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Topps Trading Card Madness

Surely you know Topps, the 75-year-old chewing gum company famed for its card and sticker sets. I don’t know how popular Topps collectibles are with kids of today, but I was intimately familiar with their eighties-era cards and stickers, which back then came wrapped in small packages together with a stick of powdery pink gum. Noteworthy Topps products of years past include the Bazooka Joe comic strips that came with the Bazooka bubble gum, STAR WARS trading cards and “Wacky Packies” spoof advertising stickers. Of particular interest to me are Topps’ legendary MARS ATTACKS trading cards and GARBAGE PAIL KIDS stickers, both of which continue to satisfy the overgrown child in me as well as the immature adult.

     The particulars of the MARS ATTACKS phenomenon are laid out in a 2012 hardcover published by Abrams ComicArts, which contains good quality reproductions of the 55 MARS ATTACKS cards that appeared back in 1962. They depicted a WAR OF THE WORLDS-inspired invasion of Earth by THIS ISLAND EARTH-inspired big brained Martians, who wreak all manner of outrageous destruction via ray guns and giant insects until the citizens of Earth finally decide to fight back, eventually blowing up Mars. If your only exposure to MARS ATTACKS is via the crummy 1996 Tim Burton movie than I’d say you owe it to yourself to check out this book (if not the original cards).

     A lengthy introduction by Len Brown, Topps’ longtime creative director and a key player in the inception of MARS ATTACKS, elucidates how the cards were widely condemned by the moral watchdogs of the time, and released in a limited edition by the made-up “Bubbles Inc.” Over the years the cards attained a cult following, and nowadays go for hundreds--if not thousands--of dollars on the collectors’ market.

  

     The reproductions provided in the MARS ATTACKS book show just how subversive the card set truly was, with depictions of bloody eviscerations, a woman attacked by a Martian in her bed (due to the dictates of the censors the lass is fully clothed) and even a dog being massacred. As painted by Norm Saunders and penciled by Bob Powell, the artwork is superlative, distilling the essence of early 60s pop culture (in which flying saucers and giant insects were constants) into 55 gorgeously rendered images, while the Len Brown written captions on the back of the cards nearly match the art in lurid sensationalism (“Cars plunged into the icy waters bringing death to the helpless passengers within. Screaming hysterically, the people had no way of escaping their steel coffins”).

     The forced campiness that typified the Tim Burton movie is mercifully absent from the cards, which contain a good deal of intentional comedy (i.e. Martians in a spaceship celebrating the destruction of Earth with martinis) but were drafted with great sincerity. Tim Burton himself, ironically enough, aptly identified what made these cards great in a quote included in the MARS ATTACKS book: “The original cards were so beautiful. They were really pure, not campy. They had a lurid quality that I like.” It’s too bad Burton didn’t see fit to include those qualities in his film!

     Included in the MARS ATTACKS book are reproductions of a subsequent 11 card set from 1994, which do a fairly good job replicating the tone and imagery of the original MARS ATTACKS cards while depicting many outrages that were prohibited back in ’62, including scantily clad women and gory medical experiments. There are also renderings by various modern artists--Ken Steacy, Drew Friedman, Timothy Truman, Goef Darrow and others--showing their personal takes on the imagery of MARS ATTACKS, which include depictions of skinned human carcasses, a baby carriage in flames and a Martian forcing a woman to drink blood.

     MARS ATTACKS, of course, was a bit before my time. Topps’ GARBAGE PAIL KIDS stickers, however, definitely were of my time. I distinctly remember the impact of these wonderfully gross offerings, spoofed from the popular Cabbage Patch Kids dolls (another eighties phenomenon I vividly recall), which became instant collectors’ items that were invariably snapped up as soon as they hit store shelves. Needless to add, those original GARBAGE PAIL KIDS stickers are now extremely expensive (sadly, I didn’t bother hanging onto any of mine).

     Good quality reproductions of the first five GPK series that appeared in 1985-86 are included in a(nother) 2012 Abrams ComicArts hardcover. This one isn’t as potent as the MARS ATTACKS book, lacking as it does the thoroughness of that tome’s explication of its subject’s history and impact, but I say the GARBAGE PAIL KIDS book is a must-own nonetheless.

     An introduction by MAUS’ Art Spiegelman (who worked with Topps for over 20 years) describes how the GPKs came about because Topps was unable to obtain a license to create Cabbage Patch Kids stickers. They decided to go with parody stickers, leading to a phenomenon that quickly came to dwarf that of the Cabbage Patch Kids--and was the basis of a shitty 1987 movie that makes the MARS ATTACKS film look like CITIZEN KANE. I realize those of you who didn’t grow up in the eighties might not understand what all the shouting is about, but for those of us who did the Garbage Pail Kids, and the book under discussion, remain an irresistible blast of deviant nostalgia.

    

     Included in the GARBAGE PAIL KIDS book are reproductions of classic GPKs like “Joe Blow” (a tyke getting smacked by an exploding gum bubble), “Disgustin’ Justin” (a beer guzzling biker kid), “Leaky Lindsay” (a girl playing with goopy snot leaking from her nose), “Odd Todd” (a pint-sized Hunchback of Norte Dame look-alike), and “Starin’ Darren” (a kid with eyes placed throughout his body).

     As painted by a variety of illustrators, including Spiegelman and John Pound, the Garbage Pail Kids remain extremely resonant creations at once gross and endearing, aptly straddling mainstream and avant-garde traditions--and despite the many artists who worked (uncredited) on the cards, they have a definite uniformity. In fact, I’d say the Garbage Pail Kids rank among the most unique and distinctive artwork of the 1980s, if not of all time.

 
Commentary by Adam Groves
--7/30/13
 

     

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