Good morning, and welcome back to Masterpiece Theater here on Hipsters of the Coast for another edition of Parallels, a brand new series exploring Upper Deck’s Marvel Masterpieces from 2016-2020. My last project was diving deep into the most recent Marvel Masterpieces 2020 set by Dave Palumbo, and as I neared its completion, I became curious about how his work would connect to the previous two “modern” Masterpiece sets that came before him. The 2016 set was done by Joe Jusko, artist of the first Marvel Masterpieces set in 1992, and in 2018 Simone Bianchi followed in his footsteps and completed his own Marvel Masterpieces set with new characters, new Battle Spectra scenes, and an entirely different stylistic take on the Marvel universe.

Each of the three sets are completely unique, and puts an artist’s style in the full spotlight. Jusko’s look is classic comic book, with all the muscle, color, and vibrancy of the sets from the 1990s, but reimagined for a new century. Bianchi is more contemporary: darker and grittier with bold blacks and colored outlines to make his characters distinct.
Palumbo falls somewhere in the middle: his big brushstrokes give a painterly feel to the genre, and bring balance to the modern Masterpieces. His rendition is something that trading cards have never seen.

Across the three sets, there are 42 characters that each of the three artists painted, and several characters have multiple depictions within a given year, giving us quite a bit to look at. In total we’ll look at more than 175 artworks from the last three iterations of Marvel Masterpieces, compare and contrast each artist’s creation, and learn some pretty cool stuff directly from the artist’s themselves along the way. This series isn’t about picking the best work, but rather talking about why each is a Masterpiece in its own right, and how these works function as a family of premier illustrations both within and across their respective sets.

Today begins our three-part journey into the world of the X-Men. We’ll start with ladies first, and while there are a lot of female mutants that appear across the three sets in some form, there are only four that appear in all three. This is Parallels: Female X-Men

Kitty Pryde

Left to Right: Kitty Pryde by Joe Jusko, 2016; Kitty Pryde by Simone Bianchi, 2018; Kitty Pryde by Dave Palumbo, 2020

As we saw with Green Goblin in Parallels: Spider-Man Villains, Katherine Anne “Kitty” Pryde has consistency across her three artworks: she is always depicted phasing through a solid object, and always has her companion, the purple alien dragon Lockheed, right over her shoulder.

Despite these consistencies, we do get nicely varied moods across the trio that are very much in tune with the artist’s larger body of work. Jusko’s is light and playful, with brighter colors and a smiling, wide-eyed face. Bianchi’s is a bit darker, as we’ve come to expect, with an “activated” Lockheed as he too shows off his power. And Palumbo gives us a younger Kitty of resolute focus and in turn the most phased; she’s literally half inside the wall!


Everyone’s favorite blue-skinned lady mutant also has three depictions across the three sets, and in her case, one of these things is not like the other

Left: Mystique by Joe Jusko, 2016. Right: Mystique by Dave Palumbo, 2020.

Both Jusko and Palumbo show Mystique full frontal and facing the camera, weapon in hand. Jusko gave her the contemporary black secret agent costume from the 2000s, while Palumbo went with the classic white gloved look; but both feature the signature skull at the top part of her hair. It’s also worth noting the background differences: Palumbo’s used similar tones to her skin, perhaps to emphasize her shapeshifting ability to blend in with whomever she chooses, while Jusko went more the nose, the aftermath of what happens when she fires that gun.

Mystique by Simone Bianchi, 2018

Bianchi went an entirely different route in between the two aforementioned versions. This is a battle-ready superhero pose again in the recognizable white costume, and though I’m not exactly sure what she’s standing on or where she might be, I sure wouldn’t want to be whoever is off frame.

Emma Frost

We can split Emma Frost’s artworks into two distinct groups within the Marvel Masterpieces sets: sexy Emma Frost, and strong Emma Frost. Both traits are very much a part of her history, and give us a complete view of one of the more complicated characters amongst the X-Men.

Emma Frost by Joe Jusko, 2016; Emma Frost by Simone Bianchi, 2018

In both 2016 and 2018 we get the character of Emma Frost with a side dish of sex appeal; her exposed midriff (among other things) draws the eye immediately. Jusko’s 2016 is pure cheesecake, and Bianchi’s provides a balance between the sex and power I mentioned earlier.

Emma Frost (Base) by Dave Palumbo, 2020; Emma Frost (Holofoil) by Dave Palumbo, 2020

Palumbo went in a completely different direction with Frost, as he did with a lot of his female characters across his set cards. While her midriff is still open, each of his two depictions focus elsewhere and emphasize one of her powers: the base card, her telepathic ability, and the holofoil her crystalline form. They’re the perfect complement to the other two images, and provide an entirely different perspective. In the world of Marvel Masterpieces, you can have it all!


Storm appears five times across our subject sets: once at each insert level in 2016, and then a single time each in the 2018 and 2020 sets. When grouped together, a narrative begins to appear, and mini-stories like these are exactly what I’m looking for.

Left to Right: Storm (Base) by Joe Jusko, 2016; Storm by Simone Bianchi, 2018; Storm by Dave Palumbo, 2020

It’s only fitting that Storm is shown most often harnessing the power that is her namesake, and each artist shows her reaching toward a lightning filled sky. Whether she’s flying or feet planted firmly, or extending one arm or two, there is no doubt about the relationship of mutant to ability.

Storm (Holofoil) by Joe Jusko, 2016

What goes up must come down they say, and the holofoil insert in 2016 shows us Storm unleashed—the business end of what was going on in the first three images. Likely just seconds after the torso-up view we see in the base set of the same year, lighting rains down below the frame, and she, the Storm herself, showcases what she is capable of once let loose.

Storm (Canvas Gallery) by Joe Jusko, 2016

Even after writing all this, I haven’t decided at exactly what point in time this portrait represents. Is it the calm before the Storm? The eye of the Storm? Or an intimate visual of the calamity that is the Storm. This is an intense view of the character, and a unique take that stands alone across everything we’ve looked at so far. In his book, Jusko even called it “The most effective close-up I painted for the project.”

Wrapping Up

This article was a bit shorter than previous iterations, featuring only fifteen artworks across four characters; while both the 2016 and 2020 sets featured many X-Men characters, a lot of popular figures were, for whatever reason, missing in 2018. But even this smaller cross section provides a perfect lens into the diversity of artwork between these three groups: from the super sexy to the super powerful, and similar design elements we see carried across all three sets. It’s also again provided the opportunity  to create small narratives where none may have existed before, and forge those connections that combine these three sets in the oeuvre that is the Marvel Masterpieces line.

Next month we’ll continue in the X-Men universe, and take a look at the male X-Men, save for one popular guy who will get his own article; I’ll let you guess who that might be. I’ll also be covering the brand new Marvel Unbound set by fred.ian, and you’ll find that first quarterly article sometime in August. In the meantime, you can keep up with all things Marvel Masterpieces 2020 by following me on Twitter. Feel free to ask questions or retweet to continue the conversation. Thanks and see you next time!

Donny Caltrider has been playing Magic since 2002 and collecting original Magic art since 2017. He has an M.A. in Museum Studies from Johns Hopkins University and enjoys telling stories about art, objects, and the intersection of fantasy with real-life. You can find him on Twitter talking about #mtgart, museums, and other #vorthos related goodness. Follow along and continue the conversation!

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