Sports cards often overshadow non-sports cards in the hobby of collecting trading cards. However, the value and desirability of individual cards, sets and subsets of products from industry leaders such as Marvel Comics can often equal or outweigh those of their more sporty cousins. Marvel trading cards, whether of the general variety or of key properties such as Spiderman and the X-Men, have proved over time to be worth much more than the cardboard they are printed on.
Marvel, like most other companies and organizations that provide images for trading cards, has relied on large card producers such as Topps and Fleer to produce and market its cards over the years. These companies tend to use similar marketing practices for both their sport and non-sports card products, and so many of the elements associated with baseball or football cards of any era have parallels in Marvel cards. For example, early packs sometimes included a stick of gum along with the cards and giveaway offers listed on the wrapper. Puzzles, parallel sets, subsets and chase cards have all played as big a role in Marvel cards as in their sports counterparts.
The Early Days
Originally, sport trading cards were mostly head or body shots peppered with some action pictures, and some of Marvel's early offerings followed this standard format. Others reprinted panels from the original comics. Products from this time period include the 1966 Marvel Super Heroes set from Donruss. As of 2010, the set of 66 cards is worth approximately $150, but the unopened packs can fetch $50 apiece. Occasionally, especially during the 1960s and '70s, card sets would take a more humorous approach, such as 1976's Marvel Super Heroes Stickers, which books at $90 for the 40 stickers and nine cards in the set.
The '80s and '90s
The late '80s and early '90s were turbulent times for trading card collectors. Hundreds of sets were produced as new companies entered the market and traditional publishers increased production to meet the demands of the new collectors to the hobby. One result of this frenzy in collecting was that the value of most sets produced in this period plummeted. While the Marvel base sets from the early 1990s rarely reach above the $20 to $45 range, many subsets, parallel sets and specialty cards have retained their value. For example, the 140-card base set of Marvel Masterpieces, Series 3 (Skybox/1994) is worth $20, while the gold-stamped parallel set is priced at $125.
Certain Marvel characters and teams have enough public appeal to be featured in their own trading card products. Spider-Man, for example, has been a hot property for Marvel since he appeared in his first comic in the 1960s. Most base sets starring the popular web crawler remain in the $10 to $20 range, but specialty items such as autographed cards and the Archive Box from products such as the movie "Spider-Man 3" (Rittenhouse/2007) can be worth several hundred dollars. The many X-Men trading card sets that Marvel has licensed follow this same pattern.
The market for sets has yet to fully recover from the glut of worthless cards produced in the 1990s. To bring collectors back, companies began to produce chase cards that were guaranteed to be relatively few in number. To sweeten the deal, the cards often include an autograph or piece of memorabilia. These cards are the highest priced items in the hobby today. For example, an autographed card of Tobey Maguire (who played Spider-Man in the movie franchise) is worth $400. Numbered sketches by some of Marvel's more famous artists can reach $475.