The History of the Garbage Pail Kids

James Logie
Photo by Michal Balog on Unsplash

You can’t blame a company for trying--and in this case succeeding--in creating a culturally significant movement.

Garbage Pail Kids were a collection of trading cards from 1985 released by Topps. They were a parody of the hugely successful Cabbage Patch Kids which led to lawsuits, bans, a movie, and many future releases.

Give a product a bit of a “forbidden fruit” aspect to it, and you more often than not: you have a hit on your hands.

Here’s the story of the Garbage Pails Kids.

Cabbage Patch Kids Lead the Way For Garbage Pail Kids

There’s no doubt you’re aware of Cabbage Patch Kids, but here’s a quick rundown on their history.

Cabbage Patch Kids may have been a stolen idea as they were first created by a woman named Martha Nelson Thomas who called them “Doll babies."

She would sell them at craft fairs and shows and they caught the eye of Xavier Roberts. You may remember seeing his name branded on the back of a Cabbage Patch Kid.

He started to sell them for high prices and she didn't like it. He said that if he couldn’t sell her dolls he would sell ones just like it. And he did.

He started mass-producing them and came up with their backstory.

The new Cabbage Patch Kid dolls all came with adoption papers and unique looks and names.

They had many variations of bodies and heads that allowed Coleco to make many different versions leading to more unique dolls.

They caught on big time and led to the Cabbage Patch Kids craze of 1983. This was considered the first big toy craze.

People were fighting each other to get these dolls reminiscent of Black Friday carnage.

And whenever something is successful someone always comes around to exploit it.

In this case, it was Topps trading cards. But before that, we need to look back at how Topps came to be.

The Development of Topps Trading Cards

In the 1930s, a lot of supplies were cut off after the first World War and a company called "The American Leaf Tobacco Company" decided to go in a different direction.

They decided to get into the growing business of chewing gum. They changed their name to Topps. This was their way of indicating that they would be “tops” in this new field.

Their first introduction into this whole new gum graze would be Bazooka bubble gum. You remember this probably, it was a rock-hard piece of gum that came with a small comic.

They released this in 1947 and they were a big hit.

In the ‘50s, they started packing their gum with trading cards that featured Western stars. Not long after that, they started making baseball cards. This would now be the main focus for Topps.

They would also put out other cards and novelty candies that weren't related to baseball including Wacky Packages, Mars Attacks, and Garbage Candies.

This allowed them to work with some underground artists from the ‘60s and ‘70s to create some unique packaging.

A lot of the art would focus on a bizarre and weird style. These cards were in the same vein as Mad Magazine and they were being embraced by that community.

The Wacky Packages cards were ones that would spoof and mock regular consumer items like cereal or dish soap--and they become very popular.

Creating Garbage Pail Kids

The year is 1983 and Cabbage Patch Kids are on fire. Not on actual fire but they are the hottest toy possibly ever. They made nearly $2 billion in just one year.

Since they were so big, Topps wanted to use this to their advantage. They wanted to take a regular route and just try to put out a series of Cabbage Patch Kids trading cards in 1984.

Coleco, the original company Apalachin Artworks, and some of the creators thought that putting out a line of trading cards was “beneath them."

Topps decided to put out a parody line as they had had success doing this before with Wacky Packages.

In fact, they had already been playing around with this idea as Wacky Packages were still a thing in the mid-80s. One of the ideas they came up with was called “Garbage Pail Kid."

This was just a single card but the Topps management thought this might make a good spin-off series.

This series was the idea of Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist Art Spigelman. He would work together with Mark Newgarden and Len Brown to see this whole thing through.

Newgarden had come up with that original Garbage Pail Kid drawing for Wacky Packages. He worked with artist John Pound and gave him the job of coming up with 44 different drawings to be released for the first card series.

Pound had only 2 months to come up with 44 paintings.

Putting Together Series 1

The idea was that they would give each card two different names--and that would end with 88 cards to make up the first series.

It was thought this would be a one-off series because it was such a singular idea. It didn't seem like something that could be spread out over much more.

The first packs would cost .25 cents and that got you five cards and a stick of gum.

So series 1 comes out and it’s a monster hit. They became hard to get at all across North America.

Any convenience store, 7-11, gas station, or novelty store was selling out as soon as they got them.

Here were some of the notable characters from series 1:

  • Nasty Nick
  • Junkfood John
  • Up Chuck
  • Fryin Brian
  • Boozin Bruce
  • Run Down Rhoda

There’s obviously a lot more, and looking back on these, you realize how funny--but inappropriate--so many of them are.

There are a few that won't be mentioned as there’d be no way they’d be able to release today.

Series 2 & Controversy

They needed a ton of art now to be able to make the huge demand for the second series.

One guy wouldn’t be able to keep up with all the work and they needed artists who could still capture the style and tone so there was some consistency across the line.

As the Garbage Pail Kids become more popular, so did the opposition to them.

Schools started banning them, not just because they were lewd but because they were becoming a huge distraction in classes.

Garbage Pail Kids were so big that they would release 6 different series that year. All the public controversy was just making them more popular.

There’s no such thing as bad press, and for Topps: this was definitely the case.

Every time a negative report, or article, came out dismissing the Garbage Pail Kids--demand and sales went up.

Here Come the Lawsuits

The original company that owned Cabbage Patch Kids, Appalachian Artworks, sued Topps for copyright infringement.

They said that Garbage Pail Kids were doing real damage to the Cabbage Patch Kids brand.

Topps was ordered to immediately stop production until a judgment was decided. In Topps's mind, they believed they were only doing parody so Cabbage Patch Kids was fair game.

The judge had a different idea and saw it more as piracy. The Garbage Pail Kids were making money because of another intellectual property.

Basically, Garbage Pail Kids could not exist if it wasn’t for Cabbage Patch Kids.

Topps had to alter the appearance of the character in their trading cards to distance themselves from any Cabbage Patch Kids likeness.

Topps would start by changing the logo and the actual aesthetic appearance of their “kids.” This way, there was nothing that appeared similar to the Cabbage Patch Kids.

The Garbage Pail Kids Movie

This was the last kick at the can for Topps, and a Garbage Pail Kids movie was released in August of 1987.

The basic plot is about a kid who is being bullied and while being harassed knocks over a garbage can, spilling out a green ooze.

The bullies bring the kids down into a sewer--where the green ooze has leaked into--and he gets saved by The Garbage Pail Kids.

They get into a lot of mishaps and the GPK are attempted to be taken to a prison for ugly people to be eliminated.

It doesn’t happen and they basically get away to carry on making mishaps.

If you haven’t seen this or did at the time, you know the movie did horribly. It is considered one of the worst movies of all time.

It was shot in only 2 months and made for $1 million. But it only made $1.5 million overall. This was considered a massive failure when you factor in all the money spent advertising it.

Critics hated it, fans hated it, and it has a 0% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Here are a few more fun facts about the movie:

  • Jim Cummings, the voice of Winnie The Pooh did two voices in it and later said he regretted making it.
  • It was originally going to be more of a horror movie
  • The kid who played the main character of Dodger auditioned and signed on without telling his parents. His father was actor John Astin who played Gomez in the Addams Family who after reading the script thought it was so bad, he tried to get his son out of it.

Rushing something out while it’s a hot commodity makes sense: but it was already 1987 and the interest had really faded.

Michael Eisner from Disney was actually trying to do a remake of this in 2012 but it never got any support.

The Garbage Pail Kids Cartoon Show

This is another bizarre part of this whole tale. In 1987, the same year as the movie, a Garbage Pail Kids animated show was put together by Candian company Flint Dille.

An entire season was ordered by CBS as it was thought there was still enough interest in the property--despite how bad the movie had been.

The Action For Children's Television, the National Coalition On Television Violence, and The Christan Leaders for Responsible Television didn't want this to air.

Due to all the protests, CBS removed it from their schedule two days before it debuted and replaced it with re-runs of the Muppet Babies.

The series was seen as being too violent and ridiculed many people.

The big issue that seemed to really get it pulled was that the negative attention that made companies like Nabisco, McDonald’s, and Crayola pull out of advertising.

It turns out the advertisers never even pre-screened it and were just going on what they heard. Thirteen episodes never saw the light of day but were released on DVD in 2006.

Wrapping it Up

The Garbage Pail Kids captured a rebellious sort of tone and angered a lot of people.

They made a huge mark on the culture and society of the 1980s, and definitely cemented their place in history.

As it was bound to happen, people now look back fondly on them, and there have been many re-releases of the cards.

An all-new series was released in 2003, 2005, 2006, a 25th anniversary set in 2010, a brand new series set in 2012, and a 30th anniversary series in 2015.

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Personal trainer, podcaster, Amazon best-selling author. Writing about some health, a little marketing, and a whole lot of 1980s.


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