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Trading Card Set of the Week – The Sandman (1994, SkyBox)

October 23, 2013

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Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman rightly stands as one of the great triumphs of mainstream comics. That the same writer was at the oar from the beginning to the end of that voyage gives it a legitimacy that other titles lack. Gaiman could drop a hint early on and watch it pay off dozens of issues later, and that was really special, a blessing that few creators receive. Without Morpheus and his great creation Morpheus, there would be no Vertigo imprint, and DC would be missing a giant chunk of itself — maybe not its soul, but perhaps its conscience. Its cerebrum. Or something.

The popularity of the title has meant that there’s been an insatiable appetite for tchotchkes associated with its storylines and characters. Statues. Figurines. Annotated scripts. Busts. Plush toys. Whatever. And people gobble it all up. (I haven’t been immune to this, as there’s a framed poster from my favorite arc, Brief Lives, hanging in my bedroom.) In other instances all this memorabilia would reek of greed, a vampiric draining of a fanbase, a figurative upending and shaking until all the loose change falls out of their pockets. The Gaiman/Sandman products seem to get a pass, though. Maybe it’s their quality, as they most often have at least a patina of craftsmanship. Maybe it’s the underlying quality of the source material. Maybe its the cult-like devotion of the fans. Maybe all three.

The Sandman trading cards, released as the series was winding down, are a great example of all this.  They’re nice. They’re well-made. And, for any big fan of the Dreaming, they’re a must-have.  

The cards were issued in the odd Widevision (or GameDay) format, which was briefly in vogue in the 1990s, as a collapsing market was doing anything it could to keep collectors’ interest. About the only significance of this to the collector was that they had to buy differently sized storage materials: boxes, cases, pages, etc. So this was basically just a pain in the ass. That said, the dimensions go better with the Morpheus milieu, perhaps because it was odd itself. When you have all reality embodied by seven bickering siblings, differently shaped cards don’t feel all that out of place. Perhaps out of place is in place. Pass given.

There were 90 cards in the base set and eight chase cards. (There was also an associated binder, which in turn came with an oversized — over-oversized, as it were — card, seen at the top of this post.) The base cards are nicely laid out, fitting right into the Vertigo aesthetic. The first fifty replicate Dave McKean’s distinctive cover artwork, with the backs describing the events that could be found in the individual issue whose cover is presented. Here’s the last of them, card #50, for “Ramadan,” one of the more enduring stand-alone shorts from the series:

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After that come cards for the major and supporting players that made this sub-universe so rich and all-consuming, all with original art on the fronts. You name them, they’re in here. Fiddler’s Green. Nuala (who always looked just as good sans glamor as with it). Azazel and Choronzon, the former of whom was bottled and thrown in with Dream’s treasure chest of Easter Eggs. William Shakespeare. Lucien. Emperor Norton. Brute and Glob. Matthew the Raven. Lucifer and Marikeen. They’re all included, drawn by many of the artists who made the comic such a diverse visual experience. And the first of these cards is one for Cain, drawn by, of all people, Sergio Aragones:

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Here’s the Corinthian, one of the most memorable designs of the series –a true nightmare:

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And, of course, there’s the great Mervyn Pumpkinhead, brought to life by Jill Thompson (who’s for this blog’s money the definitive Sandman artist):

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Glorious.

If there’s one complaint here, it’s due to the coloring of the backs of the character cards. The text is printed on a textured pink background, so that it reads like a color-blindness test in paragraph form. It’s seizure inducing. The reproduction of artwork from the comics is a nice touch, but it’s drowned out by the glare. Here’s the back of Mervyn’s — pregnant women and small children should not expose themselves to the Sandman cards, consult a doctor if bleeding results:

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There were seven gold foil chase cards, one for each of the Endless, and on the backs of each was the simple description for each sibling written by Gaiman for the first family meeting of the series, in Season of Mists. Thompson once again steals the show with her watercolory portrait of poor addled Delirium:

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And of course it’s Death whose simple description proved that less is ever more:

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The last of the chase cards was a Morpheus hologram, found one in every three boxes (the gold foils were found two in each):

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The Sandman remains the great intellectual jewel of mainstream American comics, its facets always gleaming no matter which angle you view it from. This set is one of those sparkling facets. It has class, a style and verve worthy of the books themselves. Sometimes card sets devoted to one character and their surrounding universe could feel, as Bilbo Baggins once said, like not enough butter scratched over too much bread. It’s a testament to Gaiman and the series that these cards, like their subject, leave you wanting more.

And of course there’s a new Gaiman Sandman mini debuting next week. On Halloween. So perfect timing, once more. Let Morpheus show you terror in a handful of dust, all over again…

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