Halftone Wonders

My favorite part of comics were the stories. Second favorite part? The advertisements.
July 07, 2011
I got my first comic book by chance. One Saturday afternoon, my father was going to visit someone and he took me along. At some point during the visit, I had to go to the bathroom. On top of the toilet tank was an issue of Batman. I seized upon it, without knowing why, and started reading. The host said I could have it. Thus began a little love affair that persists to this day.

My first comic book was this surrealist little piece of drama. I still have it!

But there was a companion love affair that did not begin until later, that with commercial art. At first, I must have despised it! I found it fortunate that in this particular comic book, all of the pages with ads, had ads on both sides. In fact, when I poked my finger between the pages at the binding, I found that continued all the way through. I could rip out every single ad besides the covers, of course without losing any of the story...so I did it!

Shortly, I began buying comic books on my own. I never saw another one with the ads arranged in that way. It didn't bother me too much; I just flipped right past them. But slowly, I discovered that the ads were actually interesting. You see, on the allowance I got, I wasn't exactly buying out the funnybook shop. So I read the hell out of every comic I got. The next one I can actually recall getting was Spider-Man 350. I still have that, too. I remember re-reading it in my room, on the school bus, in the car on the way to the beach. I must have read that comic book dozens of times. (Somehow it's still in almost perfect condition.) After a while, I began paying attention to who the artists and writers were. Reading the indicia. Scrutinizing the ink work. Reading the letters pages over again. And, finally, I deigned to pay attention to the ads. A lot of them were for other comics and merchandise, anyway.

Friends Of Old Marvel

There were also toys, video games, junk food, and all the things that made being a kid totally awesome. Looking beyond the products into the craft of the ads themselves, I saw some really beautiful works. Wild promises, impossibilities, cheap plastic junk; yes. But also entertaining, especially after reading that particular defeat of Red Skull for the umpteenth time. The hand drawn pictures, the verbose, lead-you-on text, and the tactility resulting from cheap paper and ink are magic in my mind.

Grit was a mainstay for many years, as was Olympic Sales Club.

Remember How Many Times You Felt LEFT OUT
Because You Were BROKE!

Did anybody really participate in this? Did anyone get prizes?

I rarely bought anything out of these ads. I was no salesman, so Grit didn't seem like a good prospect. While I had a couple of bags of toy soldiers from the town toy shop, I lacked interest in complex dioramas that would make need a complete kit.

No blue soldiers were allowed to fight in the toy chest campaign of 1906

And somehow, I never really believed that sea monkeys were "always clowning around" or could be trained to any degree.

Witness the magical world of humanoid brine shrimp bourgeoisie

But I did mail order...novelties! Gum that snaps your finger, a camera that squirts water, things of that nature. The ad had sixteen tiny pictures, hand-drawn with a thick pen, offering each item for 88 cents apiece. The package arrived in the mail 6-8 weeks later and included my rather less-than-convincing gags, and a full catalog of the company's product line a 2 by 6 inch yellow newsprint booklet of perhaps a dozen pages. You bet I ordered more.
For a mere 88¢ plus shipping you can take over the world! Or at least the schoolyard...

The novelty companies placed so many ads that they had to constantly tweak them. Look at two ads from the same company in the same time period and you will see many products repeated but rearranged. And each ad would direct you to order from a different department, so they could track which ads generated the most sales.

Detail from two different Fun Factory ads. Department D-1007, or department G-1004? Get it right!

Fun Factory, American Circle, Johnson Smith, Gandalf Products, and Honor House were some of the frequent novelty advertisers.

Detail from a Fun Factory ad

Detail from a Johnson Smith ad

They had all kinds of gags. And they were so entertaining to read! I would just imagine all the trouble I could get into and all the neat stuff I could do. Exploding gum, joy buzzers, fake puke, snakes-in-a-can, assorted noisemakers, hypnocoins, too many cool gags to count. The one that sticks out most in my mind is x-ray glasses, aka x-ray specs/vision/gogs.

AN HILARIOUS OPTICAL ILLUSION Scientific optical principal really works.

Two, count 'em, TWO, authentic colors such as green and black*
*Authenticity Of Colors Not Guaranteed. Void Where Prohibited.

I also ordered the Mile High Comics catalog and ordered many, many books from them. The catalog was absolutely engrossing and I spent hours with my nose in it. A hundred pages of tiny, tiny print, listing titles, numbers, condition, and prices, with a 1-inch picture every third or fourth page. It is unfortunately no longer produced, but the company is still in business in the great state of Colorado. I have placed orders through their website, but it's not nearly as much fun as the catalog was.

Detail from a Mile High ad

Jack Davis, most famous as a longtime artist at Mad Magazine, took advertising jobs on the side.

What a world of wonder was contained in those pages. And so I raise my glass to the smudgy ink, the cheap paper, and especially to the copy writers and the artists occasionally including big names, like Joe Kubert and Jack Davis who sought to grab my attention away from Spider-Man, if for only a moment. Thanks for joining me!
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