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Wednesday, January 6, 2021

Unstacking the Deck: Fleer Ultra X-Men: Wolverine

Fleer 1996

Vital Statistics 
100 cards (including the checklist card), plus a nine card Holoflash foil and three card "mirage" insert sets. 

Categorically Speaking
Weapon X, Department H, Second Genesis, Japan, Allies, Madripoor, Mojoworld, Enemies, X-Men, Age of Apocalypse, Savage Beast 

Firsts and Other Notables
While not Fleer's only offering of X-Men cards this year (they also put out the higher end chromium set, as well as a set of "Onslaught"-specific cards), this is the set which is the most direct sequel to the previous two years' "Fleer Ultra X-Men" sets. It is, however (in perhaps the most 90s thing ever) focused on Wolverine, rather than the full X-Men team/universe. 

As such, aside from the more standard "allies" and "enemies" categories, most of the categories represent a specific time or setting from Wolverine's history, with each nine card subset featuring characters culled from that era/setting alongside the relevant Wolverine card (so the Department H cards feature Wolverine in his first costume along with cards for Alpha Flight characters, the Madripoor subset his Patch outfit and cards for Tyger Tiger, Roughhouse, etc.). 

Each nine card subset also features one period/setting specific "Fearless Fight" card, depicting Wolverine fighting someone, and one "Timeless Team-Up" card, highlighting a team-up between Wolverine and a character from that setting/era. 

The other big conceit of this set is that each of the cardbacks features comic book art which, when assembled with the other nine cards in its category form a full page of comic book art. When all of the nine card pages are assembled, they then form an original Wolverine story set in Mojoworld (this story was later reprinted as Wolverine #102.5, which I'll be reviewing next week).

In addition to the 1/9 of a comic book page, each cardback also lists the featured character's real name, first appearance, and a brief one sentence bio. 

Art for the cards comes from a variety of artists, from regulars of these card sets like Boris Vallejo and more traditional comic book artists like former Wolverine penciller Mark Texeira. 

Greg & Tim Hildebrandt, who painted the entirety of the third Marvel Masterpieces set, provide the art for the nine card Holoflash insert set (the backs of which also form a nine panel original story).  

Thanks to the Trading Card Database for the card pics!

A Work in Progress
This series includes only 100 cards, a step back from the previous two series' 150 cards. 

The teleporting John Wraith's card uses his codename, Kestrel, which was rarely used in the stories in which he appeared. 

Geist, the Nazi cyborg from Archie Goodwin and John Byrne's "evil South American sentient cocaine" arc in Wolverine circa "Acts of Vengeance", gets his first (and I have to imagine, only) trading card. 

Mystique's card is included in the "Mojoworld" subset, presumably on the strength of her involvement in the bizarre, Mojo-centric "Crunch Conundrum" story. 

Joe Jusko (who painted all the cards in the original Marvel Masterpieces set) does all the cards for the contemporary X-Men. 

The "Fearless Fight" card in the "Age of Apocalypse" subset features the fight between Weapon X and Cyclops that led the former to lose his hand and the latter his eye. 

The Grim 'n' Gritty 90s
Larry Hama's various stories exploring Wolverine's past with Weapon X inspires the set's first category. 

Venom warrants himself an ally card; the two characters have crossed paths at this point (it is 1996, after all), but these really feels like an excuse to get a card of the popular Venom in the set. 

A "Fearless Fights" card between Wolverine & Thing references Fantastic Four #374, the then-recent issue in which Wolverine slashes Thing's face, forcing him to don a metal mask for a time, as their most notable battle. 

Still riding the storyline's popularity, "Age of Apocalypse" earns itself it's own subsection of cards. 

Even more recently, the events of Wolverine #97-100 inspire their own section, "Savage Beast", meaning the set ends more or less at the same point where the comic book series is at: with Wolverine devolved and more animalistic than ever, with Elektra poised to help him regain his humanity. It also means all of Genesis' second gen Dark Riders get cards, as well as Zoe Culloden (aka the Expediter). 

Favorite Cards

Banshee doesn't get a ton of trading cards, and it's always fun to see him in his green-and-yellows with the high collar. 

Similarly, I enjoy the occasional reminder of Wolverine's especially superhero-y first costume, and appreciate how the claws have a little extra arc to them, like they did in his early days, here. 

All of the "Enemies" cards are done by Cliff Nielsen in a similar distorted/grotesque style, and they're all pretty great but the Omega Red card is my favorite of the bunch (particularly since the style is more affecting than with, say, the already-grotesque Brood). 

Still a dumb "secret" identity, but I love the chill vibes of this card. When you've got 30+ Wolverine cards in your set, you can afford to do a few less action-oriented ones. 

I'm a sucker for cards utilizing this perspective. And like Banshee, Sunfire doesn't get featured on a lot of cards (especially not with his original look). 

Fun & cheesecake-y entry from Mark Texeira. 

Great staging and sense of action in this one. 

Love the reflection of Wolverine in the blades, and the way all the little shiny bits make it seem like Spiral has more than her already extra six arms. 

I am a sucker for the short era late in the Claremont/Lee run when all the X-Men wore the matching "school uniforms". 

Austin's Analysis 
It's not surprising that Fleer & Marvel did a Wolverine-centric set of cards - especially as both the collectible card and comic book markets grasped for every last dollar in the wake of their respective speculator bubbles bursting and their industries crashing down around them. It is, however, surprising it took this long for it to happen. This isn't a set with which I have a ton of familiarity - between having mostly moved on from trading cards by this time and the relatively low print run of these later 90s sets, I maybe picked up a pack or two back in the day, but for the most part, much like with the fourth Marvel Masterpieces set, I don't even remember seeing the cards for sale in order to make the conscious decision to not buy them. But looking back on it now, there's a lot to like here. 

The gimmick of making most of each card back 1/9 of a larger comic book page tips too much towards "gimmick" than added value (and robs the series from using that space for something more interesting on a per-card level), but that's really the series' only noticeable design flaw. In terms of content, the set certainly takes some pains to make sure Wolverine remains front and center, including at least one solo Wolverine card, one fight card, and one team-up card in each nine card subset (so there's, like, 30 cards with Wolverine on them in some capacity), but by presenting a rather larger swath of Wolverine's established history at the time, a wide variety of non-Wolverine characters get to be featured (how many other trading card sets featured Razor Fist, for example?). Anyone picking up one of these cards cold could very easily assume it's just from another set of full X-Men cards. And by assigning a different artist to each subset but keeping the artist consistent for those nine cards, the set manages to maintain a consistent look while still offering a variety of artistic interpretations. The cardback gimmick is definitely annoying, but all in all, this is better than any "all Wolverine" set of trading cards has any right to be.

Next Issue
We take a closer look at the story told on the cardbacks of this set, in Wolverine #102.5!

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  1. I collected all the '94 and '95 X-Men but I just couldn't do a Wolverine set. While I like the character he has never been my favorite X-Man. I didn't realize that this set was more diverse or I might have collected them.

    Thank you for the review. It was educational.

  2. Too bad about the comic on the back. I always appreciated the cards that had hilariously arbitrary stats on the back. That's how a young anonymous learned what "dexterity" and "endurance" meant.

  3. why do i feel like Geist had another card? is it maybe cause this one doesnt feature his weirdest affectation effectively? ..Also! could you link/thank an image source so i can pursue them or pit my faves of the set against yours?

    1. Oh yeah, I definitely should have linked to the source; it's the Trading Card database. I'll update the post with a link.

    2. wow, remember more of the set than i realized. Cliff has some of the best pieces! donald pierce and deathbird are suddenly very memorable to me. Wolverine in Japan is even better than i can recall. THX

  4. I swear the dress Tyger Tiger wears in her card is modeled on one P'Gell wore in her first story of The Spirit...

    1. Hmm… She reminds me more of Terry and the Pirates’ Dragon Lady but you might be right…

  5. I was reading something the other day talking about this set and how it is one of the more expensive trading cards sets from this era. It was near the end of the popularity of comic cards, it wasn't printed as heavily, a lot of people have tried to go back and finish off their comic card sets and wanted to add this to it and it's driven up the price, even more with the post COVID collectors craze that's been going on for nearly a year now.

    I didn't realize it had a decent amount of non-wolverine cards within it and that other X-men like Banshee was included. This makes me want to actually pick it up....maybe after prices drop some.

  6. I too enjoy seeing Banshee in his old threads, even if the weird slicked-back Buster Brown haircut that makes him look like a strawberry-blond werewolf comes along for the ride. Good thing Wolverine didn’t know him back in the Factor Three days when he had that bizarre ape face going on.

    1. Fun fact (well, not "fun" at all, really): apparently Banshee's weird ape face in his earliest appearances was a perpetuation of an old racist depiction of the Irish started by British propagandists in the Victorian era (with the intent to depict the Irish as ape-like and thus less evolved than "proper" Britons), as detailed here

    2. Austin I had no idea that was a thing, thanks for that fun fact. I figured they were showing how his face contorted from his sonic scream or that the sonic waves made everything behind it contort when looking at it.

    3. No problem - I had absolutely no idea until I came across that Twitter thread not long ago. I just assumed it was a weird artistic affectation or something (frankly, I like your idea of the sonic waves contorting his image).

    4. Yikes. I too had no idea that was a thing. Kinda miss my ignorance now, even though it's better to know.


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