• Bill Kartalopoulos

Review: Garbage Pail Kids, From Grade-School Samizdat to Art

Sometimes, trash and treasure are one and the same. Garbage Pail Kids—those gleefully hideous stickers that delighted children of the 1980s and caused some uproar among guardians of civility—pulled this alchemical trick once before, in their initial appearance as bubble-gum trading cards available everywhere for 25 cents a pack. The real trash, they argued, was the insipidly saccharine Cabbage Patch Kids, those cuddly, stuffed, baby-doll phenomena of the era. The treasure is the anti-everything satire Garbage Pail Kids advanced in their wildly popular series, which featured such unforgettable tykes as Adam Bomb (happily blowing up his own head with a mushroom cloud), Leaky Lindsay (weaving her own voluminous mucus), and Corroded Carl (a jovial Job, squeezing the zits that cover his entire body). A new art-book treasury collecting these icons of self-proclaimed garbage is sure to be cherished by former kids of a certain age.

Garbage Pail Kids By the Topps Company

Introduction by Art Spiegelman

Afterword by John Pound

Abrams, 224 pp., $19.95

As the cartoonist and former Topps culture worker Art Spiegelman explains in the book’s introduction, the Kids came into the world as a consequence of Topps’s failure to secure a license for official Cabbage Patch Kids trading cards. In an inspired maneuver, the Topps team resorted to the family recipe established in its Wacky Packages series (lushly painted stickers spoofing popular consumer products) and spun off a parade of parodic Garbage Pail Kids, taking their title from a proposed one-off designed by Mark Newgarden and their style from the tradition of gruesome caricature exemplified by Basil Wolverton.

While overtly satirizing Cabbage Patch Kids, Garbage Pail Kids also skewered preadolescent anxieties enforced by consensus culture. In real life, braces, pimples, and Band-Aids were gross; on a Garbage Pail Kid, they were gloriously grotesque. Passed around like samizdat in grade schools, Garbage Pail Kids were happy martyrs in the cause of rebellion against encroaching adult and social values. Throughout the series, their creators smuggled in references to subcultural and high-art landmarks including R. Crumb, Salvador Dalí, Big Daddy Roth, Leonardo da Vinci, circus freaks, and The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

This volume reprints the original painted art for the first five Kids series. Amazingly, the principal series painter, John Pound, notes in his afterword that production schedules often required him to complete each image, from rough to finished art, in a single day. At larger size, some of the artists’ schematic painted effects are more visible; run through an offset press at reduced size, the images appeared, to younger eyes, like mutant Dutch paintings from a radioactive era. The book includes four unreleased stickers in their original format so that, once the art book has been tucked away, readers may revisit the sensation of clutching forbidden cards in hands—even if they no longer need lockers to hide them away from prying adult eyes.

All images courtesy of Abrams

Bill Kartalopoulos is a Print contributing editor. He teaches comics and illustration at the New School University and is the Programming Coordinator for SPX: The Small Press Expo. Kartalopoulos is a frequent public speaker and is currently working on a book about comics. You can read more of his pieces for Print here.