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Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Reviewing the 1996 Fleer/Skybox DC Outburst: Firepower trading card set


About a year ago, while cleaning my closet, I found a dozen or so of these cards lying around in a box mixed with a bunch of other non-sports cards. DC Outburst: Firepower is a trading card set I had totally forgotten about.



Actually, when I first found them, I thought they were misplaced chase cards from another set. You see, these cards really stand out for being "DC Comics' First Totally Embossed Trading Card Set" [at least, that's what the promo card boasted], and you can feel (and sometimes see) that parts of the card are protuberant in a very slight way. For the first time ever, you could feel the contours of your favorite DC characters. (Oddly enough, Power Girl was NOT included in this set.) "The FURY of Batman. The SPEED of the Flash. The STRENGTH of Superman. FEEL them all for the first time!" is how they advertised this trading card set. This card set was slated to release for February 1996.

This is a somewhat modest-sized trading card set weighing in at 80 base cards, 20 Maximum Firepower insert cards (2:3 packs) and 2 Holoburst chase cards (1:36 packs). Cards came 7 in a pack and I honestly can't remember how much a pack retailed for. They were probably a little pricey at the time — having the Fleer logo stamped on a set usually meant it was worth it. Fleer non-sports cards [i.e. X-Men 1994 Fleer Ultra, Marvel Masterpieces 1994, Marvel Universe 1994, The Amazing Spider-Man 1994] were typically a little pricier, but had a nicer card stock and better card art (not to mention triptychs, 9-card puzzles and desirable chase/insert cards). Fleer had been owned by Marvel Comics since July 1992. Marvel later purchased SkyBox in March 1995. In essence, this was a merger of two of the most POPULAR non-sports trading card companies.

This wasn't Fleer/Skybox's first collaboration; they released the DC versus Marvel Comics trading card set one year prior, and the Fleer/Skybox Amalgam Comics trading card set would also be released in 1996.

By 1996, only 6 years after Impel's Marvel Universe Series I trading cards had been introduced, the gimmick era had seemingly hit it's apex and just about anything you could possibly do with a trading card had been done; we'd seen foil cards, hologram cards, over-sized/widescreen cards, chromium cards, pop-up cards, redemption cards, puzzle cards, 'foldees', metal cards, canvas cards, holopix cards, spectra-etch cards, autographed cards, die-cut cards, animation cell cards, embossed cards and a few more I'm forgetting. [Actually, I was pretty sure there was nothing left to be done until 'fabric' cards started popping up in the last two decades.] My first memory of any sort of embossed trading card was from 1993's Milestone: The Dakota Universe trading cards (by Skybox) in which the set's two chase cards were embossed foil cards — which, if I seem to recall, didn't inspire much excitement in me since it was the chase card of a relatively 'ho-hum' Milestone character.

It's a little difficult to capture this effect on camera, but take this normal looking trading card...

card art by Rod Whigham
...and if I tilt the card in the light juuuust riiight...


...you can kind of see the embossed features of the card. Notice how the fiery orange 'Firepower DC' emblem in the left corner sticks out? And how Mr. Freeze's fist kind of protrudes from the card? You can even sort of make out the word 'Outburst' at the top of the card. This was the magic of embossed trading cards, folks. What a time to be alive.

Gimmicks aside (and I do assure you, this was a "gimmick") there isn't very much going on for this trading card set. Actually, the more I flip through these cards, the harder it is for me to justify posting this on a website about DC comics in the 1980s [since, in 1995/1996, DC comics had become more 'extreme' to keep pace with the then-current comic book market]. If nothing else, this will be a nice flashback of what was going on with DC comics in 1996.

Based on my somewhat limited memory, the 1996 North American comic book landscape was dominated by the massive DC vs Marvel/Marvel vs DC event that seemed to have taken up the better part of that year (not to mention all of the DC/Marvel cross-over books). While it was being massively hyped by Wizard Magazine, I remember being more interested in the Amalgam titles that were being published alongside the event. Actually, other than DC's Kingdom Come series (released later that year) and various Vertigo titles, I had pretty much given up on buying comics in general [but still picked up the occasional 'comic industry talk' magazine to see what was going on].

I always felt that the character selection in a trading card set is quite telling of what was going on with the comic book company at the time. As I examine these, I like to pretend I'm a comic book archaeologist digging up facts and piecing together history about a lost era in comics. Let's revisit some 1996 DC comics memories:

Card art by Stewart Johnson
Azrael (Jean Paul Valley) is the second card in this base set — which is a spot normally reserved for a high-profile character — which once again reminds us what a hot property Azrael was after the resolution of 1993's Knightfall/KnightQuest/KnightsEnd saga. His self-titled ongoing series ran from 1995 to 2003 for an impressive one hundred issues. In hindsight, I'm actually surprised that a Knightfall spin-off character could attain such longevity, considering that - to this day - I still know nearly nothing about the character.


card art by Chris Renaud
The Ray was one of those 'new generation' super-heroes that was introduced in a 1992 mini-series that was successful enough to have an ongoing series in 1994. In 1995, even with his own ongoing series, he was often a mainstay in the Justice League Task Force ongoing series or could be found teaming up with one of the other "new generation" super-heros [i.e. Damage, Kyle Rayner Green Lantern, Superboy, etc] somewhere in the DCU. The Ray's ongoing series ended in October 1996, almost six months after this card set had been released. As of this writing, there's talk about The Ray headlining his own CW animated feature — which caught a lot of fans by surprise, considering I don't think this character has crossed anyone's mind since his heyday in the mid 90s.


Starman card art and Fate card art both by Tony Harris.

1994's Zero Hour event indirectly introduced a few new 'modernized' characters to the DCU, one of them being Jack Knight as Starman (created by James Robinson and Tony Harris) and another being Jared Stevens as Fate (created by John Francis Moore and Anthony Williams). Unsurprisingly, (Chase Lawler) Manhunter wasn't featured in this card set since his ongoing series was cancelled before 1996. Fate lasted 22 issues, took a hiatus, and his adventures would be continued in the late 1996 Book of Fate ongoing series for another 12 issues. Starman's series was way more successful and would have an 80-issue run that would conclude sometime in 2001. I always kind of chuckle to myself as Fate kind of looks like Al Bundy (Ed O'Neill) from Married with Children on this card. (Full disclosure: as of this writing, I have never read the 1994 Fate v1 ongoing series, so I couldn't even tell you if it was good or not.)


Orion card art by Joe St. Pierre. Mr. Miracle card art by Ron Whigham.

Orion and Mr. Miracle. Ah yes, this reminds us when Kirby's Fourth World has a sudden resurgence in the mid 90s (Mister Miracle v2 and New Gods v3 had both ended in 1991). New Gods v4 debuted in 1995 (hence Orion being important again), and Mr Miracle got another ongoing series in 1996 (it only lasted 7 issues). Another newly created Fourth World character, named Takion, received an ongoing series in 1996 — which also only lasted 7 issues. New Gods v4 hung around until 1997, and a new title called Jack Kirby's Fourth World was published later that year. Both Orion and Big Barda (Mr. Miracle's wife) would become members of Grant Morrison's JLA in 1997 and Kirby's Fourth World mythos would stay relevant in the DCU for years to come.


card art by Rod Whigham
I don't think any DCU character has ever undergone such drastic character development changes as Green Arrow's former sidekick has. At this point in his superhero career, Roy Harper Jr had re-joined the Teen Titans and renamed himself to 'Arsenal'. When I first saw this trading card back in 1996, I'm positive I had no clue who this was and thought it was a new character DC was trying to sell to the masses. Didn't Speedy supposed to have red hair? This guy was blond. In an interview with Bill Walko from The Titans Companion [2005], Teen Titans editor Johnathan Peterson revealed that the name change from Speedy to Arsenal was a DC trademark thing, and was out of editorial's hands (as the order came from the top). The last issue (#130) of New Titans hit the stands sometime in late 1995/early 1996, and the team no longer looked like anything I remembered it being — Starfire, Changeling and Raven were still around, and Donna Troy was still on the team (as Darkstar), but that was about it. This would probably explain why this trading card set didn't have much Teen Titans representation. Arsenal had a one-shot special sometime in 1996, Tempest (aka Aqualad) had a four-issue mini-series in late 1996, and the Teen Titans were given a new ongoing series (with all-new members) by Dan Jurgens in late 1996.

card art by Joe St. Pierre
On the topic of DCU characters who had undergone drastic alterations... we've got 'Warrior' here, but you may remember him as 'Guy Gardner: Warrior'. Guy Gardner, who was probably one of DC's most memorable characters during the late 80s and early 90s, was given a makeover during 1995's Zero Hour to become 'more extreme'. No longer needing to resort to a power ring (green or yellow), his whole body could morph into any weapon as it had been revealed that Gardner possessed alien DNA or something like that. This was another character that had fallen off of my radar since his powers had become so ridiculous that he didn't interest me anymore.

card art by Ron Wagner
Neron here was the main antagonist in the Underworld Unleashed event that DC published sometime in late 1995. Since this trading card set was released in early 1996, it could be expected that Neron was still on DC readers' minds [especially readers who were late to the party and picking up their issues several months afterwards], so it only made sense to dedicate a trading card to him. Underworld Unleashed was an event I completely skipped out on, but had the general understanding that a lot of my favorite DC villains were either jacked up with enhanced powers or altered in such a way that they were no longer recognizable. I just didn't have the heart to read this one.

Flipping through the rest of the cards:
  • Man-Bat had a 3-issue series in early 1996. He got a card all to himself in the 'super-heroes' section.
  • Bane, who was still a hot property for DC comics following Knightfall, also gets his own card in the 'super-heroes' section. I think his big appearance during that era was in the 1995 Batman: Vengeance of Bane II one-shot.
  • Catwoman, who's ongoing series launched in 1993, was still holding strong and the series would run until 2001. Jim Balent penciled the first 77 issues of Catwoman v2, left the title and started penciling Tarot, Witch of the Black Rose for Broadsword Comics.
  • The Justice League spin-off titles (Justice League America, Justice League Task Force, Extreme Justice) had all wrapped up by mid-to-late 1996. The 4 issue Justice League: A Midsummer's Nightmare was published around this time to act as a prelude to Grant Morrison's new JLA ongoing series.
  • Jerry Ordway's The Power of Shazam, which began as an ongoing series in 1995, was going strong in 1996 and would continue publication until 1999. This was easily one of the more interesting DCU titles being publishing at the time — I'm sorry I didn't pick up more than the first few issues when it first started.
  • Batman was still a popular seller for DC comics in 1996, as evidenced by the slew of Batman-related titles published that year [i.e. Batman: Scar of the Bat, Batman, Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight, Batman: Shadow of the Bat, Detective Comics, Batman Chronicles, Batman: Black and White, Batman: GCPD, Batman: Death of Innocents, Batman: Gordon's Law, Batman: The Long Halloween, Batman: Blackgate, Batman Plus, etc.]. I'm sure this was the reason why about half the villains featured in this set were Batman villains.

I'm going to start on a positive note and tell you what I like about this set:
  • the colors on the card are bright and vibrant (as demonstrated in the scans above),
  • the artists are listed on the back of the card — which is always a nice touch,
  • the insert cards are easily attainable (2:3 packs),
  • the Holoburst chase cards are more or less 1 per box, and
  • in some cases, the embossing actually enhances the card art and makes it appear like the character is bursting right out of the card. It's kind of neat, actually. 

Here are some of the reasons I'm really not keen on this set:

1) There's an incredibly limited character selection. Of the 80 trading cards in the base set, only about 20 of them are villains. It wouldn't be so bad if the other 59 cards (I'm not including the checklist here) were unique super-heroes, but we get the same heroes repeated several times over. Characters that get repeated more than once include Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Hawkman, Aquaman, Flash, Green Lantern,... which makes sense, since these are DC's BIG properties, but it would've been nice to see some attention given to some of the other DCU characters being published at the time (i.e. Legion of Super-Heroes, L.E.G.I.O.N. Showcase 95/96, etc).

Just one of the four Superman cards featured in this set. Art by Norm Breyfogle.

2) The way this set was organized. The base set is divided into seven sub-categories: Attack: Full Force, Attack: Out of the Blue, Attack: Armed and Dangerous, Dirty Deeds, To The Rescue, Close Calls and FreeStyle. None of this makes any logical sense to me. The first three Attack sub-categories have all the unique super-heroes, and the last three sub-categories are various repeats of the first. After carefully examining the reverse of the trading cards, it would appear like we've 'hacked' into Oracle's private database and are reading about the characters in question.




As evidenced by the text on the reverse of these cards, the further you go into this collection as an 'unauthorized log-on', the less time you have before the file 'locks'. I can understand what they're trying to go for here, but all of this extra 'computer interface' aesthetic just doesn't work on the back of a 2.5" x 3.5" trading card. Because of all the extra real estate taken up to make it look like an 'authentic database interface', we're left with enough space for about 2 sentences to describe the character. My theory is that this set was probably planned several months in advance (mid-1995) and the editors weren't even sure what the future plans for these characters were going to be — hence they had to keep the card text pretty vague.

3) This was a terrible era in DC comics [for me, anyways]. Yes, this is pretty biased, but 1995's Zero Hour pretty much rang the death knell for my favorite era in DC comics. It wasn't Zero Hour itself that made me give up on DC comics — I actually thought Zero Hour was pretty good — it was more of the state of comic books at the time. The art and characters had all shifted to becoming 'more extreme'. The 'gimmick era' had burned me out. There were no new ideas floating around, and everything was just being recycled over and over again. That's how I felt at the time. I figured that Zero Hour would be a nice book-end if I was going to take a hiatus from comic book reading for a while. When I was picking up comics, it was either Morrison's The Invisibles (Vertigo), Neil Gaiman's Mr. Hero the Newmatic Man (Tekno Comix), The Maxx (Image) or whatever Grendel book Dark Horse was publishing at the moment.

4) It's pretty bad when the base set cards look better than the insert cards.

Spot the insert card from the rest of the base set cards:


If you picked Parallax (#2 in the line-up), then you are correct. The dead give-away was the moderately foil-stamped 'Maximum Firepower' logo on the card, you say? Funny, because that's really the only thing that really separates the insert cards from the rest of the base set cards. The 20 card insert set appears to be centered around the 1995 Parallax View story arc that ran in Green Lantern v3 #63 - 64, but skims over a few important details (such as what made this such a turning point in Hal Jordan's character development) and only goes so far as to describe each Justice Leaguer's contribution to the overall victory. This insert set didn't even do anything cool like join up to form one big puzzle or anything. There was really no reason to seek out these insert cards, as the base set cards arguably looked better. Admittedly, the Holoburst chase cards do look pretty cool, but that's mainly because I am a sucker for holograms.


5) That 'je ne sais quoi' that I just can't seem to put my finger on. By this point, I've re-written the paragraph you're currently reading about six times now. My first few versions had me blaming the card art for my dissatisfaction with this set — but that's not entirely fair. The art is actually good. Examine any individual card on it's own and you'd be quite satisfied with it. Most were illustrated by Chris RenaudJoe St. PierreNorm BreyfogleChris Batista and Rod Whigham, with accompanying inks by Scott HannaJohn NybergBarbara Kaalberg, or Chip Wallace (among others). I think the problem (for me) is that the art is very reminiscent of the Image Comics 'house art style' that DC and Marvel had started emulating [e.g. dynamic and extravagant art, lots of detail, gritte teeth and 'in your face' poses] in their books around this era. I realize that criticizing a trading card set containing nothing but dynamic, action-packed card art (in order to take advantage of it's embossed gimmick effect) is pretty hypocritical — yet here we are. Upon further reflection, I think my biggest slight with this set is that it reminds me of all the mid-90s comic book industry elements that made me want to quit comics for a while. To me, these cards are a salute to a long begone era that will (hopefully) never repeat itself again.

card art by Norm Breyfogle
I will be the first to admit that there are BETTER sets out there capturing this era of DC comics, and you'd probably be happier with the DC Legends Power Chrome set (from Skybox) that contains more characters and was released one year prior, or even the 1994 DC Master Series (also by Skybox) which is just beautiful to look at.

Why should you buy this? You were at a flea market, and you found a box of these cards for less then $5. Pick 'em up. You're a die-hard Superman fan and you want to purchase the four Superman cards in the base set? Go for it. As previously stated, these cards look pretty good on their own.

If you're a 'got to have it all' DC comics trading card collector (like me), or the DC Outburst: Firepower trading card set is just something you have fond memories of and want to own, you can pick up the entire 80 card base set for about $18 USD (as of this writing) on e-bay. The 20 card insert set will cost you another $15 USD, and the 2 Holoburst chase cards are about $10 USD a piece.


-Justin

If you're a fan of DC comics from the mid-90s, I'd strongly recommend checking out The Unspoken Decade — Dean Compton, Emily Scott and Jason Symbifan discuss and review ALL comics from the 1990s (this includes Marvel, DC, Image, Malibu, etc) and actually manage to spotlight the good ones. It's a great trip down memory lane for those of us who want to remember the "gimmick era". ;)

Some Unspoken Decade articles we recommend:



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