The saga of Marvel’s highly debatable power-level cards. A boom, a bubble, and ’90s kid nonsense
One eternal question spans all of pop culture: "Who would win?” That's why we're dedicating an entire week to debates that have shaped comics, movies, TV, and games, for better and worse. Prepare yourself for Polygon’s Who Would Win Week..
In the early 1990s, Marvel Comics released a series of popular trading card sets called “Marvel Universe” that changed fan debates forever by using power rankings to assign relative ability levels to different characters. The rankings gave enthusiasts concrete numbers to point to when arguing over character attributes and helped fuel the crossover comic trading card business.
Marvel’s foray into trading cards paralleled the company’s boom and bust fortunes of the ’90s. Without the stats and ratings on the back, the cards likely wouldn’t have been as successful, even with the rabid comic fans at the time. And history suggests the success of the cards changed the course of Marvel’s history.
THE MYSTICAL ART OF ALTERNATE REVENUE SOURCES
The comic book industry was booming in 1990, and nowhere was that boom felt more than at Marvel Headquarters. The company was riding what was, at the time, an unprecedented high. A speculator’s market in comic books was behind it all; lower print runs of popular stories in years prior made scarcity mean value. The advent of the trade paperback as a universal part of the comic reading experience was still a ways off, leading collectors to snap up first issues and special editions of various comics. Marvel dominated, grabbing around two-thirds of the market.
With sales up across the company and new titles and traditional top line characters both doing brisk business, Marvel looked for other ways to make money. One of those ways was the trading card market. A parallel boom was going on in cards. It was a natural fit.
Marvel’s then-editor-in-chief, Tom DeFalco, put special projects editor Bob Budiansky in charge of putting together a new card set with trading card company Impel. As the company’s top editor, DeFalco didn’t have much time to manage the project alongside the exploding comics market — “They were not one of my highest priorities,” he told Polygon on a recent call — because he was managing the expectations of a hungry board of directors who expected Marvel to continue delivering on the huge sales that the company was generating. In 1990, Todd MacFarlane’s Spider-Man #1 broke records; a year later, the record was broken by the launches of both X-Force and X-Men.
Budiansky started at Marvel in 1976, working his way up from freelancer to a lower level editorial position to editor in 1983. In 1985, to handle the increased demand for merchandise, editor-in-chief Jim Shooter created the special projects editor role and assigned Budiansky to the position. Part of his work in the ’80s was to manage the merchandising of Transformers comics and toys, specifically the “back of the box” copy that came with the figures.
“We found people who I trained how to write the backs of the cards,” Budiansky said. “I’d been writing the backs of toy boxes for Hasbro for a number of years for Transformers, so I had a certain style I was looking for, how to say something that gave you a complete feeling of who this character is, but say it very briefly in a few sentences.”
“Before that, the creative was done outside of Marvel — they would provide, as they did to all sorts of licensing requirements, artwork that already existed,” Budiansky said. “On very rare occasions they might generate some new artwork, but usually they just picked up some good enough shot of whichever character, Spider-Man or Hulk or something, and they stuck it on a lunchbox. But in this case, Marvel created all the artwork. Marvel created all the copy. Marvel did the design work. Marvel did all the production work.”
While Marvel was handling the creation, Impel was still publishing the cards, so the two companies had to work together. Budiansky was given creative control at the design level, but he had to balance that against the more cautiously thinking executives at Impel, who also had a stake in how the card sets came together. Impel’s people had a sports background, not comics, and lacked the confidence that Budiansky and Marvel did in the ability for the comic characters to carry a line of trading cards. In order to appease the card company executives, Budiansky and his team decided to include stats on the back of the cards, much like sports cards had, showing characters’ wins and losses in fights.
The card for Spider-Man in the black costume, the set’s number 2, is a good example of this approach. The back of the card claims he fought 982 battles, winning 620, losing 328, and tying 34 for a win percentage of 63%.
“We made all that stuff up,” Budiansky said. “We didn’t go through a thousand books and count all the battles with this character; we just made it up. Number one, we wanted to make the Impel executives happy, and number two, we thought it would be fun.”
In 1991, Budiansky and his team decided to abandon the fake stats and move directly to power rankings. They had more concrete citations in mind for the second set, using the Marvel Universe Handbooks put together by executive editor Mark Gruenwald in the ’80s.
The nerve center of Marvel’s unofficial canon database, Gruenwald was consulted by the cards team to ensure it had things right for the audience, which ranged from die-hard fans to art collectors. His granular attention to detail and encyclopedic knowledge of the relative power levels of various characters meant that the creators had a reliable resource in the young editor.
The power rankings were represented on a scale of one through seven. The cards contained a key with which to understand the varying levels; helpful when distinguishing between “normal” (1) and “metahuman” or other variations of the extreme end (7). How those rankings were designed changed over the years. At first, in the 1991 set, the cards showed a basic bar chart on the upper right of the back of the card; in later sets the rankings jumped around the page as the designs and manufacturers shifted. (Impel — later Skybox — handled the first three sets, then Fleer, which Marvel bought in 1992, took over.) After 1991, the sets added energy projection as a stat, a good call in a continuity where characters regularly blasted each other.
Glenn Greenberg, one of Budiansky’s deputies in the early ’90s, said in an interview with Polygon that the genesis of the power ranking idea came from an early ’80s Spider-Man annual where the titular character told readers how he’d line up against other characters. Fans almost instantly began nitpicking, writing letters to the editors to complain about where certain characters ended up. The annual’s success — and the reader reaction — may well have sparked the idea for the handbook proper.
“When we were doing trading cards, I think it just made sense to kind of put those kinds of rankings,” Greenberg said.
Even with Gruenwald’s encyclopedic knowledge of the Marvel universe, the team sometimes had to use guesswork to get the rankings to a viable point. Newer characters without prewritten rankings and backstories needed a bit of guesswork to place them in the canon, for instance. The team would go to other editors around Marvel for their assessment of the power levels, using the pre-existing resource that was the editorial knowledge of lore and canon to appropriately place the characters where they belonged.
“If you go through each of the entries for the various characters, it would give you basically a power ranking,” Greenberg said. “So you could easily cross reference to see how strong Spider-Man is versus, say, Daredevil on one end of the spectrum or the Hulk on the other.”
Spider-Man, the everyman character of the Marvel Universe, was a good baseline. In the sets, Spidey usually had a strength level of four, superhuman; Daredevil topped out at peak human, or two, and Hulk was the strongest that there was, at seven. There were limits to the scale — that level put Dr. Banner equal in power to world-devouring demigod Galactus — but generally the rating system worked well. It even allowed for more interesting abstract conversations about the relative utility of skills and powers, like whether a two-level strength character with four-level intelligence could outsmart a seven and defeat them.
ALL GOOD THINGS
As Marvel grew it gobbled up the companies it was working with. In 1992, Marvel bought trading card company Fleer in 1992, adding one of the country’s largest collectible card producers to the comic giant’s portfolio. Impel, which became Skybox, was bought by Marvel in 1995. “Marvel was taking in house the entire production of the cards,” Budiansky said. But there was trouble on the horizon. The 1994 baseball and hockey strikes soured the public on two major parts of the card company’s business. And as the unforeseen, negative consequences of the purchase became apparent — due in no small part to circumstances beyond Marvel’s control — it was one more burdensome expense that would quickly lead to collapse.
When Wall Street tycoon Ronald Perelman bought Marvel in 1989, the company was practically minting money. Budiansky said that one bonus in the early ’90s, based on company sales, exceeded his pay for that entire year. The boom was no joke. But with the boom came the bust. The growth model that the new owners were pursuing just wasn’t sustainable.
“They were constantly buying things that would go out of business almost instantly,” DeFalco said.
The market was fueled by speculators, who in turn were being catered to by the industry. The speculative frenzy created a bubble, which burst. “Once you go public, if you make a certain percentage profit in a quarter, Wall Street expects you to continue making that kind of profit next quarter,” Budiansky said. Because Marvel couldn’t continue upping sales at the rate they needed to — profits weren’t going to continue to expand at the same rate — the company expanded horizontally, acquiring Fleer and then Skybox and gobbling up competitive companies like Malibu Comics.
The success of the cards led to the purchase of Fleer and Skybox, both of which quickly collapsed. To Greenberg, ideas on how to run the company on the part of Marvel higher-ups showed their fundamental misunderstanding of the industry. The people Perelman put in charge of Marvel saw the company’s product as widgets, Greenberg told Polygon, that they could move around like any other commodity and generate sales just as if they were any other product rather than creative works of art.
The industry was increasingly targeting speculators with gimmicks, but that led to an overflow into the market, undercutting the very thing the holograms and special editions were meant to do. Once the speculators were gone, the bottom fell out of the market, and Marvel tanked.
Massive layoffs began in 1995, and a year later Marvel Comics filed for bankruptcy. It was a different feeling from less than a decade earlier, when DeFalco had turned to Budiansky and his team to take over the trading cards. The future of Marvel itself was in question. The bankruptcy was brutal for everyone involved. Greenberg described the stress of going into work and expecting that to be the day you’d lose your job — every day for years.
But the worst day came when Gruenwald died in 1996 of a heart attack at only 43. It was devastating for the company.
The Marvel Universe sets ran through 1994, with series four and five produced by Fleer. Other sets, including 1992’s Budiansky and Jim Lee designed X-Men collection, had also used the system. After the Universe sets ended, the ratings system appeared in some card collections, but not all — this was because the art was the primary appeal of many card sets, as in the Masterpiece collections. In 1999, Marvel sold Fleer and Skybox, ending their experiment with comic book trading cards.
The power ranking system grew out of sport stat ratings. It made sense and predates the fantasy sports market that exists today where people put players from different teams into different formations to see who would win. To Marvel fans, the power rankings on the backs of the cards allowed for a way of pitting characters against one another in a way where one could cite actual numbers — FiveThirtyEight for the comic clique.