Brain Pickings

Mail-Order Mysteries: Real-World Stuff from Vintage Comic Book Ads


What hypno-specs and atomic pistols have to do with the duality of the human condition.

We’ve already learned that comic books can be a remarkable medium for nonfiction, but it turns out they can also be a vehicle for the most fantastically fraudulent fringes of fiction. Pop-culture historian Kirk Demarais set out to explore the artifice of childhood by ordering the curious, outlandish, improbable products marketed to kids in the ads on the back of comic books from the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. He shares his findings — funny, bizarre, a little bit heartbreaking — in Mail-Order Mysteries: Real Stuff from Old Comic Book Ads!, a compendium of over 150 such peculiar collectibles, each dissected through the entertaining lens of what was promised and imagined versus what was actually received.

To [young] me the ads’ seductive nature was the result of a powerful combination of factors. Most obviously, the products were otherworldly: 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.” ~ Kirk Demarais

While infinitely amusing, Mail-Order Mysteries also pokes at the architecture of our deepest-running wiring to fall for fads, to seek shortcuts, to suspend our disbelief in the hope of becoming a better version of ourselves with minimal effort. Equal parts optimistic and tragically flawed, these parallel capacities for wonder and for guile capture one of the most tender dualities of the human condition.

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