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Official Article

90's Marvel T-Shirt Ads Part 1

Over the last few months I have been pouring over my comic book collection to share old ads featuring toys, games and snack foods, but this time I may be going a step too far. Even if this article only has an audience of one, I'll at least have the satisfaction of knowing that I am the only source for this kind of pointless trivia online. Yep, today we're talking 90's Marvel t-shirt ads. 


Why? Because for a brief period from 1991-1992, a company called MRI went from producing a few simple super hero shirts, to a clothing line that could only be contained on 2 page spreads in Marvel Comics publications. The sheer variety of characters was astonishing, so let's take a look at the madness.

Captain America 50th Anniversary


As far as I can tell, this celebration of Captain America's 50th Anniversary in comics on "Earth Fiber" aka 100% cotton, was the maiden voyage of this endeavor. We are told that the shirt can only be ordered through this ad and that it is in fact, "a truly hot collector's item you must own". Sure it will never be produced again, but that's the case with most clothing, isn't it? By that logic, you and I have got whole closets full of collector's items. I'll be honest, the design is pretty awesome with Cap heroically raising his shield, while holding the American flag in the other hand. If it was just this single image of the star spangled hero I would have worn it no problem, but Steve Rogers made some strange choices when sending out invitations to his anniversary bash. 


Hulk, The Thing, Spider-Man, Thor, those guys are not getting stopped by security. But The Punisher and Wolverine? A few drinks is all it takes before those tough guys are tearing up that ballroom and there goes your security deposit. The Human Torch is definitely a fire hazard, but most concerning is that fact that on either end of the line you have 2 of the biggest baddies in the Marvel Universe, Doctor Doom and the Red Skull! Seriously Cap, what were you thinking? That venue is going to be a pile of rubble by the end of the night.

Weapon X/Team Earth/Ghost Rider


Expanding the line from 1 to 3 shirts, these Marvel T's highlighted a trio of early 90's comics superstars, but the ad copy deserves a mention too as it features a parody of the Bo Knows series of sportswear ads, replacing the famous phrase with "Spidey Knows". The origin of Wolverine's adamantium skeleton was a major revelation at this time, so throwing Weapon X on a shirt must have caught the attention of a few fanboys. Ghost Rider had also been re-launched with a young kid named Danny Ketch taking over as the Spirit of Vengeance from Johnny Blaze and the flames escaping the square panel border is a nice touch. But I really want to talk about the shirt in the middle.


Just in case you can't make out the letters, it says "Silver Surfer's Team Earth, To Surf and Protect". Stupid, but it makes me chuckle. For those unfamiliar with Marvel's publication history, Team Earth was not the title of a comic starring Norrin Radd leading a group of cosmic tree huggers. Further adding to the confusion is the ad description text giving the official name of the item as "Silver Surfer's Team Earth Cosmic Environmental Statement From Marvel's Star Surfer On White".  I think they could have stopped after the first 4 words, don't you?

Marvel Masterpieces


This looks to be a one-off attempt at rebranding  the Marvel T's as Marvel Masterpieces which much have conflicted with a copyright or something, since it was never used again for these ads. Of course it was later repurposed for the amazing painted trading card series, but I digress. Apparently we are deep into the crossover event of the year, since we have Infinity Gauntlet and Silver Surfer designs this time around. Cap's 50th shirt is still hanging in there for it's last appearance in these ads, but I'm more interested in the Todd McFarlane Spider-Man shirt. Not so much for it's design, but rather it's historical significance. 


In a recent documentary about the founding of Image Comics, McFarlane plainly stated that a major reason he left Marvel was that the company had been making so much money off merchandise with his artwork on it, but he didn't see any additional checks coming his way. When he approached them about more compensation the suits said no way, so Todd led a mutiny with his fellow star artists to form their own wildly successful comics company (at least for a few years). I wonder how many of these shirts they were selling.

X-Men/Darkhawk/Wolverine/Spidey & Venom


Please note, this batch was, "Cut and printed for maximum cosmic style!" Whatever that means. Up top we're getting a black and white version of Jim Lee's X-Men No. 1 cover, with graphics spreading over every inch of the shirt, making your body a walking canvas. A similar effect is used with the speed lines of the Spidey and Venom design, so that they seem to be jumping out of your shirt. Of course if I had to pick one for my wardrobe, I'd go with the Darkhawk, as I'm pretty sure this piece of merch was his only non-comic promotional item and you gotta help a super guy out.


It's worth pointing out that Darkhawk was kind of infringing on Wolverine's gig with the three protruding claws on his right hand. Maybe that's what got Logan so mad that he's tearing the shirt to pieces. The concept is cool, but the angle is troubling for any dude that chose to wear it. I mean, Wolverine is clearly slashing downwards in the direction of a tender area. Instead of heading south of the border, couldn't he just have been ripping across the chest? I'll give him a pass though, since the ol' canucklehead is rockin' his brown and orange duds, my personal favorite look.

Holiday Sweathshirt Extravaganza


A two page spread? OH MY! The ad copy is very mutant heavy this time around with statements like, "Don't be afraid to mutate your style!" and claims that, "Our mad, mutant artist has totally blown his overactive mind by creating Marvel Sweatshirts!". Really? Your holding a deranged mutant hostage in your design department and the craziest thing he came up with was a sweatshirt featuring a small picture of Spider-Man or Cyclops on it? At least they are partially made from "Space Age Manmade Fibers" aka Polyester. OK, the onto the designs. More McFarlane Spidey, more Jim Lee X-Men No. 1 cover art, Magneto in a Maxi-Print style, Silver Surfer escaping Galactus on a pretty cool space print fabric, but then out of nowhere, Deathlok! 


Here's an older character who really got a push in the 90's, but never achieved legendary status. Maybe it's because he looks like a skinnier, uglier Colossus? I actually owned the Toy Biz Marvel Super Heroes Action figure, which had a cool head-plate that moved up to reveal the cyborg's human brain, but it never got me to buy his comics. I'll have to get around to that one of these days. Although, I was excited to see the character incorporated into the early seasons of the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. TV show. Now I can't end this section without talking about the Spidey vs Morbius shirt with panels pulled directly from McFarlane issues of the Spider-Man title. 


This is a concept I am totally behind, if for no other reason than you could actually read your clothes if you got bored. Just imagine sitting in class, enduring another lesson on the Civil War, then looking down to see Spider-Man in the black costume, tussling with a living vampire. Plus, with the panels being printed on the back and front, the kid behind you could totally do the same thing. The result of this would obviously be a conversation about comics at recess, ending in you becoming best friends by the end of the day. Bless you MRI Corporation, you're making the world a better place.

So that's the end of my jibber-jabber about old t-shirts for now, but there's more to come. These ads were all featured in comics with 1991 cover dates and they really upped their game for 1992. So keep an eye out for a second installment coming soon.

So which was your favorite design featured? Were you one of the lucky few to wear some of these shirts on the playground? Let's hear about it!
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