Get stuck on the 25th anniversary of Wacky Packages.
By Sam Weller
APRIL 6, 1998: Sam Weller gets stuck on the 25th anniversary of Wacky Packages
Jay Lynch's tongue is green. A faint, olive green. He's sitting in a Wicker Park coffeeshop clutching, in both hands, a bottomless mug of hot joe. When the 53-year-old underground comix legend speaks, he periodically opens his mouth and curls his tongue over his bottom lip. And there it is-that green tongue. Perhaps it's from the cigarettes he smokes one after the other. Perhaps it's the coffee. Or perhaps it's somehow discolored from a cardboard-stiff slate of Topps chewing gum. Chicagoan Jay Lynch knows a lot about the petrified gum that accompanies collectible cards. Beyond being a comix progenitor and contemporary of the infamous Robert Crumb, he has drawn the Bazooka Joe Comics that come with each nickel brick of pink bubble magic. He's worked on Garbage Pail Kids, which also came with gum. And he's just now finishing up work on a new series of collectible cards called Meanie Babies. But I'm with him on this night for a different reason. We're here to talk one thing and one thing only-Wacky Packages.
When Lynch thinks back twenty-five years to the first series of Wacky Packs-as kids in the seventies called the wicked parody stickers-his eyes frost over with a donut-like glaze and he stares out the coffeeshop window and thinks for a painfully long time. Lynch is shy and ponders his softly spoken words carefully.
The year is 1973. "The Godfather" reigns on the silver screen. Carol O'Connor and "All in the Family" are tops on the tube. Roberta Flack's "Killing Me Softly" dominates the airwaves. And oh yeah-Wacky Packages rule the playground. A quarter-century ago, Topps introduced the best-selling non-sports card collectibles in history. Remember the stickers plastered across schoolroom desktops (sorry Mrs. Armstrong), frayed spiral notebooks and the underbellies of battered skateboards? They were cartoon product parodies a la Mad Magazine. In the age of Vietnam and Watergate, they deftly mirrored the public's distaste for corporate America and distrust of government. But kids didn't care about that stuff. I certainly didn't. Nixon's troubles meant but one thing to a 6-year-old boy-H.R. Puffenstuff would be pre-empted yet again by tiresome Watergate hearings and you know, that really pissed me off. But thankfully, we had Wacky Packs to transport us away from all that. I can still picture my first math textbook: Wacky Packs everywhere. "Drainola Cereal." "Plastered Peanuts." "Ultra Blight Toothpaste." "Messquire Magazine." Many of these cynical little cartoon stickies were created by Jay Lynch.
"Wacky Packages really began in 1967, " Lynch says, finally, sipping his coffee. He cites early ad parodies in Mad and the New Yorker as the inspiration behind Wackies. "They began in a different incarnation called Wacky Ads.'" Wacky Ads received a tepid response, mostly because they weren't stickers but die-cut artwork meant to be punched out of the card and then licked, supposedly to affix postage-stamp style to any surface. Wacky success didn't arrive until '73, when the first series of stickers exploded on the scene. Jay Lynch was there. "As a freelancer for Topps, I did hundreds of roughs'-basically writing the Wacky Package idea, and then with pen and marker I would sketch it real quick. The early paintings were mostly done by an artist named Norm Saunders who worked from the roughs."
Lynch conceptualized hundreds of Wacky Packages, many of which were turned into cards sold in pharmacies, supermarkets and corner stores. About a third of Lynch's concepts, such as "Zit Parader Magazine" and "Tushy Roll Candy," never made it onto stickers for reasons that are to this day unknown to him. "Perhaps some of them were a bit too risqué, I don't know," he says.
And that's saying a lot. Wacky Packages were about the most un-politically correct collectible ever produced. The product parodies focused a great deal on liquor, cigarettes, vomit and violence. "Also," he adds, " a lot of the companies we made fun of sent us cease-and-desist orders. In fact, we got a cease-and-desist for virtually every card we did. Companies would tell us that we had ninety days to stop or they would sue. That's why a new series of Wacky Packages came out every ninety days and the whole cease-and-desist thing would start all over with new companies that were upset. And that's probably why Wacky Packs eventually stopped being produced: We simply ran out of companies to make fun of."
Throughout the checkered history of Wacky Packages, only one lawsuit went to court. In 1982, the makers of Tetley Tea Bags got so pissed off with Topps for its "Petley Flea Bags" parody that they filed suit. The company charged that damage had been done to its name, and that consumers might believe Tetley was in fact endorsing the parody. This charge could not be proven and Topps walked away unscathed. Supporting Topps' claim that Wackies were all done in good fun, mention was made that Topps regularly spoofed itself in the Wacky Pack series with cards such as "Wormy Packages" and "Beastball Creepy Cards."
My older brother Dave gave me my first Wacky Pack, on a Malibu, California, kickball court. With a Santa Ana breeze gusting off the Pacific, he handed the card to me. "Check it out," he said.
I looked down at the sticker in my hand: "PUTRID CAT CHOW: the High Smell Cat Food." It was a mock-up of Purina Cat Chow, of course. The cats on the box had their noses pinched with clothespins. One kitten had rolled over dead from the stench. Up in the left-hand corner, under the Purina checkerboard logo, it read: "Garbage Flavor."
Twenty-five years later, I'm sitting in a seventeenth-floor Lake Shore Drive penthouse clutching the original painted artwork to "PUTRID CAT CHOW" in my very hands. I can't help thinking that in a silly, pop-culture sense, I'm holding a Monet.
"You like that one, huh?" asks 48-year-old super-collector Mike Gidwitz from across the spacious room. He has one of those schoolyard smiles plastered across his smug face: I have something you don't! Gidwitz, an investment advisor, has a lot of things other people don't have. Mad Magazine original art decorates his high-rise. A giant monster from "Alien" stands in one corner. There are sports cards in every room (Gidwitz is the owner of the most valuable baseball card in the world, a 1910 Honus Wagner card for which he shelled out $640,500 in 1997). And of course, everywhere, there are Wacky Pack originals.
"At last count," says Gidwitz, "I had 137 Wacky originals. That's about one third of the entire collection." Today, Wacky Pack original paintings fetch $1,000 to $1,500 each. (Some of Gidwitz' Wacky collection is for sale on his website, www.preciouspaper.com.)
I look back down at the Purina masterpiece in my hands. "I'll give you three grand for it," I offer, testing the market with a little ol' white lie.
"No way," Gidwitz responds.
"I have no idea why Wackies were so popular," Lynch says, befuddled. "I always thought the underground comixs material would be the stuff that would take off."
"Wackies were popular for many reasons," offers Phil Carpenter, author of the book "The Wacky Package Handbook." Carpenter, a Ph.D. in bio-chem doing cancer research at Cal-Tech, says, "For starters, the art was fantastic. It was also, in part, a big fuck-you' to corporate America. Today, they're still popular because of sentimental reasons. Lots of people remember them from their playground days."
But is there a future for new Wacky Packages? Between 1973 and 1976, there were sixteen series of the cards. They resurfaced again briefly in 1985 and again in '91. So Why not now?
"Part of it is the price," says Lynch as we exit the coffeeshop, a tapestry of snow weaving down in laces from the night sky. "Kids these days can't afford what a set of cards go for."
"Manufacturers are going to have to make cards simple again," Gidwitz tells me later, "so kids can afford to buy a pack of cards for a quarter or at the most fifty cents."
Parting ways with Gidwitz, he hands me an unopened set of cards. "Here, this is for you," he says, smiling.
By the time I get to my car, I can't decide whether to open the pack, to see which five cards are inside, or to simply leave it sealed. After all, an unopened set is worth more. And that's precisely what is wrong with collecting today. People are too worried about value. So I tear it open.
Later that day, walking my dogs around the 'hood, Wackies in my coat pocket, I pass by a vacant schoolyard. I walk over to the basketball hoop and pull out "Mrs. Blubberworth's Whale Fat Syrup." I peel off the sticker and smooth it out over the galvanized b-ball pole. Score one for Wacky Packs.
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