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Wednesday, August 11, 2021

Unstacking the Deck: Marvel Masterpiece Series V

Fleer/Skybox 1996

Vital Statistics 
100 base card set (including a checklist card, plus a six card "Gallery", six card "Double Impact", and nine card "Painting Redemption" chase card subsets. 

Card fronts feature full bleed artwork with holofoil character and subset names, as well as the Marvel Masterpiece logos. 

Card backs feature a portion of the card front image overlaid with the character's name, a fact about them, their first appearance, and the names of their creators. 

Firsts and Other Notables
The final "Marvel Masterpieces" set of the initial 90s run (Upper Deck would relaunch the series in 2007, with sporadic releases over the next few years, most recently w/a set in 2020), these cards are amongst some of the most rare and sought-after cards of this vintage (and that was even before the recent boom in the trading card market) due to the small print run of the series, published as it was while the trading card market was in the midst of collapsing. 

All the art in this series comes from either Boris Vallejo or Julie Bell, both of whom contributed to earlier series but get this one all to themselves. 

The first 54 cards are standard hero/villain pieces, with the characters listed in alphabetical order. The next thirty cards are broken down into ten triads, consisting of two "Duels" and a "Legacy" card connected to the duel (for example, Cable vs. Stryfe as a "Duel", and then Genesis as the corresponding "Legacy card). The idea, I assume, is so that when the cards are placed in nine-card binder sleeves, the "Duels" and "Legacy" cards all lineup. 

The final 15 cards are five "Genesis" triads, showing the development of one character across three iterations (so, for example, Weapon X, then "regular" Wolverine, then the current bone claw Wolverine). 

The main text on the card backs of the first 54 cards are basically like a "Did You Know" fact from earlier Marvel Universe series, though in this case, some are in-universe and some provide more real world behind-the-scenes knowledge (I have no idea what the source for some of those facts are, as some seem a little...dubious). 

The card backs also cite each character's creators, which is a unique and appreciated inclusion. 

The "Painted Redemption" chase card set involved the card being redeemable for a piece of an actual card painting done by Vallejo or Bell. 

Elektra's card back says she is the first ever female ninja, and I don't know for sure that that's wrong, but it feels wrong. 

Ghost Rider's card back lists the creators of the original 70s Ghost Rider, but the first appearance cited is of the 90s Dan Ketch Ghost Rider. 

Hawkeye is said to be one of the few superheroes without superpowers, but there's at least a half dozen more that appear in this set alone (depending on how generously we define hero). 

The concept of the sliding timeline is acknowledged on Iron Man's card back. 

Thing is cited as being responsible for the presence of a wise-cracking powerhouse on every superhero team, which seems like another dubious assertion. 

Of the 100 main cards in the set, an X-Character appears on 33 cards, a slight uptick from the previous Marvel Masterpieces set (32% of all cards vs. 33%), though there are fewer overall cards in this set than the previous one. Curiously, Wolverine doesn't receive a card in the "main" hero/villain cards that make up the first 54, which has to be a first for the character; instead, he gets a trio of cards in the "Legacy" category. 

Of those 54 "main" cards, here's how the teams breakdown: 

X-Men: Archangel, Beast, Bishop, Cyclops, Gambit, Iceman, Jean Grey, Professor X, Psylocke, Rogue, Storm
X-Factor: Mystique
Excalibur: Shadowcat
X-Force: Cable, Domino
Generation X: White Queen

Somewhat surprisingly, Archangel gets three cards in this set: a "main" card, one as part of a "Duel" with Apocalypse, and then another as part of that Duel's "Legacy". 

The "Age of Apocalypse" story is represented via "standard" cards for Holocaust (who is said to have been brought over to the "main" universe due to his popularity, which I find questionable), as well as "Duel" cards for X-Man and Dark Beast. Sugar Man, apparently, doesn't make the cut. 

Meanwhile, Onslaught gets his own card as well. 

Archangel's first appearance is listed as X-Factor #18 (which is sort of his first appearance as Archangel - at least, the first indication that Apocalypse is transforming him into something) rather than X-Men #1, the first appearance of Warren/Angel overall, the way most sets do. 

Similarly, Domino's first appearance is listed as X-Force #8, with the card back fact pointing out how in her first published appearance, she was actually Vanessa (the flashback story in X-Force #8 being the first time readers would have seen the real Domino, even if she hadn't yet appeared in the present day as anything other than Vanessa posing as her). 

Psylocke's first American appearance in New Mutants Annual #2 is cited rather than her first UK appearance. 

I'm not sure what the card back writers source on this is, but it claims that Stan Lee wanted to write Cyclops against type, making him a shy and introverted leader. 

Jean Grey's card uses her full name and not Phoenix for her code name. The card back is another bit of Stan Lee wisdom, saying her telekinesis was intended to keep her out of the fight during the Silver Age. 

Similarly, it says that Stan Lee wanted to make Professor X handicapped in order to make an invalid character "glamorous". 

Mystique's card references her relationship to Nightcrawler. 

The Grim 'n' Gritty 90s
Most of the Avengers, as well as Invisible Woman, appear in their pre-"Heroes Reborn" 90s redesign costumes. 

Carnage is referred to as a "spin-off" of Venom. 

The female Doc Ock gets her own card, as part of the "Legacy" subset. 

Tony Stark being replaced by a teenage version of himself during "The Crossing" is referenced on the cardback of the Iron Man "Duels" card. 

Favorite Cards

Hard to go wrong playing up the bestial appearance/intelligence contrast. 

Doctor Strange 

Taps into the character's trippy roots. 


Nice rendering of Spikey Iceman. 

Doctor Octopus

I love the way his green jumpsuit really looks like an ill-fitting work suit. 


Appreciate the car being used for scale. 

Austin's Analysis 
It's a shame this set is so hard to find, because it is quite lovely. Boris Vallejo and Julie Bell are, of course, accomplished fantasy painters, and not surprisingly, they turn in some lovely work for these cards, bringing both a sense of realism and awe to their character renderings, even if some of the posing and composition does occasionally skew to the outer limits of "cheesecake" art. The scaling back of the previous sets' card count from 151 to 100 gives this one some focus, and thankfully, there aren't too many "of the moment" characters who seemed like a big deal at the time but ultimately flamed out (even some of the uglier 90s costumes from this era look better under Vallejo and Bell). While an assortment of just 100 straight hero/villain cards like the original series would have been nice, the various additional categories here aren't too gimmicky: even if the set ends up with perhaps a few too many Spider-Man, Hulk, and Wolverine cards, the range of Duels, Legacy and Genesis cards do an effective job of telling the story of various characters' histories and evolutions, visually and otherwise, through the years. All told, it's a fun and gorgeous-looking set of cards, one which makes for a strong - if unfortunately little seen - ending to the initial run of "Marvel Masterpieces" cards.  

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  1. There were, of course, female ninjas in real life. In fiction, it's a little harder to pin down. I'm sure there has to be a couple in manga who showed up before Elektra, but I was unable to dig any up. Surprisingly, the first ninja manga only predates her first appearance by 16 or so years. Otherwise, I do believe Elektra is the first female ninja in American comics.

    I believe that these cards are the only place I've seen Domino's (Neena Thurman) first appearance as X-Force #8. Most claim it's #11 because that's what Liefeld said, even though text makes it impossible for the character in the flashback to be Vanessa.

    I had stopped paying attention to cards at this point in my life, focusing instead on the comics. Which is too bad, this looks like it was a great looking set, though I think I would have preferred brighter tones. I can see the realism they were going for and that's fine. But Alex Ross had already shown that you can do realism and bright at the same time.

  2. I think Vallejo and Bell are outstanding fantasy artists, but I've never warmed up to their super hero paintings. They look a little too "real" to me. Honestly, it's the same problem I have with Alex Ross sometimes. Too much realism, which for me translates to "boring". For painted super heroes, I much prefer the likes of Joe Jusko or the Hildebrandts. If it makes sense, I think their pieces look to me like painted comic book characters, while the works of Vallejo, Bell, and Ross look more like paintings of real people people in costumes.

    It's so weird to see a "prestige" card set like Masterpieces with Ben Reilly Spider-Man and "Fall From Grace" Daredevil on the packaging! Also, why Black Cat? I mean, she fits thematically with Spidey and DD, but you'd think they would've chosen a more mainstream character. Though I guess she did get a decent amount of exposure in the 90s Spider-books.

  3. I'd say the Hildebrandts is my least favorite of these painted sets. I like the look of some of the cards from this set and not others. I was fully into CCGs at this time and had no desire to spend the premium price for the nicer Marvel cards though I wish I had for this one. I was going to get boxes of some of these earlier sets and crack them a few years back to finish off all the ones I missed, now there is just no way with the price of them currently.


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