Every once in a while, I think about the comic books I read when I was a child. Ones like Archie, Betty and Veronica, Tales from the Crypt, Batman, and Superman. But it isn’t the stories themselves that demand my attention. It’s the truly terrible, wonderful, ghastly, garish, and fascinating advertisements that populated the pages between the stories.
Ads for dribble glasses (a splashy surprise for your friends), x-ray specs (a hilarious optical illusion), disappearing ink (giant tube), high power binoculars (see up to 18 miles), a Polaris nuclear submarine (over 7 feet), and amazing talking teeth (They walk! They talk! They’re alive!).
And, of course, most dramatic of all were ads for the Charles Atlas Fitness Program – “Hey Skinny! ... Yer Ribs Are Showing!” – that promised to make a new man of any 97-pound weakling if he would just gamble on a stamp to order the muscle man’s free book.
There is a wonderful scene in William Saroyan’s novel The Human Comedy where 12-year-old Aram Garoghlanian, responding to Mr. Strongforth (wearing only a leopard skin loincloth in his advertisements) promises to change Aram overnight “from a nobody to a giant of tremendous strength and extreme attractiveness to women” and to teach him everything “in one fell swoop!”
Like thousands of credulous boys who dreamed of having super powers like their comic book heroes, Aram borrows money and sends in his order. In return, he receives a small envelope full of Mr. Strongforth’s secrets. “They were strangely simple. It was all stuff I had known anyhow but had been too lazy to pay any attention to. The idea was to get up early in the morning and for an hour or so to do various kinds of acrobatic exercises, which were illustrated. Also to drink plenty of water, get plenty of fresh air, eat good wholesome food, and keep it up until you were a giant.”
Mr. Strongforth? Charles Atlas?
Were they the same?
In researching this column, I happened upon a wonderful article in collectionsweekly.com by Lisa Hix. It is about Kirk Demarais, the artist / historian who runs (or ran ... I’m not sure of its status) the brilliant Gen X Nostalgia Site: Secret fun Blog.
The Hix article includes an interview with this amazing man, who fell in love with comic book ads during his Midwest childhood. As Demarais was growing up, he managed to turn his obsession into a profession by creating the 2004 film “Flip, about a boy who dreams of the wonderful life such $1 products could bring him.”
Kirk Demarais has also written two books about his beloved ads: Life of the Party: A Visual History of the S. S. Adams Company, Makers of Pranks & Magic for 100 years (2006), and Mail-Order Mysteries: Real Stuff from Old Comic Book Ads (2011).
In the Hix interview, Demarais, who, over the years, has made a point of purchasing as many items as he could find from these old advertisements, answers questions about which were worth the $1 or $1.99 that the distributor was charging, and which were not. Explaining the appeal of such products, Demarais says, “They weren’t just toys. Things like X-Ray Spex and the Charles Atlas Fitness Program could improve your life.”
Some of the ones he described favorably included ...
SNAKE NUT CAN: “The can is solidly constructed ... the snake, a spring covered with a fabric sheath, pops out really well. I had loads of fun with it.”
SPOOKY BANK: “...is shaped like a coffin. You wind the bank up, and a skeleton pops up and grabs your coin.”
SWITCHBLAD COMB: “It looks like a switchblade, but instead of a blade, it had a comb on it ... so fun and satisfying when you pop it out.”
AIR CAR: “The air car hovercraft will hover on water, which still blows me away.”
SECRET AGENT SPY CAMERA: “...actually it takes photos ... and they do have a very grainy, spooky look.”
SPY PEN RADIO: “...is cool because it doesn’t take any batteries ... it looks like a pen with wires hanging out of it, but it has a working crystal radio inside it.”
And, of course, THE CHARLES ATLAS FITNESS PLAN: “...by far, the most popular mail-order fitness course ... as far as effectiveness, yes, there are many, many satisfied customers who claim that the Charles Atlas course, if you have the wherewithal and the discipline to do it, will work.”
Other products, perhaps less satisfactory to a little kid eagerly anticipating their arrival included...
POLARIS NUCLEAR SUB: “A glorified cardboard box that could be destroyed by anything remotely wet, even dewy grass.”
SEA-MONKEYS. OWN A BOWLFUL OF HAPPINESS. INSTANT PETS: “They don’t have human faces, they don’t look like naked people, and they’re not grouped in nuclear families. The ad definitely took massive liberties.”
THROW YOUR VOICE: “Two pieces of metal wrapped in ribbon ... is more a choking hazard than anything else.”
U-CONTROL 7-FOOT GHOST: “Well, it’s a balloon and a trash bag, basically, and some string. That would be the ultimate disappointment ... it’s supposed to be this terrifying thing, and it’s literally the friendliest ghost there is.”
Interestingly, in the comments section below the Lisa Hix article, most respondents had happy memories of the mysterious ... alluring ... junky ... wonderful ... and terrible items they had purchased with their precious pennies decades before.
“I actually had the Coffin Bank and it provided hours of fun.”
“I was sad to see Charles Atlas’s course listed between all the other garbage-like products. That one was really splendid.”
“I had the Spy Pen when I was in grammar school in the mid-1960s, and it was great.”
“I never felt ‘ripped off!’ I thought the stuff that you guys sold was cool.”
“I spent my hard-earned savings on a Monster Ghost as a kid, and I learned this valuable lesson: If I am ever considering buying something that comes with a ‘remote control,’ always confirm that it’s not just a long piece of string.”
And my favorite: “It makes me awfully sad to see all these things dismissed, both in the article and the comments, as rip-offs and trash. Absolutely, some of them could have caused real disappointments, but many of them were great fun ... The submarine, for instance ... that thing is remarkable! No, it’s not waterproof, but it’s hugely detailed, immersive, and packed with play options. Even the x-ray specs are fun, and was anyone really expecting Sea Monkeys to have human faces?”
As an adult, I cannot think of any contemporary product promotions as compelling, enchanting, or deliciously ridiculous as those poorly executed (the artwork was often terrible) comic-book ads.
Perhaps they were special because childhood is a land where imagination imbues ordinary objects with an aura of magic. More likely, the world was just plain more fun before truth-in-advertising compelled us to admit that Amazing Sea-Monkeys do not really have human faces but are plain old ordinary brine shrimp ... thereby robbing us of our fantasies and ruining everything.
More’s the pity.
Copyright © Shelly Reuben, 2023. Shelly Reuben’s books have been nominated for Edgar, Prometheus, and Falcon awards. For more about her writing, visit www.shellyreuben.com