No Mana Needed: Irwin Talks "VS" Superhero CCG

There's a project featuring your favorite comic book characters and such artists as Ariel Olivetti, Sean Philips, Ed McGuinness, Kevin Nowlan, Tim Sale, Bill Sienkiewicz, Leinel Yu, Howard Chaykin, and more. You interested? You're probably even flipping through previews to see how you missed this project, featuring almost every DC Comics and Marvel Comics superhero character. Well, you can stop looking - we're talking about Upper Deck's VS gaming system, which has been growing in popularity since its introduction a few years back. Now fans can pit all their favorite Marvel and DC characters against each other, with expansions being released at a steady rate each year.

Upper Deck isn't the first company to put together a superhero TCG (trading card game), as Fleer's "Overpower" was quite popular with fans in the nineties, and many of those same fans have gravitated towards Wizkids "Heroclix" line of miniatures. But what makes VS unique is not only the breadth of characters, or even the huge prizes (we'll get to that), but the amount of major comic book talent involved with the project. With the "Legion Of Superheroes" and "Heralds Of Galactus" expansion sets coming out soon, for the DC and Marvel series respectively, interest in the game is growing and Art Director Mark Irwin spoke to CBR News about VS.

If you're new to TCGs or just haven't heard of VS before, you might need a brief introduction to the basics and Irwin was happy to provide just that, explaining, "The VS. System game is a superhero based strategic combat card game. Basically, you 'assemble' a team of your favorite characters through purchasing booster packs and expansions, and use many different strategies within the game to battle an opponent. Story devices and elements of characters throughout the Marvel, DC and now, Hellboy universes are found within the game cards, as well as the characters. You can continuously change your strategy and create various decks to compete with others. You can find the game at any discerning hobby store, or ask your local comic shop owner to bring it as well. As far as representation, just take a look at the packaging initially, if you're looking for great art. Drew Struzan, Alex Ross, James Jean, Dave Johnson, and Chris Bachalo are just a few who have all lent their talents to our packaging; and that's just the beginning of the great art you'll find inside."

One of the game's big draws is the sheer number of characters at a player's disposal, from the big names such as Wolverine to lesser known characters such as Detective Chimp. Even in its heyday, Overpower was never able to offer such a wide array of characters, and this fact isn't lost on the many fans who've flocked to the game. "From the major characters all the way down to the so-called 'morts,'" added Irwin. "I would say they all make an appearance. And if they haven't yet, they will in upcoming expansions."

Irwin's name may not be familiar to you, but don't make the mistake of assuming he's new to the industry, as he's been working in comics professionally for 15 years, at companies like Wildstorm and with artists such as Chris Bachalo. In that time he's made a lot of contacts with big name artists, but Irwin doesn't limit his search to the big names - he just wants good artists bringing everyone's favorite characters to life. "I'm a fan myself, so I am always out to try and get the guys whose work I enjoy, as well as others they may tell me about," he said of the artist selection process. "Lots of times, it's someone like Dan Panosian or Alex Garner or Ken Steacy or Dave Johnson, saying, 'Hey, check out my buddy, he's really good.' And then I contact that guy and so on. My sensibilities art-wise may be a little different from most US comic fans; I grew up with a lot of 'Heavy Metal,' 'National Lampoon,' 'Warren Magazine' stuff, in addition to the Marvel/DC fare. So I also like getting guys most modern comic fans may never have heard of, in addition to the high profile guys the fans know and love.

"One of the best moments of my career was getting Phillippe Caza, a guy whose work I loved in 'Heavy Metal' as a kid. He was so excited to do it too; he loved American comics, but had never been asked to do any. The VS System game features the first American comic work ever by him; I'm really proud of that. With every set I try and get someone I haven't before, as well as try and get the guys who hit a home run on the last set to come to bat again.

"As far as my general responsibilities go, my job is to get art for every Entertainment product we do, as well as the occasional sports product (the recent LeBron "Chosen One" figures were designed by Chris Brunner, our in-house illustrator that works in my group). In addition, we do some IP creation, and it's a part of my job to help in that process with our in-house illustrators.

"I receive art descriptions from the R&D group here, and then try to find artists whose styles work for each scene. Sometimes I try to match artists with what they're famous for, or try and give them something completely different if I think they kick ass and people just don't know it. Lots of it is discussion with the artists; they all have their favorites too, and sometimes it's tough when 10 great artists all want Spider-Man, and there's only on in that particular set. Try and keep everyone happy, and try and get the guys I want, and try and get it all in on deadline; lots of balls to juggle!"

As for his favorite art pieces, Irwin isn't quite sure which pieces to name, as it seems like everyday he's getting another beautiful piece of art from an artist. "Michael Golden did a Deadpool piece that still excites me," he said. "Andrew Robinson and Dave Johnson have done some amazing pieces, really geeked me out. The aforementioned Caza and Bachalo pieces; Mignola's Fin Fang Foom piece, Duncan Fegredo's Franklin Richards piece, Adam Hughes, Frank Cho - Argh! Too tough to pick! As far as my own stuff goes, I'm primarily an inker, and have been lucky enough to be asked to ink some of the work in the sets. I've inked JonBoy Meyers, Adam Kubert, Steve Rude and Randy Green, in addition to others. It's been an honor and a treat as a comic fan to both work on the cards and assemble the talent for this game; looking forward to seeing comic fans enjoy it as much as I do!"

Though the art on these cards is quite important to Irwin, he openly admitted that he knows that the general gaming public isn't so concerned about the aesthetics. "The gaming public loves this game, but I believe they appreciate it more for the game play than the art," explained Irwin. "That's not a knock on gamers either; they just tend to appreciate a different kind of art, more of the painted work you'd see in our 'Warcraft' game, or 'Magic: The Gathering.' I think if comic fans took a chance on it, they'd see how fun it could be, in addition to seeing their favorite artists rock their favorite characters. Just got an amazing Chris Bachalo homage to Bill Sienkiewicz for our latest set; isn't that worth checking out [laughs]?"

Even with the enticing art, many comic book fans - not to mention gamers burnt out from buying so many games in the past - are reticent to try out VS, as it can seem too expensive or complicated to be worth the effort. Irwin admitted that he's reticent to game at times, but said that his love for superheroes won out when it came to VS. "I love comics, and love the fact that it's almost like you're re-creating what happened in the latest issue of, say, 'Avengers'; except the writer isn't controlling what happened- you are. And really, the art... Man, I get goosebumps when I get a guy like Mike Mignola to draw Fin-Fang Foom; I mean, how cool is that? Mike was geeked too; said he'd never drawn that character before, and really only wanted to do it if he could do Kirby monsters. And it looks awesome! And now we do these cool extended art cards, which are just amazing. So, if you dig great art and love comics, get into it!"

If you decide to enter the world of VS, you'll find that it can be quite a profitable endeavor, if you, excuse the pun, play your cards right. "I believe we have either the largest prize tour out there, or at least are right neck and neck with the 'Magic' folks," Irwin contended. "We give away a million dollars for this game! They do demos for the game at conventions, and are always giving away cool art cards you can't get in the regular sets; we've also given away original art at many shows. I think the biggest difference is that this isn't the kind of world that may be tough to get into at this level, like a 'Magic' environment seems to be. This is comics, just like you love, and is easily accessible by both the casual fans and the more hardcore geeks out there."

The fun doesn't stop with Marvel and DC superheroes, as Upper Deck has added one of the most popular indie characters to its lineup: Hellboy. "Mike Mignola worked directly with me in approving the art, and there's some amazing stuff in this launch, including a Hellboy art print (by Mignola), packaged with the game," revealed Irwin. "Mike did new art for this game, which, with his schedule, was amazing to get in and of itself (in case you can't tell, Mike's one of my favorite artists ever). Dave Johnson, Jason Pearson, Stuart Immonen, Andrew Robinson, and others also contributed to this cool release. In the future, look for more in-depth coverage of both Marvel and DC; I think the releases are still top-secret, but they will be cool, I promise!

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