10 Questions With…Topps Licensing Vice President Ira Friedman

Ira Friedman is the current Vice President, Global Licensing at Topps. Ira has been at Topps for an incredible 31 years! He has been involved in and overseen everything from product development, to publishing, and licensing. For the last 10 years Ira has been in charge of licensing all brands at Topps, including Garbage Pail Kids. More than ever, the GPK brand is showing up on a wide variety of merchandise items, even mobile games, and online videos. Ira was nice enough to do an e-mail interview with GPKNews. In the interview we talk about Ira’s history at Topps, licensing the GPK brand, and a little bit about next year’s 35th anniversary of the Garbage Pail Kids.

GPKNews – Thanks for the interview Ira! You are the VP of licensing at Topps currently. I read in an interview you first started working for Topps back in 1988. How did you get your start with Topps? What were some of your first projects you worked on?

Ira Friedman – My initial, (professional), contact with Topps was in 1980 when I worked at Lucasfilm. Topps was one of the original Star Wars licensees, (still is), and I interfaced with Sy Berger back then. Sy was a pioneering legend at Topps for many decades; he headed up all licensing (sports and entertainment), was the ‘face’ of Topps to the outside community and is considered by many to be the creator of the modern-era baseball card.

GPKNews – When you started at Topps it was the tail end of the original GPK craze. How familiar were you with Garbage Pail Kids prior to working at Topps? Did you own any of the cards?

IF – I was quiet familiar with GPK prior to coming aboard at Topps. Once I decided to move back to New York, (after my stint at Lucasfilm), I pitched a few publishing ideas to Topps. Sy arranged for me to meet with Arthur Shorin, the CEO at the time, whose family founded Topps in 1938. As a result of this relationship, I acquired the rights and published an official movie souvenir magazine based on the Garbage Pail Kids movie. This was through my own publishing company, Ira Friedman, Inc. As most know, the movie was not exactly a blockbuster success and, unfortunately, my magazine followed in similar fashion. Amusingly enough, I’ve heard from numerous fans over the years who consider the movie to be cult classic. I guess that’s another way of saying, ‘it’s so bad…it’s good!’

GPKNews – Licensing the GPK brand seemed to begin to pick up some steam a couple of years ago. Now 2019 has seen many new licensed products with more to come in 2020. What was the impetus to focus on licensing of the GPK brand again?

IF – Our licensing program has indeed been picking up considerable steam over the past couple of years. The popular trend toward vintage/retro brands from the 80’s and 90’s has helped paved the way, while gross-inspired properties never seem to go away. Cutting-edge companies such as Santa Cruz skateboards and Funko helped us kick off the program initially and generate a lot of buzz with old-time fans, and also helped to expand the audience to many newcomers as well.

2020, coinciding with GPK’s 35thanniversary, is going to be filled with lots of new product opportunities for fans to engage. If I have anything to do with it, (and I do), GPK in 2020 will be more visible – in far more fun ways — than it’s been in decades. One component of the 2020 anniversary celebration that I’m especially excited about is that we’ll be producing a series of stop-motion video shorts ‘starring’ the GPK’s that have appeared as Funko ‘Mystery Mini’s.’ We’ve created two so far, “Comic-Conflict” and “Movie Mayhem” and have a third coming in the works for the holiday season called “Holiday Hijinks.” Our goal for next year is ambitious; release one new short on our YouTube channel every month or so. Response from fans so far has been very positive and we’re pumped to keep ‘em coming.

GPKNews – When it comes to licensing the GPK brand, do companies approach Topps with ideas for merchandise, or does Topps reach out to companies to gauge their interest?

IF – There is no hard-fast rule; companies approach us and we approach companies whose work we admire and where we think there’s a good fit. The common denominator is partnering up with folks who know and love the brand; the passion factor is critically important. We want to see merch that our fans will find: fresh, innovative, different, of high quality, and in keeping with the quirky, funny, gross and irreverent quality of GPK.

GPKNews – The original artwork is important to collectors. How important is it to Topps to stay true to the classic characters and artwork when working with the licensees? How involved in Topps with the design and/or approval of the licensed items?

IF – On one hand, it’s important to maintain the original vision and aesthetic of the initial GPK painters including John Pound and Tom Bunk. Their incredible artwork, was directly impacted by the team of the gag writers/conceptual artists, including Art Spiegelman and Mark Newgarden, creative director Len Brown, among others. Their collaborative efforts set the stage for a multi-generational phenomenon that is alive and well to this day. On the other hand, we cannot ignore the changing world around us and the diverse art styles that are relevant to today’s consumers. So, while we certainly cannot, (and will not), ignore the past, we keep an open mind regarding the use of other mediums, styles, techniques and approaches. I welcome fresh, new ways to convey the uniqueness, fun and outrageousness of GPK. Fans will see some of what I’m referring to in a number of new products coming to market next year.

GPKNews – The original Garbage Pail Kids movie has gone down in history as one of the worst critically reviewed movies of all time. A couple of years ago there were rumors making the rounds about a possible animated feature length film featuring GPKs. It looks like that project never made it off the ground. Is there any more thought about a project to get GPKs on the big screen?

IF – As acknowledged earlier, the Garbage Pail Kids movie was not one of the property’s proudest moments. Nor was the ill-fated CBS cartoon series from back in the day. The good news is, these projects set such a low standard that we can only improve from these prior results! On a more serious note, the reality is that Topps had little to no creative input or control over these ventures.

Nowadays, with Michael D. Eisner, the former head of Disney, as Topps’ majority shareholder, there is zero chance of repeating those earlier missteps. If we were to again have the opportunity to see GPK on the silver screen or TV, I’m supremely confident that the end result will be one that fans of all ages will appreciate and enjoy. Personally, my preference would be to see ongoing GPK TV episodes (vs. a film in theaters), but only time will tell if, how, when and where the entertainment piece will go. In in meanwhile, we can only hope…

GPKNews – There has been a wide range of uses of the GPK license in 2019, from food items, to clothes, to tiki mugs. Do you have any personal favorite GPK merchandise that’s come out so far?

IF – Candidly, I really like all the merchandise that we’ve licensed during recent times. Yes, I’m partial to the tiki mugs, but also to many of the other items, such as the cereal boxes from FYE and so many more. Fortunately, most of our partners grew up with GPKs and are re-living fond childhood memories by working on GPK merchandise. It’s been great collaborating with many creative people at their respective companies, all of whom are passionate about what they do. These partners want to push the envelope and offer products that reflect their strong emotional connection to the brand.

GPKNews – I read an article recently that said there are big plans at Topps for next year’s 35th anniversary of the Garbage Pail Kids. I’m sure a lot of that includes licensed merchandise. Is there anything you can share with collectors on some of the things they can expect to see in 2020?

IF – There are a host of new items in development for 2020 and, while I’m not going to reveal these now, stay tuned for further announcements in the near future. I believe fans will be very pleased with what’s coming down the road. And, by the way, one cannot overlook the Topps trading card side of the equation. There’s a lot of momentum behind our GPK trading card business right now and next year’s 35thanniversary bodes very well for card collectors, new and existing. There will be more activity, more creativity and more cool things happening on the card side of our business versus what fans have seen in some time.

GPKNews – You’ve worked with some iconic franchises over the years. You worked for Lucas Films and the Star Wars brand. What are your thoughts about getting to work with the GPK brand and it’s almost 35 year history of grossing people out?

IF – I really don’t dwell on the ‘grossing people out’ aspect as much as I think about being given the opportunity to make an impression on many people from around the world and entertaining fans with something funny and clever that they enjoy and can relate to on some level. Whether it be the name of the character, the gag itself, the depiction of the concept by any one of a number of incredibly talented artists, there is a common bond here that we all feel about GPK. We’re obviously not saving the world here, but there’s something to be said for offering a little comic relief to people’s lives. It’s a powerful connection that have with our fans and we treat this with much thought and care. At the end of the day, seeing the smiles on kids, (and collectors’), faces keeps me and the entire Topps team motivated to carry on for years to come.

GPKNews – Thanks again for taking the time with us Ira. Finally, what is your favorite Garbage Pail Kid character?

IF – Like so many GPK fans, I have a preference for the many of the original GPK’s from the early series (#1-5). I would not want to name one classic character as a particular favorite as I love all my ‘children’ equally.

I can tell you that my favorite new GPK character is one that is called Incrudible Ira. Its creation was a surprise (and very special) gift for me in the form of a painting by GPK artist Joe Simko. In spite of the fact that the art makes me look chubbier and sillier than ever, it resonated for obvious reasons; so much so that I arranged for a small quantity to be produced and I use them as my business card. Fortunately, most find it to be appealing and very different… though some uninitiated to the world of GPK think it’s weird and strange. (They clearly just don’t get it.)