Remember the Garbage Pail Kids? Yeah? That's probably because you're getting old. This year, the Cabbage Patch Kids-parody-turned-gross-out trading card series is celebrating three decades of delighting kids and horrifying adults.
The Topps collection—brainchild of illustrators Art Spiegelman and Mark Newgarden—rose to fame thanks to its cartoon depictions of children vomiting, being blown up, falling apart, and being subjected to more or less every other grotesque spectacle its artists could conjure up. It quickly became a massive success and was rolled out worldwide under local names like Snotlings (Italy) and Trashlings (Latin America). At the height of their popularity, the cards were actually banned from most schools in the States because teachers thought they were causing too much of a distraction.
To mark the anniversary, I emailed co-creator Mark Newgarden for a chat about why he first decided to start drawing kids being ravaged by spiders.
VICE: You worked on Garbage Pail Kids from the start, right? How did the project come about?
Mark Newgarden: To some extent, Garbage Pail Kids grew out of a series called Wacky Packages that had been very successful for Topps in the late 1960s and 1970s. Wacky Packages were stickers, sold with bubble gum, that featured illustrated parodies of familiar consumer products. Crest Toothpaste became Crust Toothpaste, Pepsi Cola became Pupsi Cola, etc. I used to collect them as a kid and plaster them all over my mother's kitchen door.
In 1984 I got a job at Topps through my former teacher at the School of Visual Arts, Len Brown. He was working as the director of the Topps New Products Department and assigned me the task of developing material for a new Wacky Packages series—the first one in many years.
During the series' original run a lot of large companies sent "cease and desist" orders because of the parodies, so Topps was always looking for "fresh meat." The Cabbage Patch Kids dolls were taking off in American pop culture at the time, and they seemed like a solid target. I dubbed my parody Garbage Pail Kids and sketched it up. It seemed to work. The concept was subsequently moved up the production pipeline and became a sticker in the 1985 Wacky Packages series.
As our work on Wacky Packages progressed, the Cabbage Patch Kid dolls were rapidly becoming a pretty huge fad, and Topps was always interested in anything that was becoming a pretty huge fad
I read somewhere that they were trying to settle a license with the Cabbage Patch Kids people at some point. What happened to that?
From what I understand, the Cabbage Patch Kids people just weren't interested in bubble-gum cards, stickers, or Topps. I think they felt like it was too low-end a product category for their brand. You have to understand that those dolls were originally luxury items, more or less "hand crafted" and sold for fairly outrageous prices at exclusive stores they set up as "hospitals," complete with "medical staff." It was quite an elaborate marketing strategy.
Anyway, Arthur Shorin, the CEO of Topps, decided that if Topps couldn't get Cabbage Patch Kids then they'd do it their way. During one of Arthur's product meetings, the GPK Wacky Package painting—which was sitting in a folder on my desk—was requested for review. After the meeting, I got it back and Len Brown told me, "OK, this one's out. But now we have to figure out how to do 44 of these things!"
How did you pick the artists and writers that ended up making it?
We got lucky. There was a lot of great talent at Topps at the time. John Pound became the lead artist on the GPK and, in my opinion, the success of the product was largely due to the high quality of his work. With his background as both a cartoonist and a science fiction and fantasy artist, John had the perfect skill sets for the job.
We asked John and two other artists to try out some different concepts of what Garbage Pail Kids might look like. Of the three, John, who'd already painted the GPK Wacky Package, scored a perfect bull's-eye. He submitted a lot of great ideas right off the bat. I think that between John and I, we "wrote" about half of the first series.
Tomas Bunk started out illustrating the card backs and soon became our second lead painter. Tomas was an underground cartoonist from Germany who had connected with Art Spiegelman after arriving in New York. His dense, manic, cartoony approach was a great compliment to John's more iconic work. The third major Garbage Pail Kids artist was James Warhola, another illustrator with a background in fantasy art—and, believe it or not, the nephew of Andy Warhol. His renderings had this spooky, moody vibe that fit in nicely with the rest.
Most of the visual gags were created by Art and I, as well as by the artists themselves. John Pound, especially, was a real idea machine. I wrote most of the backs, along with Jay Lynch and others. It was a group effort.
Tomas Bunk and Mark Newgarden, Brooklyn, 1987. © Mark Newgarden 2015
I remember reading that you thought you were the only one who was actually excited about the series. How come?
I think, in general, there was a certain ennui and a jaded attitude about the work among the Topps "brain trust." I found it perplexing at first. Today, I understand it a bit better. Part of the reason I was hired, I guess, was that I was young and eager, and maybe a little naive. I actually found doing this kind of thing fun. It wasn't a burden. It wasn't boring. I didn't have decades of history there and I wasn't entrenched in formulas. I liked it. So they took advantage of that and I was given leeway. I was 23 when I started and probably the youngest person in the whole building. Ben Solomon, the original head of the Topps production department, was still there at the time and was probably my elder by a half-century.
Anyway, once the series became a certified hit, everybody there, no matter how tangentially connected, wanted to put their name on it.
Did you expect it to be so popular with kids and annoy so many adults?
Garbage Pail Kids is exactly what children like. I wasn't entirely surprised by the controversy, either. I honestly don't know if Garbage Pail Kids would have ever got off the ground had it been made today. The PC police would probably shut it down pretty quickly.
Mark Newgarden Inside Topps, Brooklyn, 1987. © Mark Newgarden 2015
I read that your parents were proud of your involvement in the project, and happy that you'd "found a slot somewhere to express the more perverse aspects of [your] personality." What were you like as a kid?
I was the oldest of six kids. I read a lot, drew a lot, and entertained my younger siblings with disturbing stories and gross pictures. I guess it was the perfect background for the job.
Were there cards that never made it into the series because they took things a bit too far? Where did you draw the line?
We always had an extra painting or two up our sleeves for the final "elimination round" of each series. So if Arthur Shorin objected to an image we would have a slightly less edgy back-up ready to go. We would then resubmit the rejected images next time around, again and again, and eventually wear poor Arthur down. But yeah, there were still a few gags that never saw the light of day. A pickled baby floating in a jar, a kid in a wheelchair jumping off a diving board, a post-nuclear holocaust GPK wall shadow are a few of the ones I can remember. In total, we produced 16 series—about 660 images—and more or less every finished painting was eventually included.
Did you get a lot of hate mail from outraged parents or teachers?
Topps tried hard to shield the creative team from direct contact with the public. We never received any credit for our work on the series. Occasionally a secretary would pass along a particular piece of mail if they thought I might get a kick out of it, but I never saw any death threats. We did see plenty of public hatred for GPK on TV newscasts and in print. Most of it was absurd and amusing, and of course it fueled sales. It was the perfect storm for Topps.
A live-action GPK movie was released in 1987. In 2005, you said you were yet to see a worse movie. Did you ever manage to find one?
No. I have no explanation as to why any movie could end up being quite so awful.
Do you think there's still room for children's satire today? Could you give me a few examples of some recent kid stuff that really made you laugh?
I like to think that there's still room for funny stuff for kids, and still I work hard at it. But I have to admit that I see less and less interesting, creative, and genuinely funny work being produced in any medium. The climate is wrong and the odds just seem to be stacked against it. There seems to be no more privately-owned businesses like Topps that peddle humor directly to kids without parents, teachers, librarians, or multi-tiered corporations running interference. I think humor—especially satire—generally makes gatekeeper-type adults very, very nervous.
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