I suppose it’s very difficult to explain a childhood fascination I had with the Topps Company’s “Wacky Packages”, a selection of stickers you’d collect inside a package of bubble gum. Just like trading baseball cards, which was what Topps did primarily, you could open up your wrapper and behind the long, flat stick of bubble gum you’d find a small piece of cardboard paper on which you’d find the latest clever creation: a sticker that mocked a popular consumer product like Tide detergent (Tied), Rice-a-Phoni (for that San Francisco treat) or Hawaiian Punks (for Hawaiian Punch).
All I know is I used to go wild when I’d see a new one when I’d go after school to 7-11 and wait to open up a new set of stickers.
Out now is a collection of these Wacky Packages, written almost as a history, from when the idea started in 1967 through those glorious 70s when my friends from elementary school and I couldn’t get enough of them.As it turns out, the whole idea behind Wacky Packages was a little more than subversive. Cartoonist Art Spiegelman helped launch the stickers, but he refused to advertise for kids or use the stickers for marketing purposes. Instead, he chose to make spoofs of existing products, and of course products people instantly recognized.
This was also an era of great cartoon work that was also satirical, the best example being Mad Magazine (also a childhood favorite). The point was to poke and prod, and make fun of what was conventional at the time. Eventually, as the book asserts, Spiegelman brought in a crew of 60s underground comic artists, such as Kim Deitch, Bill Griffith and Jay Lynch, all of whom helped create the whimsical and often non-conformist “ads” that would appear inside the sticks of bubble gum.
Not just for the nostalgia, but the book (Abrams, $19.95) is a lot of fun to look through, with real stickers on the pages reduced down almost to the size of the original stickers on the cardboard pages, specially created for the collectors who yearn for this kind of stuff. There are collections here that perhaps kids like I didn’t have back then, and there’s even a dust cover that smartly resembles the original bubble gum wrapper. If only it had some real bubble gum. Oh well.
Back then, of course, I had no idea there was some countercultural elements at work. Nor would I know that Spiegelman would go on to far greater things, such as his 10 years as main cartoonist at the New Yorker, or his Pulitzer Prize in 1994 for his graphic (and controversial) novel, Maus. I also didn’t even know that Spiegelman also created the Garbage Pail Kids candy and the cards and stickers that came out in the mid-80s. By then, I was older and probably into other fads (Rubik’s Cube, anyone?), although I do rermember seeing these candies around at that time. Call it a blast from the past or whatever.
It’s not just a look back at what I didn’t realize when I was kid in school. Back then, it was about laughing out loud, collecting and trading some awesome stickers. In retrospect it’s now a fully realized look at an art form that may have reflected the social and political mores of the time.