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HAIL, HAIL, GARBAGE PAIL KIDS

I remember the precise moment when I discovered the concept of parody.

I was seven. It was 1985. Passing by a cluster of boys in the second-grade classroom of Mrs. Scott, I saw they were huddled over a pile of bubble-gum cards that depicted — what? Cabbage Patch Kids. But —

Here I have to pause and explain Cabbage Patch Kids for those readers who did not live through this long national nightmare. Cabbage Patch Kids were the greed decade personified. These dolls were ugly. They were expensive. People — adults — trampled each other in toy-store riots over them. I don't think kids actually liked them very much, but girls used them as status symbols, a way of showing that their parents were richer/more loving than yours. I was more of an action-figure girl myself, but I had a special loathing for Cabbage Patch Kids — which was a secret, because if I criticized them in public I'd be hauled off as a dissenter.

The creatures depicted, lovingly, on these trading cards resembled Cabbage Patch Kids — they had the same pudgy mugs — but there the similarity ended: "Itchy Ritchie" had spiders crawling out of his head. "Crater Chris," covered in zits, was squeezing out a money-shot of pus. "Flat Pat" had just been steamrollered.

These were Garbage Pail Kids. It was like a brick to the forebrain. In that instant I understood that I was not alone; that others shared my disgust; and that the status quo did not have to remain the status quo.

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That was the first shock. The second shock came years later, when I discovered that the Garbage Pail Kids cards had been produced by Topps under the artistic direction of Art Speigelman, who had been simultaneously working on his Pulitzer-winning graphic novel Maus, about the Holocaust. His day job had not been publicized at the time; apparently his editor insisted, "If this gets out, they'll review your book and call it 'Garbage Pail Jews'!"

But now the entire tale can be told, and thus we have Garbage Pail Kids (Abrams) the book, with an introduction by Speigelman himself. Like the original cards, the book is a labor of love, from the wrap-around cover printed on the same kind of waxy paper the cards used to come wrapped in, to the gorgeously printed reproductions of all 206 cards produced. (The book also comes with a small pack of actual cards in shrink-wrap.) Flipping through, it's amazing what they got away with. There's a Ronald Reagan Garbage Pail Kid ("Rappin' Ron"), but there's also a homeless Garbage Pail Kid ("Ashley Can"). And of course, the Kid in a suit and tie, cheerfully pressing a button, while a nuclear mushroom cloud explodes out of his head ("Adam Bomb"). You could write a doctoral thesis on this stuff.

There's a lot of interesting stuff in Spiegelman's intro, and in the afterward by John Pound, the artist who originated and drew the bulk of the Kids. But the real reason to buy this book is for the graphic brilliance of the art itself: the sheer number of variations on a theme (it's like a visual Exercices de Style), the design sensibility, and the wicked semiotics. Garbage Pail Kids, like Mad magazine before it, brought the liberating power of parody to a generation of kids who desperately needed it. Thank God.

GARBAGE PAIL KIDS | BY THE TOPPS COMPANY INC. | INTRODUCTIONS BY ART SPIEGELMAN | AFTERWORD BY JOHN POUND | ABRAMS COMICARTS | 224 PAGES | $19.95

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