Comic fans who came of age in the ’90s can all agree on one thing: trading cards were a big deal. Independent of the comics that inspired them, superhero trading cards became massively popular in their own right as fans young and old tried to track down every card from every set. Companies like Impel, Fleer and Skybox turning out set after set in the ’90s, with Marvel’s sets — which were packed with original art and inventive stats — remaining insanely memorable.
While the comic trading card game has faded considerably, Marvel’s sets still evoke a major sense of nostalgia for generations of comic book fans, serving as a literal snapshot of a period in Marvel’s history. That’s why we want to revisit the series that started the trend — 1990’s Marvel Universe Series I. These are the cards with the flashiest art, the kookiest stats, the most random characters and the weirdest costumes.
15. Power Man
As hot as Luke Cage might be right now thanks to his Netflix series and role in the 2017’s “Defenders,” Power Man was definitely an obscure choice back when this card came out in 1990. Cage has been a mainstay of the Marvel Universe for the last 10 years thanks to Brian Michael Bendis drafting him to the Avengers, but the character spent big chunks of the ’80s and ’90s languishing in limbo. At this point in his history, Cage hadn’t been seen since his series “Power Man and Iron Fist” ended in 1986. His next solo series, simply titled “Cage,” wouldn’t arrive for another two years. Yet here’s Luke in an early Mark Bagley illustration, in all of his badass blouse and tiara glory.
The back of Power Man’s card reveals that Luke’s real name (Carl Lucas) had not been made canon at the time, either. The quick bio on the back, though, could double as the logline for his Netflix series. And you’ll recognize one of those “arch-enemies” as well, as Diamondback jumped from the comics page and onto the TV screen as part of Netflix’s “Luke Cage.”
Kitty Pryde and her dragon pal Lockheed land on this list thanks to the art of the legendary Art Adams. In addition to Shadowcat, Adams turned in art for plenty of other cards in the first two Marvel Universe series sets, with his detailed art adding a real sense of depth and quality to a small canvas. Adams actually drew his card art way, way larger than the cards themselves; this piece of Adams art for Marvel Universe Series II is over a foot long!
Shadowcat’s stats hit all the highlights of her character: she’s a teenager, she’s got a ton of discarded codenames, really dislikes the White Queen and is mature beyond her years. At this point in her history, Kitty had settled on the name Shadowcat and made a home in the UK with Excalibur. Maybe it speaks to the success of her team, but Kitty’s win percentage stat is noticeably higher than Luke Cage’s. Now there’s something fans can really debate.
13. Aunt May
Come on, you can’t talk about the 1990 series without talking about the Aunt May card. Yep, dear old Aunt May got her very own trading card in this set — presumably the most sought after card of the whole lot. But come on, Aunt May deserves a card; after all, she’s appeared in almost as many comics as Spider-Man (and even survived an engagement to Doctor Octopus).
The stats on the back of Aunt May’s card really make this one worth tracking down. This set had a sense of humor, and it really comes through here. Since fight stats don’t really make sense for Spider-Man’s elderly aunt, the back instead reveals that May has baked almost a thousand pies and recovered from almost two dozen life-threatening illnesses. The stat about the wrinkles on her face, though, maybe goes too far!
12. Cosmic Spider-Man
“Look, up in the sky! It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s — Superman! No, wait, it’s Spider-Man?”
Yep the wall-crawler briefly earned the ability to fly along with a bunch of other cosmic powers thanks to the Enigma Force. The 1990 series wasn’t content to just turn out one card per hero like later sets; instead, alternate versions of some heroes scored cards of their own — including Cosmic Spider-Man. This card was also depicting incredibly recent events as Spider-Man gained a cosmic upgrade in December 1989’s “Spectacular Spider-Man” #158
It’s also worth pointing to some of the information on the back of this card, which labels it “Cosmic Spider-Man.” Apparently Peter Parker fought 31 battles over the course of three months. Also apparently, not even unparalleled cosmic strength kept him from losing eight of those skirmishes! That’s a big deal, seeing as how the “did you know” segment says this version of Spidey was the strongest super hero in the Marvel Universe.
11. Wolverine (Patch)
Wolverine also got more than a few cards in this set, the most interesting of which was this card, depicting the loner’s Patch persona. A little while earlier, Wolverine’s first ongoing solo series launched and took the clawed Canadian out of his comfort zone and into the seedy island nation of Madripoor. As the X-Men were believed dead at the time, Logan adopted the Patch persona as his cover. This all-black getup with black eye makeup was what he wore while he was out doing was he did best.
And the back of the card shows you what his Patch disguise consisted of: an eye patch. Nope, he didn’t cover up that incredibly distinctive haircut nor did he shave those attention-grabbing sideburns. Just an eye patch, please. The card also lists Roughhouse as one of his arch-enemies, which is a name that only readers of the late ’80s “Wolverine” series will be familiar with; the guy’s popped up in under 10 issues in the last 25 years. It’s also worth pointing out that the card slaps a vague age on Logan.
She-Hulk was actually riding high at this point in her career. She’d just come off back-to-back stints as a member of the Fantastic Four and then the Avengers, and her solo series, “Sensational She-Hulk,” was in the early part of its lengthy run. You can kinda tell just how good Shulkie has it just looking at this card. She’s not lifting anything or punching her way through a brick wall. No, Jennifer Walters is turning heads in a killer look and ride.
She-Hulk’s stats also take on the irreverent tone of her fourth-wall breaking early ’90s ongoing series. When asked about her arch-enemies, the card kinda shrugs and offers up “None of her enemies have been villainous enough to qualify as ‘arch.'” There’s also the nickname of “Big Green Mama,” which is definitely not a moniker that has stuck with her into the 21st century (if, in fact, it was ever used to begin with). And that “Did You Know” bit is equally charming; instead of diving into a hidden aspect of Jen’s origin, the blurb just boasts about her sweet ride.
Punisher’s a no-nonsense character, so he deserves a no-nonsense card. That’s just what he got with this card that shows Frank Castle glowering at the viewer with his uzi smoking. This card came around the time of the Punisher’s first great era; after debuting in the late ’70s and getting his first limited series in the mid ’80s, Castle’s debut solo series was going strong at this point. It was going so strong, in fact, that a second title, “Punisher War Journal,” was also launched.
And this right here is why Punisher is on this list. Just look at that “win percentage”! Aside from some “rookie” heroes with under a dozen battles to their name, Punisher’s percentage is the highest of any hero in the set. This is probably because, unlike pretty much every other hero on the list, Punisher tends to win his battle, um, definitively. As in, with a hail of bullets. Still, an 89% puts him way higher than Wolverine. It’s also worth pointing out that Marvel editor Tom Brevoort, who had a hand in writing these stats, has said that all the fight stats were “totally made up.”
The X-Men were in a bit of a weird place when this series came out (more on that in a bit), so Storm’s card isn’t as up-to-date as all the others. At this time, Storm had actually been straight up dead — and then revealed to have been de-aged back to adolescence. So instead of showing pre-teen Storm, this card instead shows her as she was a few years prior, back in her punk phase. Storm did have another card in the set, though, one that showed her all-black jumpsuit look from right before her “death.”
We can also use this card to point out the… curious… stats used to describe female heroes’ height and weight in pretty much every trading card set of the ’90s. 5’11” and 127 lbs. for a superhero, especially one as trained and toned as Storm, just doesn’t seem right, right?
Here’s the big guy himself, the devourer of worlds Galactus, shrunk down and barely contained on a tiny trading card. The image itself packs in a lot of Jack Kirby energy, from the crackle and energy lines in the background to the massive blocks of highly-stylized Kirby tech in the cosmic being’s floating mobile space-lair.
A look at Galactus’ stats reveals that he’s the Punisher’s villainous doppelganger. Yep, at 69%, Galactus’ (admittedly not reflective of the stories themselves) “win percentage” easily outdoes every other super-villain in the set. When you’re a massive, planet-eating force of nature, you’re not that easy to take down. And since super-heroes always win, that means that every villain — other than Galactus — doesn’t have much down in the win column. The other eye-catching stat here, though, is “planets devoured.” That’s the super-villain equivalent of Aunt May’s “meals served,” and it is excellent!
You can tell Mephisto’s a super-villain because he’s so comfortable in Hell that he sits in a stone throne like it’s a La-Z-Boy. Right around the time this card was made, Mephisto went from being a cosmic nuisance of the Silver Surfer’s to a dark nemesis of Daredevil, with a stretch of issues published in 1990 pitting him against the Man Without Fear. But this card isn’t notable so much for the art as it is the stats.
First there’s the “Other Names” section, which lists the always fun to say “Beelzebub.” It also lists “The Devil,” which is a name that’s delightfully contradicted by some quasi-legalese speak in the “Did You Know” box…
Although thought by many to be the same being as the Biblical Devil, Mephisto is not, and makes no such claim
Just add a “your honor” to the end of that sentence. There’s also the curious case of the “Battles Fought” stat, which only counts Mephisto’s throwdowns from the last decade — and that’s a huge number! Lastly, Mephisto, you gotta work on upping that “Dimensions Controlled” number.
5. Guardians of the Galaxy
Here’s another early Mark Bagley card, this time featuring the original lineup of the Guardians of the Galaxy. Yep, no Rocket or Gamora, no Star-Lord, no Groot or Drax. If you’ve seen the “Guardians of the Galaxy” film, then you might recognize Yondu all the way to the right, but that’s about it. That’s because these are the original Guardians from a few centuries in the future. And while these guys had been active in the comics since 1969, they’re “Rookies” because the very first “Guardians” ongoing launched in 1990.
This card back features a head-scratching roll call for modern Guardians fans. Martinex? Charlie-27? Starhawk? Nikki and Aleta? But these guys and gals have recently appeared in a few Marvel series over the last two years. “Guardians 3000” and “Guardians of Infinity” dusted the characters off, as they’d mostly been last seen in their ’90s series, and put them in the spotlight once again.
4. Amazing Fantasy #15
A curious subcategory of this series, Marvel Universe series I featured Marvel’s “M.V.C.” — “Most Valuable Comics.” Among the cards in this grouping are the first appearances of everyone from Captain America and Iron Man to the X-Men. Even “Wolverine” #1 gets a card. But right here is the most notable card when it comes to that key “valuable” word: “Amazing Fantasy” #15, the first appearance of Spider-Man.
The back of the card gives a rundown of the issue’s synopsis, completely leaving out the two back-up tales in this iconic issue (one about a guy that escapes a volcanic island by ringing a bell, and another about a vengeful mummy fighting a bank robber). Of all the cards in this subset, “Amazing Fantasy” #15 is listed as being the most valuable. Of course “Amazing Fantasy” #15 has since shot up in value. Comic Book Realm lists it as being worth around $260,000. And no, that’s not just because of inflation. Turns out the first appearance of one of the most iconic superheroes is a sound investment!
So here’s the deal with the X-Men: this 1990 series was released at a time when there were no X-Men. Yes, “Uncanny X-Men” was still a monthly title, but the team dissolved in late 1989. “Uncanny” evolved into an anthology title following the disparate storylines of characters that had been X-Men just a year earlier. So this lineup right here? It never existed. Banshee and Forge were traveling the world together looking for the X-Men; Storm and Gambit were partners in crime; Wolverine, Jubilee and Psylocke were kicking ass in Madripoor; Rogue was chilling in the Savage Land; and Havok and Strong Guy just… weren’t around.
Some of these characters (Banshee, Storm, Jubilee, Wolverine, Gambit, Psylocke and Forge) would come together to form a lineup of the team around the time this set was released. Others, not so much. Confusing matters even more is the fact that Strong Guy, who is clearly on the front of the card, is listed as the Morlock “Sunder” in the “Team Members” section. This isn’t the only time Strong Guy and Sunder were erroneously linked by a trading card; Strong Guy’s 1992 Marvel Masterpieces card displays Sunder’s first cover appearance as his first cover appearance. Still, this card is a curiosity, as it shows a roster that never happened, thus making us wonder if it was supposed to happen and writer Chris Claremont changed his mind.
2. Spider-Man Presents: Silver Surfer
As this was the first ever Marvel trading card series featuring original art, a lot of this series was trial and error. Why not make trading cards that are basically just comic book panels? This is a comic book trading card set, after all. That’s the thought process behind the “Spider-Man Presents” category, which features a few comic strip gags between Spidey and a number of Marvel characters (ranging from Doctor Doom to Doctor Strange and Magneto). This is the only time cards like these would be included in any Marvel set, as future collections would focus more on heroes, villains, teams and battles.
This card stands out specifically because of the Silver Surfer’s last line in that second panel. If you’re looking for a better encapsulation of what the early ’90s were all about than Silver Surfer dropping his cosmic stoicism to say “hang ten on the waves in Baja” and “they’re el primo, dude,” well… we don’t know if you’ll find it.
1. Stan Lee
Come to think of it, how has the codename Mr. Marvel gone unused in over 75 years of Marvel Comics? It’s right there and it makes total sense! Maybe that’s because Stan Lee is actually the Marvel Universe’s Mr. Marvel, and there can be only one. The Marvel Universe Series I set closes out with a tribute card to one of the brains behind the Marvel U, Stan Lee. The illustration features Stan composed of the disparate parts of a number of Marvel heroes, ranging from Thor and Spider-Man to Silver Surfer and Doctor Strange. His four fingers are even the four members of the Fantastic Four. The big question, though, is… is that Howard the Duck’s hat?
Similar to the Aunt May card, Stan Lee’s card ditches the “battle” stats and goes for the funny. “Comics Written” and “No-Prizes awarded” appear instead, and he even gets a “Favorite sayings” section — which is a section that plenty of superheroes could have had, too. It’s also worth noting that of all the major Marvel sets of the ’90s, this is the only card dedicated to a creator as opposed to a character.
That’s our look at 1990’s Marvel Universe Series I. Which cards from this set were among your favorites? Let us know in the comments!
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