In an art book about ‘Garbage Pail Kids,’ the gross side of the '80s returns (with Art Spiegelman cameo)

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A new book celebrates Garbage Pail Kids (flickr via jelene)
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The '80s were a time of aggressive anti-naturalism. Pastel was in while earth tones became a bad pop-culture joke, redolent of (brrr) hippies. But under that veneer, the '80s were the Gross Decade—for kids, anyway.

One form the grossness took was horror movies, which followed the '70s innovations of Wes Craven (The Last House on the Left) and John Carpenter (Halloween) with one box-office smash after another, turning genuinely terrifying cinema to scream-queen formula.

“Almost everything about the Friday the 13th series was derivative of the movies of the Seventies,” writes Jason Zinoman in Shock Value, his history of modern horror cinema’s rise:

“The setting (by the water) and some of the kills (the skewering of the couple like a shish kebab) were taken from [Italian horror director Mario] Bava’s Twitch of the Death Nerve. Jason’s mask belonged to a long line of killers from movies like Halloween and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. The shock endings were straight from the playbook of Carrie.”

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All true. But home video worked like television—you wanted multiple episodes of a series, especially if you were a kid. And kids—many in grade school, if the ones I knew back then are any indication—were the primary audience for Friday the 13th and its endless progeny, the increasingly lousy Halloween sequels, the ever-campier Nightmare on Elm Street series. If you wanted a reputation as a crazy badass, you rented Faces of Death and its four volumes. (Or, perhaps, you had uncles who watched them even as you didn’t.)

Fittingly, for a period when everything got more explicit, from gore to sex, and easier to access than ever, the literal as well as notional equivalent to a bubblegum version of Jason, Michael, Freddy, etc., came from the Topps Company. The Garbage Pail Kids sticker series was as much an '80s juggernaut as any movie, and with 14 additional sets that followed its 1985 launch, as prone to spawning sequels.

And just as '80s horror is now a nostalgia industry, Abrams Comic Art now commemorates those cards with Garbage Pail Kids, a handsome little hardback collection of the first five sets in the series.

Topps had gone down this road before. The sports-card and collectible-sticker kings had long offered pop-culture spoofs, inaugurating Wacky Packages back in 1967, a boom time for satire generally thanks to the mass rise of the youth counterculture—suddenly there was a vast rainbow of targets, all ripe for the picking (on).

Wacky Packages were, in essence, wallet-sized single-panel issues of Mad—not so much the brilliantly acid early comics version helmed by Harvey Kurtzmann, its creator, as the grubbier, more determinedly boffo magazine version that succeeded it, overseen by Al Feldstein, who’d dominated comic publisher E.C.’s horror and adventure lines.

The Kurtzman Mad was entirely about comics; under Feldstein its purview expanded, as did its message (basically, trust no authority at all). But the magazine relished nothing so much as attacking Madison Avenue. Wacky Packages were ads-gone-absurd—the cover of their 2008 book compendium, published by Abrams, features Crust toothpaste, Quacker Oats (with duck-faced emblem), and Tied detergent.

Garbage Pail Kids could just as easily have been dubbed “Wacky Packages 2.0,” because that’s precisely what they were—a rejected Wacky card became the new series’ prototype. In his introduction to Garbage Pail Kids, Art Spiegelman also cites cult-favorite mid-'60s Topps series such as Ugly Stickers (drawn by Wally Wood and Basil Wolverton), Slob Stickers (Mad’s Jack Davis) and Nutty Initials (Wolverton and Norm Saunders).

“To my mind, these artists were about as close as one could get to working with Rembrandt or Picasso,” Spiegelman writes. “This was as high as the arts got.”

Something like that, yeah. Garbage Pail Kids premiered to hordes of kids already desensitized to extremity thanks to not only grade-Z VHS horror but also underground comix, Richard Pryor and George Carlin, National Lampoon, Saturday Night Live, and watching the burnout culture wrought by the late '60s and '70s manifest itself uncomfortably upon late-night guest couches everywhere.

But those things were hand-me-downs for '80s kids. Garbage Pail Kids were for us, the way E.T. had been, only way gnarlier. Spiegelman writes of trying to fix the series’ look and feel, bringing in one artist after another—the satirical-trading-card equivalent of Steely Dan’s Walter Becker and Donald Fagen bringing in something like a dozen guitarists to try soloing on “Peg” just to find the right one.

Topps’ Jay Graydon moment came from John Pound. “He made you want to adopt those poor rejected kids despite the fact that seeing them might make you want to puke,” writes Spiegelman.

That’s evident right away, with No. 3A in the series, “Up Chuck”: a be-diapered baby with a bottle and a single blonde curl, vomiting a key, a building block, a goldfish, and a toy truck. Awwww!

As with Mad, what jumps out to an adult reared on Garbage Pail Kids is how many Easter eggs Pound, Spiegelman, and their cohort hid in the pieces. “Boozin’ Bruce” (No. 9A), succinctly parodies the persona of then-ascendant TV star Bruce Willis. “Mean Gene” (41A), with his Mohawk, studded bracelets, spiked boots, tied-up stick of lit dynamite, AK-47, and requisite shades, lampoons the Reagan-era one-man-army archetype equally effectively.

Then there’s “Rappin’ Ron” (46B)—simply the then-president behind a podium. No black eyes, no bloody nose, not even an exploding zit—just Ronald Reagan, sandwiched between “Leaky Lindsay” (making what appears to be a cats’ cradle out of snot) and “Disgustin’ Justin” (a Hell’s Angel), and therefore equally problematic.

All five series reproduced in Garbage Pail Kids were released in just two years, to indicate their runaway popularity. I was ten years old when the first sets came out, and they essentially owned the world as far as my friends and I were concerned. The worry and concern they elicited from teachers, of course, just made them better, funnier, cooler to everyone. Garbage Pail Kids crossed boundaries—everyone laughed at them, whatever their background or group affiliation, and if they didn’t, they seemed less trustworthy.

Garbage Pail Kids’ real progeny isn’t just items like Meanies, the bizarro-world Beanie Babies knockoffs (actual dolls, it should be noted, not just a card set), but everything from The Simpsons to Beavis and Butt-head and beyond.

I worried that they might seem too time-bound for their own good; but if anything, 27 years later, they’re more poignant. Maybe it’s because I’m a worried, concerned adult, but more likely it’s because nothing is ever as funny as it is when you’re ten years old—and everything is a lot scarier.

Above images copyright The Topps Company, Inc.