Culture Jamming for the Swingset Set

Topps Wacky packages, out in their first new edition since 1991, train kids to question corporate America.

Author: Ben Schwartz Date: June 25, 2004 Appeared in Section 1

Kids these days go to public schools sponsored by Coca-Cola, eat cafeteria lunches from McDonald's, and (in Vernon Hills, anyway) play football on Rust-Oleum Field. Looks like the time is right for the reintroduction of the Wacky Packages, the classic trading cards Topps has released off and on since 1967. Boomers and Gen-Xers will remember Wacky Packs as the product-parodies that turned Crest toothpaste into Crust, the toothpaste for those who only brush twice a month, or Gravy Train dog food into Grave Train ("Your dog will never eat anything else . . ."). Painted in spot-on detail and cut into the shapes of the products themselves, Wacky Packs stickers became instant graffiti for 70s kids.
The glee with which they were embraced is no surprise, since over the years they were written and drawn by some of the sharpest talents in the world of underground comics--among them Art Spiegelman, Bill Griffith, Drew Friedman, Mark Newgarden, and Chicago's own Jay Lynch. Wacky Packages smuggled the counterculture onto playgrounds years before kids were of age to buy these artists' comics.
"They change the DNA," says Lynch, who worked on the new series--the first since 1991--issued last month. "They teach kids not to put their total trust in corporate culture."
While the cards have fans who are now in their 30s and 40s, they're still primarily aimed at 6-to-12-year-olds. Moving from knock-knock jokes to making fun of the products their parents surround them with is a natural progression for kids. How big is the leap from getting told to brush every night to cracking up over Crust toothpaste?
"When you live in a consumer culture," says Spiegelman, who's not involved with the current series, "it's really the most ambient part of the adult world you're exposed to outside of the quirks of your own family. Anything that gives you another take on that is going to be attended to."
Lynch, whose comic strip with Gary Whitney, Phoebe and the Pigeon People, ran in the Reader in the late 70s and 80s, started working on Wacky Packs in '68, when he was recruited by Spiegelman, who'd known him since they were teenage contributors to Joe Pilati's comics zine Smudge.
In 1963, at age 17, Lynch had moved to Chicago from Florida, where he grew up. Working a string of odd jobs to support himself, he wound up manning the service bar at Second City one summer. This was between the theater's skinny-tie Alan Arkin days and the Belushi hippie years. "At that time it seemed like Second City was over," Lynch says. "They had been on Jack Paar, and all the Hyde Park Compass Players were gone. . . . The Realist would come out and you'd see them taking their improvs from there."
Lynch moved into Del Close's old apartment on Hudson. Close had left it in such a mess that the landlord let him live there for free on the condition that he fix the place up. He drew cartoons for Roosevelt University's humor magazine, the Aardvark, which got tossed off campus by college administrators after the first issue. Then in 1967 Lynch put out Chicago's answer to Robert Crumb's Zap Comics: Bijou Funnies, with early work by Lynch, Spiegelman, Gilbert Shelton, and Skip Williamson.
Crumb sometimes stayed with Lynch while visiting Chicago in the 60s--they watched the 1968 Democratic National Convention on TV together while they drew comics. Crumb, Lynch, and Williamson went down to view the riots from a safe distance at a spot in Grant Park. Shortly after that Lynch got a letter from Topps in New York asking him to work with Spiegelman on Wacky Packages.
That generation of underground cartoonists was generally getting spot work in men's magazines like Dude and Gent rather than jobs at the mainstream publishers of comics like Spider-Man, Batman, or Archie. But there was work at Topps--Spiegelman had been there since graduating from high school. For more than two decades he developed card lines like Wacky Packages and the Garbage Pail Kids, while also working on his Pulitzer Prize-winning book Maus and publishing Raw with wife Francoise Mouly (now the New Yorker's art editor) in later years.
Topps creative directors Woody Gelman and Len Brown not only spotted Spiegelman as a talent but hired a number of brilliant cartoonists who'd been run out of the business during the Comics Code censorship of the 50s: Wally Wood, Jack Davis, Will Elder, and the grand master himself, Harvey Kurtzman, creator of Mad magazine.
Kurtzman left Mad in '56, and by the late 60s the magazine was a pale shadow of itself, a place where the word yeeccchhh! was considered a surefire laugh getter. "Mad means insane, but it also means angry," says Lynch. "And by that time the people at Mad weren't angry. They were also a lot older than the audience, which wasn't true with the original Mad."
That's the problem with comedy now, says Spiegelman: "We've got a generation of comedy writers who grew up reading the wrong Mad."
In late '68 Topps flew Lynch out to New York and put him up at the Hotel Earle, where a fugitive Angela Davis would later be captured by the FBI. There he and Spiegelman holed up to write the gags. "We used to go out and buy groceries to parody," says Spiegelman, "then eat them and send the bill to Topps. In those days this was important."
Spiegelman and Lynch drew up colored roughs. Then the art was handed over for lettering and painting to one of the unsung geniuses of the American pop underground, Norman Saunders, a pulp fiction and comic book cover artist who'd been working since the 30s. He was a veteran of the he-man adventure magazines of the 60s, the kind with "exposes" like "Suckers Are My Meat--the B-Girl in Action."
One of Saunders's career highlights was painting the original 1962 Mars Attacks trading cards, which inspired Tim Burton's 1996 movie of the same name. A target of parent groups across the country, the set featured such scenes as "Last Licks," where a green-brained alien is about to disintegrate a schoolgirl holding an ice cream cone.
Saunders's mastery of the language of advertising made the Wacky Packs series not only funny but subversive. His logo parodies anticipated the kind of humor found today in culture-jamming magazines like Adbusters and Stay Free! or in the pseudocorporate logos used by punk bands and street artists.
At a time when underground talents were barred from mainstream publishing, Topps deemed them fit to babysit America's kids. To be sure, Wacky Packages were not loaded with sex, drugs, or violence--though Spiegelman does recall an in-house parody of Ivory Snow featuring model-turned-porn star Marilyn Chambers and the logo "Ovaries Show." But an underground sensibility is evident in the card line. "Gets rid of Reds, Pinkos, Hippies, Yippies & Flippies" reads the motto for "Commie Cleanser," an early card spoofing Comet Cleanser. The more conservative Topps execs approved of it as all-American. Lynch saw it as a joke about political repression.
And for kids--whose embrace of the series sent sales through the roof in the early 70s, giving even Topps's squeaky-clean Major League Baseball trading cards a run for their money--they were something completely new. "That's what made Wacky Packages and Mad magazine so precious," says Carrie McLaren, editor of Stay Free! "There was a long tradition of parody advertising meant for adults when Wacky Packages appeared, but there was no other media about media for kids."
The new series of Wacky Packs, produced by Lynch with artists John Pound, Tom Bunk, Strephon Taylor, and Norm Saunders's daughter Zina (Norm died in 1989), ranges from the satirical to the utterly silly. The Disney-esque mascot for Peter Pan peanut butter becomes Peter Panhandle, a drunk slumped on the sidewalk with a bottle of hooch. "Will work for peanuts," says the sign hanging around his neck. Hormel's corned beef hash is now Gormel's Scorned Beef Hash, which promises "15 oz. of dead tormented flesh." York Peppermint Patties are Dork Peppermint Pottys--chocolate-covered candy toilet seats.
"They bring the fantasy of advertising down to reality," says Lynch. "They teach kids to think for themselves, and that what's good for GM and Coca-Cola isn't necessarily good for them. This is important, because these are the people 20 years down the road who will be doing your heart bypass."
Lynch, who now lives in upstate New York, is waiting along with Topps to see how Wacky Packages do with today's more consumer-savvy kids. He recently scanned 500 Phoebe and the Pigeon People strips onto CD and is searching for a publisher to reprint the strip as well.
Meanwhile, the adult fan base that grew up with Wacky Packs is driving another market: the paintings for the original Wacky Packs series fetch between $3,000 and $5,000 each. Topps itself will be auctioning off the original for Crust toothpaste, among other works, this summer; the company estimates that it will go for between $25,000 and $45,000.
Topps has improved the situation for the artists by paying them both for roughs and for finished originals, but after that the selling doesn't benefit them. "I was outbid at auctions for my own work and then fans asked me to sign them," says Spiegelman, who left Topps over the issue of royalties in 1987. "It physically sickened me."
Many of the mom-and-pop candy stores Wacky Packs flew out of in the 70s don't exist anymore. So now more than ever Topps is sending Wacky Packages into the maw of the consumer machine itself. Box sets of the new edition sold through Wal-Mart and Target stores contain special bonus titles unavailable elsewhere. But in today's product-placement playground, it might still be a good idea to move Wacky Packs from recess to required reading.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Bhob Stewart, Jay Lynch, Art Spiegelman, Carol Lynch; courtesy of Greg Grant, the Topps Co., Inc..