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How a Wacky Package Series was put together
- from my point of view at least -
by Jay Lynch - August 2002
For most of us who worked for the product development department of the Topps Chewing Gum Company in the 1960s and 1970s, everything we worked on kind of blends together. I think we all regarded what we were doing as just a way to make a living at the time. Wacky Packages...Funny Little Joke Books...Bazooka of funny monsters... We never gave any of this all that much thought. But now, thirty-some-odd years later, Wacky Packages have become some sort of historical icons. So here I will endeavor to trace the steps involved in creating a typical Wacky Packages series back in seventies.

I would get a phone call from Len Brown or Art Spiegelman telling me it was time for me to do some roughs for a new series of Wacky Packages. I would usually submit a dozen roughs at a time.

Len would tell me, usually on the phone, which food conglomerates I could not parody, based on cease and desist letters from prior series. I had a master list of taboo companies -- and this would be added to, by phone, until a new master list would be compiled and sent to me.

In those days I had a pretty good working knowledge of who made what, though. So I would give Len a verbal list of maybe 20 or so products, of which he would pick a dozen. Sometimes he would suggest products, sometimes he would come up with the gag title on the phone, and I would add to it on the rough. Sometimes Spiegelman, or Bhob Stewart, or Woody Gelman would phone the assignment to me. In the 80s, Mark Newgarden would phone the assignment to me. In the 90s Ira Friedman would phone the assignment to me. But mostly it would be Len.

I think in the 60s I got $8 a rough. By the 70s it had gone up to $20 a rough. By the 80s it was $125 a rough, and so on. What I got for a rough always remained the same amount in actual buying power. It has gone up with inflation, though. One rough pays about the same as a week's worth of groceries. Always has -- and always will.

Anyway -- after I had some idea of the initial dozen products that I would parody, I would go to the supermarket and buy these products. Sometimes I would get ideas for additional products as well -- and Topps would reimburse me for this cost of the actual products when I would send them the receipt along with my bill, which I would enclose with each batch of roughs.

These roughs were done in India ink and colored with magic markers. I would just send them in by regular mail, and I didn't bother to retain xerox copies of them until the mid-1970s when the drugstore down the block from my house installed a pay xerox machine.

I was living in Chicago then. I would only go to Brooklyn to meet with the Topps guys once every six months or so. Usually this was to work on a vast variety of other Topps and Bazooka projects. Wacky Packages was just one of the countless series in development then, only one in ten of which would ever see the light of day.

So I would send batches of roughs in. And that would be the end of it for me. Topps would send me proof sheets when the series was ready to come out. These they sent me so that I would have some record of past series -- so I wouldn't repeat gags. I never bothered to collect sets of Wacky Packages -- or any other Topps products back then. It was just something I did to pay the rent -- and I think all of us, with the possible exception of Woody Gelman, felt this way about it all.

On my occasional trips from Chicago to Topps' Brooklyn offices, I did see the later stages of the Wacky Pack production process.

My roughs, as well as roughs by Stewart, Spiegelman, Kim Deitch, Bill Griffith and everyone who had been assigned the task of doing roughs for a particular Wacky series, would be gone over by Len and Woody and Artie, who would write notes for any changes.

The roughs would then be presented to the heads of the company at a meeting. In the early days of Wackys, Topps C.E.O. Joel Shorin would have to approve them. Later, his brother Arthur Shorin became the C.E.O. Various other Topps execs and lawyers would put in their thoughts on the individual roughs, and further notations for changes would be made. Len, Woody and Artie would argue the points necessary to preserve the gags as best as they could.

The notated roughs would be given to Ben Solomon in the Art Department. Ben would break the job of producing finished art into an assembly line process, to make sure everything got done on time. Each Wacky Package image was an individual problem. There was, therefore, no inflexible method as to how any individual image would be prepared. Ben Solomon would decide, when confronted with each rough, how to best break down the steps involved in its translation into final art.

First, the roughs would be given to Norm Saunders or Tom Sutton. They would pencil the images on 3-ply Srathmore paper, and return them to Ben. Ben would have topps artists airbrush the package parts of the drawings and tighten up and paint the main product logos. Then the drawings would be given to a painter, usually Saunders, who would paint the characters and the details -- the rims of the cans, the bottle caps, beads of moisture on a beer can -- things like that. If the lettering was part of the design and mingled with these details, Saunders would paint the lettering. If the lettering was just straight type, Norm would return the art without the lettering, and Ben would assign someone in the art department to either hand letter the smaller blocks of copy, or to rub off Art-type, a rub-off kind of lettering that they used to make before computers and photohsop became the normal method for art departments to achieve such effects. Art-type was acetate sheets which had alphabets of different typefaces in different point sizes on them. The lettering would transfer to the original art by rubbing it with a burnishing tool, letter by letter.

Sometimes Ben would have Saunders, who usually worked from his home, come in and add final changes and retouches to a painting. Sometimes if the changes were small enough, a Topps 9 to 5 artist would do it.

Rick Veresi (Varesi?) did the packaging. He worked with Len, Artie, Woody and Bhob in the product development department. He did the Wacky Packages wrappers and display-box art.

I think the line-art of the wacky packages on the checklists was done by George Evans. Evans worked for E.C. comics in the 50s.

Ben Solomon and Woody Gelman had worked together on many projects in the past when they were hired by Topps on a freelance basis in the early '50s to revamp the comic strips that came with the one-cent Bazooka gum. Their new character, Bazooka Joe, was a big hit and Topps hired them full-time. Woody became the head of the creative department and Ben became the head of the art department. The creative department was on the east side of the Topps building and the art department was on the west side of the former World War Two munitions plant that was the Topps Brooklyn headquarters. There was a half-a-block long space between the art department and the creative department. Somewhere between the two was the sports department, who put together the baseball cards, which was Topps' most important product in the '70s. The art department was primarily concerned with getting the baseball cards out on time. But Ben Solomon's art department also prepared the Wacky Packages for production.

Topps was heavily into cost-cutting. If you did a painting for a high-class outfit like Playboy Magazine in the 70s, you would simply paint the thing and Playboy would make a transparency of it and color-separate it from the transparency. The Wacky Packages paintings were done with Windsor-Newton Gouache. Your average publisher would make a photographic transparency a gouache painting in those days before it went to color separation. The transparency would correct the color for reproduction, because not all gouache colors are intended to be printed without the interim transparency stage. Some colors of gouache reflect light or contain fluorescent color, and they do not reproduce correctly unless a color-corrected transparency is made of the original art to print from. Since Topps didn't want to pay the extra thirty bucks for a transparency of each painting, Saunders was forced to use only the gouache colors which did not contain fluorescents or other eye-tricking chemicals. He was used to this, though. He came from the pulp mags of the 1930s, another genre of inexpensively produced entertainment items equally noted for their cost-cutting policies.

Each Wacky painting was done on 3-ply Strathmore paper, so that it was flexible enough to go through a drum scanner. All Wacky paintings were done twice the size of the printed card, and groups of 6 or 8 paintings were rubber-cemented to paper and scanned all at once to save money. I actually am glad for the cost-cutting methods of reproduction I learned at Topps. They have served me well over the years. I don't know how I ever would have afforded to publish my own early publications without using these cost-cutting methods.

The scanning of the Wacky art was done by the printer, according to Ben Solomon's specifications. Ben's department would do a paste-up using black and white photostats of the art for position only. They would add the copyright notices on an acetate overlay. The printer, who was in Duryea, Pennsylvania or somewhere, would put it all together and send Ben a press-proof. Gelman, Brown and Solomon would go over the proof to make sure everything was ok. Sometimes they would change or replace a product between the proof and the final printing.

The idea that Topps was using a drum-scanner at this time was pretty progressive, though. This was a new technology in the late 60s. On my own publications, color separations were done by the old photographic method where an image was photographed and screened 4 times, each time filtering out three of the basic ink colors. Both methods resulted in 4 sets of negatives, cyan, magenta, yellow and black, from which all printed colors would come. But Topps had the use of an early drum-scanner then. In the past, we had to use a huge offset camera.

Ben put asterisks on the different cards so that he could identify what part of the uncut sheet the individual cards came from. This allowed him to talk to the printer about ink distribution or "hickeys" (a term for little white bubble-like blotches that appear on solid printed areas) over the phone when he was correcting the proofs. Since the printer was in another city, identifying areas of the sheet with asterisks makes good sense.

There were many people involved in Wacky Packages. Abe Morgenstern was the guy in Woody's department who set things up with the paper suppliers. In '73 there was a big paper shortage. I guess that it was around then that the regular sticker paper wasn't readily available---and Abe got the Ludlow paper, which wasn't the ideal paper, since it comes with the Ludlow name printed all over the back of it--and Topps didn't especially want to give them free advertising, But there was a paper shortage, so what're you gonna do. Today the Ludlow Wackies seem to have some kind of mystical significance. All it is is that that's the only paper they could get on short notice back then.

There was also some kind of rule about ink. The ink that touches the gum had to pass FDA inspection. So The backs of the cards touched the gum, and had to be printed with a safer ink or something. A vegetable-based ink? I forget that aspect of it. I know that the Bazooka comics never were printed too clear because they had to use a safe, non-toxic ink in case some stupid kid ate the comic strip. I forget what the deal was on the card ink, though.

By Jay Lynch, August 2002
© copyright Greg Grant, 2002