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Friday, July 23, 2021

DC Vertigo: The Sandman trading card set from SkyBox (1994)

With daily updates of a Sandman series coming to Netflix, it seems very appropriate to write an article about The Sandman trading card set Skybox released in 1994 -- back when just about EVERYTHING comic-related was getting it's own trading card set. The Sandman was first published by DC comics in January 1989... so there's your 'DC in the 80s' connection.


Comic book ad for Skybox's The Sandman Trading Cards. 1994

I don't know why DC/Vertigo/Skybox decided to release a trading card set based on Neil Gaiman's The Sandman comic book series, considering they were most likely targeting a different audience with these cards. I DO know that The Sandman was already much revered at this point and it was nigh impossible to find early issues of this series for cheap. I was late to the party and only found out about the series after it was too expensive to buy the early issues. Who was reading The Sandman? Not your average comic book fan. Actually, I'm pretty sure that collectors who read Superman, Batman, Spider-Man and X-Men on the regular stayed miles away from the series. I like to imagine the typical Sandman reader being a college-aged goth, dressed head-to-toe in black, with a big collection of Anne Rice books and Siouxsie Sioux LPs. In actuality, I think it was just anyone who liked engrossing, well-written and beautifully illustrated stories.

Originally slated for a December 1993 release but pushed back to February 1994, Skybox did something a little different with this trading card set -- these cards were released as a premium, oversized card set (each card measuring 2.5" x 4.5") -- which meant that you had to buy special, irregular-sized cardholders and plastic sheets to properly protect them. Argh, what a pain. This format of oversized cards would come to by known as widevision. What was the reason for the 3 month delay? According to Wizard Magazine, Neil Gaiman autographed 2,000 cards that were randomly inserted into packs. [A later issue of Wizard then corrected that statement and explained that Skybox delayed the set because they didn't want to release it into an already overcrowded non-sports card market. Wizard also revealed that Gaiman had only signed 500 cards, and that they would be given away free to retailers who order a case of Sandman cards via Diamond Comics Distributors.] 

In all honesty, this is a trading card set I glazed over the first time it came around. I felt it was something that would only appeal to people who were already familiar with the comic book series. In 1994 I was still very invested in the comic speculator bubble, and probably spending my money on Valiant and Image comics. If I was buying trading cards, it was most likely X-Men or Batman or whatever the 'hot' thing at the moment was.

I can't confirm if this was the FIRST widevision trading card set Skybox produced. During this same year, Skybox released a few widevision trading card sets (i.e., Star Trek: Generations, The Lion King, Superman: Man of Steel Platinum series), and then Topps appeared to have followed suit by releasing Star Wars widevision trading cards. I'm going by memory here, and I might be wrong -- if anyone who worked at Topps during that era wants to correct me in the comments section, I'd welcome it.

A sealed pack of The Sandman Trading Cards looked like this. They contained six cards per pack and retailed between $1.75 to $2.25 USD. 
Photo source: ebay.

This base set consisted of 90 UV-coated oversized cards, and the inserts were 7 gold foil cards and 1 very very rare 3-D stereo hologram card. You could also purchase a binder that included a promo card:

The Sandman Trading Cards binder. Photo source: ebay

Promo card

The 90 card base set is divided into two subsets. The first subset contains 50 cards showcasing cover art from the first 50 issues of The Sandman. Dave McKean's art played a very important part in defining the look of The Sandman -- his covers for this series were often surreal and abstract (usually collages comprised of photographs, paint and ink) with subjects that were out-of-focus and sinister-looking. Upon first glance, his covers made you realize that this won't be a superhero story with muscle-bound characters fighting to save the world, this will be something artistic (and possibly haunting) that will probably involve a lot of reading. I love this subset. This might be the closest we'll ever get to a Dave McKean trading card set.

A few McKean cards:

...and the reverse of the first 50 cards had a summary of the issue:

The second subset consists of 39 characters that appear in the series. Each card was illustrated by the original artist -- so that's 39 cards of original art. Mike Kaluta, Matt Wagner, Colleen Doran, Kevin Nolan, Jill Thompson, Malcolm Jones III, Mike Allred, Denys Cowan, Craig Hamilton, John Totleben, Michael Zulli and a few more I'm forgetting to name -- but pretty much everyone who worked on the first 50 issues of The Sandman have a hand in this. For some reason, Sergio Aragones (Groo, MAD magazine) even illustrated a card:

As far as character selection goes, they pretty much cover all the important players from Master of Dreams, Dream Country, A Season of Mists, A Game of You, Distant Mirrors, Convergences and Brief Lives. This set was released just as The Kindly Ones story arc was kicking off, but I was pleasantly surprised to see they were included as 'the Three Witches'. They even managed to slip in a few mainstream DCU characters that appeared in some of the major storylines:

The back of these cards contained a brief explanation of the character and the role they played in the series (probably written by Neil himself). I love that the artists are listed on the reverse of the card. Too many times have I played the 'guess who illustrated this trading card' game only to end up with no clue if I'm right or not. This is my biggest issue with this set: a small black typeface on a pink and grey camo background. I don't think it bothered me so much twenty years ago, but now I have to either strain, or hold the card really close to my face to read it:

One would presume that the most important/memorable characters from The Sandman would be included in the base set. You'd be wrong -- they were the chase cards. The chase set consisted of all seven members (including Morpheus) of the Endless. These cards are beautiful and were distributed at a ratio of 1 in every 18 packs. Each card was original art with gold foil borders. Artists included Dave McKean, Kent Williams, Jill Thompson and Bill Sienkewicz.

Which leads us to the 3-D Stereo Hologram card, found in 1 of every 180 packs. I'm a sucker for 3-D and hologram cards, and I've never seen this in person. Thanks to a kind soul on e-bay for posting this pic so I could see what I was missing:

Yup. It's Morpheus, but this image does do this hologram card justice. If you ever get the chance to see one of these in real life, take the chance. So worth it.

To raise awareness about the release of this trading card set, various promo cards were inserted into issues of Cards Illustrated magazine. Three promo cards were included in a pack, and three different packs were released (so, that's 9 promo cards in total). All of the promos re-used card art from the base set, but the reverse of the cards sang the praises of this new set rather than give issue/character summaries.  

I seem to recall two 'misprint' error cards die-hard collectors were searching for to complete their collections. The back of the card looked as it should, but the front of the card had another character card's reverse text printed on the front. Once upon a time, these cards were worth quite a bit. Now? I doubt it.

How did this card set do? According to Wizard Magazine (Wizard #35, August 1994) it sold extremely well. Retailers underestimated how well this set would do an underordered, driving the demand and rarity up. 


To summarize: The Sandman is a fantastic series that I tend to dig out of storage every few years and read from beginning to end. These cards bring back a lot of great memories and I really dig looking at those Dave McKean covers. As previously stated, the small font with colors that blend into the background on the character cards is a bit of a turn-off -- but it's something I can live with since I spend most of my time admiring the card art on the front anyways.