At 44, illustrator David Gross still has the kind of job he’d have wanted when he was a teenager: He gets paid good money to goof on stuff.
Originally from Cherry Hill, the Collingswood-based illustrator was schooled at Rutgers University-New Brunswick. A gifted painter, Gross caught a few early assignments doing WCW wrestling stickers and Topps trading card artwork, but was soon frustrated at the lack of financial opportunity in the art world.
Soon, Gross was making more money in the real estate market and his eBay-based antique toy business than he was as an artist. In fact, he funded the purchase of his first rental property from his own set of old collectibles, and from there, leveraged one into another.
But Gross still kept his chops up and still kept in touch with the contacts he’d made from his initial forays into the world of professional illustration world. One day it paid off in a single phone call.
“I had always been a fan of the Wacky Packs stuff since I was a kid,” Gross said. “Jay Lynch, one of the big underground artists of the 1960s, who worked with Art Spiegelman and some of the other guys who started Wacky Packs, told me that they were starting Wacky Packages again at Topps. I sent some stuff in and got a call back that day.”
From there, Gross was back in the game. He parlayed the Wacky Packages re-launch into work on re-vamped versions of the Garbage Pail Kids and Hollywood Zombies trading card series, and soon he lost the time to take on anything else.
“I’ve been working nonstop on this since 2005,” Gross said. “Literally when one of these projects ends, I get another several to do. I never have time. I don’t know what I would do.”
Part of the challenge of working in parody is aping your source material effectively. For Gross, the degree of difficulty is heightened because he’s also got to hew closely to the artistic style of his predecessors. He is influenced strongly by pulp artist Norman Saunders, one of the original Wacky Packages artists who is also known for his work on the Mars Attacks trading card series.
“Norm Saunders is my hero; in just a few brushstrokes he captures everything,” Gross says. “I still have my own style in it, but I like following his lead and stuff. On the writing site, my good friend Jay Lynch [taught me] you have to get the name instantly recognizable, you get a few jokes, and then you get the visual gag.”
Gross calls Wacky Packages “a classic product” that has its place in the countercultural movement begun at Mad magazine. The gag was conceived as an antidote to the polish of commercial advertising. Corporations who either didn’t get the jokes or didn’t find them funny launched an armada of cease-and-desist letters.
“It was better for them because kids were eating this stuff up,” Gross said. “It didn’t affect their ability to buy Wonder Bread.”
In today’s mash-up culture, he says, sabotaging that kind of brand awareness is unthinkable.
“Nowadays nobody gives us a C&D,” Gross said. “They don’t care if it’s funny or serious or whatever. We’re basically doing them a service.”
Another thing that’s changed since the launch of the original Wacky Packages, Gross says, is the climate of consumption surrounding anything that’s collectible.
When trading cards rose to popularity in the 1970s, they were bought almost exclusively by children who had little money and lots of time. Hard-to-find cards or stickers were the result of printing errors (or cease-and-desist orders). The time took kids to collect a full set would tide them over until the next one was released.
Today, Gross says, almost none of these things is still true.
“Nowadays kids have so much money, they buy a whole bunch, put together a whole set, put it on the shelf, and ask ‘When’s the next set coming out?’” he says. “I think a lot of the fun of collecting is gone now.”
A lot of the traditional opportunities children had to buy Wacky Packages are disappearing, too. Convenience stores that used to stock them near the check-out aisles have replaced them with “peppermint patties and the quick impulse buys,” Gross said.
To encourage collectors, trading card companies like Topps, Donruss, and Fleer started randomly inserting rare foil-lined or holographic “chase” cards into the packs—a move that led to stranger behavior among collectors.
“There’s eBay people who go into the stores and they use magnets and micrometers to find out which pack has a little bit of extra thickness," Gross said. "They raid the packs; Topps has ways to constantly combat that."
Yet if the companies didn’t include those chase cards, Gross knows they wouldn't be able to sell nearly as many.
“Because of the easy access to pop culture and being able to enjoy yourself in your own home kids don’t collect the stuff anymore like they used to," he said. "Now it’s about chasing something."
As for Gross, he’s chasing plenty of things: his kids (Ike, 9, and Elke, 3), the next gag (“I walk around Wegmans and Target and just look at stuff”), and maybe even a chance to branch out a little—maybe.
“I haven’t been able to do any of my own work, and I’m okay with that right now,” Gross said. “I enjoy this. It’s really creative. It’s fun to bust on this stuff all day. My kids love it; their friends love it.”