Susan Wurthman of Massapequa Park said her daughter Tracy, who is 7 years old, collected Garbage Pail Kids until ''I put a stop to it'' because ''they're not at all healthy.'' In support of that argument, Mrs. Wurthman referred to a character named Dead Fred, depicted as a cigar-smoking juvenile gangster with a bullet penetrating his forehead. ''My daughter said: 'I like this one. My dolly would look nice with its head blown off, too.'"
—The New York Times, February 5, 1986
Vomit. Snot. Drool. Occasionally, pus. No oozing orifice went unexplored in the 660 stickers produced by Topps Chewing Gum, Inc. between 1985 and 1988, when its line of Garbage Pail Kids trading cards broke free of convenience store counters to become the single most controversial kid’s product in the country. With characters like Luke Puke and Messy Tessie dripping bodily fluids in portraits created by talented—even Pulitzer Prize-winning—artists, the series delighted an audience obsessed with the gross.
While children bought well over 800 million of the mucus-covered cards, adults were mortified. Psychologists wondered if a preoccupation with upchuck could affect a child’s development. Schools banned them outright. Protest groups managed to get a CBS cartoon canceled before a single episode even aired. But no one was more offended than the Cabbage Patch Kids, whose lawyers argued that the vile, dimpled drawings were copyright infringement and devastating to their squeaky-clean reputation.
For the first time ever, over a dozen of the principal creative forces behind the Garbage Pail Kids—and a few of its detractors—have been roped in by mental_floss to discuss the making of the series, the cards that went too far, and how the widespread panic raised Topps’s profits while lowering their standards. No company since Kleenex has profited better from boogers. This is how they did it.
I. THE GARBAGE MEN
In 1938, Russian immigrant Morris Shorin decided to sell his gas station and tobacco interests to finance his family’s entry into the lucrative chewing gum business. With his four sons—Joe, Ira, Abram, and Philip—Shorin founded the Topps Chewing Gum company, named for their desire to “top” the competition.
In an effort to make their bubble gum more appealing to consumers, in 1948 Topps began inserting “X-ray” novelty cards into products that would materialize when viewed under cellophane. While those eventually gave way to sports cards, the company continued to pursue non-sports properties like Hopalong Cassidy and, later, Star Wars. It was only natural that Shorin’s grandson, Topps CEO Arthur Shorin, would try to secure the rights to the hottest pop culture property of the early 1980s: the Cabbage Patch Kids.
Mark Newgarden (Creative Consultant, Topps 1984-1993): The idea to do a Cabbage Patch parody series originated directly with Arthur Shorin. Topps had previously pursued a license with the Cabbage Patch folks.
Len Brown (Creative Director, Topps 1959-2000): We actually tried to get the rights to do Cabbage Patch, which were very popular. When that failed, one of the senior officers at Topps, and it was probably Arthur, said, “Well, let’s parody them if they don’t give us the rights.”
Roger Schlaifer (Former Licensing Agent, Cabbage Patch Kids): I went out to see Arthur Shorin at a country club. We were going to play golf but got rained out. In retrospect, it was probably symbolism.
Newgarden: All I ever heard was that [Cabbage Patch owners] Original Appalachian Artworks felt it was too low-end a product category for their high-profile brand. You have to remember that these dolls were originally luxury items and sold for fairly outrageous prices.
Schlaifer: I was interested and they seemed interested. I asked Topps to make a proposal on what they thought the cards would do, royalties, all of that. We had a unique agreement with licensees that penalized them if they didn’t come out with new product. All of a sudden, they stopped taking my calls.
Brown: I don’t know what was going on between Arthur and Roger.
Newgarden: I recall hearing they [Appalachian] had a problem with bubble gum cards. Maybe the severe terms were a reflection of that.
Topps’s decision to satirize the Cabbage Patch Kids had precedent in Wacky Packages, the company’s line of cards dating back to the 1960s that spoofed consumer products. It was part of an irreverent sense of humor that had been around nearly as long as the company itself.
Jay Lynch (Freelancer, New Product Development, Topps): Norm Saunders painted Batman cards for Topps in the 1960s. There was an extra space for a card on one of the proof sheets, and so for fun, he painted a secret Batman card with Batman taking a dump in the Bat-toilet. There was even copy on the back: “In the middle of an adventure, Batman must answer nature’s call.” There are about a dozen out there, just for the people who worked on it. Nobody ever told upper management.
Brown: Topps had always done real well with baseball. Non-sports cards, I called them novelty cards, those came and went. It was just added business.
Lynch: There was a Wacky Packages card Mark Newgarden did called Garbage Pail Kids. He did the rough, wrote the joke, and John Pound did the painting.
John Pound (Primary Artist, Garbage Pail Kids): The gag they had me do for Wacky Packages, they gave me a rough sketch and it looked like a little baby bum in a trash can.
Brown: It didn’t look like how the final Garbage Pail design looked, but it certainly came from Mark and his group.
Newgarden: I vividly recall that Cabbage Patch parody being rushed into that meeting to show Arthur that we were already thinking along such lines. And an hour later the word came down that we needed to figure out how to make a series out of this thing.
That responsibility fell to Topps art director Art Spiegelman, who was finishing what would become his Pulitzer-winning account of the Holocaust, Maus; supervisor Stan Hart; and Newgarden. Together, the New Product Development team began to hammer out the approach to “GPK” by auditioning a number of artists—Pound among them.
Pound: The idea was to be rude, crude, gross, rebellious, snotty, disgusting, all of these things. I sent them 30 or 50 pages of ideas, including a nice one of a little kid barfing on a baby blanket.
Lynch: Art Spiegelman at first just did a rough drawing of a doll with a big nose named Olga. It didn’t make sense, and he knew it, but eventually it was he who figured the way to do 80 cards which were all different, yet all part of the same universe.
Howard Cruse (Freelance Artist): I sent some concept sketches to them, but I didn’t know they were doing a riff on Cabbage Patch Kids and so my concept had nothing to do with that look. They were just strange and weird dolls. Playfully grim.
Newgarden: Right off the bat, John gave us about four times as much input as the others, including pages of gags, color studies and logo treatments. His creative energy literally dripped off the page.
Pound: The idea of making them disgusting was not sitting real well with me. For selfish reasons, I wanted to have them feel good to look at. I was vaguely aware if you had the gross mixed with the cute, it was more interesting.
Newgarden: He worked in acrylics and airbrush and his paintings were bright and clean and vividly colored. His sense of composition and staging was impeccable. He brought a very strong, direct, poster-like approach to GPK that made almost any concept feel positively monumental.
Pound: Art or Len said, “OK, we like what you sent, let’s get practical. Can you do 44 paintings in two months?” The wanted it done by one artist for a consistent look and feel. It was basically a painting a day. I had to break it down—background is one hour, flesh is one hour, clothing one hour. They were all about five inches by seven, or twice the size of the card.
Newgarden: I do vividly recall opening John's FedEx package with that Adam Bomb painting in it pretty early on in the process. I felt then and there we had something special cooking. Strangely enough, I think I was the only one at Topps who felt it at the time.
Pound: Adam Bomb was about 85 percent my idea. I had the sketch of the kid sitting there pressing the button, and in background, a bomb blast going off. When Art Spiegelman approved the idea, he said, “Well, make it coming out of the head.” It’s like, "Yes, good one!"
Newgarden: There was always a lot of back and forth. Phone meetings, faxes, FedExed tracing paper overlays with voluminous notes. John's pencils or paintings would come in on a Monday and I'd make notes. Then on Tuesday, Art would make notes on my notes and we'd call John in the afternoon and hash it all out.
Lynch: My overall reaction was that this was nuts. You know, “Nobody will buy this.” But Arthur Shorin always thought it was a good idea.
Bob Sikoryak (Freelance Artist): When you talk to Art, he always references Harvey Kurtzman and MAD magazine. GPK totally came out of that.
Newgarden, Spiegelman, and other freelancers and Topps employees would often find themselves in brainstorming sessions, conceiving of characters plagued by indigestion or runny noses. Crucially, the pieces had names—Acne Amy, Slain Wayne—that allowed kids to feel as though they were personalized for their amusement.
Lynch: Art [Spiegelman] developed the system of a negative adjective before a kid's first name. He figured out the method. If there wasn’t a clear method, we’d be doing stuff randomly, throwing it against the wall.
Newgarden: We'd sit around the table, turn the paintings over one at time and play at being the Algonquin wits of snot and vomit.
Pound: There was one case where I had a stomach flu or food poisoning and I remember thinking between barfing, “How about a waiter barfing up a complete meal at a restaurant?” That one did get accepted.
Brown: Pound would send in rough sketches. We’d look at it as a group and make suggestions like, “More snot!”
Pound: For some reason, snot never occurred to me at first. Vomit, yes.
John Mariano (Freelance Writer/Artist): It was no different from a couple of guys hanging out in the cafeteria, running stuff by each other. Whatever makes you laugh. Our objective was to satirize.
Newgarden: Len was always very concerned about making absolutely sure we were including the most popular kid names of the moment. We never had a "Mark" in the first GPK series because Len insisted it wasn't a popular name. Since nobody ever thought these would go beyond the next series, the idea was to always feature the most common names so kids could actually use them.
Brown: We did names way back on the Ugly Stickers series in the 1960s. Kids looked for their name and loved to find a friend or classmate to use as a nasty put-down, like Vomit Vic.
Newgarden: At a certain point I tracked down a slightly outdated baby-naming book, which we worked from.
When Pound’s 44 paintings had been completed, they were taken to Shorin for a final review.
Newgarden: Arthur Shorin was the final word at Topps, period. So the line was probably drawn depending on whatever Arthur had for breakfast that morning.
Pound: Religious elements didn’t fly. One little gag sketch had a little kid like Moses receiving GPK stickers instead of the Ten Commandments tablets. Then things, gags that were suicide-related, like someone hanging themselves, you didn’t want to promote that as something kids might do or try.
Steve Kroninger (Freelance Artist): There was one of a kid in an oven. It was a sketch from Mark or Art. It got painted but didn’t get final approval.
Newgarden: I don’t believe we ever put a baby in an oven.
Pound: There was an idea I had done of a kid in a pickle jar. It went all the way through to a completed painting. Maybe that was an issue of taste or interpretation, like it could’ve been an aborted fetus.
Brown: I remember that image.
Pound: Lincoln, that one was an idea assigned to me, to do Lincoln with a bullet hole in his hat. I did that. Someone suggested adding a Playbill to it.
Brown: More often than not, I had a sense of what Arthur would go for. He liked underwear gags.
Kroninger: Len was the grown-up in the room.
Brown: We knew we could push envelope just so far.
Pound: There was change I saw happening later. We had a wino Garbage Pail Kid in series one, a little drunk bum character staggering around and leaning on a post. Later on, we shied away from jokes about alcohol.
Lynch: The best card I ever did they didn’t use. It was a little girl and a dog and a turd. The little girl is pointing at the turd accusingly, looking at the dog, but the dog is pointing equally accusingly. They didn’t use it because it had two characters.
Newgarden: We always had an extra painting or two up our sleeves for the final “elimination round” of every GPK series, so if Arthur Shorin nixed an image, like the Lincoln assassination, we would have a less objectionable backup all ready to go. Then we would resubmit those rejected images next time around, again and again, and eventually wear poor Arthur down.
Brown: Using “moron” or “idiot” was off-limits for a long time. Someone at the company had a child who was mentally challenged, and Arthur just cringed at those words. We couldn’t do it. Later, we probably did Moronic Morton or something.
Kroninger: There was one of a kid playing a trumpet and blowing a cloud of smoke out of his butt. That was the Garbage Pail Kids.
II. DUMPSTER DIVERS
When the 88-card Garbage Pail Kids were released in June 1985—each character was printed twice, with a different name on each—Topps anticipated nothing more than a single series of cards. Testing the 25-cent packs in local northeast markets, distributors were quick to let them know something bigger was happening.
Brown: We’d do testing in retail stores. There was one store across street from a school, and we knew kids would come in every day at three o’clock to buy candy, baseball cards, and, hopefully, a pack of Garbage Pail Kids. We’d call the place at four after the rush and see how things were going. Kids loved it.
Pound: Topps had an amazing distribution system. The cards were always right by the candy counter or by the register.
Newgarden: Art used to drive back into Manhattan and I'd often go along for the ride or to hang out afterward at his place in SoHo. He'd normally drive over the Brooklyn Bridge and cut through Chinatown. One day we both did a double-take when we saw some guy on a street corner selling ersatz uncut GPK series two sheets [that] had literally just come out. We stopped and checked them out. How an original uncut sheet made its way into the hands of the nefarious Chinatown counterfeiters so quickly is still an unsolved mystery.
Tom Bunk (Freelance Artist): I knew they were popular, but I didn’t realize how popular until I would go and see wrappers on the floor, on public toilets, the stickers all over. Punk bands had them on guitars.
Brown: In those days, we had tobacco distributors selling to stores. And we’d hear from them: “I just sold three cases. Give me a dozen more.” We kept going back to press. I got an immediate, panicked call from Arthur Shorin: “Get started on series two. This is like a wildfire.”
With demand growing, Garbage Pail Kids became Newgarden’s full-time responsibility at Topps. And while the company wanted to maintain a consistent visual look, it was clear that John Pound did not have enough hours in the day to keep up.
Newgarden: Our job was to crank out rancid sausages—but we were determined to give them the best rancid sausages possible.
Bunk: Sometimes Pound would just refuse to do jobs that were too disgusting for him.
Newgarden: John Pound was a very fertile GPK idea machine. At one point he designed a software program to randomly generate GPK concepts.
Pound: On my first computer, I wrote a program that generated GPK ideas by combining words or phrases. These could be printed out as a list of ideas. I sent a printout to Mark, and I think there was [one usable] idea in it, something like “kid with a skateboard foot.”
Bunk: I was working in Berlin and came to New York in 1983 for personal reasons—a love affair. I didn’t know anyone in New York, so I went to Art Spiegelman’s address because I knew where he lived. He asked me if I would be interested in working for Topps. For Pound, I think he was working on like one painting a day, which is crazy, so they asked me to start helping with the fronts. Then James Warhola came on as a third.
James Warhola (Freelance Artist): They showed me the cards, and at first, I didn’t let my opinion out. I thought they were most obnoxious, disgusting illustrations I was ever requested to do. I took some sketches home and got the hang of it, [and] really enjoyed it after the first week. But before that, it was revolting.
Newgarden: James came from the world of fantasy illustration and he painted his Garbage Pail Kids in oils. His renderings had a spooky, moody vibe that contrasted nicely with the others. I always felt his strength was in the depiction of “place.” When I think of James, I think of craggy trees, weathered rock, and bleak landscapes.
Bunk: I tried to give each Kid a soul, something which was not just a cold drawing and stuff, but like a real kid. You also had to try to emulate John, who had developed the style. He was like Walt Disney.
Warhola: Sometimes when an idea was too obnoxious, as an artist I would say, “This is a little bit over the line, I don’t think I’m good for this particular card.” I didn’t mind a kid on an island in a toilet, with feces floating. It’s gross, but I’d probably draw the line if it was too bloody, like barbed wire or knives. I’m squeamish.
Pound: I didn’t know they were going to have other artists doing ideas from pencils I had done, like Fat Elvis. I was a little frustrated and jealous at the time.
Newgarden: John was sometimes supplying more concepts than paintings, so some got swapped around.
With more and more cards needed to fill the sets, Newgarden employed a growing number of freelancers to pitch ideas for characters or jokes for the card backs.
Mariano: In a sense, we were kind of like factory workers. There would be jokes about the tuna sandwich at the cafeteria. “Come to Topps and get a free lunch.”
Kroninger: I remember the grilled cheese sandwiches in the cafeteria. It was part of the deal. You got $50 for the day, then Mark would buy you lunch.
Newgarden: That wasn’t a typical situation. Kroninger was a friend and an entertaining guy to hang out with who could use the $50, so I invited him out to visit.
Kroninger: He knew I was broke at the time. I think he was lonely there, too.
Newgarden: He came up with a few good ones.
Kroninger: I remember my wife, who was my girlfriend at time, realized I could use the money, so she did one which was an astronaut up in space with vomit hanging in front of his head. I called it Haley’s Vomit.
Bunk: I’d usually go there once or twice a week. There were no windows in this room. It was like a bunker.
Newgarden: Tom [Bunk] was local so he’d take the subway over and we'd hold the same sort of session in person. Seeing what these guys would come up with was always a highlight of my week.
Warhola: Week after week, it was like being on a treadmill with them. You’d pick up sketches, deliver finals from the previous week, pick up sketches for the next week, go one week after another. It was pretty intense for about two years.
Kroninger: You’re just kind of walking around on the street and realize you’re thinking of horrible ways to torture children.
Newgarden: Topps never imagined there would be a need for a "next" GPK series until the new set flew off the shelves. Again. Then they needed that next series by Monday morning.
Warhola: I would talk to my uncle [Andy Warhol] pretty regularly. He was always interested in what I was doing. He knew I was trying to be an illustrator. He found the Garbage Pail theme and whole nature of it quite intriguing. He admitted they were pretty gross and disgusting, but he liked it.
As popular as the card series was becoming—some stores reported sales of up to 500 packs a day—it wouldn’t be long before the media noticed. In a preview of the tidal wave of negative publicity to come, Chicago Tribune columnist Bob Greene wrote two stories—printed November 17, 1985 and February 16, 1986—that took Topps to task for circulating cards that could be used as a tool for bullies in grade school.
Bob Greene (Former Columnist, Chicago Tribune): What prompted them was the teacher and principal being distressed about how terrible the child was being made to feel because the card [which read “Most Unpopular Student”] had been anonymously left on his desk. I probably had never heard of the cards before the principal and teacher told me about what the boy was going through.
Newgarden: I'm sure it didn't hurt any, but I think GPK was already a high enough profile fad for Greene to pick up on.
Brown: Topps was very worried because of the link with baseball. They didn’t want to give themselves a black eye.
Greene: There are a lot of people out there who have been pushed around and mocked and made to feel small on a daily basis. Only in recent years has bullying been given widespread attention. I think that perhaps the most wrenching line in the piece was when the boy said: "I've been through this before."
Elaine Smith (Teacher, via Observer-Reporter, March 5, 1986): There is one card with a character named Susie Snot. Now, what if you have a child with a bad cold or an asthmatic child? These names stick.
Greene: I don't know what became of the cards in the years that followed, whether or not the more hurtful messages were removed from them and they became something more lighthearted; my piece was about what that one boy was enduring.
Brown: Greene was syndicated, so it went nationwide. I remember that being a very big deal. “Look at what Bob Greene wrote.”
Lynch: I knew Bob. I used to illustrate articles he wrote for Midwest Magazine, an insert for The Chicago Sun-Times. He didn’t know I worked on the cards, though.
The cards proved to be such a distraction in classrooms that many districts banned them from school property. It was also rare for a Garbage Pail series to be released without accompanying news stories about the negative impact they could have on children. (When the line was released in France, famed underwater explorer Jacques Cousteau warned parents that children exposed to them could “go off the deep end and end up on cocaine.”) Owing to the controversy, a planned animated show for CBS was fully produced but never aired in America.
Bob Hathcock (Director, The Garbage Pail Kids animated series, 1987): We visited Arthur Shorin at Topps’s headquarters in Brooklyn and they said they had hired child psychologists who assured them that the content was similar to old fairy tales in that it gave children a face for their fears—not getting to the toilet on time, being maimed, etc.
Brown: I don’t recall that. I do know Topps really wanted that deal with CBS [for the cartoon] to go through. It sounds like we were coached by Shorin before the meeting.
Hathcock: There was a boycott in the Bible Belt against the cards, network, and advertisers and this caused CBS to chicken out and pull the show before it aired and before anyone saw a frame of film. We made 13 episodes.
Judy Price (Vice President, Children’s Programs, CBS): That was basically born out of the fact that advertisers got nervous, affiliates got nervous, and that’s what happens when you have interest groups. If we had gone on air with it, it’s likely affiliates might not have carried it, and some advertisers might have pulled out.
Hathcock: We could not use the really gross stuff. The show got pulled anyway. The protest was about the cards and they never saw a frame of film. If they had seen the show without prior knowledge of the cards there would have never been a problem.
Price: It cost at least $1.5 million. When the plug was pulled on the show, we had not completed production. Because I didn’t think it was fair to lay off the production team after they had been promised 13 episodes, I insisted we finish it.
Hathcock: We were so close to being finished that it made more sense to get them in the can for possible future use.
The CBS cartoon was eventually released on DVD. Topps didn’t share the network’s reluctance, however, doubling down on the cards by releasing up to five series a year despite criticism.
Newgarden: The mailroom ladies would sometimes stop by and share something particularly off-the-wall with me, 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 naturally fueled sales. For Topps it was like hitting the lotto again and again.
Brown: For years, we weren’t allowed to talk to anyone outside the company. If a major publication called us, like LIFE, we had to turn it over to our PR person. It wasn’t until Topps started to do comics in 1990s that staff was allowed to talk.
Newgarden: [We made the cover of Reverend Jerry Falwell’s] The Liberty Report in September 1986. Imagine how proud we all were!
III. IN THE TOILET
With stores actually limiting the number of cards children could purchase in order to have packs left over and even accusing Topps of withholding inventory to increase demand, Garbage Pail mania was at its peak in the spring of 1986. That’s when Topps was hit with a potentially devastating response from Original Appalachian Artworks, the copyright holders of the Cabbage Patch Kids.
Brown: I think we got pretty far before we heard from them legally.
Schlaifer: I think I saw the cards three or four months after the meeting with Shorin. I thought, “Damn, how could that guy do that? He seemed so nice.”
Pound: I probably used a Cabbage Patch doll as a reference, yes.
Cruse: When the Cabbage Patch dolls became one of those cloying, mass-produced things, that’s like waving a flag to cartoonists.
Schlaifer: They violated the MAD magazine rule of limiting it. I think it’s fair to say unless you’re Donald Trump, ridicule is not good, particularly with something that has an endearing quality to it.
Brown: Satire tends to ridicule something. I don’t know how you do soft satire if you want to be funny.
Schlaifer: It wasn’t parody. It was debasement.
Newgarden: It was a bit unnerving. There were a lot of emergency closed-door meetings and palpable anxiety. All of my GPK drawings vanished from the office overnight. They didn’t want me testifying. They didn’t want Art [Spiegelman] testifying.
Pound: I remember the opposing side doing a deposition, talking with me, and they did find something, some note I had kept from Topps that said something like, “Make them look more like Cabbage Patch Kids.” I thought, “Hmm, this won’t be helpful.”
Newgarden: Ultimately, Arthur, Len and John Pound all went to Atlanta. We heard they were not getting good “vibes” from the court down there and thought it was safer to settle.
Bunk: I knew they had to pay millions, and had to change look of it, the logo, the banner.
Newgarden: The terms were never revealed but they called for a redesign to avoid the look of their “soft-sculpture” dolls.
Brown: The concession was to make them so they didn’t look too much like the Cabbage Patch dolls. We made the artwork look like it was made of hard plastic, not a soft, woven doll. We actually painted in little cracks.
Brown: We were desperate to continue. It was like printing money.
Schlaifer: They made $70 million on those cards.
Bunk: Topps didn’t really share anything with us, didn’t even get a bonus. They made so many millions, but as artists, we didn’t get anything
Brown: We agreed to pay royalties as though we had licensed it. So we owed them a chunk of dough and then paid out moving forward.
Schlaifer: They paid what was tantamount to a license fee and Topps had the ability to continue selling them. My wife and I and everybody associated with the company put everything they had into creating the brand, and to let it continue to have a disparaging marketing component, nothing about it was pleasing to me. It was just unsatisfying.
At roughly the same time of the February 1987 settlement, Topps entered into a deal with modest distribution/production studio Atlantic Releasing for a live-action The Garbage Pail Kids Movie.
Newgarden: My understanding was that [director] Rod Amateau was the party who optioned it from Topps. I think he had some connection to Arthur and that’s how the deal came about.
Mackenzie Astin (Actor, “Dodger”): I had been on The Facts of Life for three seasons. Making the jump to the silver screen is something everyone wants to do. It’s a different vibe. This came along, and the title alone appealed to me. I was a fan of the cards. I know I was more enamored with the idea of starring in a movie than focused on whether the material was worth investigating.
Newgarden: Amateau was getting on and seemed a little disconnected. And we really weren’t exactly thrilled to have to meet with a Hollywood producer and hear ideas for a movie based on our thing.
Astin: Rod had been in the business for 60-something years. He was a stunt guy for a number of actors. And it was a money job for him. It made sure he got Directors Guild benefits.
Newgarden: I think he passed around some Polaroids of the sculpts for the masks and we chatted congenially. But he seemed fairly clueless about GPK and somewhat unengaged in general. I was probably in denial at this point and was absolutely convinced the movie would never happen.
Astin: The contracts were signed by the time my dad [actor John Astin] had a chance to look at the script. He did everything he could to get me out of it. Like, “Dude. This is not a good idea, son. I know what I’m talking about.” But the ink was dry.
Kroninger: I think Mark was hoping to write it.
Newgarden: I would have loved to be involved in a GPK script but Arthur would have never permitted it. Topps definitely didn’t want us spending our valuable time on anything that might interfere with getting the next series out. With these license deals it was always a case of “take the money and run.” There was never any semblance of quality control once GPK passed to another entity.
Brown: [Co-star] Anthony Newley was the equivalent of a Broadway star in England.
Astin: Newley was famous for a play and song he did, "What Kind of Fool Am I?" And when the movie came out, my dad got a chuckle out of a review that started, “Now I know what kind of fool Anthony Newley is.”
Amateau and co-writer Linda Palmer wrote a modestly budgeted script about an antiques dealer (Newley) who acts as a caretaker for a bunch of mischievous mutant children. When his young employee (Astin) accidentally lets them out of their trash can home, he tries to round them up before they’re committed to a “home for the ugly.” To realize the cast of Garbage Pail characters, Amateau hired several little people and had them fitted with latex and foam masks that could be controlled by off-screen puppeteers.
William Butler (Effects Artist): I painted the heads. Normally, we used special paint that has a flexible medium in it that allows the puppets to move, but I had never used the stuff. I painted the heads only with acrylic paint not knowing it would harden. We got the heads on set, dressed the little people in outfits, and as the mouths opened up, they ripped on both sides like the Joker.
Kevin Thompson (Actor, “Ali Gator”): I remember that. The constant touching up, it was like getting fumigated from all the paint.
Butler: I single-handedly nearly destroyed the movie. Lucky for me everyone rallied and filled the cuts, but if you look closely at the movie, the heads look like they have scarring on the mouths. That’s thanks to Billy Boy.
Thompson: We only had one head each, and if it got ruined, production got shut down, so you had to make it durable, and the thing about durable is, it’s not going to be cute, and it’s not going to look as good.
Astin: The heroes of the entire experience are the seven little people actors in costumes every day in triple-digit heat in the San Fernando Valley. They couldn’t see or hear. There was only so much time they could have the heads on before they ran out of oxygen.
Thompson: Mac was a great kid. The air conditioning would be out, we’d be sitting in costumes for 15 minutes until he got out of school, and I’d say, “Can you please nail this in one take?”
Butler: They were constantly running into walls. We didn’t film on a soundstage; we filmed in a warehouse. The metal roof screwed with the radio controls. All of a sudden, the eyes would start whirring around in a circle.
Astin: There were these huge hoses connected to generators connected to air conditioners outside that were stuffed into every crevice to keep people alive, literally.
Butler: We had worked on over 100 movies by then, and no one thought to ask, “Hey, is this being shot on a soundstage?” That’s like asking if we’ll have running water or toilets.
Astin: They were hampered by me being a minor at the time. It was maybe an eight-hour day as opposed to 12 or 15.
Thompson: Phil Fondacaro, who played Greaser Greg, left for a week to go shoot Willow. His brother took over. Production was a little upset about that.
Opening in limited release in August 1987, the film received near-universal scorn, making just $661,512 in its opening weekend. While kids didn't need an adult's permission to buy a 25-cent pack of cards, they did need someone to drive them to the movies. Few parents wanted to.
Kroninger: Having them team together as a gang—no! They’re all isolated misfits! Nobody hangs out!
Astin: The first scene in the movie is a drug dealer chasing down a 13-year-old kid with his two goons. What drug dealer worth his salt is chasing down kids in a park in the middle of the day?
Newgarden: To his credit, Arthur Shorin gave us a bonus when it was finally released, but that was it.
Thompson: I thought it would do well. There were 150 kids in line to meet me in costume at the premiere.
Astin: I remember going on opening day in Los Angeles, and there were about eight people there.
Butler: I think it was a stupid idea of a stupid screenplay, with stupid designs, that made for a cacophony of stupidity
IV: FINE FART WORK
By the end of 1988, it was clear the fascination with Garbage Pail Kids was dwindling. Though a 16th series was completed, Topps opted not to release it. By way of closure, the last card in the regular line was of Ada Bomb, a bookend to the first release’s Adam Bomb.
Newgarden: The movie was worse than I could have ever imagined and no doubt helped drag down the kids’ perception of GPK.
Kroninger: I think Mark lost interest in them. They weren’t fun anymore.
Newgarden: For me the characters became somewhat diluted as a result of the lawsuit and subsequent redesign. They were less appealing and there was also a little bit of a loss of visual continuity for the collectors. But, I think in the end, GPK had run its natural course. It was a fad, and that generation moved on.
Brown: I just think it died a natural death. We did 15 sets, about the same as Wacky Packages. There was almost a pattern. The first series was good, the second one had kids getting more aware of it, three and four were a peak, and then it was a slow decline from there.
Pound: I worked on Trash Can Trolls, Bathroom Buddies. Mark Newgarden had a project, Toxic High, that was a parody of a high school class yearbook.
Kroninger: Toxic High was even grosser than Garbage Pail. I’m not even sure it made it out of tests.
Sikoryak: That was a more envelope-pushing series. I wrote some gags for it, but I don’t think I was mean enough. I had found my level with Garbage Pail.
Although Pound, Bunk, Warhola, and other contributors elevated the card series into a kind of gross-out master class in cartooning, the card industry at the time had little interest in acknowledging their work or returning their art. In 1989, the company held an auction that sold many original works from Garbage Pail predecessor line Wacky Packages.
Newgarden: We’re talking late 20th century here, but Topps business practices were still firmly rooted in the late 19th. Topps naturally didn't want our names involved because they were afraid that we'd be all instantly wooed away by deep-pocketed competitors. Or maybe even medium-pocketed competitors. Or maybe just competitors that had pants.
Brown: I thought we had promised the artists we’d return the work after a certain period of time. Art Spiegelman lobbied very strongly about all of this. He brought in so many artists.
Bunk: We were not allowed to keep the artwork, the final art. Then in the late 1980s, Topps had an auction and sold them to make money, but we artists didn’t get anything from that. That’s when Art Spiegelman got pissed and left.
Warhola: There was a little bit of bitterness from there, art being sold for profit for the company. It’s a little bit of a tacky thing.
Brown: It was an alien idea at the time. We bought and paid for the art. Why give it back? I agree now, but at the time, it’s the way business was done.
Cruse: Topps said, “Well, we have to hold on to it. We might reprint it.” All of a sudden, they’re making big money with auctions. It was kind of a drag. But I don’t blame Len Brown for that. It was a corporate decision.
Pound: One thing that was discussed early on was that the work would be unsigned and that any unhappy PR stuff would be handled by Topps. The artists were basically anonymous to the world. I would have preferred to sign my work. Although some other artist did “John Pond,” which was a kid covered in pee.
Warhola: It was just like Disney. Disney didn’t want anybody to sign art. Same with the kids. It never bothered me.
Lynch: I didn’t especially want to take credit for it at the time. I don’t think anyone did. The underground comix we did then were deeply intellectual studies of the human condition, whereas this is just mindless insanity. With heavy emphasis on bodily fluids.
Newgarden: We'd occasionally sneak our names or initials into products, but nobody ever seemed to notice or care.
Pound: I put a big, red “J.P.” in graffiti on one card.
Today, those names are not only well-known, but appreciated. Pound, Bunk, and others were asked back when Topps revived the series in 2003; a documentary, 30 Years of Garbage, is scheduled for release in the summer.
Bunk: Now kids who grew up with them have jobs and can afford to buy sketches and stuff. I do a lot of commissions. It made such a strong impression on them they want to relive it.
Warhola: Lately I’ve have been doing these large paintings inspired by the Garbage Pail cards, big 4-by-5 foot cards for my own amusement, turning lowbrow art into some highbrow piece. Maybe I’ll show them someday.
Sikoryak: This stuff hit kids really intensely. They were so lovingly painted that it was easy to get taken [in] by them. It was a lot of craft considering how proudly lowbrow they are.
Kroninger: It was our chance to subvert the youth of the nation. Kids kind of need it. They’re spoon-fed unicorns and lollipops. It’s a necessary corrective.
Pound: It kind of felt like they were underground comics for kids.
Sikoryak: Seeing a subversion of something so ubiquitous like Cabbage Patch, it can’t help but be an eye-opener.
Astin: Cabbage Patch was so crazy popular with parents climbing over one another before they sold out. It was the counter-culture aspect of cards that spoke to people, seeing through that consumerism craziness.
Warhola: Who would’ve thought they turned into what they did? It was a part of American culture from the 1980s that lit up little kids.
Pound: Going into cartooning, it was an attempt to just be a kid, to never have to grow up and to play. And when Garbage Pail Kids came along, it was a chance to play a lot.
Mariano: I think you could say Ren and Stimpy was influenced by Garbage Pail Kids. Animation changed at that period. It became kind of gross and crazy.
Lynch: Everything was in poor taste then. But now turn on the TV, and everybody vomits. SpongeBob farts.
Cruse: Just like kids love horror, which gives them a chance to rehearse fears for real-world horror, kids enjoyed Garbage Pail. It gave them a chance to vent feelings about disgusting things.
Bunk: It’s like everyone who read MAD for the first time, when you recognized what was really going on. It’s like waking up out of a dream. This kind of attitude was carried on in underground comics. And Garbage Pail Kids was all in the same spirit. Not everything is pretty. Life is not pretty.
Lynch: When I die, any people who visit my grave will come because of Garbage Pail Kids. And will probably vomit on it.
All images courtesy of Topps and Aaron J. Booton via GPKWorld.com unless credited otherwise.