When I was a kid I couldn’t afford to buy many comics, and the libraries didn’t have the collected edition pool that I’ve come to rely on today. My Spider-Man and X-title reading was sparse and erratic, with big gaps between the issues I could actually get my hands on. Because of this I felt like I was always dipping in and out of the stream of the stories, briefly popping my head into the room to hear a snippet of the ongoing conversation.
My knowledge of the world got built out of ephemera as much as source material – the cartoons, the action figures, but most of all the Fleer Ultra trading cards.
Fleer trading cards were a window into a world that I knew the cartoons only skimmed. Characters I’d never heard of, or knew only by name; events that, for me, always happened off-panel. I’ve still never read ‘Fatal Attractions’, but it loomed large over everything.
The trading cards didn’t fill in all the blanks, of course, and I think that was part of what made them magic – I knew that they were just little glimpses of an even bigger world, a world where hundreds of stories were happening all at once, a swarm of characters’ lives all intertwined, a world where the tiny shards I saw hinted at even bigger battles and wilder adventures.
I’m catching up with a lot of the classic 90s stuff now, and while I love it for both genuine and ironic reasons, in some ways it’s making that world a little smaller.
Ultra Fleet is, in part, a love letter to that era of superhero comics, but more so to the one-step-removed medium that I read them in. Trading cards are such a product of their time, it seems, such a thing of the 90s, that it’s hard to imagine them working today (I guess in terms of filling in the blanks for poor comic-deprived kids like me they’ve probably been replaced by Wikipedia, and as far as collecting goes, I dunno. Pogs? Yu-Gi-Oh? Who knows what these damn Millennials are into).
I’m not trying to ape the Fleer Ultra style, or the 90s Marvel world. These cards will be in my style about characters and adventures I’d like to read now. But my interests are shaped by my influences, so some of that stuff’s bound to creep through. I still regularly wear a jacket over a hoodie, and I can’t help but blame that at least partly on Nate Grey.
Ultra Fleet comes out of my somewhat neglected webcomic Jenny Music, and while people who’ve read those adventures will recognise characters, and get a bit more backstory for them from UF, neither one is necessary to enjoy the other. Some of the other stories that feature in Ultra Fleet may one day get made for real – either as part of JM or as standalone things – but a lot of them won’t, I don’t think. Some of these stories can only be seen in glimpses, with the rest filled in, the connections made and conclusions drawn, however your imagination sees fit.
It’s how I read comics for a long time, and the comics were more magical for it.