You can’t blame a company for trying, and in this case succeeding, in creating a culturally significant movement. After the Cabbage Patch Kids craze
Garbage Pail Kids were a collection of trading cards from 1985 released by Topps. They were a parody of the hugely successful Cabbage Patch Kids leading to lawsuits, bans, a movie, and many future releases.
Like Madballs, Garbage Pail Kids were one of those things in the ‘80s were the creators were like, “screw it, kids are going to love these”. And they did. Whenever you can take the piss out of something that is so successful it always finds an audience.
I remember keeping Garbage Pail Kids cards hidden in my desk at school. I’m not sure if we were one of the schools that banned them but they were definitely frowned upon if I remember correctly.
Give a product a bit of a “forbidden fruit” aspect to it and you more often than not have a hit on your hands. And the Garbage Pail Kids were a hit carving out a nice little corner of their own in the ‘80s.
Here’s the story of the Garbage Pails Kids.
The Cabbage Patch Kids Leading The Way For Garbage Pail Kids
There’s no doubt you’re aware of Cabbage Patch kids and you can check out a full-on article I wrote about them here. But to save time here’s a quick rundown on the history of the Cabbage Patch Kids.
Cabbage Patch Kids may have been a stolen idea as they were first created by a woman named Martha Nelson Thomas who called them “Doll babies”. She would sell them at craft fairs and shows and they caught the eye of a guy named Xavier Roberts, who you may remember from seeing his name branded on the ass of a Cabbage Patch Kid.
He started to sell them for high prices and she didn’t like it. He said that if he couldn’t sell her dolls he would sell ones just like it. And he did. He started mass producing them and came up with their backstory.
The new Cabbage Patch Kid dolls all came with adoption papers and unique looks and names. They had many variations of bodies and heads that allowed Coleco to make many different versions leading to more unique dolls.
They caught on big time and led to the Cabbage Patch Kids craze of 1983 which was seen as the first big toy craze. People were fighting and beating the hell out of each other to get these dolls reminiscent of Black Friday carnage.
And whenever something is successful someone always comes around to exploit it. In this case, it was Topps trading cards. But before that, we need to look back at how Topps came to be.
The Development Of Topps Trading Cards
In the 1930s a lot of supplies were cut off after the first World War and a company called The American Leaf Tobacco Company decided to go in a different direction. They decided to get into the new growing business of “chewing gum” and changed their name to Topps. This was their way of indicating that they would be “tops” in this new field. Seriously.
Their first introduction into this whole new gum graze would be Bazooka bubble gum. You remember this probably, it was a rock hard piece of gum that came with a small comic. They released this in 1947 and they were a big hit.
In the ‘50s they started packing their gum with trading cards that featured Western stars and not long after that they started making baseball cards. Sports cards would now be the main focus for Topps.
They would also put out other cards and novelty candies that weren’t related to baseball including Wacky Packages, Mars Attacks, and Garbage Candies…This allowed them to work with some underground artists from the ‘60s and ‘70s to create some unique packaging.
A lot of the art would focus on a bit of bizarre and weird style but created a gross monster style continuity throughout them, These cards were in the same vein as Mad Magazine and they were being embraced by that community.
The Wacky Packages cards were ones that would spoof and mock regular consumer items like cereal or dish soap and they become some of the most popular.
Creating Garbage Pail Kids
So now it’s 1983 and Cabbage Patch Kids are on fire. Not on actual fire but they are the hottest toy possibly ever. They made nearly $2 billion IN ONE FRIGIN YEAR.
Since they were so big there was no way to just let it go by untouched and Topps wanted to use this to their advantage somehow. But they wanted to take a regular route and just try to put out a series of Cabbage Patch Kids trading cards at first in 1984.
Coleco, the original company Apalachin Artworks, and some of the creators thought that putting out a line of trading cards was “beneath them”. Those doll people are real snobs.
Topps said screw this and decided to put out a parody line as they had had success doing this before with Wacky Packages. In fact, they had already been playing around with this idea as Wacky Packages were still a thing in the mid-‘80s. One of the ideas they came up with was called “Garbage Pail Kid”.
This was just a single card but the Topps management though this might make a good spin-off series. This series was the idea of Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist Art Spigelman and he would work together with Mark Newgarden and Len Brown to see this whole thing through.
Newgarden had come up with that original Garbage Pail Kid drawing for Wacky Packages and worked with artist John Pound giving him the job of coming up with 44 different drawings to be released for the first card series. Pound had only 2 months to come up with 44 paintings.
Putting Together Series 1
The idea was that they would give each card two different names and that would end with 88 cards to make up the first series. It was thought this would be a one-off series because it was such a singular idea that it didn’t seem like something that could be spread out over much more.
THe first packs would cost .25 cents and that got you five cards and a stick of gum that was so hard it would shatter when you tried to chew it. Remember all that dust or talcum powder it seemed to have all over it?
So series 1 comes out — and I remember this very well — it’s a monster hit. They were hard to get at the once convenience store I used to go to; The Hasty Market. And turns out this was the case all across North America. Any convenience store, 7-11, gas station or novelty store were selling out as soon as they got them.
Here were some of the notable characters from series 1:
- Nasty Nick
- Junkfood John
- Up Chuck
- Dead Ted
- Fryin Brian
- Adam Bomb
- Boozin Bruce
- Virus Iris
- RUn Down Rhoda
There’s obviously a lot more an looking back on these I realize how funny, but inappropriate, so many of them are. There are a few I won’t mention that there’d be no way they’d be able to release today.
Series 2 & Controversy
They needed a ton of art now to be able to make the huge demand for the second series. One guy wouldn’t be able to keep up with all the work and they needed artists would still capture the style and tone so there was some consistency across the line.
As the Garbage Pail Kids become more popular so did the opposition to them. Schools stated banning them, not just because they were lewd but because they were becoming a huge distraction in classes. I don’t remember my school having a massive problem with them but we still had to keep them under wraps. Of course, I went to a public school that banned the use of marbles at recess as it was seen as a form of gambling.
Garbage Pail Kids were so big that they would release 6 different series that year and all the public controversy was just making it more popular. There’s no such thing as bad press and for Topps, this was definitely the case. Every time a negative report, or article, came out dismissing the Garbage Pail Kids, demand and sales went up.
Check out this news report from CBS in 1986. Which is kind of ironic considering they would try and put out a cartoon version a year later.
I feel like Topps was behind all this negative press because there’s nothing that makes a kid want something more than being told they can’t have it. Garbage Pail Kids felt like it was an underground thing and that were trading contraband. And we loved it.
Here Come The Lawsuits
I’m surprised this didn’t happen earlier on honestly. The original company that owned Cabbage Patch Kids, Appalachian Artworks, sued Topps for copyright infringement. They said that Garbage Pail Kids were doing real damage to the Cabbage Patch Kids brand. I do kind of see it because I remember it seeming like they had been taken down a notch but how sorry can you feel for a billion dollar toy.
Topps was ordered to immediately stop production until a judgment was decided. In Topps mind, they believed they were only doing parody so Cabbage Patch Kids was fair game. The judge had a different idea though and saw it more as piracy. The Garbage Pail Kids were making money because of another intellectual property.
Basically, Garbage Pail Kids could not really exist if it wasn’t for Cabbage Patch Kids.
I do see both sides of this argument now that I look at it but Topps had to alter the appearance of the character in their trading cards to distance themselves from any Cabbage Patch Kids Likeness.
Topps would start by changing the logo and the actual aesthetic appearance of their “kids” so there was nothing that appeared similar to the Cabbage Patch Kids.
The Garbage Pail Kids Movie
This was kind of like the last kick at the can for Topps. And yes I’m aware of wordplay I used there. The Garbage Pail Kids movie was released in August of 1987.
The basic plot is about a kid who is being bullied and while being harassed knocks over a garbage can spilling out a green ooze out. The bullies bring the kids down into a sewer when the green ooze has leaked into and he gets saved by The Garbage Pail Kids. They get into a lot of mishaps and the GPK are attempted to be taken to a prison for ugly people to be executed.
It doesn’t happen and they basically get away and carry on making mishaps.
I’m sorry but this is a complete Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles rip off.
If you haven’t seen this or did at the time, you know the movie did horribly and is considered one of the worst movies of all time. It was shot in only 2 months and made for $1 million but only made $1.5 million overall which was considered a massive failure when you factor in all the money spent advertising it.
Critics hated it, fans hated it, and it has a 0% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Here are a few more fun facts about the movie:
- Jim Cummings, the voice of Winnie The Pooh did two voices in it and later said he regretted making it.
- It was originally going to be more of a horror movie
- The kid who played the main character of Dodger auditioned and signed on without telling his parents. His father was actor John Astin who played Gomez in the Addams Family who after reading the script thought it was so bad he tried to get his son out of it.
I’m honestly surprised this movie did so bad, I would have thought there was enough interest that enough people would have gone to see it before word got around that it was dog shit. This is pre-internet and it was harder for a bad word to spread.
I get the idea of rushing something out while it’s a hot commodity but it was already 1987 and I think the interest had really faded. Michael Eisner from Disney was actually trying to do a remake of this in 2012 but it never got any support.
The Garbage Pail Kids Cartoon Show
This is another bizarre part of this whole tale. In 1987, the same year as the movie, a Garbage Pail Kids animated show was put together by a guy name Flint Dille. Dille helped bring us things like G.I Joe,
I remember this thing being heavily promoted going into the 1987-88 season but people went nuts about it. Specifically the Action For Children’s Television, the National Coalition On Television Violence, and The Christan Leaders for Responsible Television.
Due to all the protest, CBS removed it from their schedule two days before it debuted and replaced it with re-runs of the Muppet Babies. The series was seen as being too violent and ridiculed disabled people. The big issue that I think that really got it pulled was that this negative attention made companies like Nabisco, McDonald’s, and Crayola pull out of advertising and CBS wanted to keep them happy.
Turns out the advertisers never even pre-screened it and
Wrapping It Up
I think the Garbage Pail Kids were awesome. The captured a rebellious sort of tone and pissed a lot of people off. They made a huge mark on the culture and society of the 1980s and definitely cemented their place in history.
As it was bound to happen, people now look back fondly on them and there have been many re-releases of the cards with an all-new series set in 2003, 2005, 2006, a 25th anniversary set in 2010, a brand new series set in 2012, and a 30th anniversary series in 2015.
I think we’ll still be hearing from the Garbage Pail Kids for a long time.
Just don’t tell the National Coalition On Television Violence. They don’t have much of a sense of humor…