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THE MAN WHO PAINTED GARBAGE PAIL KIDS

An interview with local artist John Pound.

John Pound has lived in Humboldt County for over twenty years.
To many people he is best known as the foremost conceptual artist and painter of the Topps Chewing Gum Company's infamous Garbage Pail Kids stickers. These stickers spoofed, among other things, the popular Cabbage Patch Kids dolls.Topps published more than 600 GPK stickers between 1985 and 1988. Most of those stickers featured paintings by John Pound. Pound's art has been featured in other Topps trading card series, including Wacky Packages, Silly CDs, and Meanie Babies.Today John Pound continues to make a living by painting for commission. The fruits of his full time work include the Humboldt Arts Council logo, skateboard illustrations, and Garbage Pail Kid styled portraits.

Jon Olsen conversed with Mr. Pound on November 18th, 2002:

Jon Olsen: What influenced your artistic style? You draw and paint a lot of wonderfully twisted stuff. Why aren't you just another painter of "happy trees"?


John Pound: Well, as a kid I liked things like MAD Magazine, and Looney Toons cartoons... they used to show some wonderful old ones on TV when I was growing up, things like stuff from World War II or whatever... and I seemed to like the rowdy ones. While on some level I could appreciate the artistry in the Disney films, I seemed to like the irreverence of the, you know, Loony Toons or Tex Avery type things better.
Then in high school and college underground comics were happening, this would be the early seventies. It was a place a beginning artist could do stuff... so you'd see people like Robert Crumb or Rick Griffin...


JO: In those days you probably had a lot of room to experiment with taste boundaries and so forth.


JP: Yeah... It's weird, I did some cartoons in the high school paper and it seemed like they were pretty flexible about the kind of stuff you could turn in there... I don't know why, but it was pretty permissive...


JO: Maybe you can get away with potentially controversial stuff so long as nobody who would be offended happens to notice...


JP: Yeah...


JO: How did you find success as an artist, that is, how have you found yourself able to make ends meet?


JP: Um, well, the short answer would be: Luck and hard work. And a desire to make a living at it. I think early on I had a feeling I was going to have to be a commercial artist because I didn't think I would want to try to find time after hours, if I had a non-art job or a non-cartooning job. It just seemed like it would be bigger than I could handle to do art on the side...


JO: To have a day job and confine your art work to your free time.


JP: Yeah... And I know, for some of my teacher friends, it's a real challenge to get those few hours to do personal art. Now, in the years since then, I've kinda come to see that there are different things that I can do in art, or that anybody can do in art, and I tend to make the distinction between commercial and personal art, and now I'm having to learn that same lesson that I avoided back then, which is train myself to do things that nobody's asking me to do, because they seem to be important enough for me to do.


JO: So by learning to make a living at it, you've come to associate doing art with doing work?


JP: Yeah... I think what it did for me, was it gave me a built in training ground for my craft, and the content of what I do as commercial art is entertainment. Make people laugh or gross 'em out or whatever. I probably get pigeon-holed as the person that does the gross trading cards.


JO: Specifically The Garbage Pail Kids.


JP: Yeah... (laughs) I mean, people kind of get a niche according whatever strikes a chord the most easily.


JO: And you don't necessarily get the niche of your choosing.


JP: Probably the same with writing, you know, the writing that sells is not necessarily about the things you want to be addressing.


JO: Yeah, and actors often complain of being typecast. Pigeon-holing just happens all across the board.


JP: And I don't mean to sound like I'm complaining, it's just kind of, you know, an issue particular to people that deal with that split between the commercial and the creative.


JO: Were you so focused on studying the craft and getting, you know, work out of it that you didn't'y really start to notice this split until you were well established in your career?


JP: Yeah, yeah... That's exactly it. Early on it just seemed like a challenge to, A, make a living at it and, B, learn the craft...


JO: You were too absorbed in the work to worry about where it was taking you.


JP: Yeah. Just the ambition of it. There's an ego factor in doing art, it's not the same as being an actor, but there was a part of me that liked the idea of doing work that would get attention.


JO: In a lot of your work there is a sort of celebration of grossness and vulgarity... you also do a lot of parody of advertisements and commercial products, which seem similar in spirit to billboard alterations, and also the graphic art of Ad busters magazine.


JP: Yeah, I enjoy seeing that, or thinking about things like that. One thing that's fun with some of those parodies is to see how close you can come towards resembling the real thing or how economical you can make a change that creates a whole lot of shift in meaning.
Like the other day, my wife and I were walking in town, and there's a billboard for this medical center, and right now they're being investigated for maybe being too aggressive in promoting heart surgeries that are unnecessary. So I was looking at the billboard and thinking: hmmm, I guess you could take some of those "S"es and put a little vertical line down 'em and it'd look like a dollar sign. And that would be a little billboard alteration.


JO: So was it fun doing this kind of stuff, you know, as a job?


JP: It's hard work on one level but it is a lot of fun. Making something come to life, seeing a concept, especially one that's a humorous concept which works for me, seeing it come to life, you put all this work into something and it's for a non-serious purpose. Now to me that probably comes from some early issue with authority or something like that, and with having to be too serious and responsible, and making some kind of life decision, "We'll see about that, ha-ha". If I have to be serious, I'll be serious about, well, nonsense.


JO: Particularly if it's nice and vulgar.


JP: I can't say I'm that attached to the vulgar stuff, it just happened to come in with the Garbage Pail Kids. I mean, there was some of that maybe in underground comics, but that felt like me kind of adapting to a superficial perception of what was going on there. And also for a certain amount of shock value.


JO: So the grossness is not really an integral part of your style?


JP: I would make a distinction between things I like to do and the grossness... One of the earliest Garbage Pail Kid images was a baby barfing onto a blanket with toys and little things coming out in the barf too. I think the challenge is to not just... I mean, there's plenty of people who could paint it and make you feel yucky about what you're seeing. Now the challenge is to make it feel cute and attractive, but also something yucky happening. Otherwise you're going to get this one-dimensional thing and nobody's gonna want to look at it or buy it.


JO: So the trick is to make it work on more than one level?


JP: I think it helps to mix appeal with the not-appealing. The art director on Garbage Pail Kids was Art Spiegelman, and he had some other helpers there at Topps too, and I was a freelancer out here in California. He (Spiegelman) has a knack for concepts and being a good editor... he edited for a while a magazine called RAW magazine, and he's currently editing, I think it's a series, called "Little Lit" which are kinda like hardback books of comics for kids, and he really has a strength as an editor...


JO: And he's a good comic artist as well (Art Spiegelman is the author of the graphic novel "Maus").


JP: Yeah, and totally an accomplished cartoonist. But it's not so much that his drawing is what he's selling, but his concepts and his working everything out. And part of it is pushing peoples' buttons, that's part of his strength. He brought that to Garbage Pail Kids, having a pretty good sense of what the direction would be on that, and the same with Wacky Packages, which was a project he came up with before that. That was like spoofs of products, Topps published these trading cards spoofing them...


JO: Didn't The Garbage Pail Kids originate from one of the tentative Wacky Packages images?


JP: Yeah... They were originally thinking of one Garbage Pail Kid as being a sticker in the Wacky Package series... and then a combination of things led to them deciding not to put that in there and to just do it as a series. They had a few artists work up sketches, including myself, and then they thought, "yeah, we can do this as a series!" And so then of course they wanted to get that out there and see how it did and... I was surprised because the things I had worked on had been for small audiences and this had, you know, big nationwide distribution.


JO: You were surprised by how popular Garbage Pail Kids became?


JP: Yeah. I was really surprised, simply because my expectations were, with things like underground comics, that things would sell a few thousand copies or ten thousand copies of something, meaning an audience of ten thousand people reading what you do is a huge audience. Maybe two thousand would be a more common audience.


JO: And your work was anonymous, wasn't it?


JP: Right, it was anonymous. Topps didn't have artists sign the work, and it didn't occur to me to really force the issue because I had other concerns at the time, like just getting the work done and making a living.


JO: But maybe that gave you a chance to be a sort of fly-on-the-wall in the midst of all the controversy. A lot of parents and teachers got pretty riled up over those cards, right?


JP: Now another factor too, was Topps didn't send letters of complaint to the artists and writers who worked for them. I did get a stack of clippings and some media stuff, and little key chains and that kind of stuff.


JO: But you never got to see any of the outraged letters?


JP: No, maybe they didn't want to demoralize us (laughs).


JO: So did Topps stop publishing Garbage Pail Kids because of a legal dispute with the makers of Cabbage Patch Kids?


JP: Hmmm. Well, there was a lawsuit from the owner of the Cabbage Patch Kids, and that was early on. Garbage Pail Kids came out in '85, and within a year there was the lawsuit... my wife and I flew back to Atlanta to hang around for the court case, but it ended up being settled out of court. Now, the result of that was that Topps had to redesign the Garbage Pail Kids so that they weren't quite as cute and that they didn't look as much like a Cabbage Patch Kid. They went from being soft sculpted to being like a hard plastic character with an obligatory crack...


JO: Like cracked plastic.


JP: We had to change the number of fingers, change the ears and the eyes and the shape of the head. Those changes started around the tenth series. They had one of the other artists do some revision sketches. I worked solo on the first few Garbage Pail Kid series of paintings, and then they got some other artist to (contribute).


JO: You did most of the first two series.


JP: Yeah, all of the first series or two, I did the paintings. Which is the primary thing they're showing, the painting. They came up with the names for them... I guess they'd get the whole set done and then they'd sit around and come up with two names for each painting.
And around late '88 was when they stopped doing Garbage Pail Kids altogether. And I don't know if, in the settlement (with Cabbage Patch Kids) that they had agreed to stop doing them after a number of years, or if it was just getting to the point where (the cards) weren't selling as well anymore. I've heard those two different things, but I never really got a definitive story. What the end was. Could have been either way.


JO: Did you feel that taking away the Cabbage Patch Kid "aestheticc" made the Garbage Pail Kids less effective?


JP: Well, I would imagine that contributed to that, I don't know what proportion... I went through a period where it was kinda grueling doing these paintings constantly. And then towards the end of it I was kinda getting a second wind. So I was real disappointed when they said, "well, that's all we're doing!" Fifteen series were published. We actually did a sixteenth series, but that was never published. And I saw on some one's website (www.wgpkr.com) a black and white printer's proof sheet of the sixteenth series, so you can see which paintings were going to be used.


JO: Tell me about your random computer generated comics.


JP: The random comics were kind of a gee-whiz thing where (the content) might be kind of simple, but it's just a fun process to work with because it's struggling against not having control over what happens in the panels.


JO: And it places emphasis on the process, rather than the result.


JP: It ends up also forcing me to deal with editing, on two levels. One is, of course, the results, whatever comes out of making the comics random. And the other is on the programming level of setting up a page layout, or a list of words to pick from, or a list of colors to pick from, or the range of poses, the sizes that the characters can be... kind of a gee-whiz concept art thing, as opposed to entertainment. I see it as kind of gallery oriented.


JO: Computer technology is a great wellspring for chaotic gee-whiz concept art.


JP: I imagine there could be a channel someday where the programs you watch, they've kind of codified all the rules of production, of how to make the characters interact. Like I'm imagining a cartoon channel where you could tune in to it and just watch this world randomly unfolding in there. I guess what you don't get is a tight little plot line where everything's all sewed up.


JO: Who knows, might make TV more interesting than it is now... Now, if you could do anything you wanted in the way of personal art, like if it was your job to work only on what interested you, what kind of things do you think you'd be doing?


JP: To make a living or art for art's sake?


JO: Art for art's sake.


JP: Well, um, this changes from month to month, but what appeals to me right now is, I would say something like an independent comic or something between a comics and a graphic arts magazine that would have a whole lot of cartoon imagery and sequences in it. What I would like to be doing with that would be keep going a lot farther with the random comics. I seem to have thousands of ideas in a journal, in written notes, and it just takes a lot of time to make these things happen. To turn them into programming. Another thing I was working with the other day was scanning in some of the paintings I've done in my sketchbook of a particular series... I call it the Woo Woo Cover series, because they're composed as covers. There's a picture like that on my website of this little eyeball guy with a wizard hat on. That all comes from a particular little inner world that to me has a certain coherence and mystery, a little bit of humor... I was exploring putting some of those images together to see whether they'd work in a sequence, but I'd need more time...


JO: And you don't have enough time to work on all of these ideas...


JP: It's the struggle to use the small amount of time that I can safely take for personal art. The dream would be to have all the time and patience to realize these things. The reality is I have small chunks of time to work with because I'm not financially independent to the degree that my fantasy would be.


***********************************

To see more of John Pound's commercial, experimental, and personal art, visit www.poundart.com.

  
News

2/10/05.  The Humboldt County Travelogue NPLU's long lost documentary now available on DVD!

--JO

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The Man Who Painted Garbage Pail Kids

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