COOPERMADE: Wacky Packs
A devoted fan and collector of comic books and science fiction, Woody Gelman A'35 (1915-78), who was named after Woodrow Wilson, grew up in Brooklyn and after attending Cooper, worked as an illustrator for Max Fleischer A'1900, a king of early cartoons and a fellow Cooper graduate. But it wasn’t until he got to Topps, the bubble gum company, that he improved a staple of American culture—the baseball trading card. It was Gelman, along with his colleague Sy Berger, who pioneered the packaging of baseball cards with gum in the early 1950s.
In 1967, Gelman struck packaging-gold again when Topps decided to offer its gum wrapped in stickers called Wacky Packages, better known as Wacky Packs. By featuring Mad magazine-style parodies of well-known product brands, the package designer managed to spoof his own industry. There was Pepto-Dismal, Ratz crackers, Crust toothpaste, and Frosted Snakes cereal, and, poking fun at Cold War hysteria, Commie Cleanser (“Gets rid of Reds, Pinkos, Hippies, Yippies, and Flippies”). Topps even made a parody version of another Cooper grad’s packaging: an orange wrapper with the familiar script of Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, here rendered as Pieces Crumbled Candy (“You’ll Go to Pieces Trying to Eat ‘Em!”).
Gelman and company hired artists who later became famous in their own right. Art Spiegelman, best known for his graphic novel Maus, worked on Wacky Packs as did famed Mad magazine contributors Stan Hart and Mort Drucker. The irreverent copy coupled with the broad, frenetic caricature of familiar brands made their work an instant hit with school kids around the country.
Gelman eventually left Topps to dedicate more time to his Nostalgia Press, which reprinted classic comics such as Winsor McCay’s Little Nemo in Slumberland. He was only 63 years old when he died, but 18 years later his trading card series “Mars Attacks!” was made into a successful film by Tim Burton. In 2008, art publisher Abrams put out Wacky Packages, reprinting many of the series’ stickers. And Wacky Packs are still traded, only now the venue is a digital one: places like eBay and the Wacky Packages Mall, an auction site dedicated to Gelman’s creation.