Marvel Masterpieces’ Return Puts a Miniature Art Gallery in Your Hands [Review]
If you've been following the site closely these past few weeks, you'd know that I was eagerly anticipating the release of an all-new set of Marvel Masterpieces trading cards. Announced back in 2014, the Upper Deck card set was delayed ever so slightly to allow artist Joe Jusko the proper amount of time to complete the entire set on his own. Finally, after more than 20 years since the last time Jusko took on the challenge, and after a few years of wondering when Upper Deck would finally release this new collection of 135 paintings to the wild, it happened. Marvel Masterpieces returned.
However, this set was not a casual collector's set, as the original had been back in 1992. The card collecting hobby changed quite a bit these past two decades, and rather than put the focus on a mass-market hobby set, Upper Deck went full premium for the 2016 iteration of the popular painted cards. That also meant putting a premium price on collecting the set, but after getting our hands on a box, it's easy to see why Upper Deck went this route. Even though we weren't able to build a full set with one box (logistically impossible given the pack breakdown), Marvel Masterpieces (2016) offers a wealth of brilliant pieces of art well worthy of their namesake.
First things first, let's break down just what each box of cards will get you. There are 12 packs per box, with three cards per pack. Inside you'll find one base card and two inserts of varying rarity. For the most part, the inserts you'll find will be either Joe Jusko gold foil signatures or "What If?" variants, both of which feature identical art to base set, just with slightly different presentation.
The base set is 90 cards, with the final nine in the set being short-printed, and every single card in the base set is numbered. That means you'll find a lot of the earlier cards in the set like Ultimate Spider-Man Miles Morales (the first actual card in the set, numbered to 1999), but have a harder time tracking down the likes of Spider-Man Peter Parker (the last actual card, numbered to 99).
There are variants of each, and the final nine cards in the set --- Doctor Doom, Spider-Man, Mephisto, Deadpool, Hulk, Venom, Iron Man, Silver Surfer and Wolverine --- can still be obtained with better odds as inserts somehow, but at least you won't be completely shut out trying to find one of the 99 in existence.
In addition to the gold foil signatures, there are also purple, orange and red foil inserts, which are harder to come by, with the red foil having just one of each card produced. Actual Joe Jusko signatures also appear randomly inserted (we didn't pull one), and they are numbered to just 10 of each card in the set.
You've also got Canvas inserts, which are printed on a textured card to appear like an original painting; Battle Spectra Gems, which are metallic foil cards showing a versus scene; Mirage, a very rare lenticular card that shows four different character paintings as you turn it; Holofoil, a sparkly foil card of a single character; and Buybacks, which are original cards from the 1992 set re-stamped with a new foil embossment and which also have extremely rare Jusko signature versions.
Finally, there are sketch cards, which pay homage to the original 1992 Marvel Masterpieces set, but feature all new art from more than 150 different artists. You are supposed to get one per box (which we did), but that's just based on the pack ratio of 1:12. You could ostensibly get two in a box. It'd be a rare case, but it might happen. You could get a miracle box that has all the rarest cards, too, but the chances are pretty slim based on the varying ratios each insert, base card, and variant card all have.
We happened to pull a Jubilee sketch by Fabian Quintero, which called back to her original card in the small expansion box set. Upper Deck's concept for the sketches was smart and inventive, but they all fall victim to a single flaw: they just can't compete with the original Joe Jusko works. They also can't really compete with the new paintings either, but many do an admirable job of putting a different spin on familiar, fan-favorite images that are two decades old.
Unfortunately, it's impossible to get a complete set of these cards with just one box. Even attempting to get a "complete" set by combining the variants and counting them as the base card, the best you can do is getting around 30 of the 90 cards in the series. While you will get 36 cards in the box, some of those are going to be from the inserts that don't count as part of the base. If you want to get a complete set, you may have to buy up to four boxes, which is a pricey endeavor, or swap your rarer cards with a friendly trader to acquire more of the core set.
The good news is, even if you don't get the whole set, you're at least going to have a solid collection of incredible paintings. Getting a few years to complete all 135 paintings was just what Jusko needed to knock each and every piece of art out of the park. The standard base set features some spectacular paintings of characters in action or posing to show off their personalities. Loki may only actually appear in the bottom corner of his card, but there's enough of his face there to capture the mischievous Asgardian's intense spirit. It also helps the background features some crumbling architecture. What did Loki just do? Whatever it was, it wasn't good, but it was perfectly in character.
The same goes for cards of Spider-Man, who can be seen swinging carefree high above the streets of Manhattan, or Black Panther, who stands ready to strike in the jungles of Wakanda. There's a story in every image, and the cards aren't just pin-up shots. They're expressive and have more to say than your average one-off illustration. Jusko clearly cares about the material and world he's capturing for these cards. He wouldn't have returned for the immense challenge if he didn't, but you can see in each individual painting just how much appreciation there is for the source material.
Jusko's paintings also have a distinct old-school feel, and it's not just in the character design. A number of the characters have their latest duds, but the majority are portrayed in their more iconic guises. That helps give Marvel Masterpieces the vibe of being of a time, but that classical look also comes from Jusko's style. It calls back to influences from the heyday of Marvel comics, though filtered through a modern lens.
Joe Jusko cut his teeth illustrating in the 70s, just as artists like Howard Chaykin, Dave Cockrum and Neal Adams were breaking through. While his style is very much his own, Jusko's work stands side by side with contemporaries of that era, sharing certain aesthetic elements. What's more, when you get a look at any given card, you feel as if you're there in the moment with these characters. It's not an easy feat to pull off, but Jusko manages to do it more than 100 different times.
The thicker card stock, nearly five times as thick as a standard baseball card, adds literal and figurative weight to each card. Though only the Canvas inserts are given the textured print, each card has the feel of a tiny painting pulled right off the wall. That's part of that premium feel Upper Deck wanted to give the set on for this celebratory release, and it's hard to complain about the final product simply from a manufacturing standpoint. The cards are all printed excellently, and the glossy coat gives them an incredible shine.
If you've been collecting cards in recent years, this shift towards high-end printing isn't anything new. If you're just coming back to the hobby after some time away, you'll find card companies have upped their game quite a bit. This is mostly due to the hardcore hobby consisting of adults more than it does kids these days, though there are still trading cards for kids. Marvel Masterpieces just isn't one of them.
The flip side includes an image of the character's first appearance, even if it isn't always the exact character (I'm looking at you, Ultimate Spider-Man), There's also a blurb about the character on the back, but they're often completely out of context from the issue image and the image on the front of the card. Iron Fist's card references his fight in "The Seven Capital Cities of Heaven" arc from Immortal Iron Fist, which is nifty for a devoted fan to recall, but not necessarily so for someone less familiar with Danny Rand's exploits. Most of the cards are like this, and it's a little strange that the copy is so focused on moments you'd have to be a die hard fan to get any enjoyment from reading. I'm not saying these needed to be Snapple Real Facts, but the text could have been better served by not being pulled from such deep cuts.
Despite not being able to get a full set without breaking the bank, the Marvel Masterpieces 2016 cards are something to behold. This card set is clearly aimed at a specific market, unlike the original 1992 set which was a little more broad in its scope, but that premium styling gives the set a lot more personality. Still, it's expensive and you've got to be a big fan of Joe Jusko's work and Marvel Comics to even consider investing in just one box. The results speak for themselves though, and every painting in this set is just as memorable as the last.
It's hard to say this new edition will have the same lasting impact as the 1992 set, mostly because of it having not quite as wide a reach. That said, there's no doubting the quality of the work that went into the 2016 Marvel Masterpieces. Joe Jusko has once again proven he's a master of the form, and we can only hope it won't be another 20 years until he graces the Marvel Masterpieces with his presence again.
The Upper Deck Marvel Masterpieces (2016) can be found through hobby card specialty shops for ~$150-200 per box. This box was provided by Upper Deck for review.