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The Snot-Soaked History of the Garbage Pail Kids

Garbage Pail Kids were a smash hit, but they also drew intense criticism from concerned parents—and renowned ocean diver Jacques Cousteau.

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Kids couldn't get enough of the Garbage Pail Kids—no matter how gross the cards were. / Chris Hondros/Getty Images

In the early 1980s, kids were obsessed with the Cabbage Patch Kids, a line of plush dolls with cherubic cheeks and outstretched arms that invited lots of affection. A few years later, a parody of the Cabbage Patch line traded those cute faces and huggable bodies for boogers, vomit, and characters with names like Luke Puke and Messy Tessie. They were the Garbage Pail Kids, and for a few glorious years, they were the talk of the schoolyard.

The Topps trading cards were a smash hit upon their release, but they also drew intense criticism from concerned parents and even renowned ocean diver Jacques Cousteau. Some cards were too offensive to be released. A feature-length movie was worse than anyone expected, assuming anyone expected a movie with projectile vomiting to be good.

The Garbage Pail Kids worked their disgusting way into the hearts of America’s children, leaking bodily fluids all the way. But before those cards made it to stores, they needed to make it out of the Topps offices. Our story begins a bit inauspiciously: with a cartoon baby in a dumpster.

The Birth of the Garbage Pail Kids

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The Garbage Pail Kids parodied the Cabbage Patch Kids. / Bryn Colton/Getty Images

The Topps Chewing Gum Company was founded in 1938 by Russian immigrant Morris Shorin and his four sons, Joe, Ira, Abram, and Philip. For years, Topps—which was named because Shorin wanted to top the competition—was content to peddle bubblegum. Then they began including novelty cards in packages, including X-ray images in the late ‘40s that became visible when viewed through red cellophane. Later, the company would have a lot of success with sports cards, as well as sets inspired by popular movies and television shows like 1966’s Batman starring Adam West.

The Batman set provided an early indication that artists employed by Topps had an irreverent sense of humor. Legend has it that the artist for the card set, Norm Saunders, noticed he had an extra space on the proof sheet that laid out the cards before they were separated. As a joke, he painted Batman in a private moment using a Bat-toilet. While it wasn’t intended for public distribution, it spoke to a wry approach to what was otherwise the somewhat serious business of producing sports cards.

Topps also had a modest hit in 1967 with Wacky Packages, a parody of common brand names. Morton Salt, for example, became Moron Salt, and Ritz Crackers became Ratz Crackers. Not exactly the rapier wit of a Dorothy Parker, but kids thought it was funny.

For a new set of Wacky Packages being developed in 1984, a Topps Creative Consultant named Mark Newgarden came up with an idea parodying the Cabbage Patch Kids doll line called Garbage Pail Kids. Newgarden had artist John Pound draw a package that featured what Pound called “a little baby bum in a trash can.”

Not-so-coincidentally, Topps CEO Arthur Shorin, the grandson of Morris Shorin, was looking to take a bite out of the Cabbage Patch Kids himself. Shorin had been negotiating with the licensing agent for the Cabbage Patch dolls to do a line of trading cards, but the two parties could never agree on terms.

The rumor was that Original Appalachian Artworks, which owned the Cabbage Patch line, thought trading cards were too lowbrow. They would soon find out just how lowbrow cards could be.

In addition to Newgarden, Topps put New Product Development head Jay Lynch and Creative Director Len Brown on the project, as well as employees Stan Hart and Art Spiegelman. It was moving forward under the Garbage Pail Kids label. Spiegelman was working at Topps at the same time he was preparing to publish the first volume of his landmark graphic novel Maus, a harrowing depiction of his father’s experiences during the Holocaust that later won a Pulitzer Prize.

The naming system was Spiegelman’s idea. He thought the cards would be more appealing to kids if they carried common first names—that way, they could embrace their inner Stinky Sam or give a friend a card with a less-than-flattering depiction of their namesake on it.

Artist John Pound illustrated all 44 cards in the first set in just two months. His sketches were then reviewed by Spiegelman and other Topps employees, who typically marked up his drawings with editorial input. In this case, their advice consisted of asking for more snot. Sometimes, they went a little too far.

Garbage Pail Kids Cards That Didn't Make the Cut

Believe it or not, Topps actually exercised some restraint in the card sets, holding back a few cards they believed were too offensive to distribute. One painting featured a baby in a pickle jar, which was quickly vetoed because some people might have interpreted it as an abandoned fetus.

Another depicted Abraham Lincoln with bullet holes through his top hat and a copy of Slaybill in his hand. The extremely grim gallows humor failed to make the cut.

Topps also avoided any religious iconography, so a painting of a kid receiving Garbage Pail Kids cards like he was Moses receiving the 10 Commandments was turned down.

Finally, Topps rejected a card that featured a little girl and her dog standing near a pile of feces. The girl is pointing at the dog in an accusatory manner. The dog is pointing right back at the girl. This one didn’t make it into stores, either, but the reason had more to do with the fact it had two characters—a departure from the one-character style of the series—than the implication that a girl was trying to frame her dog for the act of defecating in the street.

While not all designs made the final cut, the artists and editors working on the cards rarely gave up. Rejected cards were often presented to Arthur Shorin in future approval sessions in the hopes he could be worn down. Many of these initially rejected cards eventually made their way into published sets. Even the pickled baby.

By the time Topps settled on a line-up, they decided to duplicate many of the paintings and release them under different names. Slobby Robbie, for example, was also distributed under the name Fat Matt so both the Robbies and Matts of the world could feel equally insulted.

Unleashing the Garbage Pail Kids

The first Garbage Pail Kids set was released in June 1985 and sold for just 25 cents per pack. Kids were hooked immediately. With a sense of humor seemingly borrowed from Mad magazine and an eye-catching display featuring the atomic detonation of Adam Bomb’s own head, stores across the country couldn’t keep the cards in stock. Ciro Musso, who owned the Southgate Card and Gift Shop in Massapequa Park, Long Island, told The New York Times that the store had people waiting in line for their snot fix. Joan Fernbacher, owner of an ice cream parlor in California named Candy Alley, told The Los Angeles Times that they were getting 45 calls every day to see if the cards were available. Time and again, parents and reporters were asking—what was the appeal?

It may have had something to do with the fact that the Garbage Pail Kids came along at a time when kids were big on disgusting hobbies. The Inhumanoids line of toys featured an action figure called D. Compose, which could open its rib cage to reveal entrails. Slime, the green glop that got into carpets and never came out, was also big. Stinkor from He-Man carried a very unpleasant smell. There was even a line of battery-operated tarantulas called Creeps. Whether the Garbage Pail Kids helped create this trend or just followed it, being gross was becoming big business.

While Topps was pleased with the success of the cards, they knew the demand for more Garbage Pail Kids couldn’t be fulfilled by John Pound alone. A number of artists were recruited for the line, including Tom Bunk and James Warhola, who was Andy Warhol’s nephew. The artists followed the template originated by Pound but were able to add their own flourishes. Warhola actually rendered his cards as oil paintings, lending a surprising depth to characters like Trash-Can Ken.

Topps was also hungry for jokes and names, inviting freelancers to come by their offices in New York for what amounted to snot summits. For $50 a day, writers would conceive of card ideas like Haley’s Vomit, an astronaut experiencing zero-gravity puke. Topps began issuing new series as fast as they could pump them out, with some retailers reporting sales of up to 500 packs a day.

There was just one problem: While children loved Garbage Pail Kids, adults didn’t find them particularly funny. And neither did Original Appalachian Artworks, the company behind the Cabbage Patch Kids, which felt the cards crossed the line from parody to copyright infringement. The stage had been set for a baby vs. baby legal showdown.

Topps vs. The World

In the spring of 1986, Original Appalachian filed a $30 million lawsuit against Topps, alleging copyright infringement, trademark infringement, and unfair competition. Topps executives got very nervous, particularly since there was a paper trail of comments that demonstrated employees were very deliberately mimicking the oval-shaped heads and other features of the Cabbage Patch dolls. It would be hard to say they weren’t an inspiration when editorial notes said things like, “Make them look more like Cabbage Patch Kids.”

In August 1986, a federal judge ordered Topps to stop producing the cards until the copyright issue could be sorted out. The judge, G. Ernest Tidwell, wrote that there was a “fine line between parody and piracy.” Because Topps feared a massive judgment, they decided to settle in February 1987. Topps paid what amounted to royalties for the cards as well as a lump sum payment. Topps also had to change the design of their Garbage Pail Kids characters as well as the logo. That’s why cards in later series were different in style than the earlier series, resembling hard plastic dolls rather than the soft-sculpture appearance that was a trademark of the Cabbage Patch Kids.

Settling with Original Appalachian was one thing—the court of public opinion was another. For as long as the Garbage Pail Kids had been circulating, parents and other opinionated adults thought the cards were in poor taste and inappropriate in school settings.

In late 1985 and early 1986, Chicago Tribune columnist Bob Greene printed two syndicated columns describing how a student had been bullied by children who left a Garbage Pail Kids card labeled “Most Unpopular Student” on his desk. Others feared characters like Oozy Susie could be used to demean kids with the same first name. And still others described a growing bloodlust among children who found the violence depicted in the cards gratifying. Here’s how one 7-year-old explained the appeal of Dead Fred, a character dressed like a gangster with a bullet in his head: “I like this one. My dolly would look nice with its head blown off, too.”

Several schools banned Garbage Pail Kids cards from classrooms, taking particular exception with the humorous licenses printed on the back of the cards that permitted kids to do forbidden things like eat between meals. A group calling themselves Parents Against Sadistic Toys, or PAST, successfully lobbied Toys ‘R Us locations in Oregon and Washington to stop selling the cards in stores. One of the more dramatic critiques came from famed underwater explorer Jacques Cousteau, who objected to their release in his native France and even cautioned that kids who collected the cards might, “go off the deep end and end up on cocaine.” Topps could never quite shake the idea that they were rotting kids’ minds, especially when they moved their trashy icons into television and movies.

The Garbage Pail Kids Head to the Silver Screen

In 1987, Topps signed a deal with a small film studio named Atlantic Releasing for a major motion picture based on the Garbage Pail Kids. Using state-of-the-art special effects, Atlantic planned on an ambitious live-action family adventure film that would charm children and adults alike.

Instead, the result is one of the worst and possibly most off-putting movies ever made.

In The Garbage Pail Kids Movie, an antiques dealer played by Anthony Newley is a caretaker for a group of disgusting mutant children he has to keep hidden from civilized society. The dealer employs a young man played by Mackenzie Astin, brother of Lord of the Rings and Goonies star Sean Astin. The boy accidentally releases these abominations, leading to a series of scenes in which characters outfitted in special effects make-up and mechanical expressions project snot, vomit, and other secretions across the room. The actors playing the Garbage Pail Kids, covered in latex while shooting in an extremely hot warehouse in the San Fernando Valley and walking into walls because they couldn’t see out of their masks, were miserable.

The Garbage Pail Kids Moviemade just $661,512 during its opening weekend in August 1987 and eventually topped out at $1.6 million. While it was cheap to make with a budget of around $1 million, it was still a disappointment.

Topps had even worse luck with a Garbage Pail Kids animated series that was scheduled to debut on CBS that same year. Even though it was a very toned-down version of the card series, with very little of its signature gross-out humor, protests from watchdog groups caused the network and advertisers to grow nervous. The network had ordered 13 episodes but not one made it on the air before they pulled the plug.

The writing was on the bathroom wall. After selling roughly 800 million cards, the Garbage Pail Kids fad was coming to an end.

The Death—and Rebirth—of the Garbage Pail Kids

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A Garbage Pail Kids card from 2004. / Topps via Getty Images

By 1988, Topps had exhausted the possibilities for the Garbage Pail Kids. At least at that point, the lawsuit from Original Appalachian seemed to have lessened enthusiasm among artists, who preferred the original style. The movie had bombed. But perhaps more than anything, the fad had just run its course—at least for the time being. Topps released a total of 15 sets. By the time a 16th set was nearly completed, interest was so low they opted not to release it.

But in 2003, after wallowing in the pop culture gutter for 15 years, the Kids made a comeback with an all-new series. Since then, artists like John Pound, Tom Bunk, and James Warhola have been recognized for their contributions, which usually went unsigned at the time. Garbage Pail Kids collectors regularly commission artwork from them.

Topps is still printing cards, too. As part of the 35th anniversary of the cards in 2020, Topps released parodies of Tiger King stars Joe Exotic and Carole Baskin. Joe was renamed Joe Chaotic and Carole became Cool Cat Carole.

And in 2020, Goosebumps author R.L. Stine announced he had signed a three-book deal with Abrams Books to bring the trashy characters to the printed page. In Stine’s version, the Kids are misfits who might have poor manners but still try to do the right thing. The first volume, Welcome to Smellville, debuted in September.

The Garbage Pail Kids Legacy

So what made Garbage Pail Kids so sought after? Kids love to be grossed out, but that doesn’t explain all of it. A lot of artists for the series believe the cards were to kids in the 1980s what underground comics and their counter-culture attitude were to kids of the 1960s. At the height of Cabbage Patch Kids mania, this was a chance to rebel against shiny consumerism and mass-market collectibles. It was a kid’s first taste of going against conventional wisdom and questioning authority. It was evidence not everything in life had to be taken so seriously ... and that you could cover almost anything in snot.

As for that missing 16th set? In 1989, a sheet of unseen cards was located behind the Topps building. It had been thrown into—where else—the garbage.

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This post originally appeared on Mental Floss and was published February 3, 2022. This article is republished here with permission.

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