Studio: Indican Pictures
Director: Joe Simko, Jeff Zapata
Writer: Joe Simko
Producer: Krystle-Dawn M. Willing-Tiedeman, Adam F. Goldberg
Stars: Art Spiegelman, Mark Newgarden, Len Brown, John Pound, Tom Bunk, James Warhola, Rebekah McKendry, Mackenzie Astin
Creators and fans document the history of Topps’ Garbage Pail Kids trading card phenomenon in the 1980s and beyond.
NOTE: For a condensed version of this review that omits personal recollections, skip the first four and last two paragraphs.
I have two distinct memories regarding Garbage Pail Kids. The first comes from 1985, when I plunked down a quarter at the neighborhood drugstore in Cleveland for a single pack of the awesomely irreverent stickers. I hadn’t seen Garbage Pail Kids before. Never even heard of them. They weren’t a worldwide phenomenon yet. They were just a pink package with a cherubic cartoon, who suspiciously resembled a Cabbage Patch Kids doll, blowing up his own head in a nuclear mushroom cloud. That visual on brightly colored wax paper said everything I needed to know: whatever was inside was tailor-made for me.
My instincts proved right when the first card unwrapped was none other than Nasty Nick, number 1a in the first series, which could be worth about $3,000 today in gem mint condition. Here was a sentient kid’s toy depicted as a vampire, bloodying the bitten neck of a helplessly immobile Barbie doll. Woozy from the sudden sensory shock of multiple pleasure buttons being pushed, I couldn’t wait to see what the other four stickers held in store. Almost as much as I couldn’t wait to show my friends from school, as I knew gorily goofy gold had just been struck.
The second milestone memory comes from my college days a decade later. Comic books had lost a lot of luster until trendier professors started putting things like “Watchmen” and “The Dark Knight Returns” on the syllabus for certain classes. This had me rediscovering sequential art as a medium for sophisticated stories, not just a platform for costumed mutants to slug one another. Part of this horizon broadening included Art Spiegelman’s “Maus,” his heartbreaking tale of the Holocaust where Jews are depicted as mice and Nazis are drawn as cats.
When I first learned that Spiegelman, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his work on these lauded and literate graphic novels, was the same man responsible for co-creating Garbage Pail Kids, my mind did a figurative impression of Adam Bomb’s from the iconic GPK image. Like my renewed admiration for viewing comics as an adult artform, suddenly there was a lightning blast back to childhood lending legitimacy to the GPK artwork and the immense creative talent behind it that I never previously considered.
I’m writing more about myself than I am about the movie to express the effect that “30 Years of Garbage: The Garbage Pail Kids Story” has on someone for whom GPK is a seminal touchstone. Seeing creators and collectors recall the cards so enthusiastically fires up flux capacitors of fondness using weapons-grade nostalgia. The documentary then quickly hits 88mph on a Memory Lane trip that is educational, enlightening, and entertaining.
To talk about Garbage Pail Kids is to essentially talk about popular culture, as they are a top example of what that term represents. Garbage Pail Kids are much more than punny names and gross caricatures. In two-dimensional adhesive form, they simultaneously lampoon (then) contemporary culture and playfully celebrate subversive childishness. And there will never be another fad quite like it.
GPK’s creators were merely men fulfilling another assignment from the Powers That Be at Topps. Of course they didn’t know they were going to singlehandedly spur a tidal wave of youth counterculture from 1985 through 1988. But they did know they were on to a hot idea and were having a grand time keeping the train rolling as long as they could.
Everyone essential to the Garbage Pail Kids’ genesis, including co-creators Art Spiegelman and Mark Newgarden, Topps Creative Director Len Brown, lead GPK artist John Pound, and several other key contributors who were in the original trenches, remembers that era with reverence in their on-camera interviews. Though not so much that they shy away from acknowledging the sting of big bonuses going to execs upstairs, or the uncomfortable admission that Garbage Pail Kids were so close of a knock on Cabbage Patch Kids, Topps spent a good part of 1987 inside a courtroom responding to a lawsuit that cost them big.
Indeed, there is more drama to the GPK story than just the filmic adaptation that became a box office bomb. Andy Warhol’s nephew James Warhola was certain he was slumming it as a GPK artist after making a name for himself illustrating the sci-fi novels of Robert Heinlein and Isaac Asimov. Parental pressure over the objectionable cards grew to such a pitch that CBS shelved an animated series before it ever aired in its Saturday morning slot. Good, bad, and ugly, just like the Garbage Pail Kids themselves, “30 Years of Garbage” covers it all.
Also like the Garbage Pail Kids, the documentary’s aesthetic echoes GPK’s rock ‘n’ roll attitude. Since the film is mainly talking heads and insert shots, the rhythm finds alternative ways to maintain energy. Colorfully animated segues, percussive music, bouncy sound effects, and sharp editing practically snap their fingers at each other to keep the movie moving.
“30 Years of Garbage” does lag on a few laps. Close to a complete half hour of a nearly two-hour runtime is devoted to the GPK revival series cards that started in 2003. That’s a long time to spend on a chapter of the brand’s history that fans don’t have the same investment in as the 80s era. It is interesting to see how art generation and production processes have evolved, though that appeal is narrowed to those curious about GPK from a technical standpoint.
Here is where I might mention that anyone without some kind of affinity for the cards will likely be left in the cold with a bunch of blather that is irrelevant to his/her interests. That seems a silly disclaimer to make however, as I can’t imagine anyone without affection for GPK watching “30 Years of Garbage” in the first place. Why would structural drawbacks as a film matter anyway?
Maybe there isn’t enough meat about the much-maligned live action movie. Maybe the conclusion of the pivotal lawsuit is glossed over too quickly. But for those of us who were on the frontlines in the GPK heyday, or who came into the fervent fold since, “30 Years of Garbage” functions fantastically as an exhaustive capsule of a time not soon to be seen again.
If I may indulge in a closing anecdote…
There is a dive bar down the street from me here in Los Angeles* that locals know for a number of reasons, one of which is its quirky vending machine by the photo booth in the back. Put in a couple of bucks and one can walk away with a mini-sombrero, disposable underpants from Japan, or a sealed wax pack of Alf, Ghostbusters II, Fright Flicks, or whatever other bubble gum cards happen to be rotated in that week.**
With a pitcher of PBR and a few friends on a Friday night, you might be surprised at how big the smiles can get at the small thrill of tearing into one of those packs. I have Garbage Pail Kids to thank for installing that touchstone in my memory bank. And I have “30 Years of Garbage: The Garbage Pail Kids Story” to thank for the reminder of how significant such an experience is, and what it means to the kid inside all of us.
*Cha Cha Lounge, which also makes a cameo appearance in “Beyond the Gates” (review here).
**Don’t eat the 30-year-old gum inside. It crumbles to dust almost instantly and tastes like chalk. You’ll need at least two more drinks to wash out your mouth.
NOTE: There is a brief post-credits scene.
Review Score: 80