Featured photo: While the rest of the world binged episodes of “Ted Lasso” and learned to bake sourdough during the pandemic, Dos Santos spent hours — about 10,192 hours if calculated (14 hours a day, seven days a week for two years) — holed away in his home studio painting 137 original works for the official 2022 Marvel Masterpieces set. The pack was released on Aug. 10. (photo by Carolyn de Berry)
When artist Dan Dos Santos was about 14 years old, he would go to his local comic book store and buy a pack of Marvel Masterpieces trading cards. It was the first time he was introduced to comic book art that had been painted, and it changed his life trajectory.
“They were the reason I wanted to start painting in the first place,” Dos Santos recalls. “They were so real and impressive. I knew it was something I wanted to do.”
One of the cards that Dos Santos remembers collecting was that of Psylocke, a superhero who touts telepathic and telekinetic powers and is commonly associated with the X-Men. In the original 1992 card, Psylocke was pictured with long, swirling black hair that circled her torso and her arms up, holding two swords — one in front of her body and one behind her. These days, the card sells for about $20 on eBay because it was given away as a freebie in Wizard magazine. Still, Dos Santos’ early exposure to artist Joe Jusko’s cards — of which there were originally 100 — made it possible for him to envision a career in illustration. Now, 20 years later, Dos Santos’ love of those Marvel trading cards has come full circle.
While the rest of the world binged episodes of “Ted Lasso” and learned to bake sourdough during the pandemic, Dos Santos spent hours — about 10,192 hours if calculated (14 hours a day, seven days a week for two years) — holed away in his home studio painting 137 original works for the official 2022 Marvel Masterpieces set. The pack was released on Aug. 10.
Dos Santos, who lives in Greensboro with his wife and kids, is a known quantity in the illustration world. He’s spent years painting book covers for fantasy and sci-fi series like the Mercy Thompson series by Patricia Biggs and covers for Brandon Sanderson’s novels. Dozens of his covers have reached the No. 1 spot on the New York Times bestseller list.
Even so, Dos Santos says that this batch of paintings was the most difficult ones to produce, mainly because of the time crunch.
“I made 137 paintings in a two-year period,” Dos Santos says. “I normally do about 20 paintings a year, so this was about six years of work I crammed into under two years.”
He says he’s still going through physical therapy to undo the damage. It wasn’t his hands or arms that suffered, he says. It was the sitting.
“My body was not used to sitting and not getting outdoors,” he says.
Still, the opportunity was impossible to pass up.
“It was quite literally my childhood dream job,” Dos Santos says.
He explains that due to his name recognition in the industry, Marvel execs reached out to him a few years ago to paint a new set of cards for 2022. And that was because in 2016, the original artist of the Marvel Masterpieces, Joe Jusko, rekindled the brand by doing an anniversary set.
The cards are standard trading card size: 2.5 inches by 3.5 inches. But the paintings themselves ranged in size. For some, Dos Santos would paint on a canvas that was about 10 inches by 14 inches while for others, he’d scale up.
Those tended to be his favorites because he was able to add more detail. For example, Dos Santos’ piece of Spider-Man shows Peter Parker dead center, pulling on his iconic mask. His face is mostly covered by the mask, with only his chin and neck exposed. In the sepia-toned background, faces and scenes from Parker’s life fill the rest of the canvas. Mary Jane’s face sits in the upper right corner while Gwen Stacy is captured in action in the bottom left as she runs out towards the viewer, her right hand reaching out past the canvas. In the upper left corner, Aunt May and Uncle Ben embrace with their eyes closed. Villains Green Goblin and Doctor Octopus also make an appearance.
“I wanted to encompass more than what a traditional card does,” Dos Santos explains about the composition. “Usually they’re just pin-ups, but for these I wanted to embody who the whole character is. For Spider-Man, I wanted to show him doing more than just swinging around town…. I wanted to show that these are all the reasons why Spider-Man puts on his mask everyday.”
That painting and the one of Captain America, which shows three kids standing in front of a poster of Cap taped on a brick wall and saluting him a la Norman Rockwell, are ones that Dos Santos says he’s most proud of. Each one took about five days to complete. Not only are they the most complex, but they speak to the larger reason why superheroes continue to resonate with people today, he says.
“They’re kind of like our modern Greek mythology,” Dos Santos says. “They represent some sort of ideal of a human emotion.”
For the most part, Dos Santos says he was given creative liberty to paint the iconic heroes the way he wanted to. But because of licensing rules, he couldn’t show guns pointed at the viewers, any blood or rips in the costumes. That made painting Wolverine particularly difficult.
The other tough part was finding ways to put his own spin on the highly recognizable characters that are so beloved by fans throughout the world.
“It was a weird conundrum,” Dos Santos says. “I spent a lot of time thinking about how to do something new and innovative, but then I just came to the conclusion that I just want to do me…. And after I started to embrace my own version of the characters, I ended up making them more original anyways.”
His other favorites include the card of Jubilee, a mutant from X-Men, who his niece posed for. The card shows a straightforward portrait of the character with her hair cropped short and her signature pink glasses.
By now, most of the original paintings that Dos Santos painted for the set have been sold to various collectors from around the world, many of whom he invited to his house for a private showing.
The top seller? The Spider-Man painting which sold for $50,000 at public sale. Dos Santos says the amount broke a record for the largest amount for a Marvel card painting sold on the open market, and it’s the most he’s ever been paid for a single work.
The cards themselves are sold three to a pack with 12 packs in a box. One box costs about $900 on the market, he says.
And while that’s cool to see, Dos Santos also wishes that they were more accessible to kids who want to collect just like he did.
“I was hoping to inspire the next generation like that 1992 set did for me,” he says.
Eventually, Dos Santos hopes that Marvel or Upper Deck, the company that printed the cards, creates a book of the paintings.
For now, he’s keeping a few of the works including the one of Jubilee, a painting of Miles Morales and Gwen Stacy, and the one of Captain America.
“It’s meant to be a family heirloom,” he says.
He’s hoping that his kids, who are about the age that he was when he started collecting cards, hold onto his work as they get older. And looking back, Dos Santos says he’s proud of every single piece he created for the set.
“If you asked 13-year-old Dan what his dream job was, it was to paint this set,” Dos Santos says. “And I’m proud of it…. I didn’t release a single card that I’m not 100 percent proud of.”
Learn more about Dan Dos Santos, including how to take his painting classes, at dandossantos.com. To support his art and have a chance to bid on the works, visit his Patreon at patreon.com/DandosSantos.
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