Just about every recent generation had some kind of trading card set in their youth that ate up their allowances and turned ordinary pieces of glossy card stock into sought-after collectibles. They also went far beyond traditional baseball cards that served as delivery systems for sticks of gum hard enough to cut diamonds. Some brands told twisted tales about gruesome disembowelments and hideous creatures that could make a set of autopsy photos look like a collection of Hawaiian vacation stills.
The most famous and popular of these offbeat card series—Garbage Pail Kids cards, a parody of the Cabbage Patch Kids dolls—landed on store shelves in the 1980s.
The Topps Company actually tried to get a license to print a series of Cabbage Patch Kids trading cards after the dolls became a phenomenon, but it was too expensive—so their team of artists, including a young Art Spiegelman of "Maus" fame, decided instead to just spoof it. According to a Slate essay written by Spiegelman, the series actually started as a parody product in Topps' Wacky Packages card series, originally drawn by artist Mark Newgarden. The first character they created for the new series was "Adam Bomb," a cherub-like doll pushing a nuclear launch button that caused a mushroom cloud to explode from its own head. The series took off from there as the artists tried to determine the lines they could and couldn't cross with their jokes and depictions of Cabbage-Patch-esque dolls stabbing themselves in the head (Mick Dagger), crawling out of toilets (Potty Scotty) and using their own snot as a sandwich spread (Hedda Spreader).
The cards were an instant hit. A federal judge also ordered Topps to stop making the cards after the company that made the Cabbage Patch dolls sued Topps for copyright infringement before the two settled the matter out of court. It also sparked an infamous movie spinoff that tanked at the box office. Former Disney chairman Michael Eisner actually commissioned another feature film about the gruesome kids after his company purchased Topps and put filmmaker PES of "Fresh Guacamole" fame in the director's chair.
Parents who objected to the Garbage Pail Kids cards wouldn't truly know the meaning of the word "controversy" until they saw this serious series of attacks on high school education. Topps commissioned some of the same names who created the Wacky Packs and Garbage Pail Kids cards to work on this story-driven series that showed scenes of America's most violent, poorly supervised, and structurally deficient high school.
A fictional student named Warren Lugnut Cropsey took kids through his twisted high school, which had a school bus driver "always gets us to class on time" by literally driving the bus through the wall of his kids' classroom; a school cafeteria chef "who puts a little bit of himself in every meal" and the kitchen staff vomiting their guts into cooking pots; and an art class in which all of the students try to emulate master painter Vincent Van Gogh by cutting off their own ears. These were pretty tame compared to some cards that didn't make the cut, according to artist Jay Lynch.
In the beginning, Topps' primary focus was as a bubble gum company, so they avoided controversy with their trading cards. That changed with the popular and quite gruesome American Civil War series, which prompted them to push the envelope a bit further and focus more on the cards and a series that could have more original stories with more gruesome details.
The Mars Attacks! cards of the 1960s became Topps' most infamous series as it featured hideous Martians unleashing Hell on Earth against defending soldiers, innocent civilians, and even kids' pets in all sorts of gory and gruesome ways. In one card, a soldier is burned alive by a Martian's ray gun; in another, giant insects bite into people's throats. The series never got national distribution, but the cards got under the skin of many parents, and led to a backlash against Topps that forced them to cease production on the series after just six months on sale, according to Len Brown, who wrote the story for the card set.
Director Tim Burton discovered the series after playwright and screenwriter Jonathan Gems showed him two trading cards sets he found in a Hollywood gift shop, including the Mars Attacks! series. Burton said they both would make great movies but he decided instead to do one based on the Mars Attacks! series; that film bombed at the box office. Since then, the cards have been turned into a series of comic books; Topps recently announced they would release a brand new set of Mars Attacks! cards next October.
The other pack of trading cards Gems showed Burton came from another short-lived Topps series that featured dinosaurs instead of Martians wreaking bloody havoc on the modern Earth and its inhabitants.
The Dinosaurs Attack! series was released in the late 1980s. Just like its predecessor, Mars Attacks!, the cards told a story, this time of a time travel experiment that accidentally brings the extinct creatures into the modern era. The scenes also left little to the imagination as dinosaurs gobbled up classrooms and school buses full of kids and gored a groom and bride on their wedding day. The series didn't sell very well and instead became a cult collectible. IDW Publishing, the group behind the Mars Attacks! comics, recently announced they would also revive the cards as a series of comic books.
One of Topps' failed attempts to capitalize on the toilet humor of the Garbage Pail Kids focused solely on mining humor from the bathroom.
The late '90s saw the release of the short-lived Bathroom Buddies, which depicted cartoonish scenes of bathroom humor with odd but appropriately named characters like "Urine AL," "Constipa-TED," and "Tootin' TINA." The series featured artwork by some of Topps' regulars such as Tom Bunk and John Pound depicting characters doing almost everything in bathrooms but using them correctly and safely. A second series was commissioned but was never released due to poor sales.
The Meanie Babies series from Comic Images and Dark Horse Comics, released in the late '90s, tried to do to Beanie Babies what the Garbage Pail Kids did to Cabbage Patch Dolls. They also tried to revive the gross-out collectible card market that had fallen by the wayside by skewering the insanely popular toy series' long line of collectible animals—both figuratively and literally. Some of the characters included a vomiting duck named "Upchuck," a farting Sphinx-like sculpture named "Sphinxter," and "E. Coli the Baby Bacteria," according to a COLLECT! magazine preview of the card series.