Graphic artifacts: Marvel trading cards
I know that, among Modern Ideas’ modest-but-loyal readership, there is considerable interest in comics-related content. (At least, that’s what tends to get comments; I’m not a mind-reader so that’s what I have to go on.)
For those of you who’ve hung in there patiently, waiting for another comics post, I have good news and bad news.
The good news is that I’ve got a novel curio of Marvel merchandising, to share, which ought to be good for two or three posts, and potentially several if I felt like it.
The bad news is that it involves yet another misty-eyed indulgence of 90s nostalgia, beginning “when I were a lad, 20 years ago…”
And yes, it has been that long.
Indeed, looking back at the comics landscape as I knew it back when, the number of intervening years isn’t so incredible. People may say that “the 90s are returning” in this way or that, but the mainstream American comics fan experience was considerably different 20 years ago all the same.
Growing up in a small town of not-quite 5,000 people in Iowa, comics were nonetheless readily accessible at multiple locations. And I’m pretty sure that this has changed since. I recall that in my early years as a collector, the main street pharmacy, at least one of the grocery stores and walmart all had a new comics rack. Plus there was an odd store called “Stained Glass Tropics” which, along with tropical fish and aquariums (I think?) sold a modest selection of back issues. And trading cards. Comics trading cards.
Of course they had comics trading cards, because for a while in the 1990s it seemed like nearly everyone involved in comics had trading cards. From one end of the industry to the other, at some time or other you were probably either publishing trading cards, selling them or collecting them.
Bring up “comics” and “the 1990s” and people will have all sorts of associations. The speculator market. Certain artists and art styles, certain storytelling conventions. Holographic foil covers and other gimmicks and, generally, an element of excess in nearly everything. All true, to some extent or other. But if there’s one aspect of the 90s comics “scene” which will probably remain unique to the 90s, one thing which will demonstrate the difference between the actual 90s and a “90s revival,” I submit that it’s trading cards.
Granted, trading cards’ connection with comics in the 90s is an important one to me, personally, because they really led me into comics, in a significant way, for the first time. I was already reading the Transformers comic, and an occasional other comic here and there, so I probably would have ended up taking further interest in the art eventually. But the specific comics odyssey I actually had, including a lasting immersion in the Marvel superhero universe, is almost certainly a product of the Marvel trading cards circulating from 1990 on.
Even setting my personal history aside, however, I think trading cards are an unmistakable signpost for the 1990s, along the road of comics history. So far as I know, comics trading cards weren’t around before, and haven’t much been seen since; for part of the 1990s, though, they were as-noted nearly everywhere.
Stores had them, both specialty stores and, if I recall correctly, even convenience stores; you could buy a foil-wrapped pack of Marvel cards at Handi-mart just as readily as a similar pack of traditional baseball cards. And people did buy them. I got into comics through the cards and got into the cards through friends who were showing them off. As “retro” as it seems, we really did meet up to trade our trading cards a number of times.
And, open up a comic book from the early 90s; you’ll almost invariably see at least one ad for comics trading cards (examples of which decorate this post). And more than once you could also find actual cards, either bound in with the comic itself or contained in a since-reviled polybag.
And these were by no means just Marvel comics or Marvel cards. The 1990s saw a seeming explosion of comics publishers, and damn near every one of them, large or small, published trading cards at one point. Even individual series, characters or storylines had trading card sets.
I distinctly recall that even the delightful but very, very independent black and white comic Scud took part, as the screwballs at Fireman Press included a Scud trading card among the kitschy selection of merchandise offered to their fans. This was getting on toward the late 90s, of course, and was probably at least partially an “ironic” gesture, but if nothing else it would still have been an instantly-recognizable reference to a very real and “serious” phenomenon.
No longer, though.
I’m not sure when trading cards finally petered out as a phenomenon within the comics world, or if they even have entirely. But if any trace lingers on it’s faint, indeed. As any kind of major presence in comics publishing or fandom, trading cards pretty well vanished, not coincidentally, along with the 90s boom market of comics. Both were undoubtedly speculator-driven to a great extent; I remember some elusive cards going up significantly in price as rapidly as any specialty variant issue #1 comic book. Beyond that, it just feels like trading cards largely ran their course as a fad. After collecting four sets of Marvel Universe trading cards, my own enthusiasm for more had certainly waned. (Sanity can reappear after an absence, after all, I suppose.) I also think that, at least in terms of Marvel’s card series, there was a very discernable arc from the slightly rough-edged introduction through a glittering heyday to a kind of tired and half-assed denouement. So perhaps interest fell away on both sides of the game.
I still have all of those cards, though. Painstakingly assembled and slotted into plastic grids and, in most cases, binders (or rather, appropriately, vintage “designer” series Trapper Keepers), they sat in a closet for probably a decade, and mostly sit in a corner of my apartment now. But they’re still interesting to glance at, if one feels so inclined. In a future post I’ll look further at some of these relics of a bygone era.