Grossing Out on Garbage Pail Kids!
By Kurt Kuersteiner (© 2005 Monsterwax Monster Trading Cards) for The Wrapper Magazine
If there are two sticker series that best demonstrate the lowbrow humor of Topps Chewing Gum Company, they would have to be Wacky Packs and Garbage Pail Kids (GPK). Both series have several things in common. They were both original art series that spawned between 15 and 16 sequel sets. They were both controversial and generated law suits. And they both made Topps a ton of money. Recently, they've both enjoyed another common trait. They've both come out of retirement for another bite at the consumer market. But despite the similarities, there is still a wealth of information that makes each worthy of its own story. This article will discuss GPK (and a future one will focus on Wackys).
Topps first released GPK in 1985. They were a sarcastic response to the sensational Cabbage Patch Kids craze of the early 1980s. The insipid dolls were everywhere, with their fat round heads and equally annoying "birth certificates" that were issued from the factory to the proud new parent. Ugh! It makes me queasy just remembering it.
According to Roxanne Toser's story from the Aug. 2003 issue of NSU, the Cabbage Patch folks (known as Original Appalachian Artwork, or OAA) actually approached Topps first and "offered Topps a license to depict the dolls in a series of cards or stickers in 1983, but Topps refused. Later, when (Topps) regretted this decision in 1984, OAA was no longer interested in granting a license."
Topps then decided to parody Cabbage Patch Kids the same way they had roasted other consumer products a decade earlier with the Wacky series. Not surprisingly, the Cabbage Patch creators were unamused, since Topps wasn't paying a license fee and the parodies cast their tender loving babies in a less than loving light. They slapped a $30 million law suit on Topps and unleashed a pack of hungry, snarling lawyers.
Quoting Roxanne's article, "A cease and desist letter was sent by OAA to Topps in October of 1985. When Topps refused, a suit was brought against them by OAA in March of 1986. U.S. District Judge G. Ernest Tidwell (Atlanta, GA) halted the production of GPK stickers in August of 1986 but this decision would not take effect until OAA posted bond."
The resulting news publicity sold even more stickers as collectors raced to buy up the controversial cartoons. According to Roxanne's research, "To keep up with demand for the stickers, Topps worked three shifts, around the clock and still it was sometimes impossible to find a pack anywhere... It was also stated more than 800 million stickers had been sold since their inception in May of 1985 (only three series of the eventual 15 had been issued at this time!)... It is interesting to note, more than 35 million CPK dolls had been sold since they appeared in 1982, and the lawsuit estimated Topps had sold $64 million dollars worth of stickers and licensed products. GPK had been licensed to many other manufacturers for T-shirts, lunch pails, Halloween costumes, balloons, pencils, book covers, cups, key chains, and other merchandise."
A settlement was reached between the two bickering companies in 1987. Topps paid their law "suitor" an undisclosed amount of cabbage and agreed to a few minor changes. One of them was the appearance of the characters in the stickers. They less resembled the Cabbage Patch dolls from series 8 up. One thing Topps did not compromise on was their biting sense of humor. The GPK remained as sarcastic and gross as ever. The formula continued to sell stickers for another incredible eight series, ending with series 15 in 1988. In addition to all those stickers, there were also GPK buttons, GPK chewy candy, GPK giant stickers, GPK posters, and even GPK 3-D wall plaks. (No one can ever accuse Topps of holding back on flooding the market!)
With the hundreds of millions of stickers produced, you would think GPK would be one of the cheapest series available today. Not so. Like the Wackys before them, the vast majority of stickers wound up decorating school lockers, text books, desks, buses, lunch boxes, rest rooms, and even the backs of many an unsuspecting nerd. Still, there were enough collectors to squirrel away a large enough supply to keep prices down around $10 to $20 for most of all of the original 15 series except for the first couple. (Series 1 can cost as much as $300! Series 2 can cost around $80.)
Some dealers say the revival of GPK by Topps has reignited interest in the original GPK sets. I met a traveling dealer in the local mall who says he can't keep his original GPK supply in stock. Wrapper dealer John Heath notes that even the giant Marchant Cards has run low on original GPK and raised its prices on them across the board. Not all dealers agree that demand for original GPK has significantly increased, however. Another one said it goosed sales for a while but has since tapered off.
It's good to see Topps returning to their creative roots. Photo sets make money by exploiting commodities that have already generated an audience outside of trading cards. For example, people buy Buffy cards because they already know and love the TV show. But art cards can create a new exciting property that didn't exist before. In my opinion, they are what make Non-sport cards so special (and why Sports cards are not near as interesting). If one looks back at the all time favorite trading card series, art series dominate the list. Mars Attacks, Horrors Of War, Jets-Rockets-Spacemen, Lone Ranger, Civil War News, Wackys... and of course, GPK. There is also the occasional Davy Crockett photo series equivalent, but it's the art series that attract the most eyeballs. So a return to this grand tradition is long overdue.
Nostalgi-Cards owner Todd Riley feels that some of the credit for the recent revival of art sets at Topps goes to the smaller independent companies. He said, "For the last decade, most the original art sets were done by small independents. I think that made Topps go back to the drawing board-- literally!" Indeed, it seems that while the bigger companies have relied more and more on photo sets of well known commercial properties, the smaller indies took up the creative slack and ran with it. Recent titles like Morbid Monsters, Galaxy Goons, Don't Let It Happen Here, Hot Rod Super Freaks and Package Parodies are all take-offs of previously released card series, but recreated by different companies and newer artists.
Not everyone is excited about the new GPK series, however. Some feel the newer artists are not as good as the original artists were, and that even the original artists who returned to paint a few of the select stickers (Jay Lynch, Tom Bunk, and John Pound) were not as good as they were "back in the good ol' days." You'll have to decide for yourself how much of that criticism is valid and how much is actually bitter-sweet nostalgia. Keep in mind that the first modern (2003) series included artwork from the original 16th series that was begun but discontinued in 1988.
The latest new series of GPK (#4) has just come out. (It's so new, I couldn't obtain samples in time for this article.) It celebrates the 20th anniversary of GPK. Special items in this set include Scratch N' Stink cards, temporary tattoos, and even 36 different GPK game cards. (And you thought Dungeons & Dragons was an evil influence.) There are details and full color samples of series 4 at the official website: www.garbagepailkids.com. What's more, a 5th series is planned for release later this year.
So if you haven't collected GPK before, now is a good time to give this series your consideration. It's too late to get the first couple of series from 1985 at a cheap price, but the rest are still very affordable. With any luck, we'll see more GPK-- and hopefully more art sets in general-- coming out of Topps in the near future.
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