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1990: The Year Marvel’s Trading Cards Took Over the World

Nowadays, it’s not uncommon for Marvel heroes to be on the tongues of those who have never stepped foot inside a comic shop. With the justified success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, a pantheon of previously puzzling personalities have permeated pop-culture with prolific promiscuity. But it hasn’t always been that way. Sure, the bigger names are easily identifiable, but nobody would have been able to pick a “Star-Lord” out of a lineup.

But in 1990, something changed. For a brief time, it seemed like everybody, everywhere, was a Marvel fan.

As a kid, I had a dabbling interest in trading cards. They were affordable, took up very little space, and were readily available. I remember collecting cards from properties as diverse as Return of the Jedi and Dukes of Hazzard. Garbage Pail Kids were a brief obsession as well. Once I hit high school, I got pulled into collecting baseball cards despite no interest in watching the actual game. It was more about that thrill of finding rare cards than it was the love of the players, so it was missing that certain “spark” that I got from the collection when I was a kid.

That all changed with the debut of Impel’s first series of Marvel Trading Cards.

Marrying that long-time love of comic books and superheroes and an appreciation of trading cards made this the perfect line to collect. I still remember that long delay between the first time I saw an advertisement in a comic for Impel’s first series of Marvel trading cards and finding that first pack while standing in the checkout line of a grocery store.

At the time, I figured this would be a passing thing, one that would pop up briefly and flame out as fast as it had debuted, so I knew I had to be fast about tracking down as many as I could. It would have sucked for them to disappear from stores before I could get a set.

In 1990 comic books were still very much living in their own niche. Sure, after the 1989 Batman movie it seemed like everyone was a Batman fan, but for the most part comic-book movies were relegated to the direct-to-video market — if they were made at all — and the local comic book shop was occupied by the usual suspects. The comic market had yet to hit that big boom of foil covers and mass panic. Batman had yet to be broken, Superman hadn’t died yet, Image wasn’t a thing, Jim Lee and Rob Liefeld were just artists on Uncanny X-Men and New Mutants. Todd McFarlane’s Spider-Man #1 was just beginning to show how insane it would get, with media attention and headlines and furor.

It was relatively quiet, so when the trading cards seemed to make everybody around me an overnight Marvel fan, it was kind of a shock.

In 1990 I was in high school, and there were kids who I knew with absolute certainty had never seen the inside of a comic since they were in single digits walking around with fat stacks of cards in their jacket pockets. If you’re familiar with the scene in Ferris Bueller where the secretary rattles off all of the high school cliques, these damned cards united all of them. It was the most surreal experience to watch, and probably one of the only times when I was on the cutting edge of a trend.

Once they hit the “mainstream,” it was nearly impossible to find the cards. When you saw a sad box with a few remaining packages left in the bottom then you knew you had better grab them and hang on tight, because you just got lucky. I am not exaggerating when I say that the fervor was so insane that teachers were in on it.

Looking back, it’s easy to see that it was just a weird passing fad, like pet rocks, slap bracelets, or fidget spinners. But still, in a strange way, it was nice for a large amount of people to find pleasure in something that had been with me my entire life.

It’s not hard to see why these grabbed so many people. The cards themselves are miniature miracles of information, like tiny traveling Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe pages. While some of the info has clearly been pulled straight out of somebody’s poop-chute (I doubt the wins, losses and ties of battles fought is accurate, in other words) each standard character card gave you a name, height, group affiliation, weight, powers, major enemies, nicknames, first appearance, concise origin and a bonus piece of trivia.

The cards hit all the major players of 1990, and many characters received multiple cards depicting several costumes and/or variations they’ve had over the years. For instance, Wolverine received separate listing for his brown costume, yellow costume, and for his “Patch”-era costume, Spider-Man received a card for his regular red and blues and his black costume, and both green Hulk and grey Hulk got cards. Even Cosmic Spider-Man got a separate card. Hell, forget Cosmic Spidey, even Aunt May got her own card, detailing pies baked, meals served and wrinkles on her face (too many to count). You know you’ve made it when you’re an octogenarian with your own trading card.

Did you know: Aunt May ended up being the last card I needed to get my first complete set. While I eventually ended up with two complete sets (and a whole lot of extras), she was a particularly frustrating holdout, to the point where I actually bought her from a teacher at my school for 25 cents!

The cards were split up into sections: superheroes, supervillains, rookies, famous battles, most valuable comics, team pictures and, finally, a series of “Spider-Man presents” with Spider-Man interviewing a specific character. It was essentially a three panel gag card, with the remaining two panels on the back.

The Famous battles provided you with details of seminal fight between two specific arch-rivals, like Wolverine vs. Sabretooth or Thor vs. Loki, and the issue in which it could be found. The Most Valuable Comics provided you with the cover of a specific, important comic, followed by a synopsis on the back of the card detailing what happened in that issue along with the original cover price and the 1990 Overstreet Price Guide value of that issue. Those prices have shifted quite a bit in the past 27 years.

The team pictures, like the single-character cards, gave you a list of members and the issue they debuted as that specific team, along with a brief description of the team itself.

The last two regular cards in the series were a Stan Lee card, with art depicting him as a fusion of several Marvel heroes and the name “Mr. Marvel,” and a checklist.

The still-alive-in-1990 Jack Kirby, however, did not get a card.

In addition to the regular cards, there were also five separate “chase” cards, that were holographic. It was a sneak peek at the holographic foil cover insanity that comics would soon become. While these were highly coveted, they were also a bitch-and-a-half to come across. Of the five, I managed to find four. The fifth, depicting a fight between Spider-Man and Green goblin, eluded me until just prior to writing this, when I bought one off of eBay to complete my set. Kerboom.

I have nothing but fond memories about collecting these cards. I’ve always been the type of person that digs the type of information dumps found in books like the Official Handbook and DC’s Who’s Who. I think that’s why I am such a devoted fan of the G.I. Joe file cards and the four-issue Transformers Universe comic that gave facts about each Transformer. While I had a healthy knowledge about a lot of these characters, I might not have been totally aware of the first appearance of each and some of the trivia might have been new to me. Collecting these cards consumed my attention in 1990. I even ended up buying the Collector’s Album (with holographic cover) and the Collector’s tin. There were more card sets to come in the next couple of years, but this first wave was something special. It united the world.