Actors are running back to a Bryan Singer X-Men film. There’s a comic book (“Age of Ultron” #1) with a genuine chromium foil cover hitting the stands today. In a few weeks, Dwayne Johnson and Bruce Willis will be kicking ass on behalf of the red, white and blue in a film that has me re-watching old episodes of “G.I. Joe” like nobody’s business. Nostalgia is king. There’s money in them there recollections.
As I approach the big 3-0, I find myself progressing towards fond remembrances of yesterday. I’m ashamed to admit that on Monday, a commercial for the ’90s cartoon “Beetlejuice” pulled a level of yearning out of my soul that I thought impossible. Thanks, YouTube. With everything everywhere designed to trick me into spending money to buy back the emotional purity of my youth, I find it hard to believe that I’m still waiting for superhero trading cards to make a comeback.
I know Marvel is dipping their toes into the pool with their new mini-set tied-in to “Guardians of the Galaxy,” but I’m waiting for them to do a cannonball from poolside into the deep end (note: this column does not endorse horsing around). I’m waiting for Marvel to announce a 200-card set with chase cards, original artwork and power stats. I’m thoroughly an adult now. I have fond memories. I have disposable income. Take advantage of this, please. I have a feeling that I’m not the only one who feels this way, and if you don’t feel that way, my fellow early-80s babies, my goal with this column is to change your mind.
I assume that newer comic book converts don’t even know just how big a deal comic book trading cards were at one point. There’s nothing comparable to it nowadays. I would even argue that that style of trading card set is completely extinct. My nephews were big into Yu-GI-Oh! for a hot second, but that’s because card games have all but cornered the market. There was a trading card set for “The Avengers” last summer, which I bought a few packs of at a Target. Just as I thought I was catching the bug (the “sure, I need another thing to collect” bug), the cards disappeared from every Target across the United States. Believe me, I checked in numerous states all last summer, much to the delight of everyone I traveled with.
For those who don’t remember those golden days, thus colored that way because of my age and how nostalgia works, comic book trading cards were as big as the comics themselves. The Marvel Universe series, the X-Men series, the Marvel Masterpieces series…these cards were life. I was so obsessed with these cards as a child that I remember thinking that the humans deemed worthy to stumble across a Wolverine card from the Marvel Masterpieces set were inherently better than me. In fourth grade I had the choice between Marvel Universe Series IV or “Uncanny X-Men” #266 (Gambit’s first appearance). I chose the cards.
The trading card craze hit at the exact right time. Just as Fox’s “X-Men” was obliterating television sets across America and just as the “X-Cutioner’s Song” was getting underway in the comics, Impel/Sky Box released Marvel Universe Series III, X-Men Series I and Marvel Masterpieces Series I. This confluence of cards caused a seismic shift of dynamics in my third grade class. No longer did arbitrary gender lines divide us; we were all comic book fans. Either through the cartoons or the cards or the comics themselves, we all knew who Wolverine was and we were all obsessed with him. Kids in my class took to selling their doubles while other reading groups were distracting our teacher. I remember making a hefty two dollars one day, money that no doubt went right back into the Trading Card Empire.
These cards were important to my fandom. I learned who Bill Sienkiewicz was because of his Wolverine card from 1993’s Marvel Masterpieces Series II. I learned that Beast isn’t as strong as Colossus, who isn’t as strong as the Hulk thanks to Marvel Universe Series III’s iconic power ratings. Pretty much any knowledge I had of the non-X-characters came from these cards. Actually, the reason I’m even a fan of comic books at all is because my cousin plopped his Marvel Universe Series III in front of me, exposing me to an obviously large new universe to spend money on…for the rest of my life.
The ubiquity of comic books didn’t last long after the teacher broke up the trading card black market that had a vice grip on our class. Probably something about lunch money being used to buy Wolverine-Ghost Rider-Punisher Team-Up cards. But I remained obsessed so long as the quality remained high. The first two X-Men Fleer Ultra series were mind blowing! Marvel made a series out of “metal” (1995’s Marvel Metal) and “chrome” (1996’s X-Men Fleer Ultra)! But as the market slowly dwindled, so did the card’s availability. Whereas I could previously buy them at any large retail chain, they slowly retreated to comic stores before disappearing entirely. The fourth Marvel Masterpieces set came and went without me even noticing. The craze was over.
I know that Marvel hasn’t left the trading card business entirely. I still see scans from card sets on Tumblr, but they aren’t impressive. Even the special Guardians of the Galaxy mini-set reuses comic book or promotional art, much like the past few sets have. I’m trying to separate facts from my heart, here. I fully recognize that it’s inherent in humans to preserve their childhood experiences in crystal as perfect examples of perfection. But as someone who is a collector at heart and who loves the Marvel Universe more than pretty much any other pop culture anything, I think it’s telling that these newer cards haven’t gotten my attention.
The reason the cards of the early ’90s worked, I think, is because they were cards first. They featured awesome artwork created specifically for the cards themselves. They had a great unifying design that made the set feel unique, a whole made of 150 parts. The backs of the best sets were packed with stats. With height, power descriptions, first appearance, memorable quotes, quick bios, these cards acted as advertisements for lesser-known characters. I mean, I still know who Slapstick and the Darkhold Redeemers are thanks to their inclusion in Marvel Universe Series III.
I still want a trading card series to do all of this again. It’s not that I feel a void in my comic collecting life. I still have Marvel Universe figures, digital comics and trades to collect on top of my weekly pull list. I could easily continue to live my life without opening another hundred packs of randomly assorted trading cards. I can’t even argue that there’s real money to be made in trading cards. There obviously isn’t based on recent efforts, at least the way the last couple sets have been produced. But if Marvel decided to capitalize on my generation’s current place in life and offered sets of 200 cards (original artwork, unifying design, stats-plosion on the back) sold in a box for, like, $50? Maybe all randomly placed in packs of 10 that had to be opened? Maybe as a luxury item, not intended to be sold in Walmarts across the country and not intended to compete with the “Hunger Games” movie cards? I would buy one of those boxes. Immediately.
Basically, I’m having every other nostalgic urge I have being exploited by big business on a daily basis. The time is right to pay attention to trading cards. Take my money.
Brett White is a comedian living in New York City. He co-hosts the podcast Matt & Brett Love Comics and is a writer for the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre show Left Handed Radio: The Sequel Machine. His opinions can be consumed in bite-sized morsels on Twitter (@brettwhite).