When I was probably 9 or 10 years old, I begged my dad to take me into the freak show tent at the county fair, intrigued by the big airbrushed banners of the Spider Lady and the Human Pretzel. Dad rolled his eyes and grinned, warned me that it was going to be a ripoff, and then in we went. Of course, he was right.
Kirk Demarais’ Mail Order Mysteries: Real Stuff from Old Comic Book Ads! takes you into the freak show tent lying behind those patchwork pages of small print and bizarro illustrations which offered the promise of everything from the World’s Deadliest Fighting Secrets to Snowstorm Tablets.
If you grew up reading comics from the late 1960s through the 1970s, it’s likely that Demarais’ introduction to the book will hit home:
X-ray vision, karate courses, a money-counterfeiting device – they almost seemed too good to be true. For the first time I wasn’t thinking in terms of playthings; these were life-enhancers that offered the means to satisfy a familiar range of wish-fulfillment, including power, glory, revenge and romance. … Much of it was designed to deceive, horrify, and even humiliate; the selection was exotic, like nothing I had access to at the local toy aisle. The mysterious listings, with their vague line art and impossible descriptions, were far more intriguing than the tell-all photos of the Sears Wishbook. … They left questions that I gleefully answered with fantasy and youthful optimism.
Mail-Order Mysteries is a gorgeous book, inside and out. The front and back covers not only capture the feel of older comic book newsprint and art, they’ve got Secret Glow-in-the-Dark Images! And Demarais’ photography and design make pretty much every one of the book’s 156 full-color pages an eye-catching bonanza. (No, really: even the Acknowledgments and Colophon pages are cool, since they’ve got Authentic Superman Costume and Star Trek Vulcan Ears accompanying the text.)
Demarais organizes the novelties into eight categories, dividing the book into chapters addressing the promise of “Superpowers and Special Abilities,” or paying a visit to a mail-away “House of Horrors.” Other chapters tackle spy-themed gadgetry, pranks, and flat-out oddities. For each item, the author provides an image of the ad which promoted it, along with an actual product photo. Brief descriptions detail how Demarais imagined the product as a kid, followed by the often sad-trombone reality of what was actually sent out.
One of the author’s favorite let-downs, which he mentioned in an interview with GeekDad, comes courtesy of the classic Monster Ghost ad – Obeys Your Commands! OVER 7 FEET TALL – promising a “chiller-thriller [which] acts as though alive.”
What did you get for your hard-earned dollar (plus 35 cents for postage and handling)? A trash bag, fishing line, and a balloon.
Not everything was a disappointment, though: The Spy “Pen” Radio turns out to have been a neat little device, and Demarais calls the 32-page How to Draw Monsters – artist Harry Borgman‘s first book – a real deal in a sea of shysters.
Demarais’ enthusiasm for these advertisements and their products comes through in every aspect of this book, and I loved the trips back in time it triggered when I read it. (I once owned a Secret Spy Scope and a switchblade comb, though neither came from a comic book order.) There’s a lot of fun in seeing these ads – particularly in the Appendix, which features a few full-page reproductions – preserved and independent of the comic stories they supported.
Unlike most of the items it showcases, Mail-Order Mysteries delivers the goods.
Disclosure: GeekDad received a review copy of this book.