The Marvel-ous 1997 Metal Universe
1996 Metal Universe is already one of my favorite sets of all time, but this follow-up set from 1997 is somehow even better; so if you are a lover of my more long-winded and self-indulgent posts, you've come to the right place.
1997 Metal Universe is not just better – it is the greatest of all five years of the Metal sets. They remind me a lot of the Weezer discography. The first two albums are basically timeless and perfect, and the rest all dwell in the realm of "just okay, I guess." There’s a good song or two from each one, but none of them approach the greatness of those first two. It’s not even really close.
That suggests, though, that Pinkerton is superior to the Blue Album which is a controversial can of worms among Weezer fans that I don’t even want to open. A comparison that is more my speed would be that the first two Metal sets are a lot like the second two Radiohead albums (nobody counts Pablo Honey). ’96 is The Bends – a near-perfect alt-rock album that everyone loves. And ’97 is OK Computer which is just a flat-out rock masterpiece. I didn’t want to use this one, though, as it suggests the rest of the Metal sets are Kid A, Amnesiac, Hail to the Thief, In Rainbows, etc. They are NOT. They are late Weezer and that’s the end of it.
Note: you're going to see a lot of *photos* of cards as opposed to scans because scans ruin these things. I will not compromise one of my favorite sets of all time.
So right off the bat you can tell they smoothed out the design and popped the colors; but where the ’96 set used etched foil across the entire card surface, in ‘97 they used etching more selectively to bring out certain aspects of each design. This is the biggest change and a marked improvement on the previous year’s set.
As for the designs, there were only a handful of them in the ’96 set spread out among the entire checklist so you'd get a lot of repeats (awesome repeats, but still repeats), but in ’97 they went absolutely insane. While there are some themes repeated in the base set, no two cards are exactly alike.
You can imagine what a fun pack rip these were. You could pull nothing but a bunch of no-name bums and still never feel like your $2.49 was wasted. And the checklist was a who’s who of late’90s stars and semi-stars, so you didn’t even have to worry about said pulling of a bunch of no-name bums. Every single pack was a delight.
I didn't even cherry-pick pages here - this is just the first few pages in my set binder. You can imagine that if I was a halfway decent photographer these would be lit properly and look even better. But for now you're just going to have to imagine that.
So you may have guessed from all my spouting and scanning here that I’ve been excited to make a 1997 Metal Universe post for years, but I didn’t want to do it until I had all the Griffeys. One in particular (you’ll know it when you see it) was a major roadblock to finally putting this one to bed, but it’s here, and I am delighted to hit the “Publish” button at long last.
Before we go full-Griffey, I want to show you some base cards. I don’t usually do this because I focus on Griffeys and seriously what more do you need? But there is no set more deserving of showing off than this one. Here are a few (more than a few - a lot, really) choice base cards from 1997 Metal Universe:
|I'm not very familiar with Darren Bragg, but does he have|
a better card in the whole world? There's no way.
|There are a few of these "portal" cards|
|See how they incorporated the background players into|
the art here?
|This could be a video game cover|
|Another potential video game cover. Check out|
the equipment they added to his head.
|E-Mar got one of these great "dungeon" cards|
|I call this one "There Will Be |
|LOL that is not how spacesuits work|
|1997 was the second golden age of disaster movies|
|That is just hella fun|
|Okay that is just flat out not allowed|
I know that was a lot and probably took a bit of time to load but so worth it.
How did this even happen? I mention it in the ’96 post I made a few years back; but to put it mildly, the stars aligned. Fleer was owned by Skybox who was, in turn, owned by Marvel. Marvel wasn’t yet busy making a 50-film “universe,” so they made good use of their stable of comic artists to put out a set of baseball cards no one else could. And they did it twice. Thank. You.
Whichever Marvel artists worked on 1997 Metal Universe should be really proud – the effort here is obvious. The cards really are a “marvel” of design, especially in the way the illustrations engage with the player photos. Gold freakin’ star, guys.
|1997 Metal Universe #145|
First thing’s first: Griffey did not get the greatest design here. Sure he’s in a chessboard land being attacked by a giant, flaming tree monster which is about as awesomely weird as it gets; but there are plenty of better designs in the set. I actually like most of the cards shown above MORE than my Griffey here. Feels dirty.
My favorite improvement is textural. Where the ’96 set was pretty much all dully-colored stippling, hatching, and cross-hatching, the ’97 set was not limited to just those three textures and they popped the colors something fierce. Card #73 Vinny Castilla is a great example of that:
The curves and ridges of the etched foil here bring out our fire-breathing dragon creature nicely, which brings us to another improvement for ‘97: better stories and characters. ’96 had a handful of creatures and a few robots, but they went buck-wild in ’97. Every single card has its own characteristic mise en scene brimming with story elements. Some are implied and some are right there in front of you. It makes me want to build the football and basketball sets, too; and I actively avoid building football and basketball sets.
Other improvements include the aforementioned richer colors and a bolder nameplate with higher legibility. I suspect the card-wide texturing of the ’96 set caused many of the colors to seem washed-out, but the new texturing seems to have fixed that.
The back is nearly identical to that of the ’96 set. I like how they highlight a specific stat column. Here it was home runs. Thanks, Fleer, but I’m a Griffey fan and I already know where to look.
There are no parallels in 1997 Metal Universe Baseball, but if you are even mildly aware of the absolutely batshit-crazy world of Michael Jordan card collecting then you know about PMG or Precious Metal Gems (they usually shorten it to PMG because that’s how much it comes up). The Jordan Emerald is limited to only 10 produced and sells for new house money. Like, NICE new house. Enclosed garage, finished attic, butcher board countertops, hot chicks room, solarium-with-a-Peloton-and-wet-bar new house.
|The Emerald PMG, rarest of the rare|
I wanted to find a cheap Precious Metal Gems parallel card from any sport just to see it in person and show you fine people what they look like, but THERE ARE NO CHEAP ONES. I pulled this image from Google because it’s front-page on Google News whenever one of these sells. And prices are all over the place. The market for this card makes the European market for tulips in January of 1637 look stable.
This post is going up at an interesting time for these cards. It was not planned - I'm actually adding this paragraph to the post at 1:30am the night before it was scheduled to go live. Just in the last few days the prices of '96 and '97 Metal Universe Griffey base cards (and only Griffey's for some reason) have been skyrocketing. They are consistently hitting $40-$50 each with the not-terribly-rare Platinum parallel of the '96 card going into the multiple hundreds. These are cards I have passed up numerous times in both dime and dollar boxes (and I'm kicking myself about it now). I don't have a good explanation for this, but allegedly it has something to do with the aforementioned insane-o Jordan market bleeding over into baseball. I also believe a lot of people are stuck at home right now cleaning out their houses and rediscovering their card collections. Perhaps this prediction I made way back in 2015 is finally coming to pass.
As for the inserts, they're solid, but they do not approach the creativity of the base set. You may expect something more "comic-booky" after seeing all those wacky base cards, but forget it. It seems the Marvel folks got creative reign over the base cards only and the inserts were left to the, well, normies.
|1997 Metal Universe Magnetic Field #4|
Say hello to one of the coolest “common” parallels ever made. At 1:9 these were super easy pulls, and I am just beside myself with excitement that it’s bright freakin’ purple. In the list of the most candylike Griffeys, this thing is up there. I can’t imagine any card usurping the Topps Finest “The Man” refractor, but this one comes close. It looks like it costs a fortune, but they go for like two bucks. You need this card.
And it shouldn’t be that big a deal that both the photos AND the blurb remain so faithful to the theme of the insert, but they totally do exactly that and it IS kind of a big deal.
|1997 Metal Universe Titanium #3|
The second-rarest insert at 1:24 is Titanium. The big selling points here are the die-cutting and raised text. the rest is just a bunch of blah-tastic foilboard that, granted, looks a lot better in person. Also it mentions "his balls." Not going for a cheap laugh here - that really does seem like a standard baseball card blurb topic, but I can't recall ever seeing those words used together like that in a blurb before.
|1997 Metal Universe Blast Furnace #6|
The 1:48 hobby-only Blast Furnace insert got the acetate treatment along with a robust flame design in the background and "glowing" gold foil lettering. The flames are less flames than just blurry red and yellow fog. I imagine a little more flame/explosion detail in the coloration back there might have pushed this one into another league. Metal logo looks real nice in gold foil though.
|1997 Metal Universe Mother Lode #4|
This is the biggie. These puppies were 1:288, a spot in the insertion spectrum usually reserved for the coolest of the cool '90's inserts; and this year's version of Mother Lode does not disappoint. Typically, die-cutting patterns were re-used multiple times across different inserts, years, and even sub-brands. That would not be the case for this uber-die-cut finial design. I've never seen it again. The spirals and etching in the background "monument" are impressive. The brushed steel background of the card back is about as good as it's gonna get without die-cutting some actual steel plates. The nameplate is cool but difficult to read even when you're holding the card in your hands, yet nobody seems to care. These consistently sell in the triple-digits, and I see no reason to think they'll be coming down anytime soon.
The inserts are all pretty solid, even those without a Junior appearance:
I'm sure you've seen Mining for Gold with its gold-brick die-cutting and foil. These were easy to find at a mere 1:9 but the cool factor made them seriously fun pulls. This set was reserved for young rookies which was certainly in-line with the theme, so I understand Griffey not being thrown in the mix. I like to think that if Fleer was doing something similar to what Topps is doing now, i.e. bringing back all their most popular old designs and direct-selling them, we might see this design again. I would certainly get a kick out of it. Maybe someday, but I doubt it.
Griffey does not make an appearance in the excellent 1:36 Platinum Portraits insert, but I love this thing because Fleer's all "look at the amazing shit we can do with foil now" and I'm all "jeez guys that's incredible but why isn't Griffey in this insert?" and they're all "it's just for young stars like Chipper and Jeter and the like he can't be in every insert man" and I'm like "nuh-uh y'all need Jesus seriously dude get it together" and they're all "you're right we screwed this one up our bad" and I'm all "that's better." Still bummed, tho.
|1997 Metal Universe Todd Walker Emerald Autographs|
Emerald Autographs were seeded at a stunning hobby-only 1:480 packs (or 1:2 hobby cases). The checklist is no mind-blower save for the Alex Rodriguez which probably pulled some good prices back in the day. Not so much anymore. I got the Todd Walker (my go-to guy for inexpensive examples of otherwise expensive inserts) for a mere seven bucks.
The cards are identical to the base but with emerald foil in the nameplate, an embossed authenticity stamp, the parallel name in place of the card number (rendering the cards effectively unnumbered), and of course the auto which is on-card, in-pen, and as unassuming as you can get even for being so early in the autographed insert game. Still beats the hell out of a sticker, though.
I'm happy to report that I have ALL the Griffeys of 1997 Metal Universe; but what's more than that (to me, anyway) I have the complete base set. It is one of only FOUR complete sets I keep in binder pages ready for perusal at a moment's notice (the others are '91 and '92 Studio and '96 Metal Universe). It takes a real banger of a base set to make me build the thing. Take that for what it's worth.
|I even bought a box once|
Metal Universe or some iteration thereof would continue for a few years before going the way of so many other Fleer spinoff sets, but to me the timeline ends in 1997. There are plenty of great Griffeys that came later with Metal branding, but no subsequent Metal base card ever came close to the magic and imagination of ’96 and especially ’97 Metal. It's also pretty unlikely a card company could afford those Marvel designers ever again. Like I said, the stars aligned.
Thanks for reading.