Remembering ‘disgusting, rebellious’ era of trading cards: ‘Garbage Pail Kids’

Story highlights

A new book compiles a complete series of "Garbage Pail Kids" images

The gross-out trading cards were popular in the 1980s

Art Spiegelman and John Pound among artists who designed the images

CNN  — 

Weapons, creepy critters and bodily fluids are timeless sources of inspiration for children’s toys.

But perhaps no franchise capitalized on all those themes better than “Garbage Pail Kids,” the gross-out trading cards of the 1980s that parodied Cabbage Patch Kids.

To many from that generation, they were the raddest cards your parents wouldn’t let you have. Or, maybe you found ways to procure them on your own and became the coolest kid at the lunch table.

Those kids are now adults, and the release of a book that compiles “Garbage Pail Kids” art allows fans to stroll down a blood-soaked, snot-infested memory lane – one littered with pudgy limbs and heads that bear a disturbing resemblance to the wholesome Cabbage Patch dolls.

“They fell into a genre that works really well for boys, (one that) that capitalizes on the gross-out, icky, hysterical factor,” said Adrienne Appell, spokeswoman for the Toy Industry Association.

“This is how young boys play. That’s what they find funny and trading cards continue to be popular, affordable options. Kids love to collect, so combining several areas that appeal to kids makes a lot of sense for that specific audience.”

Trading card company Topps launched the first set of “Garbage Pail Kids” in 1985 as a follow-up to the grotesque creatures of Ugly Stickers and the product parody Wacky Packages, which recast products like Cap’n Crunch as “Cap’n Crud.” That history was the “amniotic fluid that the Garbage Pail Kids floated in” before their release, wrote cartoonist Art Spiegelman, part of the creative team that produced Wacky Packages.

The series found quick success with sales at convenience stores and toy stores – and sparked immediate outrage among parents who didn’t see the joke in characters like Nervous Rex, a chain-smoking, nose-picking baby surrounded by cups of coffee and soda bottles, or Guillo Tina, a girl with her head in a guillotine.

“Garbage Pail Kids offered something that was not so benign and parent-friendly,” Spiegelman wrote in the book’s forward. “Rather, it provoked: ‘Oh my god, what is that? Where did you get those? Your allowance is cut off. And you’re grounded.’ The dolls were pricey and had to appeal to adults. The stickers were available for chump change and appealed to the inner beast in all kids.”

Even the publisher that released Spiegelman’s Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel, “Maus: A Survivor’s Tale,” in 1986 expressed relief that his name wasn’t attached to the images.

“‘If this gets out, they’ll review your book and call it ‘Garbage Pail Jews,’ ” Spiegelman said his editor at Pantheon told him at the time.

Somehow, the cards found their way into the homes of children and Topps released five series from 1985 to 1986. “The Garbage Pail Kids Movie” was released in 1987 to widespread criticism, with the movie rating website Rotten Tomatoes calling it a “hastily-assembled live-action film” meant to capitalize on “that childish joy in the disgusting.” Another version is reportedly in the works from Michael Eisner’s Tornante Company.

Or, as Spiegelman put it: “We were trying to help another generation of juvenile delinquents come of age, to offer them a counterculture. But not one that was counter to our American Way of Life – we’re talking about the bubblegum counter. This was Topps, after all.”

Topps asked various artists to contribute sketches of ideas, including Wacky Packages veteran and underground cartoonist John Pound.

“Art said to make the kids gross, nasty, disgusting and rebellious, and I saw that shock value was a huge part of the idea,” Pound told CNN. “But as I worked on the sketches, I realized I also wanted the kids and artwork to feel good to look at. Topps hadn’t asked for that, but I needed it, so I would enjoy making the art, and so people would enjoy seeing the stickers.”

Pound estimates he generated about half of the sketches for the first series, with others sketched out by Topps artists including Mark Newgarden. Pound started with a quick doodles, to see how to best pose the character and the action and then drew it full-size, filing in all the details.

Once Topps OK’d the image, he did a quick color study on another copy of the pencil art before painting in acrylics on paper, working from light colors to darker ones.

“Because I could only spend a few hours per painting, I came up with an organized process, that was like doing a jigsaw puzzle. First I painted the shapes for the flesh and hair. Then the clothes. Then the props. And then I airbrushed the background,” Pound said in an e-mail.

For each series, Topps came up with the names after the paintings were done, though sometimes Pound wrote ideas for names in the margins around the paintings, he said.

“The name Garbage Pail Kids was easy to understand, as a parody of the famous Cabbage Patch Kids. The GPK jokes were lowbrow humor for kids, gross and rebellious, something most parents wouldn’t like. And I believe the art was appealing, despite the subject matter,” he said.

His favorites?

“Today, I’m liking Phony Lisa, with her mellow, old world glow. Maybe it’s because of her chubby hands and cheeks and smug smile,” he said. “And Rappin’ Ron, because he looks so, well, presidential, and good-natured, for a Garbage Pail Kid. What kind of damage could he possibly do? Because after all, he’s just a cute little doll, at the White House podium.”

Who was your favorite character? Tell us in the comments!