Book Review: ‘Wacky Packages New New New’

(C) 2010 Abrams ComicArt and The Topps Company

Wacky Packages.

If you were a kid growing up in the early to mid-1970s, you probably remember Topps’s Wacky Packages stickers, which were parodies of American consumer products and their packaging (hence the name “Wacky Packages”). More than likely, if you were around 10 years old in 1973 when Topps – known for its Bazooka Chewing Gum and various trading card lines, including baseball, pro football, and pop culture-themed collectible cards – you probably collected such twisted, even ghoulish stickers as “Crust Toothpaste,” “Kentucky Fried Fingers,” “Mountain Goo,” “Fearasil Complexion Cream,” and “Shrunken Donuts.” (And if by chance you didn’t collect “Wackys,” you probably knew someone in school or the street where you lived who did.)

(C) 1974 The Topps Company (aka Topps Chewing Gum, Inc.

Although Topps had introduced Wacky Packages in 1967, that first run ended in 1969. But when they were re-introduced in 1973, the first seven series of stickers (1973-1974) became “must have” items for many Wackys-obsessed kids. (Like their 1980s descendants, the Garbage Pail Kids, they were not only sought after by kids, but were often confiscated by teachers who were tired of the constant disruptive effect that they had in their classrooms; many avid collectors loved to trade Wackys with their fellow students at school, sometimes at the most inopportune times.)

In 2008, to celebrate the 35th anniversary of The Topps Company’s successful “reboot” of those subversive, satirical, and popular consumer product parodies that amused and even obsessed many kids – including Yours Truly – from 1973 to 1975, Abrams ComicArts (an imprint of New York publisher Henry N. Abrams) published Wacky Packages, a compact-sized 240-page hardcover with reproductions of the 223 stickers in the first (1973 to 1974) seven series of Wacky Packages.

In addition to those reproductions of Wackys – which featured art and gags conceived and executed by Art Spiegelman (who wrote the book’s intro), Kim Deitch, Bill Griffith, Jay Lynch, and Norm Saunders – the book has a wax paper dustjacket (colored in red), which mimics the design, text, and layout of a Wacky Packages pack. Each copy of the book also comes with a sealed pack of limited edition “lost” stickers, and if you remove the dust jacket, you’ll see that book designer Neil Egan waggishly added an illustration on the front cover featuring…a reproduction of a stick of Topps gum.

The Book

On April 1, 2010, Abrams ComicArts published a follow-up volume, Wacky Packages New New New, which presents reproductions of the 206 Wackys in Topps’ Series Eight to Fourteen, which originally ran from 1974 to 1975. Designed – once again – by Neil Egan, Wacky Packages New New New  also includes a wax paper dustjacket, an attacked packet with a bonus pack of rare and unreleased Wacky Packs, and an introduction by the late humor writer Jay Lynch.

(C) 1974 Topps Chewing Gum, Inc.

In Wacky Packages New New New, you’ll find such Wackys as Knots Gelatine (“Leaves You All Choked Up”), Daffy Baking Powder, Dr. Popper (“12 Mind Blowing Oz”), Pupsi Cola (“The Soft Drink For Dogs”), and Sunsweat Prune Juice (“For Wrinkled Old Prunes”), presented one per page in slightly larger size than the original 1974-1975 stickers. Based on gags created by Art Spiegelman (who later won a Pulitzer Prize for his Maus graphic novels), Jay Lynch, Len Brown, and Bill Griffith, the Series Eight to Fourteen Wackys were a mixed batch of all-original stickers based on products not parodied in the previous series of stickers, new takes on products that had been parodied already, and spoofs of magazine covers.

(C) 1974 Topps Chewing Gum, Inc.

As Lynch, who died in March of 2017, wrote in his introduction to Wacky Packages New New New:

“This can’t go on forever,” Art confided to Len Brown, second in command to Woody Gelman in the Topps creative department. “We’ve done every product imaginable!” bemoaned Artie. “How can we keep this up?” Len voiced his agreement. But a successful gum-card series was a successful gum-card series, and Topps wasn’t about to call it quits on Wackys just because every product had already been parodied. So Art and Len and Woody, assisted by freelance gag writers Bill Griffiths and yours truly, continued to come up with more and more product parodies, even if we had to make up new ones for products we had already spoofed in the previous series. There was always a tinge of consternation among us that we wouldn’t be able to keep this thing going, but somehow we did.

My Take

I was 10 years old when the first series of Topps’ reboot of Wacky Packages hit stores in 1973. I don’t remember clearly how I learned about Wackys; sometimes I think one of the kids on my block in the Miami (Florida) suburb of Westchester introduced me to the subversive stickers. Then again, they were all the rage at Tropical Elementary among my peers – and the bane of many teachers, who secretly might have found Wackys funny but hated the disruption they caused in class. I’m 80% sure that it was the former and not the latter, though 47 years after the fact, I can’t really be certain.

Topps wasn’t immune from having its products spoofed. Here’s a Wacky based on the company’s Planet of the Apes trading cards. (C) 1974 Topps Chewing Gum, Inc.

What I do remember is that Wackys were one of the few 1970s fads that I enthusiastically embraced. Others, like Pet Rocks, disco music, roller skating, and mood rings did not catch my fancy, and although I had nothing against Afro hair styles, I didn’t get one of those, either. (I was too young for leisure suits, which were also “in” back then.)

Wackys caught my attention because the gags – conceived by young humorists like Art Spiegelman and Jay Lynch and executed brilliantly by Norm Saunders and other Topps illustrators – gave me a new, twisted, and, dare I say, wacky perspective on food and cleaning products found in the average American house – including my own. 10-year-old me chuckled at such stickers as Cram, a spoof of Spam, that famous – or, if you were a World War II vet, infamous canned meat from Hormel, or Lipoff Cup-a-Slop, the Wackys’ second go-around at lampooning Lipton instant soups. (1973 Series One had already given us Liptorn Molten Lava Soup.) 

The Wackys’ jokes and graphics – according to both books’ intros – were never considered by their creators to be anything but disposable little gags good only as, well, stickers. No one at Topps, including Spiegelman and Lynch, saw Wacky Packages as anything else than a job to help pay the bills or a temporary amusement for the eight-to-11-year-old kids who bought them. They enjoyed creating Wackys, to be sure, but they weren’t high art, nor were they meant to be.

Anyway, yeah. I was a dedicated Wackys collector back in the day. In those last years before I became obsessed with Star Wars and women (and not necessarily in that order), Wackys were one of the few things I liked to spend my allowance money on. In 1973, a pack of Wacky Packages (which contained two stickers, a checklist card, and a stick of Topps chewing gum) cost a nickel; I’d usually purchase five packs at a time, although I remember one occasion where I saved up $5.00 and walked to the neighborhood 7-Eleven store and bought an entire unopened box of Wackys.

I even got my mom, who didn’t get the appeal of Wackys but tolerated my obsession because it was harmless – not like I was buying Playboy magazines or anything scandalous, after all – to carefully remove my Wackys from their sheets and place them onto individual pages in a notepad she’d bought for that purpose. I don’t think I gave it a formal name back then, but now I remember it as my Wacky Pad, and from 1973 to 1977, it went where I went whenever I left town – either to Camp Challenge in Central Florida twice, or to Colombia in the summer of 1974 during the first of only two trips I’ve made to see my family there since Mom, my older half-sister, and I returned to the States in 1972 after living in Bogota for several years. (The last time I traveled to Bogota – this time with my mom – was for the Christmas holidays in 1993.)

Where is my Wacky Pad now? Last time I saw it was in the summer of 1977, shortly before Mom sold our house in Westchester so we could move to a townhouse – then under construction – in a new subdivision of Fountainbleau Park called East Wind Lake Village. I was 14 then, and even though I was still fond of it, I gave it as a present to my cousin Silvia, who was visiting us in Miami with my maternal grandmother. Whether Silvia still has it or not is a mystery; I could ask her via Facebook, but who knows when – or if – she’ll answer. She and her older sisters are rarely online, so…

Anyway…about Wacky Packages New, New, New: I bought it a little over two years ago on Amazon, along with Abrams ComicArts’ Wacky Packages. I was feeling nostalgic about my Miami childhood and missing my late mother, who had died in July 2015, and my house, which I had inherited from Mom per her last wishes but sold because I couldn’t afford to repair and renovate it, much less maintain it on my own. My childhood was neither idyllic nor traumatic, just average, really. Wackys were a part of that childhood, a joyful and slightly subversive one at that, and the two Abrams ComicArts books help me relive bits of my past life.

I love the attention to detail that the folks at Topps who worked with Abrams to put the Wacky Packages volumes together lavished on the pages of this book.  The Wackys are reproduced in all of their…wacky…glory, a bit larger than their actual size, with every gleefully twisted detail in lively color.

Little did I know (at age 12) that this Wacky was lampooning….
….this. (C) 1980 Playboy Enterprises

As I said earlier, because the gag writers had already lampooned so many consumer products in earlier series, many of the Wackys in the 1975 batch are spoofs of magazine covers. National Geographic, Sports Illustrated, Popular Mechanics, Newsweek, Mad (the humor magazine whose style infuses that of the Wackys), Seventeen, The Saturday Evening Post, and TV Guide all get the Wacky Package treatment. Even adult magazines are lampooned; there’s a Playbug Magazine Wacky, and IOU (“For the Man in Debt”) skewers a men’s magazine that was published by Playboy Enterprises in the late 1970s.

Topps knew that Wackys were successful, so its execs tolerated spoofs of its own products. (C) 1974 Topps Chewing Gum, Inc.

What I found interesting is that the merry pranksters at Topps even spoofed their company’s products; there’s a Kong Fu trading cards Wacky, a Planet of the Grapes trading cards Wacky, and a Wormy Packages Wacky. The jokes aimed at Topps are, of course, spins on the company’s name and product lines; Topps NFL Football cards are spoofed as Topsoil Sootball cards, and its NHL hockey trading cards are depicted as being Truant Hookey excuse notes, with “Extra! Absence Note Inside!” as a bonus!

If you were a 1970s era kid who loved the Wacky Packages of the period – every so often, Topps revives the line, but I have not bought any of the “modern ones” – then Wacky Packages New New New and its precursor from Abrams ComicArts are the perfect books for you. The gags – especially in the New New New volume – are hit-and-miss, and it’s painfully obvious that the writers were running out of ideas close to the end of the 1974-1975 run.

Nevertheless, the art – most of it by chief Wacky artist Norm Saunders – is well-done and full of clever twists and little details that will amuse you and keep you looking at the reproduced stickers from those bygone days of Pet Rocks, leisure suits, and disco. Some of the illustrations are over-the-top, of course, but it’s all done in good humor, even if some companies weren’t thrilled to have their products or logos lampooned.

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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