men: Archangel, Beast, Bishop, Cyclops, Gambit, Jean Grey, Iceman, Professor X, Psylocke, Rogue, Storm, Wolverine

X-Factor: Havok, Random

X-Force: Cable, Domino, Shatterstar

Excalibur: Nightcrawler, Phoenix, Shadowcat

X-Men 2099: Bloodhawk, Cerebra, Krystalin, Meanstreak, Metalhead, Skullfire, Xi'an

Generation X: Chamber, Husk, Jubilee, M, Mondo, Penance, Skin, Synch, White Queen

Jean Grey's card doesn't feature her recently-reclaimed Phoenix codename, most likely because Rachel Summers receives a card under that name.

Cable’s gun in his card always reminds me of a tube of toothpaste for some reason.

White Queen gets a card, but Banshee doesn't.

Mondo, despite not yet appearing in a comic book, receives a card.

Exodus, in the wake of what is essentially his peak as a character in Bloodties, gets his own card.

The Grim 'n' Gritty 90s
We are still in the era of the Leather Jacket Avengers. Other 90s stalwarts include Blackwulf, Blood Wraith, Bloodaxe, and Century

The 2099 imprint is well-represented, with all the characters carrying their own series represented.

Daredevil appears in his “Fall From Grace” costume, while Elektra appears in her post-resurrection white outfit.

Colossus is painted in his Acolytes uniform.

If you thought Darkhawk was 90s, I present to you a card for his archenemy, Evilhawk.

The Green Goblin in this set is specifically the Harry Osborn version (who had died in a then-recent story).

Hulk has a gun on his card; that’s pretty much the 90s in a nutshell.

Invisible Woman is once again in her sexy 90s costume.

Namorita appears in her Kymaera form (and under that name).

Thor appears in his brief mid-90s costume.

Favorite Cards
Captain America

The perspective makes it seem like Cap and Lady Liberty are rushing into battle together.


Love the way it’s almost telling a little action/adventure story.


I’m a sucker for “beam of energy coming out of every finger” depictions.


Great rendering of both the scale & power of the character.


Nice solid figure. You don’t see Odin get his own card very often.


Fun perspective on this one.

Red Skull

Great sense of malevolence; love the glowing eyes.


Love the way his animal & human features blend together.


Tons of personality just in a head shot

Austin's Analysis 
While not the objectively best Marvel Masterpieces series - the first series is, overall, probably better artistically, and contains a more “classic” lineup of cards, while I really do enjoy the second series’ “first appearance” panel recreations on the cardbacks - this one is probably my favorite. It improves on the second’ series multiple artists approach by returning to the single artist assignment of the first series, while also expanding the series by 50 cards, allowing for both more consistent art and greater depth of coverage. And I just really like the Hildebrandt Brothers' work, especially the way they play with light and shadow.

Of course, it’s not without its flaws; a sizeable chunk of the series’ extra cards are handed over to 90s also-rans like the 2099 characters, or the just-introduced (and similarly-clad) Generation X cast members. The extra set size also lends itself to repetition in the form of some of the faces and character poses, and the cardback info is scarce (with the behind-the-scenes info from the artists more often random or superfluous than informative). But nevertheless, I have a lot of affection for this set, coming as it does at the crest of both my personal trading card-buying boom and the industry’s, while featuring some of my all time favorite cards and consistently enjoyable art across the set.

Next Issue
Next week, the second Deadpool miniseries!


  1. “No, Ulik the Troll!” — Kurt Busiek, with some frequency

    Thanos' card: Wow. I can only assume that when the Hildebrandt brothers were given suggestions of familiar poses and scenarios to use someone mixed up “Infinity Gems” and “family jewels”.

    The Marvel Masterpieces logo appears to be on the top left of some cards and top right of others depending perhaps on where the image best accommodates it.

  2. Jack of Hearts was at this time featured heavily in the COSMIC POWERS LS that that [verb]ed on from the Infinity Trilogy.

    I'll let anyone fill their own verb of choice there.

  3. I have a vague recollection of these cards, but I don't think I bought any. Most likely I just remember them from ads.

    Also, I have to admit that I kind of like Daredevil's 90s costume. Not for a regular/default look, but as something he wore for only a couple of years, I think it looks legitimately cool.

  4. Ahhh, the set that ended card collecting for me and sent me fully into Magic and other CCGs. I hated the several variant editions of each card, including a Walmart exclusive parallel set. Marvel cards went from only needing to get one full set and a subset or two to now needing the exact same card 4 different times, this is what helped kill sports card collecting and then comic card collecting for me. While I pick up some of the X-Men set with the Kubert brothers, I never tried to finish it or any other Marvel card sets.

    Some of the pictures are amazing like the Human Torch and others are just so goofy. The brothers appeared to really like the 2099 X-Men as they even did two different comic covers and a full book “Oasis” for them – it’s terrible, I read it last night. X-Nation 2099 is probably the worst set of comics I’ve ever looked at. Overall, I’m not a fan of the brothers and find this to be the worst out of the comic card sets released so far.

  5. Glad you contributed your usual misery to every post Scott, where you crap on any set you have some negative childhood memory of and blindly praise those you liked regardless of the quality. I don't love Jusko but I wouldn't find some way to dismiss Masterpieces 1.

    For a lot of us, this is the definitive Marvel card set. I just love the Hildebrandts' art and they depict pretty much every single character in the universe at the time, but the consistent artistic vision and framing (like each card is a snapshot) elevates it to iconic status. I think it's tied neck and neck with Jusko or the Lee X-Men set for the goat, the other series failed from having multiple versions of the same character and Brois and Julie are just not in the same league as the bros, in my opinion


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