about_faces (about_faces) wrote,

Trading Cards: an all-villain whodunnit in Fleer's "Batman Master Series"

In 1996, trading card company Fleer decided that they wanted to release a different kind of card set for Batman. Inspired by the loose narrative of Topps' classic Mars Attacks! cards, the Batman Master Series set was the first series of cards to comprise a complete, original Batman storyline. The more cards you collect, the more parts of the story you'd have to piece together. And it was all written by none other than our old favorite, Doug Moench. Oh yes, we're in for a treat. :D


The plot was simple: after the Joker once again escapes Arkham, Batman goes missing and is presumed dead, with the Joker being the likeliest suspect. Everyone posits their reactions and theories, including the Joker himself, who can't be sure whether or not he actually did it at all! This offered plenty of opportunities to hit all the big beats of the previous card series (major and minor characters, important events) plus create all-new settings for cards (scenes from the plotline, bizarre wacko takes on the rogues, the Joker popping up in classic Elseworlds). Along the way, we get TONS of cards dedicated to rogues, some of whom pop up several times. Visually, it's a feast of portraits, and that alone would warrant a master post here.

Except it gets even better, because apparently the cards had enough of a cult following amongst collectors that the entire deck was given its own coffee table art book:

Not only are all the cards lovingly reprinted along with Moench's text, but the book's editors actually included commentary from the artists, thus giving a rare insight into the creative process! The combination of characters, art, story, and commentary make Batman Masterpieces a must-have, and to show you what I mean, I'm going to post just the villain pages, almost all of which are by the painter Dermot Power (Batman/Judge Dredd: The Ultimate Riddle, and concept artist for Batman Begins).

The villain cards pop up in the set just as Alfred and Nightwing being to consider suspects for who could possibly have shot Batman, perhaps with the help of the Joker. Several of the choices are so obviously wrong that it's bizarre that they're even brought up in the first place, but hey, gotta consider every last suspect, right?

Yeah, right away you can see that Power is abandoning Moench's original suggestions of having the bios appear via computer screen. Thinking about it now, that actually sounds a lot like Moench was basically trying to recreate his "Rogues Gallery" tour issue back in the 80's, with our heroes going through the villain roster in the Bat-Computer. Generally speaking, I'm glad that Power went his own route, which undoubtedly allowed him more creative freedom.

I can't disagree with him about his disappointment. I think that the original idea would have been the superior one. Look, one of the few great things that Moench's Black Mask had was a sense of presence and mystery, so seeing that preserved in shadow would have been the way to go. At least it's still there to some degree in the final product with the eyes in shadow. Either way, I kinda like this, especially as it focuses on Roman's obsession with masks, a trait which has been almost entirely forgotten in the character in recent memory.

I want that chair. The Giger-ness is a nice touch, even if it really pushes Ra's here into full-blown Dracula territory here. Or maybe he's more like Dr. Strange's demonic twin. Man, has it occurred to anybody else how Ra's can be really bloody ridiculous? It's like the more people push him to be this big, serious, dire, genocidal threat, the more open to silliness he becomes. This is a perfect example, simply because I cannot bring myself to be intimidated by a guy sporting that collar. But I can admire his furniture. I bet it has great lumbar support and everything.

I rather love this Talia piece, much more than the original concept sketch where she appears to be wearing a loin-thong. You can bet that any comic artist from DC today would have gone for the sketch version instead. As she is in the actual piece, she's still plenty sexy without it looking like fanboy exploitation, and yet she still looks like a formidable and mysterious opponent. The two faces of her there and in the reflection play off nicely with the conflicted nature of the character, torn between her alliances.

The Penguin comments really give some insight as to why there are so many wacky, grotesque takes on him. He's one of those villains where an artist can really have free reign to make their own stamp on the character. As you'll see throughout these images, Penguin is seen by Moench and artists alike as a very cartoonish villain, and not a particularly threatening one at that. Ozzie is truly the most picked-upon of the great villains, such that even when he's depicted by someone who likes him, it's done more for amusement rather than using him well as a good character.

Notice that Moench describes Ivy's entire motivation as getting off on controlling men and making them fall head over heels for her, which is certainly consistent with many of her characterizations. But not all of them, especially once Batman: The Animated Series reinterpreted her as the avenger of defenseless plants, whose ability to seduce was just one of her weapons, not her raison d'être. Man, someday somebody is gonna seriously have to come along and nail down Pam as a character and figure out just what makes her tick, because as it stands, she's still just a sexy clusterfuck of ideas and conflicting motivations.

While I'm with Power's impulse to depict her as elfin, I'm not sure that comes through in this piece. She looks more like a sickly alien cosplaying as a pirate's wench. I really like how Power envisioned her as seeming almost mystical, to really embody the untouchable magic of nature, but I don't see any of that with this piece. It would help if she actually had some kind of personality one way or another, but as it is, she has slightly less than your average picture of Megan Fox.

The Riddler has an appropriate habit of stumping writers and artists alike, who struggle to find a way to visualize a character based on intellect and wordplay. That frustration comes through here with the general "just throw a ton of question marks in there! ALL THE QUESTION MARKS!" description, which Power incorporated even while rejecting the computer-screen setting. That said, I like the piece. Perhaps it's a bit on the nose, and I'm really not a fan of the spandex unless Dick Sprang is on art duties, but hey, it works.

From this point onward, the narration on the cards comes from Tim Drake, who has broken into Commissioner Gordon's office and is reading his files. At the outset, it looks as though Power actually is finally going to follow the directions of Moench (or the editors? Who wrote the "art concept" stuff?) and actually make these images look like photos that Gordon would have on file:

I love the humor of the Bane piece, just for the shit-eating grins of those two very-soon-to-be-dead cops.

Man, that is one of the grossest, most wretched-looking takes on Jervis that I've ever seen, second only to the new version from Arkham City, which--it occurs to me--also seemed to ramp up the Dickensian aspect. Not a bad idea, since I'd much rather see Jervis as a distinct character rather than a walking copy of the Sir John Tenniel drawing, but still... ew. I don't really like seeing Jervis depicted like the Sewer King, y'know? Because NOBODY likes the damn Sewer King. As far as portraits go, this one's kind of a lazy choice, and it says absolutely nothing about Jervis himself. Everyone else gets grand portraits in their own elements, whereas Jervis gets a pathetic mugshot.

Finally, we get the Harvey card, although I must confess that I've never really liked this piece. Power has a really grotesque style that works for many of the rogues, but not for Harvey's good side, which looks anemic and saggy. But then, it's not like Moench really gave Power direction to make Harvey handsome. The actual description is "normal," which is as nondescript and bland as you can get, which says a lot about how Moench approached the character. He's one of those creators who is focused all in the freak aspect rather than the man Harvey was, and the character suffers for it as a result.

Also, I've always been annoyed by the nondescript cop being front and center. It would have made much more sense if the cop were Gordon, since he's the one narrating the files, but it's a meaningless waste to devote such a close-up image of Harvey's own card to a nobody character making a generic facial expression. I think I actually prefer the rejected, more "gruesome" sketch, since the dead cop and the scared cop give a better impression of what's really at stake with the coin toss. While the perspective on the final piece is more dynamic, the piece just seems to be... Harvey has two cops tied up and is flipping a coin. Pretty boring.

All in all, I think that I would have traded all versions to have seen the original "composite of a photograph" which Power preferred in the first place. I wonder why it's not included here? And notice that at this point, Power has once again completely abandoned Moench's descriptions, since these portraits no longer resemble anything close to photos that Gordon would have on file. Case in point:

I like this Croc piece a lot, even if Power's 2000AD style really makes Waylon here look an awful lot like Mean Machine from Judge Dredd. I like this much better than if Power had gone with Moench's original description, even if this works even less than the Harvey piece when it comes to looking like one of Gordon's files.

Not gonna say it, not gonna say it, not... n... nnnnnSKREE!!! Damn my weak willpower! Man, why do they keep harping on Man-Bat being such a tragic case? It says right there, he's fine now and (presumably) still happily married! Meanwhile, there's not even a hint of tragedy nor sympathy given to the Harvey Dent file. But then, why should I be surprised? This is Moench, after all, who really loves writing Harvey as having been a hardline dickhole even before the acid.

Continuing the 2000AD-ness of this, Power's Scarecrow seems to greatly resemble Simon Bisley's from Batman/Judge Dredd: Judgement on Gotham, especially in the spray can and the claw-like fingers. Can I just say how much I dislike the Scarecrow having claws? He's not a mutant, he's a man of science! He's not a monster, he's a skinny nerd! That said, I really do love this portrait. He just looks so happy, and Power's right, the can really does give a sense that he's unloading a ton of fear toxin into a whole room. I love it.

Thus ends Robin's review of Gordon's files. There are more villain profiles, but from here on out, we get them from the Joker's own perspective as he tries to deduce who might have killed Batman.

Yes, seriously: Sherlock Jokes. That's the extent of Moench's wit here. Kind of adorable, really.

Moench and Power mention this themselves over the next few cards, but it's worth mentioning now that these are meant to be how the Joker sees these characters. So we're getting Moench's take on the Joker's take on the rogues. Let the crack ensue!

I dunno, Joker, Roman's nutty enough where masks are concerned that maybe that logic would be sound. Man, of all the villains who are getting Joker-ized second cards, we get more Black Mask? Oh right, Moench. Well, since Roman wasn't really doing anything during the 90's but being a background mob boss, I guess he had to be put to good use somewhere before his character was changed entirely by Ed Brubaker onward.

Not gonna like, I like this one. One of the few things I like about Moench's take on Harvey is how he sees Batman as the true Two-Face, so it's cool to see that reflected here, even if it's from the Joker's own POV.

I'm skipping past the Ra's one entirely because it's just Batman depicted as a cartoon devil (the Joker has no idea who or what this "Demon" is like) and going straight to Talia. There's nothing about this card that I don't like, and Power's instincts for doing the opposite of the direction he was given.

"I don't care how many stewardesses you've banged, you're a lousy pilot!" "WAUGH WAUGH WAUGH WAUGH WAUGH."

No comment.

Great idea in concept, but I'm not sure it works too well in execution. That said, I disagree with Power: I think this is far more entertaining now that I see Eddie as Pope Riddler.

While the "Sherlock Jokes" stuff is now over, we're not done with the cracktacular villain cards just yet. From here on out, Moench and Power deliver an "And the rest!" roster of reactions from an assortment of villains from A-list to D-list and beyond.

Oddly, I don't feel like going "SKREE!" to this one. While I still think Man-Bat is damn silly, it's refreshingly different to see the character and his attitudes towards Batman depicted in such a manner.

This is one of my favorite Croc drawings ever, and I love the subtle Batman in the tree. For your continuity fans, you may notice that this story takes place during the all-too-brief period after Moench left Croc alone in the swamps of Louisiana, where he was watched over by the protection of Swamp Thing. I love that story, and I hate that it was swiftly undone by Chuck Dixon (perhaps at the behest of an editor who wanted Croc back?), who ingloriously had Croc chased out by angry locals. I don't like that one bit, since it threw out all of the insight into Croc's character and situated him to go right back to being a monstrous thug and/or crime boss. I far prefer the insight raised by this image, depicting Croc as a "hits first so he doesn't get hit" guy who's been persecuted all his life, and who now sees Batman as the worst of those persecutors, always eager to throw the "animal" back into his cage.

Hey everyone, post-Batman-death orgy down at Maxie's place! Wooooooo!

Is it just me, or does the dialogue exchange make absolutely no sense? Either I'm missing something, or it's just Moench being Moench. I'm never going to let him off the hook for writing befuddlingly inane lines like "Close... but no kitty litter." As for the art... ehhh, no. Arnie looks like a cross between a gnome and Opus the penguin, and Scarface looks too cheery and all-around wrong.

Hey, Tweedledee and Tweedledum actually got their own card! And look, it has absolutely nothing about them as characters! So they're just going to be non-character stand-ins for a riff on Alice in Wonderland? Well hey, I'd rather it be them than Jervis! It's funny, Jervis used to be more than just a walking talking Lewis Carroll quote-and-reference machine, but Loeb and Sale changed all that. Can't we give that role to the Tweeds and get Jervis back to being his own character again? I'd like that.

Nice to see Moench write Hugo once more after Prey, even if his lack of beard (or maybe it's just hidden in shadow) really makes him look like Richard O'Brien's own deranged psychiatrist character from the Rocky Horror sequel Shock Treatment. I wonder if that's intentional as part of Power's revision from his original sketch which in no way resembled the character. Damn, the more I think about O'Brien in those glasses, the more I have to wonder if maybe it's not too late to cast him in a Prey movie! Damn you and your missed opportunities, Christopher Nolan!


The Zsasz one is wonderfully subtle. If it weren't for the notes, I doubt that I ever would have noticed the incomplete tally over his heart.

That's it for the villain cards in the storyline. Notice any absentees? Off-hand, I note that there's no Mr. Freeze nor any of the Clayfaces, and yet Maxie Zeus and the Tweeds made the cut. WTF? Hey, I'm all for using the most obscure of the villains, go nuts, but don't cut out more important ones at their expense! Anyway, from here on out, we get the climax of Joker looking for Batman's corpse, only to find a still-very-alive Batman waiting to punch out the Joker's lights and send him back to Arkham. Happy endings for all, especially for the Joker, who is delighted that Batman's alive and well.

But we're not done just yet. In addition to the storyline deck, the Master Series also included ten rare "chase cards" dedicated to new portraits of the villains, narrated by the rogues themselves (as written by Moench) as they describe just how they would have killed Batman themselves.

I've ragged on Moench a lot for creating whole new characters who embody themes that could easily be better employed by established, superior villains, and I was already getting annoyed by that problem of his when he started painting Man-Bat as the "tragic" villain, but this quote just pushes it over the line:

"I thought that we needed a film-noir type of villain in Batman."

... As opposed to a certain coin-flipping, scar-faced mobster? That didn't count for you at all? Jesus Christ, Moench! It's like Moench understands many aspects of Harvey, but he scatters them over several other characters, leaving his own Two-Face a one-note, raving, sneering madman.

While it's yet another "Harvey puts on a mock trial!" scenario, at least Moench avoided including yet another "THE DEATH PENALTY!!1!" Now we have Moench outright describing Harvey Dent as just a D.A. who was "borderline psychotic to begin with," with absolutely no mention of him being heroic, noble, a friend to Batman, or anything else that would make him a tragic and sympathetic character. So there we go, as if we couldn't have already figured that out from the way he's written Harvey in the past.

As for the art, it looks very "Simon Bisley does Batman: The Animated Series." In fact, hey, is this the first-ever depiction of Two-Face in the black and white suit outside of the TV show? I think it is! Historical value aside, I don't really care for the piece. It's too crammed trying to fit a close-up headshot in with the gun and coin. It looks like Harvey's trying to judge your fate while stuffed inside a locker.

While I get annoyed at colorists who forget that Selina's eyes are green, this is a bit too far in the other direction.

On the other hand, Moench shows a pretty perfect understand of the Riddler. Not surprising, since he wrote one of the best Riddler stories ever, Riddle of the Jaded Sphinx from Batman Chronicles #3 (the same issue that brought back Croc from the swamp). I've got to get around to reviewing that one sometime.

So we're very much going with the Penguin as a wretched little thug who only dresses like a gentleman. It's a legitimate interpretation, and one key to making it work is to have him be a guy who LOVES being evil and cruel. It's one big reason why I found myself really enjoying the Penguin of Arkham City, often despite myself. When this kind of Penguin is written as a grumpy sad sack, it just falls apart, and we sadly get too many depictions of Ozzie that way. Whether he's a dapper gentleman, a ruthless bastard, a cruel thug, or any combination of the above, the key is to make Penguin someone who really, really loves being bad. I don't think that came through in the art here, but Horley had the right idea. Besides, a grenade? What the hell does the Penguin have to do with grenades? If it were in the shape of an egg, okay, maybe, but sheesh... he's not Brick from Anchorman.

This Ivy piece is much more traditional and cheesecakey, but I kinda like it, mostly because it's my favorite design of Ivy ever. Maybe it's just my nostalgia speaking, but I have a great fondness for this costume, and after more than a decade of green-skinned Ivy, I'm actually glad to see that she's flesh-coloring once again. It makes her seem more deceptive and unassuming, the type that you could believe that people would underestimate and let themselves be seduced.

Man, and I thought that he looked like Dracula by way of Dr. Strange before? That was nothing compared to this! Yeesh. On top of that, it looks like Ra's and Selina buy the same brand of glowing oversized contact lenses.

... He's just so goofy. Between this and "HAROOOO HRAAA and/or HRRAAAAIII," I could never take the character seriously during the 90's, but looking back, I now have a soft spot for this version of Crane. I'll certainly take him over the sub-Freddy-Krueger of the Arkham Asylum video game or the Nolanverse "pretty boy in a boring suit" Crane, that's for sure.

I dig it. Really, I don't know why so many people don't draw Bane with this mask. He's so much more intimidating with his eyes and mouth covered, so there's no humanity to detract from Bane's presence as an unstoppable machine of destruction.

And of course, it ends with the Joker, as it should. As it turns out, Batman faked his death in order to lure the Joker out of hiding, no one is happier to see Batman alive and well than the Joker himself, laughing with glee as he's carted off back to Arkham. It's a nice way to end a story which wasn't terrible compelling nor original on its own merits, but then, the story was a mere framework for the artists.

So what did you guys make of the art? Were they indeed "museum quality" as the ads touted, or merely a dated and grotesque assortment of 90's-tacular artists? I lean more towards the latter, but I love the collection of the cards nonetheless, and I very much recommend checking out the whole of Batman Masterpieces if you can find a copy.
Tags: bane, black mask, catwoman, croc, doug moench, hugo strange, maxie zeus, penguin, poison ivy, ra's and/or talia al ghul, riddler, scarecrow, trading cards, ventriloquist and scarface, who's who and secret files, zsasz

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