Comic book heroes, athletes, and TV shows offer higher quality (and a bigger price tag) for collectible cards today

By Chris Nashawaty
Updated June 10, 1994 at 04:00 AM EDT

If you believe everything you hear, schools are overflowing with glassy-eyed video-game junkies who think about nothing but NBA Jams and Mortal Kombat. But not every kid is worried only about his or her next Sega fix. Even Sonic the Hedgehog has a tough time competing with a glossy, three-dimensional piece of collectible art that fits in the palm of your hand.

Long before there was a game called Pong, trading cards were huge. But with their higher production values, today’s cards seem even more collectible. In fact, loading up on these foil-wrapped Picassos may be one of the last hobbies you and your kids have in common. Think about it — is there really that much difference between a 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle and an incandescent 1994 Pyro X-Men card?

Well, yes and no. Trading cards have come a long way; you may be surprised to learn they’re no longer packaged with those stiff sticks of pink gum. Baseball cards are still heavy hitters, but selecting them is not as simple as forking over your dough for a pack of Topps. Collectors have choices — go into most comics stores and you’ll find dozens of brands of baseball cards, including Fleer, Donruss, Upper Deck, SkyBox, and Score. The cards have changed too: Supersharp laser photography, metallic embossing, and little holograms (like those on credit cards) are all part of the package now. But with this slicker quality come steeper prices. A pack of 6 to 15 trading cards can run as high as $6 — still not a bad investment when you consider that the ’52 Mantle, which originally sold for pennies, can now fetch $25,000.

Other sports, especially basketball, score with kids and teens. And sports cards are just a warm-up for the hundreds of different sets: Spiderman, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Barbie, Nickelodeon cartoons, even Beavis and Butt-head have been immortalized on cards that put yesterday’s chintzy Charlie’s Angels and Planet of the Apes sets to shame.

Cards inspired by comic books and television shows are especially popular with discerning kids, according to Mitch Cutler, owner of St. Mark’s Comics in New York City. “Kids are more demanding than you think,” he says. “The quality of the cards must improve with every set or they just won’t sell.” One of his biggest movers, and the visual pick of the litter, is Fleer’s Ultra X-Men set (inspired by the Marvel Comics superheroes), which boast a high-shine finish, double-sided color art, and biographies of such characters as Phoenix and Storm ($2 for a pack of 10 cards). Some card series sweeten the pot by including special-edition hologram cards, rub-on tattoos, and stickers.

The good news for parents is that there are lots of trading cards for more mature collectors. One of SkyBox’s more popular sets, the Sandman, is based on the dark DC comic book and pairs eerie gothic paintings on the face with bone-chilling story excerpts on the flip. Because of their larger size and bonus cards with intricate foil borders, they’re priced a little higher ($3 for six).

But before you head down to the local card or comics shop with your kids, remember, old habits die hard. So you may want to pick up a pack of pink gum before you get there.