They have the same pudgy, cherubic proportions as Cabbage Patch Kids--the dolls and characters famous for their homespun sweetness. But these are Garbage Pail Kids. They're bloody, mean-spirited and repulsive. They drink beer, play with shrunken heads and attract flies.
And they attract a phenomenal number of schoolchildren who have been collecting stickers of the Garbage Pail Kids on bubble gum trading cards since they appeared last summer. Even with increased production shifts and new equipment, Topps Chewing Gum, the Brooklyn company that has produced baseball trading cards for 35 years and now also makes the Garbage Pail Kids cards, still can't keep up with the demand, a spokesman said.
"They're the hottest thing around," said Allison Stukkie, assistant manager of a 7-Eleven store in Costa Mesa. "I don't know what to compare it to. There's never been anything like this in the past." "It hasn't peaked yet," said Kenneth Kendall, a clerk at another Costa Mesa 7-Eleven store just a block away from California Elementary School, which has banned the cards from its campus. "Parents buy cases of them for their kids. They buy them to shut 'em up."
But the Garbage Pail Kids' supersonic success has plenty of other adults annoyed, appalled or angered. Parents and teachers worry that children are wasting their allowance when they buy the cards and are being distracted from their studies when they trade or resell them, that they are developing unhealthy attitudes from the raunchy images and ruining furniture and appliances with the stickers.
"I put them all over my mom's car and got grounded for a week," admitted Darrin Leonard, 14, of Costa Mesa.
Many Orange County elementary schools have banned Garbage Pail Kids stickers from their campuses.
Xavier Roberts, the artist creator of Cabbage Patch Kids, is said to be "furious." He is suing Topps for copyright infringement, according to Roger Schlaifer, president of Schlaifer Nance & Co., an Atlanta firm that negotiates licenses for Original Appalachian Artworks, makers of Cabbage Patch Kids.
Like Cabbage Patch Kids, the Garbage Pail Kids have double names. But instead of such down-home names as "Otis Lee" or "Rebecca Ruby," the Garbage Pail Kids include "Bustin' Dustin," a stitched and bruised baby boxer whose bloody nose runs like a faucet; "Dinah Saur," a grinning skeleton, and "Pinned Lynn," a voodoo doll stuck with nails. On the backs of some cards are "permits" to cheat or be stupid or "wanted posters" for adult relatives guilty of child abuse or meanness.
Garbage Pail Kids cards "debase" the whole Cabbage Patch Kid image, carefully built up over the past four years to promote "wholesome, family, quality fun," which is "at the heart of the most positive aspects of American life," Schlaifer said.
Two years ago, Schlaifer said, his firm rejected Topps' bid to reproduce Cabbage Patch Kids on its stickers because "their quality wasn't up to our standards." Garbage Pail Kids cards have all the marks of a "vindictive act," he said.
Norman Liss, a spokesman for Topps, would say only that the lawsuit "has no merit." He did say, however, that the cards are so popular that Topps is now printing its fourth series of characters and still "can't produce enough" cards. Liss declined to release production figures. Some store owners suspect Topps of deliberately limiting the supply as a marketing technique.
Meanwhile, the relentless demand and an unpredictable supply has frustrated store managers, who say they could sell five times as many cards as they receive from distributors. "We order 12 boxes, and we're lucky if we get three," said 7-Eleven's Stukkie. "First, we limited sales to four (cards) per person, then we had to go to two." The cards are sold in packages of five, along with the gum, usually for 25 cents.
Mark Boyd of Back Bay Liquor in Costa Mesa said he sells the packs for 45 cents, mostly because they are so hard to obtain. He said that he has obtained Garbage Pail Kids packages from independent distributors and that "they jacked the price up, too." There's no problem selling them at the higher price, he said, adding that parents buy them by the case.
Loretta Rivera of Costa Mesa said she makes a few phone calls a day to help her son, Andy, 10, track down available cards. "Seven-Elevens (receive shipments) on Tuesdays and Thursdays, a couple of liquor stores on Wednesdays. We try to get there, but we're usually too early or too late."
Rivera knows she is nearly alone as a parent who actually likes the cards. "I think they're very creative. . . . Cracked Jack, he's my favorite. He looks like an eggshell cracking, and a little chicken is coming out of his head. I don't know; I have a weird sense of humor, I guess. I like the Marx Brothers too."
Her son washes floors and empties the dishwasher to earn money for the cards, she said.
"It works great as a reward," said Pat Throp of Costa Mesa, who said he gives his son, Adam, 8, Garbage Pail Kids cards for taking out the garbage.
On the other hand, Ann Stirber of Costa Mesa complained that her children are squandering their allowance on the cards. "It's a total waste of money," said Stirber, the mother of three Garbage Pail Kids' collectors, ages 6, 11 and 13. Her older children take advantage of her youngest child, she said, by reselling the five-cent cards at 50 cents or $1 each.
"I like them because it teaches me to be an adult," said Loc Huynh, 11, of Costa Mesa. He said he resells the cards to fellow students at a profit and then buys more cards. "I want to be rich when I grow up. I want to get a head start as a kid," he said. Besides, he added, "everybody else is doing it. I want to be like everybody else."
"We had a lot of kids using their lunch money to buy them from other kids. Some kids brought toys and traded them off. It was a little black market so we had to squelch it," said Doug Kramer, assistant principal at Richard Henry Dana Elementary School in Dana Point which has banned the cards.
John Bennett, principal of Washington Elementary School in Santa Ana, banned the cards basically because the content is "demeaning to children," he said.
"It goes back to a time in years past when students would have sadistic jokes about handicapped students. Those were inappropriate in school. The same thing is true of this type of cards."
"Some kids sneak them in and trade them anyway," said Chad Sorensen, 11, a sixth-grader at Costa Mesa's California Elementary School, where the cards are outlawed. He said he has collected 180 cards and doesn't want to risk having them confiscated by bringing them to school. His favorite is Jolted Joe from the first edition. "He looks like a punk with a mohawk and all this dynamite and machine guns and spikes on his wrist and stuff. . . ."
The cards have not been a problem at El Camino Real Elementary School in Irvine, Principal Gene Bedley said. One reason may be that there are no mini-marts near the school. In addition, he said, "we're trying to condition our kids to the importance of kindness." He said parents and students can see the cards do not develop "the right values."
The gory content of the cards concerns most professionals who work with children, said Paula Eastman, chief clinical social worker at the Child Guidance Center of Orange County in Costa Mesa.
Professionals, however, are split over whether the depiction of violence and aggression causes aggressive behavior in children or if, in fact, it allows impulses to be expressed in a socially acceptable way, she said.
In any case, such product parodies are not new, according to some adults who remember Ghoulaide, Crust Toothpaste or Grave Train Dog Food. And Topps' Norman Liss said the Garbage Pail Kids cards basically make use of previous, satirical, ugly products made by Topps, including Garbage Can-dy, a plastic garbage can with edible garbage, and Dirty Laundry, a miniature washing machine with edible socks and underwear.
Joan Fernbacher, owner of the Candy Alley, a Los Angeles ice cream parlor within walking distance of a half-dozen elementary schools in Brentwood, remembers children also lined up outside her store to buy jelly bellies (small jelly beans). She believes Garbage Pail Kids cards will go the way of other fads. Depending on the cards' availability, she predicts, the craze will taper off before fall.
"There's always something new," she said.