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on 23 June 2017
Cheesy ads promoting questionable items have appeared throughout the history of comic books. In the Mail-Order Mysteries, Kirk Demarais supplies a chronicle of the more popular and infamous products. Each item he lists includes:
* the original ad,
* a picture of the actual item, and
* text broken into three or four parts: WE IMAGINED, THEY SENT, BEHIND THE MYSTERY and CUSTOMER SATISFACTION.

I remember seeing these ads in my youth. I used to think lucky American kids had access to the most fantastic novelties. X-Ray Spex, the Charles Atlas body building course, sea monkeys, an ant farm, or X-ray spex, boxes of soldiers, the list goes on. These legendary novelties and, as it turns out, questionable products at unbelievable prices not available here in the UK. But after reading this book it turns out that this limited access was in fact a blessing.

Lots of fun and worthy of your cash.
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 22 September 2012
Most comic book fans of a certain age will know the feeling. You excitedly urge one of your favourites on a friend, hoping they'll intuitively grasp the genius of Jack Kirby or Neal Adams, and they'll be converted to your obsession. Only they don't, and they're not. They have no interest in the art or story. All they can see is the adverts.

But they had a point. What we in the UK used to call "American comics" were full of adverts for what seemed, to kids, to be the most fantastic plunder. Amazing novelties with which to dazzle your friends. The chance to gain astounding skills and powers. And mind-boggling toys at unbelievable prices (assuming you could work out the dollars-to-sterling ratio). The fact you couldn't get them in the UK made them seem even more desirable. How I wanted that Polaris nuclear sub - over 7 feet long! Seats 2 kids! Controls that work! Rockets that fire!

Turns out the fact you couldn't get them in the UK was a blessing. Kirk Demarais, the author of this thorough, amusing, informative and handsomely designed book, openly confesses to not getting the stories in the comics but being obsessed with the ads. So he's hunted down many of the most famous products advertised (including the obvious classics such as X-Ray Spex, the Charles Atlas body building course, and the boxes of toy soldiers which promised hundreds of pieces for knockdown prices) and now shares his research with us in the book,, which includes reproductions of the ads, pictures of the products, and his verdict on what you actually got.

And what you actually got, for the most part, was ripped off. Turns out item after item was shoddily made, misleadingly advertised and distinctly underwhelming. As the great graphic designer Chip Kidd notes on the back cover blurb, "If childhood disappointment could ever be considered an art form, then 'Mail Order Mysteries' is a masterpiece". To quote an example, here's Demarais on that perpetual favourite, the "U-Control, 7-Foot Life-Size Ghost":

We imagined: Obviously a remote control, seven-foot-tall ghost with which to scare siblings, pets and parents at a distance.

They sent: A balloon, a spool of fishing line and a trash bag. To make matters worse, the balloon bears the face of the decidedly unscary Casper the Friendly Ghost.

The "we imagined, they sent" format is applied to all the items covered, along with a verdict on "Customer satisfaction", plus, in selected cases, notes "Behind the mystery". It's a simple, funny and effective format, coupled as it is with the imagery noted above. The overall design of the book is superb and contributes substantially to this being a good-looking, easily digestible and hugely entertaining tome.

It's fair too. Demarais is more than ready to point out the items that actually represented value for money, such as the Charles Atlas course, the various sales programmes (here's your chance to finally see a picture of the mysterious "Grit"), and, here and there, even some of the novelties.

So, in conclusion, who says Americans don't do irony? Here's a book on a phenomenon which could be defined as decades of over-promising and under-delivering, but the book itself delivers information, amusement and visual pleasure way beyond expectation. At time of writing, this is the 7th review of this book, and they've all been five-star. Quite right too: apart from the pleasure it brings, this book is also a major contribution to comics history. It's rare for a history lesson to be so much fun, though.

Oh, and the Polaris nuclear sub I coveted so much as a nipper? Turns out it was basically a cardboard box (and they were readily available even in Sunderland in the 1960s).
22 Comments| 6 people found this helpful. Was this review helpful to you? Report abuse
TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 13 May 2014
Full of exotic promise.

i like the format of this - the ad, what we expected, what we got.

I too was frustrated by being on the wrong side of the pond and unable to order my own nuclear submarine.

I figured out the sea monkeys ( I was a keen amateur microscopist and into pond-life.... ) but I really wished I was wrong and still imagined four-inch long mermaids swimming round being more interesting than, say, water fleas.
and I knew a kid who had an x-ray spex type viewing card which we dismantled so I had a notion of how THAT probably went and I actually owned a ten-in-one scope which either came via a boxtop deal with Weetabix or it was a Bazooka Joe bubblegum token deal - around 1960, I think. The scope was a monument to trade-description artistic licence - I certainly was amused by describing half a binoculars rig as a "telescope" and that set me to thinking and looking at ALL adverts skeptically and critically so I'd study the comic ads and try and figure out what the scam might be, but part of me refused to believe there was a scam. It was a great gadget, anyway.
Firestarter burning lens, magnifying glass, monacle, front objective of telecope, front objective of binoculars, front objective of microsccope... loads more, all the same.

but...
Drumkits, bicycles and tents, all for selling greeting cards?
Damn.

I've often wondered about this stuff and now, thanks to this great book I have a much better idea of what terrible disappointment I could have suffered if I'd actually managed to get hold of... hey, I didn't see the shrunken heads.
Did they get missed?

I STILL want that submarine.. and the hypno disk. I really really want the hypno disk.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 8 February 2013
 As a primary schoolkid in Northern Ireland in the early '60s, comic books from the US were a major part of my life - wanting to be Batman (I still do!), having a crush on Supergirl (these days it would probably be Catwoman), and losing myself in adventure and worlds that were considerably more appealing than '60s Northern Ireland...

But almost as much as the stories, I loved the ads at in the comics. The promise of real-world scientific marvels such as hypno-disks, X-ray specs, etc., etc., Oh, how I longed for them... But in those pre-internet days, there was no way for lil' schoolkids to order goods from the other side of the Atlantic, so I could only dream.

And now, thanks to this great book, I can see that I avoided some truly epic disappointments!

But seriously, this book is a great stroll down memory lane. I still vividly remember lusting after some of these items, but there were many others that I'd forgotten until this book reminded me of them. However the really wonderful thing about this book is that not only do you get the chance to see all those nostalgia-inducing ads again - you ALSO get the chance to see the actual item itself in all its non-awe-inspiring mediocrity!

I seem to have reached an age where all sorts of nostalgia for my childhood is kicking in. If you can relate to that, and if you too were a fan of those US comics and ads, I think you'll enjoy this.
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on 9 April 2014
Relived my youth? Relieved my youth was not blighted by actually receiving any of the products from the too good to be true ads? Disillusioned to discover the truth behind the marketing illusion - or lying as the Advertising Standards Authority would now technically refer to the duplicitous practice? Well, this brilliant read certainly puts into perspective how much has changed since those days. Even the idea of ordering something from America seemed incredibly exotic back in the late 1960s. Now, we order from China without a second thought and expect to receive the goods having paid surprising little for shipping in a matter of days. And our expectations and dreams of the impossible are raised by apps and electronic technology rather than cardboard cut outs and get rich quick scams. Oh, well we still fall for the latter so long as it comes via e-mail.
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on 3 April 2013
A very fun book, i found it both fascinating & funny the stuff they used to offer for sale in the back of comics. Now i can satisfying my curiosity at what actually turned up if you were brave/foolish enough to order anything that was on offer. I love the polaris sub with working periscope & torpedo launcher LOL

Anyone who has the book, try holding it under the lights, then turn the lights off & look at the front and back cover. I thought that was a very nice touch, glad it's now in my collection.
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on 9 November 2015
A fantastic piece of nostalgia for any Marvel fan.
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on 7 August 2013
The author revisits the ads in the comic books of his youth (60s to 80s) with humor and nostalgia. A such he provideds an experience that is lacking in current comic books, the skewed window they offered on the outside world.
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on 30 July 2014
I finally know what I would have gotten had I sent off for those x-ray specs all those years ago. Brilliant!
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on 18 January 2012
I loved this book - in several places I found myself laughing out loud. As a child in the UK I never actually got round to ordering any of the items, as my pocket money wouldn't stretch that far. To me it was a glamorous version of Exchange and Mart, selling exciting stuff that would only improve my quality of life and social standing. One of the funniest reviews was of the ghosts, which turned out to be balloons. On reflection I am glad that I never ordered anything, as the reality would have been a huge and crushing disappointment.
This is a very entertaining read and will bring back fond memories of a gentler time that wasn't completely cynical.
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