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Official Article

Batman Trading Cards of the 80's and 90's


Batman tradings cards are hard to come by these days in retail stores, which is a big change from 20 years ago when these cardboard rectangles were everywhere from pharmacies to grocery stores to comic book shops. As luck would have it, a local vending machine owner makes a living selling out of print sports, movie and comic cards at my neighborhood supermarket, which has allowed me to bring you today's feature from items in my personal collection.


The evolution of movie inspired trading cards has fascinated me since I started collecting them in the early 90's, one of the most prolific were those cards released for the Batman series of films. Through the cards produced for the initial 4 installments of the franchise, you can truly see how the market adapted to collector's mentality and ultimately burned itself out. So let's get started with the summer blockbuster that took the world by storm in 1989.


As I've covered in a previous article, the merchandising for Tim Burton's Batman was an event unto itself. Candy, cereal, sneakers and bike shorts, the bat-symbol was everywhere, including at check-out stands wrapped in wax packaging. There really is no sensation quite like opening a pack of cards, especially this style, which makes you feel like you're removing the wrapper of a delicious treat.


Produced by Topps, Batman Series 1 (there was a series 2, which I won't be covering here) consisted of cards with scenes from the movie, a bonus sticker to throw on your Trapper Keeper and a stick of gum to sweeten the deal. This combination was a standard offering for the time, whether it was Garbage Pail Kids or Wacky Packages, so it was really the subject of the cards that made them special. 


My preference was always for the design that contained a quote from the film, like this one here where Batman asks Vickie Vale the question that should not be. Otherwise you got a very bland description of the action like "Joker Takes A Hostage", which was redundant since you could clearly see the scene playing out in the picture and there was an additional description on the back. Also, each card was numbered to help you keep them organized.


The often ignored detail that always fascinated me as a kid was the backside label, that usually gave you the ability to get a card binder or tin to store your stash in. This offer was simply for an official movie magazine, if you could shake down your parents for $2.95 plus shipping and handling along with 2 empty card packages. I remember the newsprint and yellow color scheme of these cards cluttering junk drawers from 1989 and beyond in my home, so there's quite a bit of nostalgia for me here.


Batman Returns was a completely different experience than the first movie. Darker, more violent and filled with sexual innuendo that went way over kid's heads, parent's were up in arms when the story of the bat, the cat and the penguin hit theaters in 1992. It was truly a Tim Burton film, which was made apparent in the film itself and the trading cards. There was a basic card set similar to the series above, but Topps offered this "Super Premium" set as well.


Gone were the gum and stickers, but in their place you got 6 extra cards featuring a foil-stamped movie logo in the corners and printed on glossy card stock. The added value (and cost per pack) made sure these cards weren't going to end up in the spokes of any bicycle tires. Now the glint of light off of your cards could match the shine of Catwoman's leather outfit. 


Another change was that there were no "headlines" on the front to explain the obvious, which was a plus. Even the description on the back of the card talked more about Tim Burton's "visionary" approach to making the film, as opposed to a recap of the featured scene. The director's style really outshined the star in this film, as Batman took a backseat to "Burtonesque" supporting characters like The Penguin and his creepy Red Triangle Circus Gang.


Looking at the wrapper promotion (sadly now made from translucent plastic, instead of heart-warming wax paper), we find another offer for an official movie magazine. It's wild to think back to when the only way to get "spoilers" on a film was from publications like these or a special segment on Entertainment Tonight. Now this one I have personally owned since 1992, when my Batman fandom was at it's height and I wanted to take you on a quick tour.


First of all, the cover has a hologram. I guess that's to make up for the lack of such special items in the trading card series. Speaking of which, the inside cover contains an ad for both sets and tie-in candy containers. I actually had the candy medallion featured in the upper right-hand corner, which you would twist to release the candy pellets from within through a tiny opening. Questionable candy from awesome containers is a trend that seems to have been with us for generations and shows no signs of stopping.


Additionally there's an advertisement for the Tiger Electronics handheld game featuring a grotesque Danny DeVito, which was found on the back of every DC comic book that summer. Also present was an offer for a set of collector's coins inspired by the movie. Do you remember when commemorative coin collecting was a thing? It always struck me as odd that we were expected to pay money for currency that had no actual value. OK, let's turn the Batmobile around and get back on track here.


When Batman Forever came around in 1995, Warner Bros. captured my heart by finally bringing Robin into the Batman cinematic universe. But Jim Carrey as The Riddler was clearly the biggest name in the film, having just come off the hugely popular Ace Ventura: Pet Detective and The Mask during the previous summer. Mr. Carrey's rising star is made very clear with his prominent placement on the packaging.


This time around, Fleer managed to beat out Topps for the rights to produce the cards for this movie, several different series, in fact.  Fleer was mostly known for making baseball cards, but with the boom in comics card collecting  that hit in the 90's, it makes sense that they would get in on this game as well. Fleer's design choices took 2 steps forward and one step back when compared to the Topps offerings. 


This "Ultra" set stuck with the glossy look and foil-stamped logo, but brought back the goofy descriptions. "What A Rush"? What a joke! It was like having your grandpa looking over your shoulder while you went through your cards, making obvious commentary and doing old-timey comedy routines. I will say that I do like the stylized card backs though. Much more dynamic than the previous designs.


Fleer did up the ante by guaranteeing 1 hologram per pack, which was like 3-Dimensional, silvery crack to the pre-teen collector. It used to be that you would use up your allowance buying enough packs to get a randomly inserted hologram and the hunt was as exciting as finding one. Sometimes you would even sell them back to the card shop you bought them from, only to see it be placed in a glass display case and re-sold for an inflated price. But this, "1 Hologram Inside" nonsense just cheapened the whole experience.


The wrapper offer from Fleer was also a little different from the Topps movie magazine gimmick. Now you had to send in 5 empty card packages and $5.95 to get an actual piece of the film negative. Can you imagine getting ripped-off with a frame of Nicole Kidman as Dr. Chase Meridian or that hearing impaired security guard from the bank heist opening? I got a promotional film frame for the disastrous 1998 Godzilla movie at an opening night screening and let me tell you, a translucent photo of a car on a city street is hardly a collector's item.


Bringing this article to a close, we get to a film that literally killed a franchise, Batman & Robin from 1997. The cards were just as overblown as the movie and as obviously positioned to sell toys. They weren't even trying to hide it, there's an ad for a $3 off coupon prominently displayed on the shiny, foil wrapper. It wasn't a "send in so many wrapper packages for an exclusive mail away figure" offer either, you actually got a coupon for a playset discount inserted with your cards!


Jumping ship again, Skybox were the masterminds behind this "widescreen" collecting experience, which actually discouraged collecting at all due to the size of the things. You see, the plastic card collecting sheets were only made for standard card dimensions to fit 9 on a page, if you tried to stick these in your binder they'd only fit in halfway and be sticking out the top.


The cards themselves were jam-packed with story and trivia, but could just have easily read "Buy more toys". Variations in the set included, "Soundbite" cards with a quote and storyboard cards showing original sketches for scene ideas by the director Joel Schumacher (please, hold your applause). Instead of making you send away for a film strip cell, they stuck them in as "chase cards" along with autographs from the stars. Apparently by this point, Holograms had lost their luster. I wonder what a Chris O'Donnell autograph goes for these days?


I hope you've enjoyed this look at the card collecting frenzy of the 90's through the lens of the Batman films. As a kid I never realized how ridiculous and gimmicky cards got, but it sure explains why I stopped collecting. Adding on all these fancy upgrades also ups the price tag and there's only so much card-buying money to be earned from raking leaves.

So tell me, which of these cards did you collect? Was there a particular favorite you kept in a plastic protective case? Leave your comments below.

Got more to say? Shout at me on Twitter @hojukoolander, why dontcha?
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Vaporman87 Posted on Jul 13, 2015 at 04:51 PM

Yeah, basically the whole card collecting/manufacturing craze imploded around the time the final movie in the franchise came around, and that is pretty evident here.

I actually prefer the simple, plain style of the original series of cards. Reminds me of my days collecting Topps baseball cards. Once Fleer, Donruss, and Skybox got big in the game, things got way too complicated, flashy, and collector oriented. It wasn't about kids picking up cards and enjoying them, it was more about adults who wanted them simply for the value in a Beckett. That bubble burst around the same time that comic book values plummeted.

Great retrospective on the Batman series and cards in general Hoju!

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