Comic Book Trading Cards: A Look Back
Comic Book Trading Cards: The Gateway to Comic Books
Don’t tell anyone, but Superhero trading cards were my drug. No, they didn’t get me high or make me cough my lungs out inside a haze of smoke, nor were they laced with any kind of synthetic chemical (Well, maybe the glossy stock cards). What I mean is that comic cards were an effective entry tool to lead new fans to a company’s universe and a fun introduction to the characters and the world(s) they inhabit.
As a child of the 80s, I shamefully missed out on that decade’s four-color milestones as they occurred, such as Watchmen, Dark Knight Returns, Crisis on Infinite Earths, and many others that have inspired a generation of comic fans. I was too involved with my "Optimus Prime" toy, watching Saturday morning cartoons, and begging my parents to purchase the next video game for my Nintendo Entertainment System. It wasn’t until the early 90s did I become more acquainted with Marvel and DC and their respective universes. And the root of my new comic addiction started when I first took a hit of those ever-tempting comic book cards.
In addition to appealing to my childish, pseudo-compulsive “gotta collect ‘em all” personality, comic book trading cards also stoked my curiosity of the unknown by keeping me in suspense of what the next pack would hold. Would I complete my card collection with the next purchase? Might that special, highly sought after hologram/prismatic/foil card turn up in the next pack? The anticipation wreaked havoc on my young mind. Willy Wonka and his golden ticket had nothing on these.
Anatomy of a Comic Card Set
Spider-Man. Batman. X-Men. Spawn. Lady Death. Heck, even the Warriors of Plasm. If you were a comics publisher at the dawn of the 90’s, chances are you had your characters licensed for a card set in an effort to gain new readership for you creative properties.
Popular card manufacturers of non-sports card sets included Topps, Skybox, Comic Images, and Fleer. Each company produced sets that generally followed the same formula. A set would consist of a collection of sequentially numbered base cards. The face of the basic cards would depict characters, battles or scenes from comic books with text on the back describing the heroes or villains, providing an account of their origins, offering details on power levels or giving a back story based on the front image.
Over the years, I’ve bought many packs of various comic card series, with a handful of sets holding a special place in my fanboy heart. The following is a list of some of those cherished comic card sets.
Spider-Man 30th Anniversary Trading Cards
Comic Images (1992)
90-Card Base Set
6-Card Prism Set
My first intro to Spidey’s comics history. Sure, I’d loved Spider-Man and his Amazing Friends and wore the Underoos like any good child of the 80’s, but this card series helped me become more familiar with the friends, enemies and events that shaped the web-slinger’s canon. The cards celebrate 30 years of the wall-crawler by depicting an important first appearance or key moment in Spider-Man’s career. (One wonders if the ubiquitous Todd McFarlane art used for the series was Comic Images way of milking the cow before the realization of McFarlane’s departure from Marvel set in with fandom.)
Marvel Universe (Series 3)
200-Card Base Set
5-Card Hologram Set
Bought as a whole set from a flea market, this particular series was essentially my first exposure to the Marvel Universe. I poured over each individual card, studying the text on the back and hoping I could learn more about these intriguing characters in their four-color format. The series is distinguished from others by having a “universe” pattern as a border around the front facing image on the cards.
Marvel Universe (Series 4)
180-Card Base Set
9-Card Foil Set
Spider-Man vs. Venom Hologram Card
The cool feature about this set of cards is the 9-card grid panorama that is made when you complete a page for your card binder. As for the special Chase Cards, the foil set showcases Marvel’s 2099 characters, and the Spider-Man vs. Venom hologram card was a Holy Grail among card collectors of the time.
200-Card Base Set
4-Card Hologram Set
9-Card Power Blast Set
10-Card Suspended Animation Set
Once Fleer took over Marvel’s license from Skybox, production values noticeably increased. Glossier and shinier cards, as well as an overdose of chase cards. Fleer included all of the normal iconic characters such as Spider-Man, Wolverine and Iron Man, but also incorporated as many “New Nineties” heroes and villains as they could—gotta move all those Sleepwalker comics, y’know. One misstep, however, was the omission of Captain America in the Suspended Animation Chase set. What were they thinking?!?
DC Cosmic Cards
180-Card Base Set
10-Card Hologram Set
While Marvel’s characters and universe dominated the card market, DC attempted to take a piece of the pie themselves with a few series focusing on their comic characters. When compared to Marvel’s card output, it’s clear that DC, for some reason unknown to me (possibly a diabolical plan by Lex Luthor), never had a clear direction for their card sets; they were always playing catch-up in a marathon led by Marvel. This set, the first to feature DC’s entire universe, holds the most memories for me since it’s the first time I’d learned about there being a Pre-Crisis and Post-Crisis DC, thanks to the Hero Heritage cards located in this series.
A Dying Hobby
Sadly, the popularity of comic book cards has declined significantly in the past decade. The rise of CCGs (Competitive Card Games) played a role in phasing comic cards, as I knew them, out of the consciousness of fans and non-sports card consumers. Unlike their sports counterparts, superhero comic cards have become a moribund market, rarely striking a cord with today’s collecting consumer. Maybe the staggering success of superheroes in Hollywood movies has, in a way, succeeded and surpassed the gateway role comic cards once had. While I’m all for increasing the audience for comics as a whole, no matter where it comes from – man, I just miss opening those individually packed cards of heroes and villains and getting a hit of that good stuff.