Friday, February 3, 2012

Book Review: Mail-Order Mysteries: Real Stuff From Old Comic Book Ads!

Books! You've heard of them, right? They're those funny paper things that they sometimes make movies out of. Well, I did an order of them recently and there's one in particular that I am jonesing to share with you. I'm talking about Mail-Order Mysteries by the mighty Kirk Demarais! A hard-hitting expose that takes vintage comic book mail-order ads and shows you the real products that were actually received!

It's a brilliant premise - I've always been fascinated by these old ads, and have endured many sleepless nights pondering just how you can buy a full-size, working, nuclear submarine for a $1.95. Well, Kirk knows exactly how, and lucky for us he's willing to share!

Join me after the jump for a whole lot more!

Firstly, it's a sizeable hardcover book with plenty of content, and it's beautifully presented. If you're a fan of vintage four-colour style and yellowed pages, then the design alone should punch you in the nostalgia button. There are ads from the seventies that I certainly remember, and a couple of images reminded me that I had purchased the actual products! Never via mail-order but there were magic and gag shops that sold some of this crap, and I absolutely remember distinctively packaged "vampire blood" and practical joke tablets which - when added to water - turned into "worms". 

(Which, by the way, is an incredibly clumsy trick. If you do it before handing over the water then you're basically handing over a cloudy glass of wispy brown fish-shit-looking worms. So if you want them to "magically appear" you have to add them while your victim is holding the glass. I remember the awkwardness, as a young prankster, of first having to convince my grandmother to switch a glass of cask riesling for a glass of water, and then trying to convince her that I had to add suspicious brown tablets "for flavour").

Each page of the book reprints an original ad and then provides photographic evidence of what the real thing was like. This all runs alongside Demarais' commentary, appraisal, and snarky comments. You can pick it up and start reading anywhere, but I was compelled enough to read from start to finish. Here's an example showing off the secret behind the $2.98 jet "rocket" space ship which has always confuzzled me:

Despite being a huge, flimsy, cardboard piece of crap, the jet rocket pictured here is actually one of the better ones! The general theme throughout the book is that kid's were frequently conned by shameless old-timey hucksters who promised great treasures and delivered cheap shit. Except it really wasn't especially that cheap! You've got to remember that these are prices from the sixties and seventies so you can probably multiply them by many, many times. $2.98 was a fair bit of cash for a stupid jobless kid. And one of the most expensive items in the book is a small plastic coffin pendant filled with Castle Dracula soil that cost an enormous $17.95! You could buy a small car for that!

It's shameless how shifty some of these products were. Did you ever wonder how they were able to offer giant dinosaurs or 7 foot ghosts?

Balloons! And "remote-control" often meant a length of string.

But it's not all bad. There are some genuinely cool vintage items scattered throughout the book, as well as some stunning artwork. Like these grisly rubber Halloween masks:

My only criticism of the book is that sometimes the balance seems a little out-of-whack. For example there's multiple pages devoted to ads which promised self-defence training and the results are all pretty much the same - they sent you a brochure! With so much out there, I was eager to move along through these parts and get to the far weirder items. The cover of a brochure has a fraction of the impact of a cardboard rocket ship. Once I understood the scam, I was eager to move on.

Conversely, a section towards the end focused on magic tricks and gimmicks often shows a collage of ads accompanied by a single photo of multiple items and a broad explanation. Kirk never goes into detail about what these items actually did or how they worked, which is a missed opportunity if our interest is piqued. I'll forgive him though because I know how crazy and strict communities of magicians are and they probably threatened to turn his hands into frogs if he revealed any of them.

I don't know how often you'll go back to the book, but I enjoy it even for the ads themselves. It's a fantastic reference manual if you're interested in this sort of thing, and I most definitely am. I also just accidentally discovered that there's a hidden glow-in-the-dark skull on the back cover. That gets my vote! This book gets my recommendation as a well-priced, well-presented archive of forgotten comic book curiosities. It kind of makes me want to buy a volume of old, goofy Marvel in-house ads as well. I will pay money to buy your advertising. You won't get a better deal than that!

Thanks, Kirk! This was a good one!

And if you, Dear Reader, are interested in seeing how deep my love for this stuff goes (pretty deep, folks!) then check out this comic book ad homages that have appeared on the back of one of the comics I write and draw - Bunnies That Hate! 

Click on them to make them readable! (But don't try to order the back-issues because I don't have any of them!):

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