I have a fraught relationship with the term junk wax.
There was a time when I used it at will - heck, I named an entire theme on this blog after it - and generally thought it was an apt name for a generally dark period of baseball cards. It's still in wide use - say "Junk Wax Era" to a collector, and chances are they'll know exactly what you're talking about.
But I don't say junk wax much anymore. For one thing, it unfairly banishes a span of time that actually had a lot of good stuff in it to cardboard purgatory. Perhaps more importantly, I don't think it's fair to the people who grew up collecting in those years. I certainly wouldn't like it if someone essentially called my cherished childhood memories of late '90s/early 2000s cards a steaming pile of trash (though I'm sure some already do).
Still, like any era before or after it, "junk wax" had a fair amount of bad to go with the good - and for some reason the misanthrope in me wanted to take a brand-by-brand look at some of the worst designs of the era, the ones that perhaps rightfully belong in the junk heap.
Bowman - 1989
Might as well address the elephant in the room right away - as I've mentioned many times before, 1989 Bowman might well be my least-favorite set in the history of baseball cards.
I'll just say this: when I hear the term "junk wax," I think of '89 Bowman.
Donruss - 1988
Going on the aggregate, Donruss might've had the roughest go of any brand of the "junk wax era" (which I personally define as 1987-1994).
It wasn't a great time for Donruss - 1987, 1990 & 1991 were all in the running for this dubious honor, but in the end I have to go with '88 Donruss because man does this set suck. There's no interesting photography to speak of, and I always think of the LUDICROUS SPEED! scene in "Spaceballs" whenever I see those borders.
Some overproduction-era sets have have grown on me with age - but '88 Donruss sure hasn't.
Fleer - 1992
If 1989 Bowman didn't exist, there's a good chance '92 Fleer would be my personal Worst Set Ever.
There's just nothing good to say about it. I'm not a fan of vertical font, and every card feels like it's being slowly crushed by one of the hilariously slow-moving doors you see in a bad James Bond ripoff. I think it's telling that you rarely hear anyone mention this set, and when you do, it's apathetic, at best.
I don't doubt that some of the cards in '92 Fleer could've been great, but then you see this odd design lop off half of Dennis Eckersley's arm, and there goes any chance of that.
Score - 1992
Even though the design is a bit more interesting, '92 Score suffers from the same '92 Fleer "closing doors" phenomenon that makes every card in the set feel claustrophobic (see: half of Garry Templeton's right arm floating in some kind of blueish void).
It's a weird misstep in what was an otherwise solid era for Score - this is really the only one of their designs I'd classify as flat-out bad.
Topps - 1990
Topps probably had the best stretch of any set during the "junk wax" years - I'm a fan of the entire 1987-94 Topps run, and 1990 Topps has the unfortunate honor of being the one I like the least.
The comic-book inspired borders are neat, but '90 Topps suffers from a common overproduction-era flaw, in that the photos are dull with a capital D. Ask me to name a specific guy's '90 Topps card, and there's a good chance I can't do it. I've always gotten the feeling that 98 percent of this set's manpower was used on the design, and the photos chosen as an afterthought.
Sure, the sheer look 1990 Topps is forever stuck in my memory, but somehow the cards themselves aren't.
Upper Deck - 1994
You could make a case that 1994 Upper Deck is the most disappointing set in the history of baseball cards.
I've never heard a bad word about '93 UD - it's gotta be the best set of the "junk wax era," and one of the all-time greats - and Upper Deck followed that up with...this. A weird double-image miasma that makes the horrendous choice of using gold foil on a black background (and not one, but two different vertical fonts!).
Continuing the legacy of Fleer and Score, these cards also feel squished - was there some kind of weird closing-door kink in the early '90s? Unlike other sets, however, there's actually some interesting photography in this one if you can look past the claustrophobia. It's kind of the anti-1990 Topps, in that the photos are good, but the design is awful. And definitely a dud when compared to the greatness of '93 UD.
I think twice when the term junk wax pops into my head nowadays, which is probably a good thing - but every time I see a card from most of these sets, I can't help but wonder if there's something to that unfortunate label.