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