Brain Pickings

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

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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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Marshall McLuhan on New Forms and Old Assumptions (1960)

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What the golden age of television has to do with human nature and today’s Internet intellectuals.

It seems fitting that we conclude the year that marked the 100th anniversary of the birth of iconic media theorist Marshall McLuhan with one of his timeless and remarkably timely observations, which in just 30 seconds manages to capture in 1960 a folly of human nature that rings all the more true in 2011 as we trek forward into this constantly evolving media landscape.

When any new form comes into the foreground of things, we naturally look at it through the old stereos. We can’t help that. This is normal, and we’re still trying to see how will our previous forms of political and educational patterns persist under television. We’re just trying to fit the old things into the new form, instead of asking what is the new form going to do to all the assumptions we had before.”

The segment comes from the tribute site Marshall McLuhan Speaks, originally featured here in July. (Though, it warrants noting, the lack of embedding capability for their footage is particularly ironic in light of McLuhan’s words above.) It is also adapted in Understanding Me: Lectures and Interviews, edited by McLuhan’s daughter and with a foreword by Tom Wolfe offering a 21st-century perspective on McLuhan’s life and work. (To be supplemented with Douglas Coupland’s fantastic Marshall McLuhan: You Know Nothing of My Work!.)

What McLuhan gets at, of course, could also be said not only of media but also of media theory itself, especially today. As Internet scholar Evgeny Morozov writes in The New Republic:

Our Internet intellectuals lack the intellectual ambition, and the basic erudition, to connect their thinking with earlier traditions of social and technological criticism. They desperately need to believe that their every thought is unprecedented. Sometimes it seems as if intellectual life doesn’t really thrill them at all. They never stoop to the lowly task of producing expansive and expository essays, where they could develop their ideas at length, by means of argument and learning, and fully engage with their critics. Instead they blog, and tweet, and consult, and give conference talks—modes of discourse that are mostly impervious to serious critique.”

(Thanks, Kristen.)

So, where does this leave us as we round out McLuhan’s centennial? With more questions than answers, no doubt, but the questions about the future of information abundance, the future of journalism, and the future of the Internet might be a good place to start.

Thanks, Bob

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PBS Off Book: The Magic of Book Art and Papercraft in 5 Minutes

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The architecture of whimsy, or what the progression of time has to do with embracing the possible.

After their fantastic micro-documentaries on typography and generative art, the fine folks at PBS Off Book turn their lens to book art and papercraft — something I’m quite fond of myself. The film features artists Carole Kunstadt, Matthew Reinhart (of Star Wars: A Pop-Up Guide to the Galaxy fame), and Andrea Dezso (whose forthcoming Lies, Knives, and Girls in Red Dresses is looking wicked delicious.)

Books in general are really good at showing time and progression, a ton of books are very good at showing something happening right here, right now. They are depicting these worlds that are almost like a dream, and everything seems very real and very possible… I like to create scenes that want to be explained, because I think about them almost as these springboards for the imagination — you long to go there, you long to be there.” ~ Andrea Dezso

For more book art and papercraft magic, see Spike Jonze’s terrific recent stop-motion love story for book lovers, David Carter’s whimsical pop-up books, the beautiful trailer for Going West, and Gestalten’s excellent fond of Papercraft 2 compendium.

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