Saturday, November 26, 2011



by Kirk Demaris
(2011 Insight Editions/USA/156 Pages)


Growing-up as a kid obsessed with American comic books, I was always fascinated by the advertisements for strange and cool gizmos, gadgets, toys and other goodies that would fill the pages of every new Marvel and DC title I would pour through. From x-ray vision glasses and miniature spy cameras to hypno-calls and 100 piece toy soldier sets, it seemed as if there was a lifetime of fun and adventure to be had, and all for usually less than a couple of bucks a pop.

Of course, living in Australia, these products always seemed so exotic and agonizingly out of my reach. There were never any ordering instructions for people who lived outside the US, and even if there were, the coupons were so tiny I don’t know how anyone could have fit their whole address on it. Eventually, as I reached my mid-teens and started an after-school supermarket job, I did start sending away some of my hard-earned cash to Captain Company, the mail-order department of Warren Publications in New York, who sold a plethora of great monster related merchandise through the pages of their classic Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine. But over the years I would still look back over some of the ads from my collection of old comic books, and wonder just exactly what kids received when they bought these items.

Now, I need wonder no more, thanks to Kirk Demaris' marvellous new book Mail Order Mysteries: Real Stuff from Old Comic Book Ads!, which blows the lid on the reality behind more than 150 of these far too good to be true items. Divided into eight categories (Superpowers and Special Abilities, War Zone, House of Horrors, High Finance, Better Living Through Mail Order, Top Secret, Trickery and Oddities), each item covered includes the original advertisement accompanied by at least one photo of the actual item being hawked. Text is kept to a minimum, with each item receiving a brief ‘What they promised’ and ‘What they sent’ blurb, as well as a brief, satirical summation of imagined customer satisfaction (or, usually, dissatisfaction).

Needless to say, the majority of these items could not live up to their promise. The classic x-ray vision spex were nothing more than cheap plastic (later, cardboard) glasses with bird feathers pressed between the lenses (which created a ghostly outline around objects when held up to bright light). The seven foot long Polaris Nuclear Submarine was a couple of painted cardboard boxes that usually fell to bits as soon as it touched some dewy grass, while anything that was advertised with a ‘You control it!’ blurb usually meant that the item came with a long piece of string for you to pull it along with. Sometimes, however, the companies did deliver on their promise. The famous miniature spy camera did indeed work (although finding replacement film was apparently a pain the ass), while anyone who ordered the six foot tall ‘Monster Size Monsters’ received a beautifully rendered colour portrait of either Dracula or the Frankenstein monster.

In many ways, these products were no different to the exploitation and drive-in films being produced at the time, where the advertising and ballyhoo was always much more important than the actual product delivered. In the words of pioneering sexploitation film producer David F. Friedman: “Sell the sizzle, not the steak.”

Mail Order Mysteries is a wonderful trip down memory lane, and rather than spoiling some of the magical memories of my childhood, it has only made me appreciate these items all the more. In fact, I’m off to trawl eBay for some of them right now...

Review Copyright John Harrison 2011