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Wednesday, June 9, 2021

Unstacking the Deck: Marvel Ultra Onslaught

Fleer Skybox 1996

Vital Statistics
100 cards, plus a three card promo set (featuring Heroes Reborn Captain America, Mr. Fantastic and Iron Man), a four card Autographs chase set, a three card "Mirage" chase set featuring lenticular cards, and four exclusive Overpower hero cards and nine exclusive Overpower mission cards. 

Categorically Speaking
The majority of these cards are standard hero/villain portraits, with the standard 100th card checklist, plus twelve cards smack in the middle of the set that summarize the plot of "Onslaught" (these basically functions as an additional category but are not labeled as such). 

Firsts and Other Notables
"Marvel Ultra Onslaught" functions, essentially, as a trading card set featuring the major players in the "Onslaught" crossover. Each card front image is full bleed (no borders) and enhanced with CGI coloring/effects. Card backs list the character's real name, team affiliation and power, with brief biographical information about the character written either from the perspective of Professor X or Onslaught, along with information about the artists who worked on the card. 

Cards "written" by Xavier are presented as excerpts from the Xavier Protocols, the secret "how to stop the X-Men" files retrieved in Excalibur #100. The Onslaught cards come from Onslaught's "strike files" (echoes of Stryfe's strike files, clearly); I really love the image of Onslaught in his Magneto armor launching an EMP on New York city, then walking back inside his citadel and sitting down in front of computer to type up his slam book. 

Artists who contributed to the set include all three Kuberts (Andy, Adam, and Joe), Salvador Larocca, X-Factor penciler Jeff Matsuda, Darick Robertson, and Amanda Conner, amongst others. 

The Heroes Reborn versions of the Avengers & Fantastic Four all get their own cards in the back half of the set as well (meaning it has, for example, two Captain America cards, one for "regular" Cap and one for the Heroes Reborn version), with the Heroes Reborn cardbacks featuring dialogue from Jim Lee and Rob Liefeld talking about the featured character, their feelings about the character, their design choices, etc. 

The twelve cards summarizing the plot of "Onslaught" present a story with a wildly different ending that what was actually published, involving Onslaught destroying additional cities beyond New York before being stopped by Rogue absorbing enough of his power to allow Magneto/Joseph to steal back his magnetic abilities, all as the President of the United States is poised to launch nuclear missiles at New York should the heroes fail to stop Onslaught, missiles which end up being launched, despite Onslaught's defeat, by an anti-mutant element in the government. In the end, the heroes are able to save the city and its people from the missiles but the act of doing so somehow (the cards at this point are understandably vague on some of these plot details) leads Franklin Richards to shunt the Avengers and Fantastic Four into the Heroes Reborn universe to save them (making explicit what Onslaught: Marvel Universe implied, and which the later Heroes Return story confirms). 

The Overpower chase cards represent a rare crossover between traditional "collectible" trading cards and "collectible card game" trading cards. 

Thanks to the Trading Card Database for the card images. 

A Work in Progress
Bishop's cardback references the reveal of the X-Traitor. 

Xavier says that Cannonball "turned away" from Cable's teachings which isn't really the case; he just got "promoted" to the X-Men. 

Xavier says that no one knows him as well as Jean, including Lilandra (not sure if that's an oblique reference to Mark Waid's dusting off of the "Silver Age Xavier has the hots for Jean" mention).  

Psylocke's cardback talks about her being a low-level telepath, which isn't really the case (she's not an Omega-level one on par w/Xavier or Jean - or even Cable/Nate Grey - but she's no slouch), suggesting if she pooled her powers with Caliban and others she could be more of a threat. It's very weird. 

Onslaught's minions (Dark Beast, Post, etc.) are referred to several times as his "Dark X-Men", a collective term never actually applied to them in the comics themselves. 

Fatale's power is listed as shapeshifting which, while it's true that she can assume other forms, it has thus far seemed like her main power is teleportation. 

Given the miss on Fatale's power, the cardback writers don't even bother trying to figure out Post's deal, stating his powers are simply "undefined". 

Onslaught says he hold Captain America responsible for America's intolerance towards mutants. Yeah, that seems fair. 

Giant Man's power is said to be "molecular alteration" which I guess is technically true but seems much broader than "changes size". 

Professor X refers to Meltdown has having been one of "his" New Mutants; unless he's speaking abstractly (as in, all New Mutants are his New Mutants because he formed the group), that's not accurate, as Boom-Boom only joined the New Mutants after Xavier's tenure as their headmaster/leader, and never studied under him directly. 

It is suggested that Shard's immunity to telepathy (from being a hologram) could make her key to defeating Onslaught which, woof, heavy lift for Shard there. 

Apocalypse's mutant power is given as the ability to regrow bodies. 

Juggernaut's indestructability is attributed to a mutant power, and he's said to be a member of the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants; he is in fact not a mutant and was never a member of that group. 

The back of the Heroes Reborn Captain America card gives Rob Liefeld another chance to complain about the "A" on Cap's cowl. 

Of Their Time
The cardbacks of the Xavier Protocols are presented via an image very reminiscent of a mid-90s computer monitor.

The title of the card detailing the Sentinels attack on New York is "Day of the Sentinels", which seems like a hat tip to the pilot episode of the animated series, "Night of the Sentinels". 

Favorite Cards

Iceman is the rare character who lends himself well to the CGI effects. 

Manages to imbue some personality into an otherwise fairly bland character. 

Hard to go wrong with Havok's concentric circle motif. 

This card makes me wonder what the inside of one of Random's arm gun barrels feels like. 

After nearly half a decade of these cards, a little abstract imagery is welcome, especially for someone like Iron Man. 

He's got one of his dumb 90s costumes, but the "hammer in the foreground, flying at the 'camera'" layout is a winner regardless. 

Hey, this sets got some Jim Lee trading cards! His Dr. Doom is very nice. 

More Jim Lee goodness. 

Austin's Analysis 
As money-grabbing "Onslaught" tie-ins go, this set of cards isn't half bad. Most of the artwork is overly-rendered with poorly-aged CGI effects, but there's some decent figure work and layouts at the heart of it, with a solid core group of artists contributing (Jeff Matsuda's work is much more enjoyable here than in more sequential art). Thanks to the various title involved in the comic book storyline, the featured characters in this set are almost entirely heavy hitters from the Marvel Universe (and, uh, Ozymandias), with very little chaff amongst the lineup (the set is still very much of its time, but that's mostly because of how the characters look, not because of which characters were given cards). The cardbacks, alternating between Xavier's and Onslaught's thoughts on the featured subject, give the set that pointed Stryfe's Strike Files vibe, and while they may not be the most revelatory bits of information, it at least livens up the cardbacks with something more than basic biographical info. At 100 cards, it's a lean set, with only the series of cards retelling the storyline serving as a subset beyond the basic hero/villain profile cards. Plus, that subset presents yet another fascinating variation on the overall arch of "Onslaught", a "what if?" on par with the other alternate narrative presented in The Road to Onslaught, which once again provides a peek at the apparent editorial dysfunction happening behind the scenes. To be sure, this set is absolutely a relic of its time, but as 90s relics go, there is plenty to like here. 

Next Week
Back to comics (and 1996 annuals...) with Wolverine '96

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  1. I wonder why the Jim Lee cards don't have the painted look like the others. I think they're stronger for it, but it's a curious difference.

  2. Jeez, it sounds like whoever wrote these cards was not very familiar with the X-Men! Weird.

    Between the actual published "Onslaught" event, the version presented in ROAD TO ONSLAUGHT, and the version summarized by these cards, the cards actually sound the most exciting to me.

    Anyway, I totally forgot this set ever happened until you announced you'd be reviewing it. I know I never bought so much as a single pack -- which is weird, because I had the Onslaught character cards (but not the mission cards) for OverPower. They must have been released some other way, too.

  3. "Xavier says that Cannonball "turned away" from Cable's teachings which isn't really the case; he just got "promoted" to the X-Men."

    To be fair, Xavier is pretty good at self-delusion and he probably "remembers" it this way because it reinforces his own belief in the superiority of his "dream".

  4. I have cards 2 and 3 of the motion chase card set. 2 is the FF, 3 is Professor, Mags, Nate Grey and Onslaught. Somehow they survived in a drawer all these years, slipped into a single flimsy card protector. I never was able to get the 1st card, the Avengers. I used to have the complete set, along with a couple spider man sets and the great old fleer and impel x-men and marvel universe sets.


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