GROSS MAKES A COMEBACK
They're not exactly living dolls, but Meanie Babies continue a long, wacky tradition of trading card parodies
by Allen Varney
[Published in COLLECT! magazine, January 1998. Copyright ©1998 Tuff Stuff Publications. Posted by permission.]
It's time once more to disgust our parents! Time for the PTA to issue stern warnings about school discipline, and for fundamentalists to lament declining moral values. What will provoke this imminent shock and uproar? Just as in the 1970s and '80s, it's a set of audaciously tasteless, gloriously revolting trading cards.
In January 1998, Comic Images releases a new 61-card set called "Meanie Babies." In the spirit of Mad magazine -- and, more to the point, of "Wacky Packages" and "Garbage Pail Kids" -- the Meanies feature outlandish parody targeted at kids of all ages. They appeal directly to that age-old desire of kids everywhere: to defy authority figures by grossing them out.
THE SOURCE FROM WHENCE ALL MEANIES SPRING
"But what do they parody?" you ask -- assuming you haven't followed pop culture for the last 18 months.
Beanie Babies, the small beanbag-like plush toys that inspired these new caricatures, represent the latest symptom of that chronic American obsession, the toy fad. Frantic parents scour store shelves and haunt Internet newsgroups in search of Garcia the Tye-Dyed Teddy, Stripes the Tiger (regular and dark versions), Wrinkles the Bulldog, and over 100 other cute, collectible Beanies. People and other major magazines cover the phenomenon; in October 1996 Forbes called Beanie Babies "the marketing score of the year," and the frenzy has only built since then.
The Beanies come from Ty, Inc., named for its founder, 57-year-old Ty Warner of Oak Brook, Illinois. Warner created the first nine Beanie Babies in 1993, starting with Spot the Dog and Patti the Platypus. Despite extensive promotion, nobody paid much attention until summer 1996. Just ahead of the Democratic and Republican conventions, Lefty the Donkey and Righty the Elephant sold big at Chicago and San Diego toy fairs. Excitement started to grow.
The ensuing story follows the pattern of earlier toy fads like Cabbage Patch Kids, Buzz Lightyear, and even Trivial Pursuit. Demand outstripped the small company's production, shortages occurred, and the bare shelves fueled still greater excitement. Warner, formerly a Dakin Toys executive, shrewdly cultivated a mystique by keeping his Beanies out of the major retail toy chains. By the time Ty stepped up production, the fad was well under way.
Today over ten million buyers own some 200 million Beanies, not counting another 300 million that McDonald's sold from its Teenie Beanie Baby Collection. McDonald's Marketing VP Brad Bell says, "Beanie Babies are one of the hottest crazes to hit America."
What do Beanie Babies have that goads both kids and collectors into frenzy? Well.... They have cuteness, big time. They have tags that give each Beanie's birthday (Freckles the Leopard, 6/3/96; Coral the Tropical Fish, 3/2/95), along with a four-line verse. They have different rarities: Some Beanies are scarcer than others, because twice a year Ty "retires" certain dolls. And they have speculators bidding up prices: The dark blue version of Peanut the Elephant currently fetches $1,500.
But mainly, Beanie Babies have consensus. We want them because we see that everyone else wants them.
ENTER THE MEANIES
If millions of kids want Snort the Bull, you know some of them will delight in the Meanie Babies's Snotty the Bull, to say nothing of Warty the Frog, Moldy the Goldfish, Upchuck the Duck, Roadhog, Velcrow, Salmonella, Sphinxter, and E. Coli the Baby Bacteria. "Parody works," says Comic Images president Alan Gordon. "It's worked in trading cards, in 'Weird Al' Yankovic songs, and on Saturday Night Live. We think ['Meanie Babies'] is going to be a success. It's fresh, different from the typical card series."
In today's market the Meanies really are fresh. After all, it's been almost ten years since the last series of Topps' "Garbage Pail Kids" (1985-88), let alone the heyday of "Wacky Pages" (mainly 1973-77, though there were earlier and later series). Startling, isn't it? Adam Bomb, Fowl Raoul, Lucas Mucus, Armpit Britt -- Bloodweiser, Shorts Illustrated, Swiss Mess Cocoa, Poopsie -- it seems like yesterday.
The Meanies idea actually originated with Comic Images' collaborator on the set, Dark Horse Comics. To create the set, Dark Horse lined up first-class talent. The verses on the card backs are being written by underground comix legend Jay Lynch -- an interesting parallel with "Wacky Packages," created by Lynch's fellow underground artist Art Spiegelman. And the Meanies artist is none other than Mr. "Garbage Pail Kids" himself, John Pound. Gordon says of Pound, "He's terrific, a real pro. When people look at John's artwork and observe the level of detail, I think they'll be impressed."
Gordon knows who the Meanies cards will impress most: "We're really targeting ten-year-old kids and up. My two daughters love Beanie Babies. When I showed them the concept, I was not a popular dad for a day. 'How could you do that?' they asked. But they're seven and six. It just shows they're not the target age group. Think back to when you were ten -- what were people into? Farting, blisters, popping a zit."
In other words, just the material that drives parents and teachers to frothing apoplexy. Does Gordon worry that the Meanies may draw a high-profile public outcry -- or, for that matter, might he even want it? "You usually don't get the outcry unless you're selling a lot, so I would welcome the sales that would generate the outcry. I welcome the cause and not the effect.
"We're careful that nothing is really too offensive. We stayed away from drinking, sex, drugs. All of us involved with ['Meanie Babies'], we have children. We're not going to do what would really offend them. Even just from a standpoint of good business, we have an obligation not to offend. Long after 'Meanie Babies' are gone, Comic Images and Dark Horse want to sell them more cards, more comics.
"Our objective is simple: We hope that when people open the pack, they laugh and have a good time."
HE MAKES MEANIES LIVE (URGH!)
The Meanies mark a welcome return to humor cards for "Garbage Pail" master John Pound. In his studio in Eureka, California, the artist described "Meanie Babies" as "great, a dream job." Though he works in many styles and is known for "a few dozen" science fiction and fantasy book covers, Pound greatly enjoys his humor work. He estimates that he painted about 400 of the 620+ Garbage Pail Kids in Topps' 15 series -- "a very inspired time, highly enjoyable." The Meanies revive that halcyon time.
Pound's pleasure helps explain the meticulous detail in his work. "I seem to want to bring them to life with detail and dramatic situations," he says. Largely self-trained, Pound hand-paints the Meanies in acrylic, using airbrush sparingly "to add atmosphere." His originals are double-size, approximately 5"x7". He originates almost all the card ideas, of which Dark Horse editor David Scroggy has approved a third to half -- in Pound's experience, an unusually high percentage. And unlike Topps, Comic Images is crediting -- nay, trumpeting! -- Pound's name on the Meanie pack wrappers.
Pound knows that others on the Meanies project intend the cards for young children, but he thinks they reach a broader audience. "I like them," says the 45-year-old artist. "The people at the copy shop where I get my color copies like them." Comparing the cards' "humor of the absurd" to tall tales, Pound feels the best of them communicate "a moral quality, a reflection on how life is for people."
Pound's Meanie paintings also communicate to him personally. They "free-associate and suggest themselves in the process of [my] doing them. Sometimes I feel like there's a painting out there that's telling me how to paint it. I feel like if I had more time, wouldn't it be neat to see more of that world? Sometimes I don't like to quit."
The "Meanie Babies" set includes 61 Meanies, each in both card and sticker versions. A pack with six cards and a sticker retails for around $1.29-1.49. Pound has autographed 500 random insert cards. Comic Images plans to produce six chromium chase cards and possibly a three-card sketch set of the artist's original black-and-white drawings, but at press time details were undecided.
ARE MEANIES A RERUN?
What does history lead us to expect for Ty's Beanie Babies and their grotesque Comic Images offspring?
Obviously, the fad will crash as they always do. But though they're cheaply constructed, Beanies are genuinely cute and appeal to both boys and girls, so they probably won't vanish. Like Cabbage Patch Kids, they'll lose their faddish appeal but remain a staple on toy shelves. They might even attain permanent Barbie-level popularity.
Card collectors should heed the examples of the Meanies' precursors. Both "Wacky Packages" and "Garbage Pail Kids" debuted with a series that sold poorly, but Topps turned both lines into mega-hits with their second series. If Comic Images follows this pattern, they may expect sales as ugly as a Meanie... at first. But if they stick by their new line -- and especially if there's a public outcry from the PTA -- then "Meanie Babies" may find its way into the hearts of anti-authoritarian school children nationwide.