Book Review: ‘Wacky Packages’

(C) 2008 Abrams ComicArts & Topps Company, Inc.

On June 1, 2008, Abrams ComicArts published Wacky Packages, a collection of the first seven series of Topps Chewing Gum Company’s irreverent trading cards that featured parodies of American consumer goods. Created by a team of artists that included Art Spiegelman (Maus), Norm Saunders, Jay Lynch, Kim Deitch, and Tom Sutton, Wacky Packages became a fad in the early to mid-1970s and, for a while, were the only Topps trading cards that outsold the company’s best-selling baseball cards.

Spam becomes Cram in this Wacky Packages sticker from 1973’s Series 5. (C) 1973 Topps Chewing Gum Company

According to the introduction by Art Spiegelman, the story of Wacky Packages began six years earlier; in 1967, Topps introduced a series of punch-out cards which were designed by Spiegelman and painted by Norm Saunders. The original 44-card run – of which 14 cards were withdrawn from the production line – ended in 1969, perhaps because some companies – such as Leaf Brands – sued Topps for making fun of their products.

Fortunately for kids of the 1970s, including me, Topps revived the Wacky Packages line in 1973, this time as peel-and-stick stickers. The concept was the same, and once again Art Spiegelman was one of the main instigators behind such “Wacky Packs” as Cram, Band-Ache, Weakies, and Gadzooka Bubble Gum.

General Mills probably was not terribly amused by this Wacky Pack that transforms Wheaties into Weakies. But at least it did not sue Topps when this sticker came out in 1973. (C) 1973 Topps Chewing Gum.

I was 10 when I was introduced to Wacky Packages by one of the kids I hung around with in the Miami (FL) suburb of Westchester. My mother and I had moved back to the U.S. from Colombia one year earlier and I was still relearning English, but even then I thought Wacky Packages were the most hilarious trading cards I’d ever seen.

And, like many kids my age, I just had to have them.

“Where,” I asked my friend, whose name was Patrick, “did you get these?”

“Oh, at the 7-Eleven on 97th Avenue,” Patrick said, in reference to a convenience store located just five blocks away from our houses on SW 102nd Avenue.

My mom didn’t see the humor in this parody of Band-Aid bandages. Then again, she’d never been a 10-year-old boy in the United States, either. (C) 1973 Topps Chewing Gum Co.

Southwest 97th Avenue was, even then, a busy thoroughfare, and I wasn’t yet gutsy enough to walk from my house to the 7-Eleven store alone. So every week, I’d ask either a trustworthy friend or my mom to get me five sets of Wacky Packages for a quarter. The retail price for one set was a nickel, so I usually asked for five at a time so I could build my collection of stickers quickly.

In 1973, a nickel’s worth of Wacky Packages consisted of:

  • two Wacky Packages stickers
  • a puzzle piece with a checklist
  • a piece of Topps Chewing Gum

Among my small circle of friends, the norm was to buy one quarter’s worth of Wacky Packages at a time, though other kids in the neighborhood (usually older ones who earned money by mowing their neighbors’ lawns or washing cars) could buy more than that. One kid, whose father was a doctor, became the talk of the block when he bought an entire unopened box of Series Two Wacky Packages at that 7-Eleven store (which has been replaced by another business) for the princely sum of $5.00 and 4% Florida sales tax!

Later, as I grew older and bolder, I learned how to follow a relatively safe route from Point A (my house) to Point B (the 7-Eleven store) on my own. My mom wasn’t thrilled at first, but after I reassured her that I could cross 97th Avenue on my own without getting myself killed, she eventually consented, even though she couldn’t understand my fascination with Wacky Packages.

(Mom was raised in Colombia in the 1930s and 1940s, so she was immune to the charms of Mad magazine or its competitor Crack’d, the slapstick comedy of the Three Stooges, or the digs at America’s consumer culture in the Wacky Packages.)

My mother eventually became such a good sport about my newfound hobby – collecting Wacky Packages – that she even bought me an unopened box of Wackys as a surprise gift. She even spent several hours carefully peeling off the stickers from their sheets and placing them in a notepad that was just the right size! And for several years, that “Wacky Pack Pad” was one of my most treasured possessions; I took it everywhere I went – even when I went back to Bogota to spend summer vacation with my grandparents.

I am not 10 years old anymore, but I still think this Plastered Wacky Pack is hilarious! (C) 1973 Topps Chewing Gum Company

From 1973 to 1977, I collected Wacky Packages, although by the latter date I was already moving on to other interests, including (by the fall of ’77) Star Wars. I still have a few “loose” unpeeled stickers somewhere in my storage bins, although my treasured Wacky Pack Pad is no longer in my possession. I’m not sure where it ended up; it could have gotten “lost” when Mom and I moved to a brand-new townhouse in Fontainebleau Park in early 1978 and a couple of our boxes ended up missing. There’s also the possibility that I gave my Wacky Pack Pad to my cousin Silvia, who was visiting us in Miami from Bogota during our last summer in the Westchester house.

The Book

As the fifth anniversary of my mother’s death gets closer, I often find myself thinking about my childhood years, especially the happy period when we lived at the house on 102nd Avenue. I was nine years old when Mom bought that house and 14 when she sold it (a decision which I never really agreed with but had to accept, to be honest with you), and even though we had our share of troubles then, those were my happiest years as a kid.

Maybe this bout of nostalgia, I suppose, is why I’ve been leafing through Wacky Packages, a 2008 hardcover volume published by Abrams ComicArts, an imprint of New York City-based Abrams, a publishing house that specializes in art-related books, especially titles about movies, television, and other pop culture subjects.

I love the artwork (by Norm Saunders) in this Purina Cat Food parody from 1973. (C) 1973 Topps Chewing Gum Company

Wacky Packages—a series of collectible stickers featuring parodies of consumer products and well-known brands and packaging—were first produced by the Topps company in 1967, then revived in 1973 for a highly successful run. In fact, for the first two years they were published, Wacky Packages were the only Topps product to achieve higher sales than their flagship line of baseball cards. The series has been relaunched several times over the years, most recently to great success in 2007.

Known affectionately among collectors as “Wacky Packs,” as a creative force with artist Art Spiegelman, the stickers were illustrated by such notable comics artists as Kim Deitch, Bill Griffith, Jay Lynch, and Norm Saunders.This first-ever collection of Series One through Series Seven (from 1973 and 1974) celebrates the 35th anniversary of Wacky Packages and is sure to amuse collectors and fans young and old. –
 From the dust jacket blurb, Wacky Packages

Published late in the spring of 2008, Wacky Packages is a hardcover book that presents the 323 stickers of the first seven series that Topps published in 1973 and 1974. As a result, this professional version of a “Wacky Packs Pad” features not just the common stickers that most of us ’70s era-kids owned, but also some of the rare stickers that were not widely produced back then and are now extremely hard to find.

Jiffy Pop Popcorn gets a Wacky Pack send up in this Series 2 sticker, Gyppy Pop. I didn’t quite understand the word “gyp” at age 10, but I still found the artwork to be laugh-out-loud funny. (C) 1973 Topps Chewing Gum Company.

Wacky Packages is not, like Abrams ComicArts’ similarly formatted books about Star Wars trading cards from the Original Trilogy, a book with a great deal of behind the scenes commentary by the people who worked on the 1973-1974 series of stickers. Whereas the Star Wars-related books provide readers with captions under the trading cards, the 323 Wacky Packages of Series 1-7 are reproduced, one per page, with no cutlines.

That’s not to say, however, that the book has no text. Wacky Packages features an introduction by Maus creator Art Spiegelman, who was a college student when Topps was publishing the second batch of the new Mad magazine-inspired product parodies in 1969 and needed a part-time job at the trading cards-and-gum company to stay in school and thus be deferred from the draft during the unpopular Vietnam War.

Not only is Hawaiian Punch parodied here, but The Godfather also gets a wink-and-a-nod in this 1973 Wacky Pack. (C) 1973 Topps Chewing Gum Company.

In his introduction (which in the first edition is billed as “an interview”), Spiegelman gives readers a lively and detailed look at the genesis of the Wacky Packs, including a look at how  he recruited other comics artists to come up with zany stickers along the lines of Busted-Finger Candy, Drowny Softener, and Hawaiian Punks Juice.

Some products, like 7-Up, were almost insoluble puzzles to return to over and over, hoping to find an amusing angle that might work. We settled for the uninspired 6-Up since these were not ideas one would brood over for weeks – they were things one would work for full minutes, hoping one’s inner dolt would turn up something suitably irreverent. It was all done as Part of a Day’s Work, much like the way the early comic books were made: they certainly weren’t made as art, they weren’t sold as art, and they weren’t thought of as art. Wacky Packages just formed an island of subversive underground culture in the surrounding sea of junk. 

The book also includes an afterword by the late Jay Lynch, a respected humor writer and essayist who was one of the many artists who collaborated on Topps’ Wacky Packages line. In it, Lynch names more of the behind-the scenes talents who created the wonderfully irreverent and memorable stickers that poked fun at American consumer culture and were the bane of many elementary school teachers in the early 1970s.

You know, I still think that Wacky Packages are funny! (C) 1973 Topps Chewing Gum Company

Abrams ComicArt made the book’s dust jacket with paper that mimics the look and feel of the wax paper packaging Topps uses to store its cards, stickers, and stick of gum in. Even the way the publisher’s blurb is printed on the inside flap is done in the same font and style as in the wrapper. 

If you – like me – were a kid who grew up in the 1970s and collected Wacky Packs, then this book was made for you. Along with a follow-on volume, Wacky Packages: New, New, NEW, it will allow you to see all of the stickers you had in your collection, as well as those you did not.

Published by Alex Diaz-Granados

Alex Diaz-Granados (1963- ) began writing movie reviews as a staff writer and Entertainment Editor for his high school newspaper in the early 1980s and was the Diversions editor for Miami-Dade Community College, South Campus' student newspaper for one semester. Using his experiences in those publications, Alex has been raving and ranting about the movies online since 2003 at various web sites, including Amazon, Ciao and Epinions. In addition to writing reviews, Alex has written or co-written three films ("A Simple Ad," "Clown 345," and "Ronnie and the Pursuit of the Elusive Bliss") for actor-director Juan Carlos Hernandez. You can find his reviews and essays on his blogs, A Certain Point of View and A Certain Point of View, Too.

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