Nothing’s like it used to be, but in some cases I still hope. I don’t even want to test my assumptions, for fear I’ll learn that another cherished experience has entered the past tense. Maybe I’m living in a fool’s paradise (paradise pyrite) but I’d rather preserve a hopeful illusion than confirm a cruel truth.
What I’m taking about is, do comic books still have those awesome advertisements anymore? I can’t even bring myself to check, for fear they don’t.
I was never a real collector of comic books, though I do have an issue or three secreted among my effects. But I did enjoy occasionally grabbing a random title at the little newsstand outside the back door of the bakery where we’d get Friday night desserts. I wasn’t particularly partial when it came to protagonists. My selection criteria were pretty subjective: Was the cover cool? Did it look exciting? Did it seem marginally thicker than the others? and, of equal or sometimes greater importance: how were the ads?
It was a time when a young boy had to go out in search of media targeted at himself. Messaging was limited to radio, broadcast television (like radio but with pictures, if you can imagine), newspapers, magazines, and skywriting. Special deals of interest to juvenile consumers just didn’t pop up on one’s telephone or arrive at one’s doorstep in mass-distributed glossy ads from big discount stores. That stuff just didn’t happen. And the things kids actually could do, were also restricted by our archaic circumstances. Without any screen-based diversions, we used meatspace mechanicals that relied on gravity, rubber bands, light bulbs, and suchlike crude boosts. We played games with dice and spinners and little physical tokens that we physically moved by hand, and we operated bicycles on public streets just for fun. We had no idea we were being deprived of electronic hand-held devices. We actually usually thought we were doing all right in the entertoynment category.
If ever I decided I needed a goose in the ol’ novelty drawer, though, I always knew where to find one: the last couple pages of any comic book worthy of the name (with the exception of Mad mag, which was always sui generis). Those last few tightly-typeset, poorly registered sheets were crammed to their tiny margins with three columns of smeary ads for the weirdest crap imaginable. This is where they sold the ‘x-ray spex’ (“illusion game”), the hovercraft (“plans only”), the human skeleton (“wall art”), and the actual human skeleton (“plastic replica”). You could get ten decks of cards or 500 decals. You could get anything you wanted if you were an 8-year-old boy in the late ’70s.
None of this stuff was much good, but all of it was exceptionally excellent. It was audacious, hilarious, edgy, and it was meant for kids instead of grown-ups. Grown-ups got everything and still seemed dissatisfied. This crap, though – it was kids’ crap. It was ours. That in itself made it something special.
I actually got the skeleton poster. It was six feet tall, which to my 3rd grade self was utterly freakish. It was printed on an 18-inch strip of flimsy black plastic tarp with white skeleton bones facing forward down the center. There was no shading and very little detail; it was crude and inaccurate. The skull was almost smirking. I loved it. I carefully painted the hollows of his eye sockets with glow-inn-the-dark part, and shone a flashlight on them before retiring at night so those glowing ghostly orbs could watch over me as I slumbered. I didn’t spend much on it, and it probably wasn’t worth even that. But to me, it was beyond value. I think I named him Fred, and I wish he knew how much he once meant to me.
I also sprang, at some other time, for the decal set. Turns out, five hundred decals is a lot of decals. It’s more decals than maybe I was expecting. Yes, there were quite a few that didn’t count – seahorses, rainbows, ponies, and other such cootie-ridden execrations. But even after first round culling, there were still enough decent or better ones left over to spin my little head. The house was full of likely targets for decalling but in-house applications had been flatly and firmly parentally prohibited. That prohibition extended also to the garage, both cars, the garbage cans, and our garden tools. However, these prohibitions turned out to be beacons, directing me to the only truly suitable decalling platform in my realm: my hot gold ride with the sparkle-pattern banana seat and the top-tube 5-speed stick shifter and the rockin’ tall sissy bar. That was a really fine piece of 1970s bicycle styling, and it was mine all mine. To do with as I wished. And I wished to plaster it with my 50 to 100 favorite decals – angry cats, flames, an angry woodpecker with a cigar, various explosives and playing cards, skulls of both flaming and non-flaming varieties… It took almost an hour before I ran out of real estate, but I decalled the bejezus out of that Schwinn. When I was done I stood back and admired my handiwork with real pride of ownership. I could see I had done an awesomely radical job, but I also knew that some at least of the credit went to the canny vendors of the comic book’s last pages. My gratitude continues to this day.
I couldn’t help it – I looked. I ran a couple of searches for ‘comic book ads’ (mind you, I didn’t actually visit the actual comics shop five blocks from my front door – quoting CM Burns: too much effort) and found only ‘nostalgic,’ ‘throwback,’ and ‘memorable.’ There wasn’t even anything under Image Search that was remotely current. Of course, Archie McPhee and that crowd sells all the same stuff, and they make it available on line 24/7. It’s finally as close as my fingertips (where my telephone is typically found). And yet – it almost feels co-opted, like the grownups took it over somehow. In the comics, those little ads felt illicit and enticing – something just between me and one special questionable vendor. I miss that feeling, but then again, it’s been forty years since I experienced it. I suppose it’s been in my past ever since then, but I didn’t check till now. It’s too bad, really. I think I’m finally ready to build that hovercraft.