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Friday, February 17, 2023

1994's Batman: Saga of the Dark Knight trading cards (SKYBOX)

In today's article, we'll be looking back at Skybox's first Batman trading card set -- Batman: Saga of the Dark Knight. Released in April 1994, this 100-card trading card set focused on all the major milestones in Batman's post-Crisis comic career: everything from Batman: Year One all the way up to KnightQuest.      

magazine ad for Batman: Saga of the Dark Knight trading cards

In 1994 non-sports trading cards had become BIG business. Don't believe me? Just check old issues of Wizard Magazine and Hero Illustrated from that era -- lots and lots of ad space devoted to new trading card sets being released. Nearly every comic book company (and then some) had a trading card set being hawked to the masses. Thanks to the success of the Tim Burton Batman films, the Batman animated series on FOX, and Batman getting his back broken by Bane, interest in Batman was at all-time high. The real question was why it took Skybox so long to launch a trading card set completely devoted to Batman? Well, it was because it took THIS long for Skybox to acquire the Batman license from Topps.

This trading card set took me a LOOOONG time to complete as I rarely saw packs being sold at comic shops. According to Wizard Magazine, 13,333 cases were produced (SkyBox upped production from 12,500 at the last minute) and were all snapped up quickly by retailers. They were easy to spot with their gold foil wrapping, but very scarce to find in the wild (at the time):  

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History of Batman

As seen in the ad above, the Batman: Saga of the Dark Knight trading card set boasted highlights from Year One to KnightQuest. Did it deliver on it's promise? Yes, it did. Was it thorough? No, it wasn't. 

In 1994, KnightQuest was just concluding and leading into KnightsEnd -- the final chapter of the KnightSaga. Actually, at the time, everything Batman-related was centered around the KnightSaga and whether Bruce Wayne would reclaim the Batman mantle or if AzBats was here to stay (I was personally hoping for the latter). To this effect, this card set mainly was divided into sub-sets that focused on storylines relevant to KnightSaga cannon. So, no mention of Dark Knight Returns, Batman: Year Two, Ten Nights of the Beast, or any cross-over Batman had with the rest of the DCU, but plenty of attention on A Death in the Family, A Lonely Place of Dying, Batman: Year Three, and...of course...anything related to Azrael or Bane. The Knightfall and KnightQuest story arcs received the most attention in the set. Card #99 ended on a cliffhanger, openly questioning if Batman would confront AzBats to take back the title of Batman. At the time this card set was released, it was looking like Jean-Paul Valley as Batman was going to be the new normal. KnightsEnd only started in mid-1994, just as this trading card set hit the shelves, so no mention of that chapter.

I adored this set. I really felt that they delivered on their promise of covering everything important leading up to what was going on in the Batman mythos at the time. The cards had very apt, well-written summaries on the back and some even showed the covers of important comic books (so you can spot them on sight in back issue bins). Even more importantly, the artists who illustrated the front-facing card art were listed on the back, which took the guesswork out of trying to figure out who drew what -- this goes a long way when writing one of these reviews [ha!]. The quality of the card stock was thick and UV coated, so you knew you weren't getting the cheap cards here.

back of card #31

Original art

So, what kind of original art was being featured in this set? If it was anything like Dave Dorman's painted Batman (as seen in the ad), we were in for a real treat. Probably even surpassing the Marvel Masterpieces trading card set, which had raised the bar on how impressive a non-sports trading card could look. Well, while it wasn't an all-Dorman set, we did get some really impressive artistic teams on these cards.  

Mike Mignola, who had drawn the fan-favorite Gotham By Gaslight 1989 one-shot, contributed three cards to the 'Nemesis' sub-set. Not all of the villains appearing in this sub-set appeared in the KnightSaga. Here was his Ra's Al Ghul:

Jim AparoDick Giordano and P. Pigott collaborated on all of the cards in the A Death in the Family sub-section, which was was fitting since Aparo was the original penciller for the story arc that ran from Batman #426 to #429 (1988). Knightfall often referenced Batman's relationship with Jason Todd, so this storyline was pivotal to understanding why Batman was acting so crazy/protective of Tim Drake in the events leading up Knightfall.


Matt Wagner, who illustrated 1992's Faces story arc in Legends of the Dark Knight as well as a few Detective Comics covers, also provided painted art for a few Bat-villain cards. Here's his Mud Pack:

Rick Burchett, probably best known for inking 1992's Batman Adventures ongoing series (based on Batman The Animated Series), pencilled and inked the first eighteen cards dealing with Batman's early origins (Batman: Year One, Shaman, The Killing Joke, The Cult and Batman: Venom):

Tom Grummet, who was drawing the new Robin ongoing series that debuted in 1993, contributed card art for all nine cards in the 'Dynamic Duo' sub-set. This sub-set was all about Batman's history with his former sidekicks:

Brian Stelfreeze, who was producing some of the most stunning Shadow of the Bat painted covers at the time, graced this set with a few bat-villain cards:

I don't think John Bolton had done any work on Batman prior to 1995's Batman: Man-Bat, but I'm glad he contributed art to a few cards in this set: 

Jim Balent (penciller) and Scott Hanna (inker) provided art for all nine 'KnightQuest' cards. Balent was the primary penciller for 1993's Catwoman ongoing series and Hanna had a long stint inking over Graham Nolan's pencils in Detective Comics in 1992. KnightQuest immediately followed KnightFall and was divided into two storylines: one about Jean-Paul Valley's trials and tribulations taking over the role of Batman, and Bruce Wayne's (somewhat dull) search for Robin's missing father. Thankfully, the few KnightQuest cards in this set focused on the former rather than the latter because they knew what the fans wanted. 

Appropriately enough, Hanna also provided the inks for all of Nolan's pencils in the 18-card 'KnightFall' sub-set. Knightfall consisted of 19 chapters (and that's not including the prelude issues setting the event up), and this sub-set managed to capture all of the relevant story points. Nicely done:

Phil Jimenez, who was best known as the New Titans penciller at the time, pencilled all the cards from the 'A Lonely Place of Dying' sub-set (presumably because George Perez was unavailable). These cards were inked by Peter Gross (who was mainly an inker for Dr. Fate): 

..and yes, there were a few Dave Dorman cards in the set. One of which was his impressive painted rendition of Nightwing:

Other prolific DC artists who contributed original art to this set included Barry Kitson (Azrael ongoing series), Kyle Baker (inker for The Shadow), and Eduardo Barreto (inker for Vengeance of Bane one-shot). The different artistic styles from the wide array of contributors made for a great effect and kept the card set visually interesting. Everyone here was at the top of their game (and probably paid quite handsomely by Skybox, too). 

Insert Cards

The chase cards in this set consisted of 5 spectra-etch 'painted portrait' cards (1 in 18 packs), and the highly-coveted Batman SkyDisc hologram card that only appeared once in every 240 packs.

The spectra-etch chase cards were named, aptly enough, the 'Portraits of the Batman' sub-set. Original art for these cards were provided by John Bolton, Dave Dorman, Phil Winslade, Brian Stelfreeze and Mark Chiarello (Batman/Houdini: The Devil's Workshop). These cards had a reflective sheen on them not unlike the foil-covered "collector's edition" comic books of the time. While the entire five card sub-set was nice enough, the only card I really coveted was the Jean-Paul Valley as Batman card illustrated by Brain Stelfreeze, which I managed to eventually obtain in a trade that weighed heavily in favor of the person I was trading with. Ah well, I still own it today and occasionally take a few moments to admire it:

The Batman SkyDisc hologram card was something I had never actually seen in person, but always wanted to own since I love holograms. Apparently, if you lay the card down flat on a surface and shone a light on it, Batman appeared to rise from the card. By walking around the card you see a complete 360-degree figure. This was next level Star Trek stuff. It was explained that this effect was achieved by filming a Batman statue from every possible angle. 

Re-sellers sold these cards starting at $75 USD and upwards, which was quite out of range for my thirteen year-old self. Several years ago I had the chance to purchase this card for a decent price, but balked out at the last minute after I realized how much tracked shipping would cost me. Maybe someday.

Promo Cards

Since it was SkyBox's first Batman set EVER, one would assume that they'd be aggressively trying to market this -- and you'd be right. Various promo cards/products were distributed through various magazines and events.

Comics Buyer's Guide promo card:


As we went through the base set you might've realized something was noticeably absent: no trading cards featuring Kelley Jones original art. Jones, who had illustrated almost ALL of the Knightfall covers, seemed like a pretty obvious choice for original card art in this set. Sadly, this one lone promo card offered via Comic Buyer's Guide magazine was all that we got. As of this writing, I'm not sure if it was a mail-in or simply included in the magazine, but I'm assuming it was the latter. 

Dealers exclusive promo card:

This was just a re-hash of card #1, but with the card set's logo and byline on the front. Oh yeah, and it was sent to dealers. Like the aforementioned promo card above, the back of the card just listed all of the cool features about this new trading card set and made a passing mention about the first-ever Spectra-Etch display boxes that will be individually numbered.  

Georgia Dome promo card:

This was a Superbowl XXVIII giveaway at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta on January 30, 1994. These promo cards were limited to a print run of 50,000. No clue who the artist was.

Camden Yards promo card:

This was a promo card given away at Camden Yards in Baltimore, presumably during a Baltimore Orioles baseball game. Similar to the aforementioned promo card distributed at the Superbowl, I don't know why SkyBox decided to giveaway Batman promo cards at a baseball game. SkyBox was well-known for their sports cards, so this may have been an attempt at a cross-promotion? If I were to draw a Venn diagram, how many professional baseball fans were also Batman fans? Or sports card collectors also non-sports cards collectors, for that matter? Also limited to a print run of 50,000, I have no clue who the artist on this card is.


Oversized SkyDisc in CD case:

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This was a curious promo item, and they were limited to 10,000. It was the SkyDisc Batman hologram (the same from the ultra rare chase card), but it was the extra-large version and came in a CD case [remember those?]. I don't know who got them or how. Either way, color me impressed. I would've loved one of these.

In addition, there was a binder available for this trading card set, but I don't know if it was a mail-away exclusive or if it included any special promo items:

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I loved this trading card set. It was perfect and couldn't have been released at a better time. A few months after this set was released, comic readers would start getting burned out by the (seemingly) never-ending KnightSaga and then DC would launch it's big Zero Hour reboot event providing DC fans with something new to have a vested interest in. However, for about a year and some change, the fate of Batman's legacy was the main event and held our attention rapturously. Jean-Paul Valley as Batman was a new, violent Batman who took no prisoners and didn't care about collateral damage or killing villains. It was a total paradigm shift from Bruce Wayne's "save the innocent bystanders first, and never kill unless you have to" values. In a way, Jean-Paul Valley's attitude was reflective of the world around him: dealing with violent crime with the intent of eliminating the original cause rather than trying to rehabilitate it. Bane was also a different time of villain: he was ultra-strong and smart (typically Bat-villains were either strong and dumb or smart and weak), which was also reflective of the new types of villains the world was dealing with in the 90s. Great memories flipping through these cards -- makes me want to re-read my Knightfall omnibus.

To me, the main selling point was being able to catch up on my Batman lore -- the internet didn't really exist back then and my Batman comic book collection was sporadic with lots of missing story arcs. Rumor has it that SkyBox was planning on releasing ANOTHER Batman trading card set, The Archive Collection Series, but the company couldn't secure the rights to various Batman licenses in time for a September 1994 release. Apparently, it was going to be released in two 160-card sets and would've covered every single thing you probably would've liked to have known about Batman (this included the movies, the cartoons, toys, gadgets and comic books). Alas, it was not meant to be. SkyBox did, however, release a fully-painted Batman: Master Series trading card set in 1996, which I hope to review in a future article.


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