Nostalgia is a tricky wicket, and when you mix the obsession of collecting into the mix it can become a very weird and dark road to follow. By nature I am a collector. I love diving head-first into whatever obsession grips me at the time, and I adore so many of the aspects of being a collector. The thrill of the hunt. The endless hours doing research. The electric feeling in the pit of my stomach when a holy grail item is within reach, and even the agony when these items slip through my fingers. Even if the actual collections shift and change over time, it’s the cycle and these beats that help to keep me going (or at least help to keep me from going mad.)
But like I mentioned, when you throw nostalgia into the mix, it gets weird for me. See, I’m kind of a purist when it comes to nostalgia. The things that I want to collect are very specific. Very specific action figures, vehicles, books, comics, stickers and whatever from the 80s. By my specificity goes deeper than just the individual items. What my heart really wants is all of the toys, the exact ones, I had growing up at a kid. And herein lies the rub of true nostalgia. I can not have these back. They are gone. Landfill material or living in someone else’s collection that I have no way of ever tracking down. And in my heart I’m not interested in having something from someone else’s collection, someone else’s childhood in my collection. So a long time ago I made a vow to myself that if I did start buying up vintage toys and the like I would only pick up mint, in-package items that have no emotional attachment to a childhood that was not my own. Weird? Sure. But it feels right. Of course, this makes collecting nostalgic items very difficult and very expensive. Vintage in-package toys are rare enough as it is these days, but finding them at decent prices is almost unheard of.
I’m getting a bit off track here, so let me reel this back in. Ultimately, the idea I want to chip away at here is that there is an underlying sadness to nostalgia, this idea that what we want, we truly can’t have. That’s the point. It’s 99% of why we want it in the first place. But sometimes, in some weird instances there’s almost a loophole to this idea. What if we never originally had what we really want?
In the late 80s I traded most of my toy-centric obsessions for the world of comic books and super hero junk. After picking up some random issues of The Uncanny X-Men and Wolverine I became a Marvel comics nut, and then a general comic book nerd. This phase of my life lasted from around 1988 until around 2000, taking me form age 11 to age 23. At the time it seemed like one of the most significant aspects of my life. Not only did I spend over half of that life (at the time) deeply in love with the medium, but it led me to developing an interest in illustration. It was the key that unlocked some of my best friendships as a kid and young adult. It was a big deal to me. Right in the midst of the most important aspects of this obsession I was introduced to an offshoot of comic book collecting in the form of the Marvel Universe trading cards which were released like an atomic bomb on the comic community by Impel in 1990. That first series of cards ushered in an era of comics collecting that impacted the industry heavily. Of course these weren’t the first to start the trend. I’d lay that honor at the feet of the two 1989 Topps Batman the Movie card sets, but the Marvel Universe cards upped the ante with a much larger set and the idea of rare chase cards in the form of holograms.
To say that I was huge into collecting these at the time would be a massive understatement. But like almost all of my trading card collecting at the time, I weirdly never had the honor of buying a bunch of packs on my own and opening them up. My parents were very weird about stuff like this. In fact, I almost never received any toys and cards that were still in the package. They were always opened up on Christmas morning or on birthdays, and in a very off fashion, my mother always opened all of the trading cards she bought me and would just hand over a stack of them when she got home from shopping or after she stopped to get gas. I was weaned off of asking for stuff while I was out shopping with my folks at an early age, so this was just the way it was. And even when I did collect card sets like this, I almost never found myself in the situation where I was allowed to have a complete box worth of packs to add to the collection and organize at once.
This was something that I desperately wanted to do too. I would literally have dreams about stumbling upon a full box of Marvel cards, sitting under a tree and opening them all slowly and sifting through the cards to seek out the rare holograms. As is stands, I ended up completing a base set of the cards after a year or so of trading with friends and picking up single cards from the comic shop I frequented at the time. But I never had any of the 1st series holograms. Well, recently, after listening to the great Wizards the Podcast Guide to Comics (hosted by Adam Pope and Michael Cannetti) where they dig into lot of 90s era comic collecting through the lens of Wizard magazine, they been talking a lot about the old Marvel Universe cards. It’s had me fondly remembering my collecting days and on a whim I decided to hit up eBay and see what a sealed box of the 1st series cards was going for these days.
As I was scrolling through the various auctions one caught my eye that was pretty reasonably priced and it occurred to me that I could now, as an adult 30 years later, do something that I ad always dreamed of but never did. I could buy a brand new full box of cards and open them all in one go. Not only would I be adhering to my self-imposed rule of buying mint in box collectibles, but in a weird way I would be side-stepping the sadness of nostalgia by having a very nostalgic thing happen, even if I never did it to begin with. So I smashed the “Buy It Now” button and like Michael Cera in the Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World movie, I immediately took a seat at the front door to wait for the package to be delivered.
It’s been awhile since I was completely ecstatic to come home on a Friday to find a package on the stoop, but when I saw the USPS Priority mailer leaning up against my front door I knew that inside was a nostalgia bomb just waiting to explode. So I made sure the wife and kid were fed and entertained as I excused myself into the dining room for some alone time with my purchase. 1990 was my peak in terms of collecting Marvel comics. My family had just just moved for the third time in a single year with my father dragging us from Orlando Florida to Lowell Massachusetts, then Lowell to Nashua New Hampshire, and finally from Nashua down to Lawrenceville Georgia. My sister was old enough that she had stayed back in Florida, so I was for all intents and purposes an official member of the “Only Child Club”. To combat this, I made it known to my folks that it was imperative that we locate the closest comic book shop in each town so that I’d have plenty of books to keep me busy while I avoided making any friends or attachments. By this time I was seriously steeped in the soap opera of the X-Men and some of my favorite stories were starting to unfold in those books (the splintering of the team had occurred with most of the characters having stepped through the Seige Perilous and the build up to the X-tinction Agenda was well under way.)
For the first time in a year I finally let some other kids through the metaphorical concrete wall I’d built around myself when I saw them reading comics on the bus. We’d been trading our doubles and I was telling them all about the X-Men while they were giving me an education on Spider-Man and the Mirage era Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. So when one fateful weekend a couple of us were in Dark Adventures (the local comic store that would become my haunt for the next decade) and we spotted a freshly opened box of Marvel Universe cards we about lost our little minds. I immediately ran out to the car where my father was patiently waiting and reading one of his James Michener books (probably Chesapeake as he read and re-read that one all the time), and I begged him for an extra $5 loan on my allowance so that I could snag some of these cards. He never had a problem telling me no, and that was certainly the case on this fine Saturday afternoon. So I grabbed the latest issues of Wolverine and the Uncanny X-Men (I had my priorities), and went home dejected as my pal was busy opening up and leafing through the 10 or so packs he bought.
Eventually word trickled down to my mother that there were these cards that I had to have or I’d probably die, and by the start of the next weekend there was a stack of opened Marvel cards waiting for me when I got off the bus that Friday afternoon. Though there were no holograms and I didn’t have the pleasure of opening them, I was still in heaven and couldn’t wait to run over to my friend’s house to see what doubles we could trade each other as we both started to build our own sets of the cards. This started a love affair with these cards and the subsequent two sequel sets (and a set of the 1992 Jim Lee X-Men cards also from Impel), that was a hefty portion of the glue that kept me interested in comics at a time when my father lost his job and money for new comics every weekend was a thing of the past. My mom, bless her heart, always made sure to keep me in at least a few packs of cards every few weeks.
So here I am, 30 years later staring at a full pristine box of Marvel Universe series 1 cards and it literally felt like I’d stepped into a time machine where I’d just stolen a full box from Dark Adventures and made my way home to unwrap (for the first time) my bounty of trading cards. And this past Friday night I did just that. Systematically of course, because I’m sort of a dork and after all of these years my adult brain had a lot of questions about how these things were packaged and distributed. Back in the day the hologram chase cards seemed to be near impossible to find. In fact, even my friends who were buying these a third of a box at a time were very rarely being rewarded with one of the chromatic rainbow beauties. I think up until the early 2000s (and the age of the internet) I’d only ever seen a handful of the holograms from the first two series of cards. So I was really curious to figure out what the inner box distribution was like in terms of how many and where they were placed in the boxes.
The first thing I noticed was that the wrappers on the cards featuring Captain America, Spider-man and Wolverine were equally distributed in layers in the box. Each stack (of the four in the box) had the same layers, with a Spider-man pack on top, a Cap pack next and then a Wolverine. Rinse and repeat three times per stack. So to keep track of my opening, I decided to start with the entire top left stack and open them in order, one at a time. I came across my first hologram on the fourth pack into the stack (in a Spider-man wrapper.) As I opened the packs I also neatly sorted them into piles, each corresponding to the tens place where they fell in the order of the set (cards 1 through 162.) I then proceeded on to the second stack. In this stack I didn’t find another hologram, but after opening the 12th pack of the box I decided to take a break to put all the cards I’d opened into their numerical order to see how much of the set I’d managed to put together so far. To my amazement, as I was sifting through them all and putting them in order I didn’t find a single duplicate card. In fact three quarters of the set were intact and it dawned on my that these cards were probably cut up and stuck in wrappers in a very specific order so that for instance all the packs containing Spider-man also contained a Cosmic Spider-man and the main orange suit Wolverine card, etc. I found this weird at first because each pack contains 12 cards, yet with 162 in the set, the math doesn’t compute. It’s not like these divide out that evenly, there had to be packs with other mixes. But how could I have pulled 12 packs without finding a single duplicate card?
By the time I finished opening the last six packs of the top two stacks I had completed a full set of the cards with a very small set of dups that I set off to the side. This left me with an interesting quandary as a collector. Now that I have a full set of the cards, which for all intents and purposes was one of the main goals of this exercise, do I continue opening these packs or do I save some of them unopened to be a part of the collection. As a collector it’s nice to have a wide range of things in the collection. A full set of cards to stick in acid-free pages in a binder is a great start. And of course I carefully opened three of the different packs to keep the wrappers, but having a set of those three unopened as well would be pretty cool. I even had the nice mint display box as well. But then the greed seeps in. Remember, I only pulled a single hologram from those first 18 packs. There are five possible holograms to snag in these boxes, so should I keep opening the packs to see just how many I can pull from this box? But what if that means opening all of the packs, and what if I still don’t have all five? Were the packs just opened in vain at that point as I already have a full set of the cards? I remembered a rumor back in the day that the wrappers on these packs were so thin that you could see through them to tell if there was a hologram in the pack before you opened it. Maybe I’m going blind in my old age, or maybe the lighting in my dining room needs to be upgraded, because try as I might I just could not tell. Not only that, the holograms were typically always placed on top of the pack and those cards themselves have a discernible ridge between the hologram and the white border that you can feel by lightly running a fingernail over it. Again, try as I might, I could not find any holograms with this method.
What is a nerd to do. The best part of this situation for me, and it truly felt very fulfilling as an exercise in nostalgia, was that I could so easily put myself in the mindset of a 13 year-old boy again. A 13 year-old boy who was not thinking at all about the future, about nostalgia, or the potential for regrets. A 13 year-old boy is nothing if not a ball of greed wanting everything in their path. So after I closed my eyes and let the inner teenager take the wheel there really was no choice. I was going to keep opening these packs until I exhausted my opportunity for uncovering some more damn holograms. It’s all about that rainbow shine my friends.
At this point the idea of pack distribution and placement of potential holograms went completely out the window and I started furiously opening the last 18 packs. I have no idea what wrappers were on the final three packs that did contain holograms, or in what stack or where in each stack, but I did mange to pull four holograms from this box of Marvel Universe Cards. Sadly I did not find a Wolverine hologram (arguably my favorite Marvel character), but I did find the other four (Cosmic Spider-Man, Magneto, the Silver Surfer, and the Spider-man Vs. the Green Goblin cards), and when all of the dust cleared and the final thin plastic wrapper slowly wafted to the floor I found that out of a box of 36 packs, with a total of 432 cards (and 4 holograms), that I was still only able to construct one full set. As I started organizing a second set I found that in the end I was short four cards. And at this point my adult self took over in the driver’s seat of my brain again and it occurred to me that this pointed to the fact that maybe there is a rarity to some of these cards. While the majority of the set had at least two cards available in the box, there were at least four rare cards (Daredevil, Professor X, Quasar, and the New Mutants team card.) There were also some cards that were obviously more common as I ended up pulling five of both the Loki and standard Wolverine cards out of the box.
It makes me wonder how well this stacks up from box to box. My curiosity isn’t going to send me back to eBay to pick up a second box for sure, but I wonder, is there anyone out there splurged on a full box and ended up paying this kind of attention to the card distributions when you opened them? Did you find any cards that were rare? Did you manage to put two full sets together or were you even denied a single set? These questions probably won’t keep me up at night, but this experience was extremely cathartic. As a collector there’s now an itch that really needs to be scratched in that I have to figure out how to find that last card I need, the Wolverine hologram, without just buying it on eBay. I guess this is yet another time when I have to just let the hunt survive and be happy knowing that the collection is still ongoing.
That being said, I’ve already ordered a sealed box of Marvel Universe cards series II, because I kind of need at least one more magical night of opening up trading cards and completing sets that I never managed to as a kid.