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Decked out

Kids are flipping for trading cards based on TV, movie, and comic-book characters like X-Men, “Beauty and the Beast,” and “Batman Returns”

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Tori Spelling may not make the kind of hit that would cut it in Charles Barkley’s league, but in the booming sport of trading cards they both play on a level field: Over the past few years, interest in nonsport cards inspired by popular TV shows, movies, and comic books has taken the category from the farm system to the major leagues of collecting. This year alone, a projected $300 million worth of entertainment trading cards will be sold, up 50 percent from 1991.

Each month, more than 15 different entertainment-card sets arrive at the country’s 4,000 comic-book shops, where most new trading cards are sold. Increasingly, the new series are based on TV favorites such as American Gladiators, The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles, and The Simpsons, whose packaging features a disclaimer that sounds just like Bart: ”8 Fabulous Cards, 1 Lousy Sticker.” There are some more esoteric offerings as well among recently released sets, including the politically incorrect Republicans Attack! (starring George Bush, Dan Quayle, and Richard Nixon in a plot to take over the U.S.).

The new generation of entertainment cards offers a generational leap in quality (and price) from the popular sets of the ’60s, when a 10-card pack of hastily produced Bat Laffs, based on the Batman TV series, cost 10 cents. Today’s packs — some featuring just 6 cards, others bursting their polybags with 15 — are priced from 55 cents to $2.50. Cheesy-looking pictures and teeth- rotting sticks of bubble gum are out; snazzy graphics and printing (including holograms and gold stamping) are in, along with enticing bonuses. Many packs proclaim the random insertion of highly prized autographed cards and limited edition holograms, bounty that commands high prices among collectors.

Here’s what the most popular card series have to offer:

BEVERLY HILLS 90210 By nature’s law, all TV shows with large adolescent followings merit an 88-card, 11-sticker series. For 55 cents per pack, 90210 fans get eight cards, plus one sticker of Teen Beat-type poses and show factoids. These include Luke’s favorite breakfast food-bagels (card 46) — and Tori’s favorite reads-you know, ”the classics, Jackie Collins and stuff” (card 79). B

THE UNCANNY X-Men, featuring X-Men, X-Force, and Excalibur: X-tortion, since you’re asking. At $1 a pack for 6 cards, this 100-card series, with randomly packaged holograms and autographed cards, is only for dedicated X-fans with extra bucks to spare. B+

BEAUTY AND THE BEAST The belle of the card ball and a bargain to boot: At 75 cents for a 10-card pack, Pro Set’s 95-card series is a true beauty. The borderless cards feature lovely still frames from Disney’s animated hit. This series also appeals directly to kids by including ”color-in” and ”scratch-off” cards. A+

STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION INAUGURAL EDITION Need some tips on three-dimensional chess, or perhaps a diagram of how the Saucer Module would make an emergency landing? Such Trek tidbits are detailed to the point of space madness in a 120-card collection from Sky Box. But the current card series (10 in each $1 pack), the ninth based on Trek, seems to be running out of new photo ideas. Shots of the Enterprise’s ”Emergency Turbo” sign (74) and of various corridors (64) get the attention previously reserved for portraits of Klingons and Romulans. B+

BATMAN RETURNS The wax cover of this Topps series proclaimed the movie a ”#1 Hit” when the sets went on sale about two weeks before the movie opened. But the short-lived accuracy of its box office prediction does not diminish the quality of this series’ 8-card, 55-cent packs. The 88-card series features photos of the Bat, the Cat, and the Penguin in and out of uniform and character. Another treat is the card-back text, explaining the screen action better than director Tim Burton ever has. A