Certainly for myself and many of my generation, the mention of Garbage Pail Kids immediately evokes fond nostalgia, a devious grin and all-around consensus that, “Yep, those were the best!” Released in the mid ‘80s, Garbage Pail Kids, a parody of the popular Cabbage Patch Dolls, were the most grotesque, controversial, and awkwardly hilarious collector cards aimed toward the youth audience of the time. An overnight success and goldmine for the Topps Company, they were characterized by their ingeniously ill-fated deaths and cleverly named characters. The artwork was easily digestible and esthetically infectious. With the recent discovery of some of my old cards stashed in a bookshelf, I wondered who had drawn all of these. I learned that there was no single illustrator but rather a collective effort by a very small group of talented artists. One of those talents responsible for a significant chunk of Garbage Pail Kids art was Tom Bunk.
So what exactly has Tom Bunk been up to since then? Drawing. A lot. And somehow holding a considerably low profile. After Garbage Pail Kids fizzled out, Tom continued making work for several well-known companies. He contributes regularly to various printed publications and still receives frequent commissions. He admits that he’s never really had a lull in the demand for his work. “When one job ends, somehow another one always follows,” he says. And for that he is grateful.
I visited Tom at him home in Upstate New York and after picking me up at the train station, our first objective was to go get coffee, as both of us seem to covet caffeine. We were greeted warmly by the locals; everyone working there knows Tom and coffee is apparently on the house. Sufficiently caffeinated, we headed to Tom’s attic studio where we did some mild excavation through his overwhelming archives. Piles upon piles of meticulously detailed drawings were lugged out for my viewing, overwhelming even to someone like me who has seen so many studios over the years.
When asked if any of his work had been digitized, Tom gave a simple “No,” for as he sees it, who has time for that when there is drawing to be done every day? —Austin McManus
Austin McManus: What was the process and creative environment like for developing the Garbage Pail Kids characters?
Tom Bunk: In those days, I had a studio in Brooklyn, not far from the Topps building, which was in an industrial district near the docks where I would see Art Spiegelman and Mark Newgarden in their windowless office that was like a dark bunker. I would sit in my studio and paint, draw and listen to the radio. Unfortunately, while Topps made tens of millions, we artists didn't get paid a penny more, no bonus, nothing, and we didn't even get the original artwork back. It was auctioned off and even we, who made them, could not afford to buy them. That’s when Art left Topps. Most of the ideas came from Art and Mark, but also from other people at Topps, and also from us artists. Finding new ideas and names became difficult after hundreds of cards, so more people got involved in the production process, cranking out one card after another. There were more than 600. For us, it was a lot of stress, but for millions of kids worldwide, it was a smash. Even today, twenty years later, I often get mail from people who collected the cards as kids and write to me about how thankful they are for the exciting time they had with the Garbage Pail Kids.
I understand you’ve been working regularly as a cartoonist for Mad magazine since 1990?
At the end of the ‘80s there was less and less work at Topps so I had to find work somewhere else. Friends advised me to go to Mad, but for some reason I hesitated. I had the pleasure of working with Harvey Kurtzman on one of his stories for a book, and he told me to go to Mad, so I was doomed to become a member of “The Usual Gang of Idiots.” One week after I introduced myself and my work to Mad, I got an assignment and since then I have not stopped working there regularly, now for almost twenty-five years.