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Trading Card Set of the Week – Marvel Universe (Impel, 1990)

March 19, 2013

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Behold, the granddaddy of them all.

Though there had been several comic book-related trading card issues before Impel got into the game, none had taken the serious, company-wide approach that was seen in the first of many Marvel Universe editions. Character cards. Original art. Statistics and summaries on the back. It was like a bell went off in someone’s head and they realized, Wow, if we took what they do with baseball cards and did them for the comic book characters that the kids seem to love, we might be able to make some real scratch. Yes. Yes they could. And did.

This inaugural edition hit like a bolt out of the blue. If a kid was at all susceptible to the twin temptresses known as cards and comics, seeing the display box above on a countertop was irresistible. And if there was any allowance money left over, there were packs to be bought.

Packs? Someone say packs? Here are the wrappers — try to resist the urge to reach through your computer screen and tear them open:

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There were 162 cards in the base set, and five hologram chase cards (since they were just holographic reproductions of regular cards, this is the last we’ll speak of them). Marvel and Impel didn’t half-ass it with the design, either. They were printed on smooth, pristine white stock, as opposed to the more cardboardish material that was by then falling out of vogue — the kind of material that made the backs of treasured oldies like the Close Encounters set so dim.

The best way to appreciate them is to look at a few, so let’s get to it.

Just gaze on the beauty of the card commemorating Cosmic Spider-Man, the frontcard as it were of the line:

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For some reason, the Shadowcat card is another from the hero portion of the set that stood out when I was 12, and it still does. She’s looking a bit coquettish, perhaps further exploring the burgeoning womanhood heralded by the Kitty Pryde & Wolverine mini — not to mention she’s carrying Lockheed around like one of Paris Hilton’s purse-dogs:

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The card backs for most characters had the stats you would expect: Name, Height, Weight, etc., as well as brief bios and trivia. There were also wins and losses tallied up, with arbitrary amounts of each (Galactus had a surprisingly high loss total — were there Fantastic Fours on multiple worlds?). Then there’s Aunt May’s card, which has a totally different slant:

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I have to admit, the “Life-Threatening Illnesses Recovered From” generates a chuckle every time.

What’s that you say? You want super-villains? Well, how about one that’s going to be in the next Marvel movie, Iron Man 3? Here’s the Mandarin, who looks like he’s wearing the Silver Samurai’s armor and, thanks to perspective, appears to be the size of the Statue of Liberty (Attack of the 5o Foot Mandarin):

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I highlight this Mephisto card back only for the Did You Know? on the bottom, which reads like a desperate Dear Parents: We Aren’t Selling Your Kids Satan Cards disclaimer:

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Among the subsets are some featuring Marvel “Rookies.” A few, like the Dan Ketch Ghost Rider, would have some legs. Foolkiller? Not so much. The Guardians of the Galaxy are amongst the new blood and they have a movie coming out next year, but good luck finding any members of the cinematic roster in their team photo:

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There are a ton of Famous Battles cards, and, like the favorite chase card from the first Marvel Masterpieces, the Silver Surfer vs. Thanos card takes the prize here — couldn’t get enough of these guys back then:

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Though the cards are awesome, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t a bunch of duds. M.V.C. (Most Valuable Comics) cards show off the covers to pricier comics, and a bit of info about them — including their (then) current Overstreet book value — on the back. The usual suspects are there: Amazing Fantasy #15, Fantastic Four #1, Journey into Mystery #83, etc. But — who the hell let The Punisher #1 in?:

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The set wraps with cards featuring Spider-Man doing “humorous” interviews with other Marvel characters. There are a couple of problems with this: First, we’re suffering Spider-Man overload at this point. He’s already had three individual cards (original, black costume, Cosmic) and multiple Famous Battle appearances, and enough is enough. Second, they’re beyond stupid:

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And that’s one of the better witticisms. (Here’s a suggestion, Thor: Bash both your heads with Mjolnir, and end our suffering.)

The set ends with a horrifying Stan Lee card, where his smiling face takes on characteristics of his myriad creations. The less said, the better.

These last bits are downers, but should in no way negate how magnificent the cards were when they came out, and how neat they remain to this day. Like pretty much everything produced back then, you can still find unopened boxes on eBay, but you’ll likely have to pay upwards of $50 for an unopened box of these. (I lucked out once and got a bargain on two. I opened one, and managed to get two full base sets out of it, for whatever that’s worth. The other is salted away in the archives.) That latter-day price point has more to do with quality than scarcity. This set understood that simplicity could sell, a principle that would be abandoned soon enough, as it became more and more important to throw in bells and whistles to distinguish products from the crowd. These cards were colorful. They were fun. There was some dreck, but it was made irrelevant by all that felt oh so right. Twenty-plus years on, they still shine.

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