Creative Consultant at Topps:
Editor, Art Director, Writer, etc.; Co-Creator of Garbage Pail Kids
1. What brought you to the
Topps company back in the day and how quickly did you start working
within the NPD (New Product Development) department? What were some
of the first Topps projects that you worked on for them?
To backtrack a little: I enrolled at the School of Visual Arts in NYC
in 1978. Part of what brought me there was the cartooning faculty, specifically
Harvey Kurtzman, one of the masters of the medium and a personal hero
(and via Mad, the main influence on the kind of satiric products
that Topps was known for.) Art Spiegelman; an underground cartoonist
who also worked for Topps for many years, was teaching comics history
there at the time and I got to know him through that.
When Art launched Raw magazine in 1980 I was one of three students
(along with Drew Friedman and Kaz) invited to contribute. I remained
involved, performing editorial and production duties.
In the early 1980s Topps was ostensibly looking to bring some "young
blood" into their New Products Development department (the dank
cluster of cubicles from whence all Topps non-sports projects sprung.)
My first assignment arrived in the form of a frantic phone call from
Art one Friday afternoon during the summer of 1982, shortly after graduation.
NPD desperately needed copy for a complete set of 88 of Jaws 3-D
bubble gum card backs first thing Monday morning. Evidently Universal
wasn't coming through with a script on time and although they had photos,
nobody had a clue what the narrative was supposed to be. So Topps wanted
something, anything, else as backup. As directed, I went to the
local public library, researched shark and sting-ray and Portuguese
man-o-war jellyfish data, concocted a Ripley-like format entitled "Fun
Facts About Fish" and delivered all 88, first thing Monday morning.
I was immediately told that the script had just shown up and the work
was no longer needed.
Not too long afterward I found myself invited back one or two days per
week and put to work on whatever (NPD creative director) Len Brown needed
help with at the moment. Early projects included one of Topps' endless,
futile, stupid attempts at "modernizing" Bazooka Joe, transforming
generic Spanish import candy packaging into Bazooka Bubble Gum Pops,
grinding out "hip" concepts for pinback buttons based on popular
song titles ("You can't copyright a song title!"), and brainstorming
ideas for cheap plastic candy novelty containers. One of my first; Pow!
Powder (a powder candy-filled anarchist bomb with a fuse) was OKed
and put into production. So, I guess I was doing OK too and stuck around.
The next thing I knew I was working on a revival of Wacky Packages (a
childhood favorite) and eventually through that, GPK.
2. What's the juxtaposition
like as an artist, working in a corporate-type environment with rules
and regulations and also wanting your own personal creative juices to
flow? Were the Topps assignments and the GPK releases rewarding for
It was a double-edged sword, but I really did put a lot of personal
creative energy into Topps projects, especially once GPK was underway.
I'm sure I was the first GPK fan. I was actively engaged and protective
of it from the start. I was young (and naïve?) and found it stimulating
work. Older (and possibly wiser) folks may have held back more and stuck
to the playbook. But I didn't know the playbook. I was always one for
pushing the envelope a little I guess, and lucky to be in situation
that sometimes allowed for it. Topps, in those days was nominally "corporate",
but it really wasn't Corporate. It was a unique, idiosyncratic parallel
universe unto itself; a truly dysfunctional family business.
There were plenty of built-in frustrations there to be sure, but also
plenty of opportunity to balance them out, because I was never really
a Topps nine-to-four-thirty-er. I kept busy. When I started there I
was also still working on RAW, co-editing it's sister 'zine Bad
News, illustrating and creating strips for NYC alt-weeklies like
The East Village Eye and The Village Voice. By 1988, I
was teaching at SVA myself and had a weekly slot in the NY Press,
but still putting in my 3 days a week at Topps. Topps was cheap, but
it basically covered my cheap, 1980s Brooklyn rent.
3. With your cartoonist background,
how much of this were you able to transition over to your Topps jobs?
Well, I was just starting out but it was a very easy fit. I had the
right resume I guess: SVA cartooning grad, comics history nut and former
teenage fortune cookie author. NPD was basically a playpen for pop-culture
geeks and hungry, irreverent cartoonists. Besides that, I was the oldest
of 6 children, still living at home and had a direct pipeline into contemporary
kid culture - which was a valuable commodity at Topps. If not actively
fed or cultivated, that connection to "what kids like" is
a perishable asset. Once you lose it, you might as well be 87 years
old and telling kids mother-in-law jokes in Yiddish.
NEWGARDEN'S BRILLIANT VELVET HARDCOVER WE ALL DIE ALONE 2006 BOOK
(THIS HAS A SHORT, ALBEIT EXCELLENT, GPK SECTION)
4. Before Jay Lynch jumped on board with later GPK releases, you
and Art Spiegelman worked on writing the satire on the early GPK releases
for the card backs
was there any particular set that sticks out
the most for you or felt the most rewarding?
As I recall, Art really didn't get too involved in the card backs, per
se. He was usually there just one day a week and other issues demanded
more attention. I do remember having fun with those giant GPK 5"x7"
stickers, both fronts and backs. And the poster series too. There was
more real estate to cover in those formats, so they were a little more
ambitious, I guess. Both projects were squeezed in between regular GPK
series and set on particularly hairy, almost absurd schedules. I remember
having to put in a lot of extra time and effort to see them completely
through the sausage grinder.
Most diehard GPK collectors are aware of the rigmarole surrounding the
court case and settlement between 'CPK'/OAA and 'GPK'/Topps; with a
lot of documentation turned into the lawyers for discovery
there anything left unmolested? What was your take on the whole case?
It was a bit unnerving. There was a lot of emergency closed-door meetings
and palpable anxiety. Most of my GPK drawings vanished from the office
overnight, never to be seen again. (A lot of them eventually reappeared
in the form of 4th generation Xeroxes with court exhibit numbers stamped
allover them.) They didn't want me testifying. They didn't want Art
Ultimately, Arthur Shorin, Len Brown and John Pound all went to Atlanta.
We heard they were not getting good "vibes" from the Court
down there, and Arthur decided it was provident to settle. I think we
might have suspended work on the cards for brief time, but it wasn't
for very long. The full terms were never disclosed to us, but they included
a title change and a redesign to avoid the look of their "soft-sculpture"
dolls. Hence the new plastic, jointed-doll Garbage Gang design.
[ed. note: The Garbage Gang title was used for the comic backs
after the lawsuit and as the GPK name for international releases.]
NEWGARDEN, CIRCA 1980s © Mark Newgarden
What was it like working with the many artists involved in creating
GPK? Correspondence and communications is so different now-a-days; I
would imagine receiving Pound's paintings with paint strokes would be
a lot different than receiving a scanned electronic image these days.
Can you explain the teacher/student relationship you had with Spiegelman
and were you comfortable directing the GPK artists? I have to say, the
original sets are untouchable when it comes to the level of quality
(even printed on lesser-grade card).
There was always a lot of creative back and forth, it was a big part
of the job. Phone meetings, faxes, Fed-Exed tracing paper overlays with
notes. Art and I were usually on the same page. John's pencils or paintings
would come in on a Monday and I'd make notes all over them. Then on
Tuesday, Art would make notes on my notes and we'd usually call John
in the afternoon and hash it all out. Tom Bunk and James Warhola were
local, so they'd take the subway. We'd all do lunch in the fabled Topps
cafeteria and then go through the same routine in person.
At times (when there was time) we'd go through 2, 3, even 4 rounds of
revisions on a single image to get it just right. The input usually
focused on emphasizing clarity and amplifying (or extending) the gag.
The goal was always to balance impact with visual clarity. May sound
obvious, but it really isn't always so simple. The initial staging or
composition of a GPK gag was crucial as to whether it lived or died.
Then the execution needed to be solid and plausible and never distract,
or get in the way of the concept. John set a very high bar from the
start. Tom [Bunk] brought a wacky energy to the mix. James [Warhola]
added an air of foreboding mood and mystery. Seeing what these guys
would come back with was always the highlight of my week. It was fun
and collaborative, and I think our fresh eyes and brain cells helped
make better GPKs.
I've always been enamored by GPK and have highly admired the GPK artists
behind the card artwork; the main goal for the site was to give credit
where credit was due; it's been a lot of rewarding years digging up
information. Was there anything you were able to take away from the
GPK project after it wrapped? Any keepsake of sorts that you had to
I normally keep comprehensive "process" files for the various
projects I work on. (In fact, I have often used GPKs to illustrate the
concept/ thumbnail/ sketch/ finish stages of illustration in the classroom.)
One artifact I tripped across again recently was a spiral notebook that
I kept in 1984, while working on Wacky Packages, with my lists
of products with parody potential and the initial gag concepts for each
of them. Most of the major food conglomerates had sent Topps "cease
and desist" letters over the years and their brands were considered
off limits for Wacky Packages, so part of my job was to suss
out new products from manufacturers that were (hopefully) less litigious.
I have fond memories of walking the isles of Toys-R-Us on Bay Parkway
with Len Brown, scouting prospects and jotting them down. This page
is where "Garbage Pail Kids" first saw the light of
CPK : "I'M UNIQUE, I'M ADOPTABLE"
NEWGARDEN'S WACKY PACKAGES NOTEBOOK WITH CONCEPT IDEAS AND PARODY
NEWGARDEN'S WACKY PACKAGES GPK CONCEPT
What was Topps' reasoning behind adding new artists like Tom Bunk, Mae
Jeon and David Burke during the 3rd Series? Was this foreshadowing on
their behalf knowing that John Pound wouldn't be able to keep up with
the release schedule? Those sets started to be printed every 3-4 months
or so like clockwork.
During work on series 2, we got word from the Topps suits that GPK was
REALLY taking off. So the garbage was hitting the fan and NPD basically
had to gear up for mass production. The powers that be wanted more GPKs
faster, with less reliance on any individual. Tom Bunk was onboard with
GPK right from the start, illustrating the backs. Meanwhile he had honed
his rendering skills on a similar Topps series entitled Gross Bear
Buttons, which had developed alongside GPK, but on a slower track.
Tom switched over to painting GPKs just as we were ramping up for series
3. Mae Jeon worked in Ben Solomon's art department (where they airbrushed
baseball player's warts.) When the push was on, there was some pressure
to try her out on GPK paintings. She wasn't a cartoonist, so she was
given a couple of John Pound's pencil sketches to work with. David Burke,
a fledgling illustrator, was also assigned a handful of concepts around
this time. We tested out a number of others as well, but Pound, Bunk
and Warhola ultimately became our GPK dream team.
The early GPK sets seem more hands-on for the art directors, in general.
Creating new product and recycling old material for the card backs.
Were the later releases just as hectic, or was there a team in place
where the group was working like a well-oiled machine? How thrilled
were you of these new changes in features?
By a certain point, maybe series 3 or so, GPK had pretty much become
the only thing I worked on at Topps. Once the formula and the team were
in place, the pace relaxed a little into a more evenly paced workflow.
It could still get hectic as deadlines loomed, but we knew where we
were going. I think the quality and cleverness of the images improved
in many ways, but on the whole they also lost some of that initial iconic
strength in the process, especially after the lawsuit and redesign.
They were less appealing and there was also a little bit of a loss of
visual continuity for the seasoned collectors.
10. Collectors were lucky the settlement allowed the 8th and 9th
Series GPK to be released, since they were 'completed'; but we weren't
so lucky with the 16th Series release. Do you feel GPK had run its course
at that point? That is quite a few years working on a project and I'm
sure the brain wants to exercise its creative side (in other areas).
Were you looking forward to different projects, or personal work?
Some of the fun probably evaporated over time, which is only natural
when you are constantly doing a variation of the same thing. It was
never boring, but it could sometimes feel like an abstract problem-solving
exercise. "OK, what can we do with vomit today?" (Admittedly,
not the worst job in the world to have.)
Keep in mind that every GPK series was always considered to be the "last
one." Topps never imagined there would be a need for a "next"
GPK series - until the new set flew off the shelves. AGAIN. Then they
needed that next series by Monday morning. It was almost a joke. About
midway through, Len Brown predicted that we would squeeze the same number
of series out of GPK as Topps had done with the original Wacky Packages,
and he was correct. In the end, I think GPK ran its natural course.
It was a fad, and that generation grew up and moved on. In retrospect
it was a pretty good run, we ultimately produced 16 series (about 660-something
images) and a host of product extensions and spin-offs. (I'm obviously
not including later re-pops here, which are more like niche products,
created by and targeted at die-hard fans.)
After GPK, there was some room for new directions and a lot of experimentation
in NPD and that was exciting. Some ambitious products, like Toxic
High, Pee-Wee's Playhouse and Gruesome Greetings made
it out into the world more or less intact, but a lot of truly excellent
projects (Ugly Americans, Loco-Motion, Wanted Posters
and at least new 2 new Wacky Packages sets) were green-lit, completely
executed, and, for reasons I still do not completely understand, put
on the shelf and never released. Topps, as a corporate entity, was in
flux. They were leaving the gritty Brooklyn waterfront for Wall Street,
and to me it a signal that the time was right to move on.
11. Any thoughts on the lasting
impact GPK has had on our nostalgic psyche and is it strange for you
to be re-living the fad after so many years?
I think that for those of us that were part of it, GPK has never quite
gone away entirely. Our kids are still out there bouncing around on
the far edges of the culture somewhere, poised to vomit down on us all
over again, whenever we least suspect it.
EXAMPLE OF NEWGARDEN'S "CONCEPT/ THUMBNAIL/
SKETCH/ AND FINISH STAGES" OF ILLUSTRATION USED IN THE CLASSROOM
'STAR' # = LAWSUIT EXHIBIT NUMER (PHOTOCOPY)
'ARROW' = NEWGARDEN'S HORIZONTAL CONCEPT NAME
'STAR' # = LAWSUIT EXHIBIT NUMER (PHOTOCOPY)
'ARROW' (1ST) = POUND'S HORIZONTAL THUMBNAIL W/ CONCEPT NAME : (312)
'3' = SERIES 3; '12' = TWELFTH IMAGE
'ARROW' (2ND) = NEWGARDEN'S COMMENTS AFTER SUBMISSION: "BIG MOON";
AS SEEN IN THE CONCEPT
(IMAGE ENDED UP W/ A DAYTIME SCENERIO)
'ARROW' (3RD) = SPIEGELMAN'S COMMENTS: "PITTED + CHIPPED STONE"
POUND'S TIGHT SKETCH (L) AND COLOR ROUGH (R); 'REV' = REVISED
"The horizontal / vertical was decided by what format best suited
the staging of a particular gag. In this case I think once we saw how
John was handling the forced perspective in his sketch we decided that
a vertical format would suit that monumental approach even better.
The figure on camel was added to extenuate the massive scale even more.
An example of the back and forth collaboration process from both sides."
-- Mark Newgarden
POUND'S ORIGINAL FINAL ARTWORK (L) AND THE ART DEPARTMENT'S TOUCHED-UP
"As far as Ben [Solomon], he felt that the image needed more "contrast"
in that "muddy" area in order to print well and had Mae [Jeon]
make her corrections at the behest of the Art Department. A ruckus was
duly raised by NPD after this happened and it proved to be a one-time
occurrence with GPK." -- Mark Newgarden (not verbatim)
TOPPS' PRINTED CARD (L) AND DIGITAL MOCK-UP CARD IMAGE BY 'MAD MIKE'
12. Do you have any off-beat GPK memories or a story during the heyday
of the card releases that you still find amusing to this day? For example,
I love the older lady collector with the 2nd Series completed puzzle
you have pictured in your (amazing) We All Die Alone book
that would've amused me sitting in an office environment.
Working at Topps I often felt like I had daily front-row tickets to
a private sit-com. Pretty much everyone there was a real character,
from the Arthur the CEO, to Bridget, the lady that rang up sandwiches
in the cafeteria. Here are 3 Bonus GPK Anecdotes (out of thousands):
Stan Hart is best known as a Mad magazine and TV comedy sketch
writer, but he was also married into the Topps dynasty and associated
with them for decades. Stan was still active on the outer rings of the
NPD constellation during my time there. He didn't get involved in the
creative grunt work of GPK, except for sitting in on our final naming
sessions. Stan's names for GPK could sometimes be confounding. The one
I'll never forget was "Les Miserables." (Perfect for the bilingual
8-year-old Broadway musical theatre devotee.) Stan, who was a large,
forceful guy, would stop the meeting dead in its tracks, bellowing "Les
Miserables! Les Miserables!" He did this again and again, in every
session, regardless of the character we were trying to name. Each time
we'd chuckle politely and jot down "Les Miserables." Ten minutes
later, like clockwork, Stan would let out with another "Les Miserables!"
all over again; as though none of us had ever heard it before. More
chuckles, more jots
Until next time. (And as far as I know, "Les
Miserables" never made it to a final cut.)
It was always a sign of success when we saw our product's wrappers outside
Topps littering the sidewalks and gutters of New York. This happened
with GPK during our first local tests, but it was only a preview of
what was to come. On Tuesdays, after our day at Topps was done, Art
used to drive back into Manhattan and I'd often go along for the ride
or to hang out afterwards at his place in Soho. He'd normally drive
over the Brooklyn Bridge and cut through Chinatown, where one day we
both did a double take when we saw some elderly guy, literally standing
on a street corner selling uncut GPK series 2 sheets (it had JUST been
released.) We stopped and checked them out- they were obvious counterfeits
with fat Moiré patterns (shot and printed right off of original
Topps press sheets.) How an original uncut sheet made its way into the
hands of the nefarious Chinatown counterfeiters so quickly is still
an unsolved mystery... but it shows how fast these things took off.
Not long after this I was in my local supermarket where I happened across
a vending machine dispensing crude, ersatz GPK stickers. And the very
next day I was accosted by a hustler on the F train peddling bogus GPK
watches. I soon became aware of GPK stickers almost everywhere I went;
plastered on streetlights, in elevators, on the subways and in public
restrooms. I felt like Frankenstein, stalked and taunted by own miserable
Major League Baseball
I was informed, long after the fact, that the major league baseball's
Players Association (who was probably Topps' biggest client) had big,
big problems with GPK. Seems many in the industry were in the thrall
of Pat Robertson, Newt Gingrich and others of that ilk who found GPK
a useful punching bag. Evidently, throughout the entire 15 series run,
whenever the topic came up, Topps would simply tell them: "Garbage
Pail Kids? No problem. We aren't making those any more." And
that would be that. I can't fathom how they kept that up year in and
year out with a straight face, but
that was Topps!
© Mark Newgarden 2016