Mark Byrnes is a former senior associate editor at CityLab who writes about design and architecture.
A look back at the surreal designs of Fleer’s Metal Universe 1998.
With the collectibles bubble having just about burst, the sports card industry in the 1990s filled up with new ideas in hopes of survival. Just before autographed and game-used memorabilia cards became the de facto attraction for high-end collectors, one company decided they’d win customers over through design.
For Fleer in 1998, that meant creating a set that used American landscapes to turn players into heroes.
Metal Universe is remembered today as the most “insane” branch of Fleer products. While the company’s primary focus was on basketball, Metal’s designers could turn any athlete in any sport into the most indestructible super-human in the galaxy.
For baseball, the sport with the oldest and most revered trading card history, Metal’s art direction wasn’t a natural fit. Their first sets in 1996 and 1997 merged action photography with mind-melting sci-fi comic book scenery. (Marvel Entertainment purchased Fleer in 1992.) In a culture that worshipped the 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle and T206 Honus Wagner, Cal Ripken running away from the grip of a giant dinosaur in a crimson sky wasn’t going to change anything.
Before giving into reality for its final two runs in 1999 and 2000, Metal designers gave baseball fans a surreal mix of landscape and player photography in 1998. “Running away from animals” and “doing stuff in outer space” carried over as some of the many themes in the set, but the most memorable imagery from Metal ‘98 remains “gigantic player does a cool baseball thing in a very specific place.”
It works best when the player towers over the city he plays for. It’s downright serene when the designers lean towards natural landscapes that match the team’s location.
In some cases, however, the art team appears to have limited resources. The only scenery specific to Atlanta is its highways just out of downtown. No urban imagery is used at all for cards depicting any Toronto Blue Jay or Montreal Expo.
Sometimes the imagery appears trivial, like when Rey Ordoñez of the New York Mets leaps over two rail cars inside a D.C. metro station (the District did not have a baseball team at the time).
But that shouldn’t take away from the beauty of the set. Current baseball cards rarely venture beyond safe or nostalgic designs. There appears to at least be a growing curiosity about what on Earth was happening inside the minds of people behind ‘90s products like Metal.
Fleer went bust in 2005, but Upper Deck holds the naming rights to the brand. Recently, the company released “Fleer Retro” sets that use many of Fleer’s most memorable designs—Metal included—for today’s players.
For a card collector who valued design in the ‘90s, Fleer had the most exciting options. For anyone who was bored with reality, Metal was its finest.