If you ever need a reminder that the early '90s were a strange, strange time for the comics industry, then look no further than Comics FutureStars. Released by Majestic Entertainment in 1993, FutureStars was a showcase for nearly a hundred artists who were thought to be the next wave of up-and-comers who would ride the infamous boom to stardom.

And of course, because this is the '90s we're talking about, it was released as a trading card set. Seriously, the only way that box could be more '90s is if it was literally dipped in chromium.

As you might expect, not every artist featured in the set went on to bigger things, largely because this came out right on the cusp of the massive crash in the industry that saw comic shops close across the country and several companies -- including Majestic -- collapse under the weight of a market that was no longer supported by speculation on comics as "investments."

Even so, the fact that the cards featured art on one side and photos of their creators on the other pretty much makes the FutureStars set the High School Yearbook of the comics industry's class of '93. And like all yearbooks, it's got its share of familiar faces.

Yep: Brian Michael Bendis, arguably the biggest writer in comics today, was one of the creators featured in the set. What's more, his card features Zora, a character that would later show up (albeit with a different origin) in "Powers," the book that catapulted him to his current level of fame.Interestingly enough, in every pack that had a Bendis card, this one was right next to it. No kidding.

David Mack, sporting what I believe to be body paint, shows up on a card featuring Kabuki a year before the launch of her series from Caliber in 1994. Cut to 17 years later, and she's still his most famous creation, which -- considering that she and Zora were the only characters in a set of a hundred cards that I recognized -- puts her at the cream of the crop for Comics FutureStars.

As for how all of this came about, I asked two of the other artists featured as FutureStars:

First up was Jeff Parker (currently working on "Atlas," "Thunderbolts," and a host of other stuff for Marvel) who had the foresight to use a drawing of himself rather than a photo. For him, getting into the set was essentially a matter of luck:

"I was in Artamus Studio, sitting around when the phone rang, so I got to do one though nobody had heard of me. And though I never did the story that character was to appear in!"

It's a shame, too, because I would totally read "Kasey Venus." That thing's got a pharaoh, a spaceship and a dinosaur.

It was Phil Hester, though -- whose more recent credits include "Green Arrow," "The Darkness," "Firebreather" and "Golly," and whose Twitter feed brought the set to my attention in the first place -- who was able to shed a little more light on the operation:

The reason you see Stan Woch, Fred Schiller, Dan Lawlis, and me in this set is because we were all freelancers for Majestic at the time. Majestic, like Defiant, was banking on the success of comics that were compiled from trading cards. I did a forgettable comic called STAT (the super hero strike team Tonk & Big Guns belonged to) that I had to draw on a Watchmen grid since each page was composed of NINE separate cards. You had to buy pack after pack of STAT cards to get all the panels you then assembled in a binder, like Warriors of Plasm. It was horrifying. Plus, I had to draw in this grid, which would have been okay, EXCEPT I don't think the book ever came out as cards, just a regular comic (they saw the light at the last minute, I guess) which had super cramped, boring ass layouts. I designed pretty much the whole Majestic universe for $50 or so a character, the coolest of which was Legacy, their Superman cipher. The whole time I thought they were just throwaway card designs, not designs for their cornerstone characters. Anyway, I drew one book and a bunch of cards for them, they went belly up owing me 8K. I bear no ill will to Fred or Marilee, or Paul Jenkins, who, if I remember correctly, was the poor editor forced to field calls from unpaid freelancers as the lights were turned off around him.

I think they were owned by a sports card company with First in the title somewhere (NOT First Comics), but the details of their bankruptcy and dissolution have faded. I should have known something hinky was up when I was flown out for a con and given my hotel arrangements along with a roll of twenties to pay for the room.

The '90s, folks. It was a crazy time.

If I had to pick a favorite from the set, however, it'd be the characters created by Richard Case, who is probably most familiar to today's readers as the artist of most of Grant Morrison's run on "Doom Patrol." More than anyone else involved, he seemed to realize how crazy it was to be debuting new comic book characters in a trading card set, and so his designs are appropriately insane themselves:

Case in point: Mister Fist, who had wings, briefs and a pair of hands that never stopped growing once he started punching people (again, a comic I would read the living hell out of)...

...and the rare foil-embossed "Star Player" Annie Ammo, a (massive) gun-toting hitwoman who kills to pay the bills until her husband can afford to move to a house in the suburbs with a white picket fence. These are, without question, the perfect characters to be featured on trading cards, because there is almost no way that actual comic book stories about them could be better than the ones I've written in my head after seeing the cards.

As to my favorite creator picture, that honor unquestioningly goes to Kyle Hotz (who co-created Marvel's "The Hood" with BrIan K. Vaughan):

I am not even kidding: You have no idea how much I would give for any picture of me from 1993 to look as good as Hotz does here. It's absolutely perfect for the time, and judging by the fact that Superboy was rocking the exact same look a year later...

...I'm not the only one who thought so. Unfortunately, I went with the other "Death of Superman"-inspired hairstyle and ended up sticking with the mullet 'til '95. If only I'd had Comics FutureStars to set me straight.

Like I said, it's a pretty interesting snapshot of a very specific time, but there are even more creators featured in the set that went on to make names for themselves in the world of comics:

Batton Lash, creator of "Supernatural Law" and the writer of "Archie Meets the Punisher"

Dan Brereton, creator of "The Nocturnals" and artist on Marvel's "Iron Fist" and "Punisher"

Terry Dodson, artist of Marvel's "Uncanny X-Men"

Lea Hernandez, creator of "Rumble Girls"

Mike Mayhew, cover artist for "Vampirella" and "She-Hulk"

Andrew Pepoy, inker on "Jack of Fables" and artist of Archie's "Katy Keene" relaunch

In effect, the fact that that many people "made it" means that even if we're unlikely to see "Big Guns" take the nation by storm, these cards really are what they set out to be: "Rookie Cards" for comic book creators. And while that still seems pretty crazy, it's also pretty awesome.

Especially Mr. Fist.

(Special thanks to Jeff Parker and Phil Hester)

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