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Tuesday, January 26, 2016

An Ode to Impel - How the non-sports trading card boom of the 90s affected us millennials

If you collected DC comics into the late 80s, then you probably collected DC comics into the early 90s. And if you collected comics into the early 90s, then you probably have a metric ton of non-sports cards (aka: comic book cards) stored in boxes around your house hoping to appreciate in value (by the way, they won't) - you can thank Impel for that.

Impel, officially known as Impel Marketing, was the company that formed in 1989 and quickly picked up the licenses to publish DC and Marvel comic book trading cards in the early 90s.

Prior to 1991, if you wanted DC comics trading cards/stickers and were living in North America, you either had to buy a bag of bread (Sunbeam Bread, Taystee Bread, Langendorf Bread, Wonder Bread), a box of Cracker Jacks, a bottle of Superman Vitamins, a bag of Hostess potato chips or a 3-pack of DC comic books from a large retailer.

The important thing to take a way from all of this is that companies were using DC cards as promotional items to help sell their products. I'm positive the popularity of the Filmation and Hanna-Barbera Super Friends cartoons were paramount in helping companies decide that DC characters were a great incentive to convince kids to convince their parents to buy specific products. Apparently, there was NO market for collectible trading cards based on DC comics characters.

Anyone who collected comic books during the 70s and 80s is going to point out that Topps released numerous trading card sets based on the Batman and Superman TV shows/movies from 1966 up until the 90s. Yes, that is correct, but they were based on the movies/TV shows and only featured DC characters that appeared in the movie/television show. The only exceptions to this were a) the Superman in the Jungle trading card set released by Topps in 1966 and A&BC Gum in 1968, and b) the DC Comics Covers sticker/trading card set released by Topps in 1970. The latter was released to a test market in limited parts of the United States and for whatever reason was never re-released - hence strengthening my theory that card companies (or DC comics) didn't feel that there was a large enough market to sell trading cards based on DC comic book characters.

Apparently Marvel comics had a better lock on the collectible card market, as they have a large catalog of trading card/sticker sets dating back from the 70s. Comic Images consistently released Marvel comic trading card sets during the last half of the 80s, but they were mainly sold in comic book specialty shops and marketed towards collectors.

In 1989/1990, I was an 8 year old boy with a $5 - $10 per week allowance (depending on how generous my parents were feeling). So this article will be very subjective as to my point of view as a comic book collector from that era. Keep in mind, at this period in my life, I was still a collector and not a speculator - so any cards I collected during that era are nowhere near mint, and I really had no long-view of what might be worth money someday.

I do believe that when Impel picked up the licenses for Marvel and DC comics, the market was just ripe for a new collecting fad. I can say this with confidence, because in 1986/87, ALL of the kids in my elementary school (including myself) were collecting Wacky Packages cards produced by O-Pee-Chee.

After the Wacky Packages phase was done, I remember feverishly collecting the Batman Movie trading cards released by O-Pee-Chee in 1989. The Batman Movie cards were sold at my local convenience store, and the box of cards was located right by the checkout counter for the most perfect impulse purchase ever. The Batman Movie was HUGE in the summer of 89 as 'Batmania' was sweeping the nation - and I, of course, got caught in the tide. When my local convenience store stopped selling the Batman Movie cards, I started collecting the Dick Tracy Movie trading cards (also released by O-Pee-Chee in 1990). This is how I KNOW we were all ready for something bigger - I didn't even really LIKE the Dick Tracy movie. I was collecting cards just for the sake of collecting cards.  All of my friends in the neighborhood were collecting them, and I just wanted to be 'part of the gang'.

It wasn't very much longer after that I accidentally stumbled onto the greatest non-sports trading card discovery of my life: Impel's 1990 Marvel Universe 1 trading cards.

The novelty of the Impel Marvel Universe 1 cards were quickly obvious:
  • original art on the cards (this was major in contrast to Comic Images and the O-Pee-Chee movie cards, who seemed to re-use previous movie stills or comic book art for their cards)
  • a full biography of the character on the back of the card (this was also pretty major - remember, we didn't have the internet or Wikipedia back then, so whatever info you learned about a character was either through a comic book or whatever your friend told you about them)
  • a hologram in 1:10 packs!
  • recaps of major Marvel events/cross-overs (this was a great way to catch up some of that Marvel lore you missed out on)
  • the accessibility to new Marvel characters you previously knew nothing about
  • they were highly detailed and didn't look cheap
  • all of my friends were also into Marvel comics (so I had lots of fellow collectors to trade with)
  • if you don't believe me, see for yourself. For a limited time, Marvel comics has posted images of these cards to their site.

The Marvel Universe 1 cards made a huge impact on comic book collectors and were more successful than anyone ever suspected they would be. Stores just could not keep these cards in stock and boxed sets quickly sold out almost as soon as they were released to the public. The appeal, to collectors and Marvel comics fans, was trying to complete the base set and/or the hologram chase card set. You need to remember that NOTHING like this had been done before, so it obviously took the comic book collector world by storm. In comparison to the Impel cards, the Comic Images and O-Pee-Chee trading cards looked cheap and flimsy. Impel and Marvel were actually selling an experience to trading card collectors (and Marvel fans) and set a higher bar for future comic book trading card sets. This was the beginning of the comic book trading card boom that would see a glut of non-sports trading cards flood the market (and dominate a significant majority of my disposable income) from 1990 to 1996. It wouldn't be long before EVERY comic book publishing company (and then some) would have their own trading card sets to try and get "a piece of the action". It also wouldn't be long before all of said trading card sets would be trying to outdo each other in quality (ex: better quality card stock, nicer sheen, etc) and chase cards (ex: foil cards, autographed cards, lithograph cards, animation cells, etc) in order to stand out in the market from their competitors, until it suddenly cost $4 to buy a pack of cards (in contrast to the dollar they used to cost).

Surprisingly, DC comics wouldn't jump onto the trading card trend until 1992 with their 'DC Cosmic Cards' trading card set. (The DC Cosmic Cards were very similar in style to the Marvel Universe 1 cards.) By this point, Impel had already released Marvel Universe 2 in 1991 and Marvel Universe 3 in 1992 cards, and were in the process of re-branding themselves as 'SkyBox'. That's right you are reading about the origin of SkyBox cards.
Much like the comic book crash of 1996, the non-sports card collecting boom came to an end due to over-saturation. Too many cards sets were being released, and there was not enough demand from collectors. To make matters worse, non-sports card collectible magazines (ex: Wizard Magazine) were artificially driving up prices and sending the speculator market into a frenzy, and many collectors thought they were sitting on a small fortune. I remember pleading with my parents to let me rent a safety deposit box to keep my two completed Marvel Universe series 1 & 2 sets safe, lest someone break into our house and steal them while we were gone camping for the week-end. The problem with the whole 'speculator pricing market' is that even though something is listed as being worth $100, the real challenge is finding someone who is willing to pay $100 for it. The even bigger question is: who decided it was worth $100? [that's something to discuss another time] 

To summarize, if Impel hadn't done such a great job with Marvel Universe series 1 cards, we would never have had the non-sports cards collecting boom that lasted throughout the first half of the 90s. You can blame Impel or thank them - that's your call to make.

In it's heyday (1990 - 1993), the non-sports card collecting boom was a really exciting time and I'm very reluctant to part with any completed sets I have from that era - a lot of good memories are attached to those cards. In a future article, I'm sure I'll be examining the DC Cosmic Cards and DC Cosmic Teams cards in greater detail. I might even take a look at the O-Pee-Chee Batman Movie cards (1989) if I'm really feeling inspired.

For more Impel/Skybox trading card fun, check out:

Thanks to The Secret Origin and Lasting Impact of the Marvel Universe Cards by David Harper, Marvel 75: Trading Cards of the 90's by Tj Dietsch and Of Comics and Men: A Cultural History of American Comic Books by Jean-Paul Gabilliet, Bart Beaty, Nick Nguyen for the additional background info.

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