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Trading Card Set of the Week – Marvel Masterpieces (SkyBox, 1992)

February 22, 2013

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Robert K. Massie, Pulitzer-winning biographer of Peter the Great and all things Tsarish, once stepped off the beaten Romanov path and wrote a great book called Dreadnought. It chronicled the Anglo-German naval arms race leading up to the First World War, as admirals and monarchs fell in love with the bright, shiny steam behemoths that replaced the old sail fleets. Professional, personal and imperial jealousies drove governments and their beribboned military staffs to develop and procure bigger and better battleships (culminating in the eponymous vessel), and the floating death-dealers helped propel the downward political spiral that would turn pastures into moonscapes and engulf a continent in trenches and barbed wire. The book is a great read, a striking reminder of how keeping up with the Joneses can drive both sides towards disaster.

It’s dangerous to compare something as real and tragic as mechanized mass death with a hobby, but let’s try — and please, take everything that follows for what it is: an extended analogy.

In 1989 the baseball card marketplace was turned on its head when an upstart company called Upper Deck entered the fray. Up to that point there were four companies making baseball cards, ever since Donruss broke the Topps monopoly less than a decade earlier. (Fleer and Score, the latter of which debuted its line in 1988, were the other two.) All produced perfectly fine cards, some packaged with bubble gum, some not, some with better stock, some with lesser. All had their charm, with pictures of players, distinctive designs and those wonderful lines of stats on the back that hardball nerds so crave.

Then came Upper Deck. Their cards were printed on fine, bright white stock, with excellent photography, action photos on the backs of the cards as well as on the front, and small, neat-o holograms that were anti-counterfeiting security. More importantly, the cards were sold at double — DOUBLE — the price per pack. I recall my typical price for a pack of Topps those days was 42 cents, while that first Upper Deck year had packs available for 89 cents per. Again — DOUBLE (plus, actually). And you know what? People gladly paid for those snazzy cards. I did. (Their success was helped immeasurably by their being the only company with a Ken Griffey, Jr. rookie card in their base set that year.)

So what did the rest of the companies eventually do? They ramped up to match this new kid on the block. They sharpened up their own lines, and they introduced separate, more expensive sets. Topps no longer only had their regular set, there was also the slick, glossy Stadium Club brand. Score had Pinnacle. Fleer had their Ultra line. IT WAS WAR. All this was going on as the hobby enjoyed its great speculative boom, when people started regarding cards as investments, and something to turn more than a few bucks off of.

And, much like comics, the boom went bust. There was too much variety, it was all too expensive and bewildering, and a lot of people lost interest as they realized that this mass-produced menagerie wouldn’t retain value, much less accrue it. (Just look at eBay and the lots of unopened product from that era, all sold at a fraction of the original price — without an adjustment for inflation.) Companies went bust, jobs were lost, and remnants merged to form hodgepodge conglomerates, echoes of the glories that had once been.

Sound familiar? Comics, cards or countries, it really makes no difference.

Which brings us to this week’s trading card set. Marvel Masterpieces were magnificent, but they were the 1989 Upper Deck of comic book cards. They were a high point that presaged a whole lot of dreck. They were dreadnoughts.

Put out by SkyBox in 1992, they followed up on the excellent sets that Impel had produced for Marvel yearly since 1990. (SkyBox had at this point melded with Impel in a corporate amalgamation.) With Masterpieces, however, the idea of the character trading card was taken to the next level. Each entry in the maiden voyage of this prestige line was painted by Joe Jusko, he of THE GREATEST PUNISHER COVER OF ALL TIME. His work, filled as it was with glamour poses and beefcake shots, was perfectly suited to a colorful, glossy trading card set, and, no surprise, he knocked this assignment out of the park. These cards were a hit.

(A friend of mine once called Jusko “the poor man’s Alex Ross.” He meant it as genuine praise in light of Ross’s mega-stardom, but it came across as a backhanded compliment. Though both have much to admire in their styles, I find myself preferring Jusko’s vibrancy, even if it might lack a bit aesthetically, to Ross’s posed, idealized figures.)

There were 100 cards in the base set (including a checklist card) and 5 “Spectra Etch” chase cards, as well as 5 “Lost Marvels” cards that were only included in the factory set tin. Folks, they were — and are — beautiful. There were no borders, and the gold box and lettering on the fronts didn’t stand in the way of the artwork — it let it speak for itself. You can quibble with the hamminess of some of the poses (the Hulk card above looks like he’s about to drop a deuce on a terrified Bruce Banner), but even the flaws are part of the charm. Though each pack cost more, and there were fewer cards per pack than normal, you were happy to have them. Just like those 1989 Upper Deck cards.

The consistent quality makes it hard to pick a favorite card, but there are a number that can be singled out. The Punisher’s certainly lives up to Jusko’s aforementioned cover:

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HEY, WATCH WHERE YOU POINT THAT THING.

Speaking of “things” — the Thing’s puts the grim in Ben Grimm:

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While the men are mostly depicted as the hyper-muscular physique gods that superheroes evolved into over the years, the women’s breasts are more pendulous here than ever, mammary endowments that are only accentuated by their poses. The Black Cat, the Enchantress and Silver Sable fully represent the thrusting/draping/jutting gamut:

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You know, if there had been a little more of that spirit in the first issue of Silver Sable’s book, the whole endeavor would have gone over a whole lot better. Also: OH GOD ENCHANTRESS KILLED VINCENT AND MADE A RUG OUT OF HIM.

(And in this pin-up vein, one of the Lost Marvels cards has the Scarlett Witch posed like that time Alex Rodriguez decided to show off his swollen pectorals by sunbathing shirtless in Central Park. I only bring this up to zing A-Rod, because, really, who can resist at this point?)

I asked a comic-shop-owning friend of mine which of the card images was his favorite, so as to give a little more diversity of opinion about what cards stand out (he’s the “poor man’s Alex Ross” guy). He chose Bullseye’s, mainly for the grisly shadow behind him:

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Mine? If I had to choose a favorite, I’d have to go with Dormammu’s. Not only does his flamey orange head make it the most colorful of the whole lot, there’s a certain Ditko feel to his hands that harkens back to the glorious Strange Tales origins of the character:

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The rear of the cards contained the usual details: the character’s real name (if any), their first appearance, and a block of text describing them. The wrinkle here was an inset of the first cover appearance of the character, which was a decent innovation. Apart from that, there’s really nothing at all remarkable about any of the card backs, though Northstar’s caught my notice. Read the back and see if you can tell what’s missing:

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Does he belong to a basket-weaving club? Does he go to Star Trek conventions every weekend? Is that what the “personal relationships” verbiage means? I don’t know if it was gutless to not just come out (no pun) and say that Northstar was gay on the back of the cards, or maybe it was just assumed that everyone already knew. Seems that they were dancing around it, though. (Was the 69 numbering a sideways, juvenile dig? Is that Beavis I hear cackling?)

The Spectra cards were classic battle showdowns between the bigwigs of the Marvel U — Thing-Hulk, Spider-Man-Venom, etc. — which had foil coloring in sections. I was only able to afford a few packs of these cards when I was a kid, and was lucky enough to get the Silver Surfer vs. Thanos card. Partly because of that lucky pull, it remains my favorite of the five:

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Marvel Masterpieces were followed by other sets that carried that name, but this first effort was the only one that was worthy of the label. Having Jusko as the sole artist gave the product a stylistic unity, while successors, where duties were split, were more hit and miss, more disjointed. Twenty years after these were released, it’s still nice to pull them off a shelf and look through them, and that can’t be said for man of the kinsmen. These were distilled portraits of all that was and is fun in the House of Ideas.

And yet…

Quality aside, they were a bridge between the gluts that simultaneously brought down two freight train industries. They were pricey and spectacular, and other card sets took on their gloss and the painted look. And the price. DC was getting in on the card game in 1992, and soon every company that sold a comic felt that they had to have packs of cards next to cash registers, preferably more expensive versions — because nothing says “desirable” quite like big numbers. Endless tiers of chase cards became the norm, to the point that five Spectra Etch cards felt quaint. Bigger. Better. More money. And the lights were going out all ever hobby shops, and would we see them lit again in our time?

The 1989 Upper Deck baseball cards are some of the few that have held a modicum of value from that late ’80s, early ’90s era, and unopened boxes of this first set of Marvel Masterpieces fetch some of the higher prices on the late-term secondary market. Is there a lesson in this? Something beyond the rough comparison between cards and battle fleets? Probably. Draw your own conclusions. And if you have fond memories of the Masterpieces, they can be procured fairly easily online — if not quite as cheaply as others — and they were also published in comic book format around the time of their initial release, if that would make you just as happy. (You get more detail with the bigger pictures.) No matter the means of viewing them, and no matter what they spawned, Jusko’s little treasures remain a rainbow of delight.

But they were the dreadnoughts of cards.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. October 24, 2014 12:20 pm

    Joe Jusko is an amazing artist. Did you ever get the Tomb Raider special that he illustrated? The artwork is amazing…

    http://benjaminherman.wordpress.com/2013/04/05/joe-jusko-draws-tomb-raider/

    By the way, for the last several months Jusko has been hard at work on a brand new Marvel Masterpieces set with 135 brand new cards. Will this kick off an all new trading card arms race? Only time will tell!

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