Like many pop culture relics in the past decade or so, Garbage Pail Kids has experienced a resurgence that’s brought us some pretty great stuff…new trading card sets, Funko figures, calendars, comic books—there’s even been talk of a new GPK movie, though the odds aren’t great given that rumor is at least 4 years old now—all of which eventually led into the brand’s big 30th anniversary last year. One of the best outcomes of this milestone has got to be Joe Simko and Jeff Zapata’s slime-covered love letter to the putrid pint-sized punks, 30 Years of Garbage.
Brought to life by a series of creator interviews and fan commentary, the film explores how a simple set of trading cards (created to sell gum) grew to become an internationally cherished counterculture phenomena. The documentary opens with a clip montage of 80s icons like Ronald Reagan, MTV, The A-Team, Lite Brite, and Transformers, instantly setting the stage for the culture in which GPK was born.
A decade of conservative upsurge, the 1980s could largely be defined by its inherent dichotomy. On one hand, it was a time of moral panic, rampant materialism and Reaganomics. On the other, it was the age of MTV, underground fanzines, and hip-hop. It was within this environment in which Garbage Pail Kids was born…but not overnight. As the film reveals, the team at TOPPS did not set out to create a counterculture phenomena, but it was inspired by one (MAD Magazine). In fact, the first “Garbage Pail Kid” design by Mark Newgarden in 1983/4 was part of TOPPS’ Wacky Packages series—the idea for which emerged directly from the pages MAD.
The concept may have remained a one-off gag if not for a fortuitous set of circumstances in which TOPPS tried to acquire the rights for an actual Cabbage Patch Kids trading card series. According to those interviewed, that deal didn’t pan out and the project instead became a sort of “fuck-you” product (aka Garbage Pail Kids). Having no real direction, however, the team drew inspiration from other trading cards like Jay Lynch’s Ugly Stickers. Evidence of this can be found in many of the early concept sketches for GPK, which the film provides a brief glimpse of before introducing us to the one artist who defined the brand’s iconic look, John Pound.
30 Years of Garbage does a phenomenal job, in fact, of showcasing all the artists who have worked on the series over the years (Mark Newgarden, Howard Cruse, John Pound, James Warhola, Tom Bunk, Brent Engstrom, Jay Lynch, Mark Pingitore and Layron DeJarnette, to name a few)—not just their contributions to GPK but also some of the work they’ve done outside of TOPPS. Fan commentary from individuals like Rebekah McKendry (Blumhouse Horror), Brian Henkel and Adam Goldberg (The Goldbergs) provide further cultural context for why the series became so popular (i.e. kids like gross stuff!), many sharing their personal stories of how GPK impacted their childhood in addition to showcasing their collections.
To top things off the film has some really subtle, but greatly appreciated, production aspects…like the giant GPK card set piece and bright green slime-covered trash cans featured in some interviews, or the retro notebook covered in stickers for artist profiles. Again, they’re small touches but ones that demonstrate the level of love and appreciation that Simko, Zapata and all those involved have for the brand. It is a shame that more time couldn’t be spent on the short-lived GPK cartoon series, but that’s not really the film’s fault. Rather, CBS just needs to let that slice of antiquated TV censorship go…set it free, CBS…set it free!
Whether you’re a fan of documentaries or not, some terrific interviews plus a look at behind-the-scenes conceptual art, make this one hard to miss out on. The level of subject matter expertise and appreciation being showcased guarantees that even the most hardcore GPK fan will walk away with some new bit of knowledge.