When I was 7 years old, I’d spend the weekend with Mema in rural New York. On Sundays we’d get up around dawn and head to the Maybrook Flea Market, park in her regular stall, and unload her station wagon, pulling out long tables and boxes packed with antiques and knickknacks tucked into newspaper, unwrapping each one like a present–a wooden cuckoo clock; a sawdust-filled babydoll with a cracked, handpainted face; a pocketwatch bought cheap at a garage sale the day before; a nest of pink plates–Depression glass was her specialty. Sometimes my step-grandfather would join us and sell his old tools. He loved flea markets too but he was a drinker and not always good about getting up early.
Once everything was set up I’d start roaming around. First to the snack bar for hot cocoa or popcorn. (The place was a drive-in movie theater at night.) I’d take the route past the candy people’s table, see them unloading box after box (they were always slower setting up) and continue snaking around their row until they finally put out that week’s display of Wacky Packages.
They were sold as trading cards, each containing a puzzle, a stiff slice of gum, and two different stickers: parodies of familiar household products. To my kid mind they were witty and wonderful.
My dad had been a Madison Avenue ad man. Mom told me he was responsible for putting “Indescribably Delicious” on the Almond Joy candy bar. My preschool friend starred in commercials for Colgate toothpaste and Breck shampoo. I was more than a little obsessed with branding. When Dad would visit I’d observe the products he used–Parliament cigarettes, Dymo label makers, Hertz rental cars–because they were clues into who he was and what he did.
Looking back, I think what made Wacky Packs so consequential to me was their peculiar intimacy with my lifeworld and their gift of parody as a new way to process it. They popped my mind open to an irreverent alternative reality for which I’d been primed by television (Monty Python, Laugh-In) but could now hold in my hand. Awful Bits Cereal, Blecch Shampoo, and Hostage Cupcake stickers were subversive little artworks like I could make myself–the illustrations, the writing, the humor were all accessible to me. I thought I understood all the jokes and I knew all the products. The appeal was wickedly right. Dad was a copywriter; I could be a copywronger. Making spoof ads made me feel powerful. Professional.
As I skim the stickers from my era, the early 1970s, I’m struck by the messaging, thinking about how I might have interpreted it then. The jokes about gender and politics delivered in that way of grown-ups amusing themselves through cartoon narratives. (Turns out, the grown-up behind the jokes was Art Spiegelman, author of the graphic novel Maus.)
I don’t remember this feminist spaghetti-o sticker, but I would have liked it. I would have translated it as acknowledging rather than mocking “women’s lib.”
I might have stuck it on my lunchbox, feeling clever and righteous.
I find myself searching through this Wacky Packs archive from my sofa in Oakland, recovering from a fever, listening to the schoolkids playing nearby, wondering what stickers they’ve got on their lunchbags. What makes them feel clever and righteous.
I’ve spent most of my career helping people in and out of school make media their own by making their own media. During my early years teaching college writing I routinely assigned parodies as a way to give students the opportunity to author the kinds of texts that influenced their lives, such as websites for corporations and universities. After a decade or so I pivoted and assigned more earnest multimedia projects, digital stories developed through a process of collaborative inquiry and reflection. The digital storytelling work shared the same basic goal: authorship as critically reflective empowerment done in a makerspace scenario that would bring people together creatively, hashing over ideas that were larger than the homework at hand.
Nowadays I teach writing to both kids and adults, working in a community literacy center, a writing center, college classrooms. And I find myself wondering whether I ought to be spending more time with parody, or less. Is parody what we need now more than ever before? Or is it just another way to amuse ourselves to death?
This is a serious question.
30% of Oakland school kids live in poverty; 1 in 8 is the child of an undocumented immigrant. What sticker might help them feel smart and savvy and hopeful and empowered? What writing projects are the best interventions?
The Topps company now makes custom Wacky Packages, including at least one series parodying the Trump presidency.
The mass appeal of absurdity is what made Trump’s election possible. Our gleeful consumption of parody is one of the luxuries of our democracy, after all.
Nixon was still president during my Wacky Pack era. Did grown-ups then feel as I do now, brittle and weary from joke after joke?
As a GenXer and educator I know I’m the target demographic of this sticker. But I just can’t bring myself to buy it.