Mail-Order Mysteries: Real Stuff From Old Comic Book Ads!

Review by KC Carlson

Mail-Order Mysteries is one of those books that you never knew you needed — until it actually existed! It chronicles the often-secret origins of all that crap you remember from the ads in comic books when you were 10 years old. All the classics are here: X-Ray Specs! Sea Monkeys! 100 Toy Soldiers! 1001 Things You Can Get Free! (Even more junk!) Over 150 dubious, sometimes downright fraudulent, gotta-have-’em items are here in all their four-color glory. Author Kirk Demarais has carefully organized all this hogwash into thoughtful categories:

  • Superpowers and Special Abilities!
  • War Zone!
  • House of Horrors!
  • High Finance!
  • Better Living Through Mail Order!
  • Top Secret!
  • Trickery!
  • And Oddities!

(Makes your kid-brain tingle with delight just thinking about them, huh?)

Each entry offers up the actual four-color ad from the comic, a photograph of the real object (most at actual size, although a few had to be blown up to actually be seen), and a text section. The text describes what you were probably imagining you would get, a detailed description of the actual item and how it worked (or didn’t), a little bit of history about the product or manufacturer, and the author’s opinion regarding “Customer Satisfaction”. All of this is presented in a very nice hardcover book, 156 pages in full color, and printed on very nice paper which somehow remarkably simulates the smell of old comic books.

Like the old commercial for the board game Mystery Date, some of this stuff was “dreamy” (50 Bike Decals, Greedy Fingers Bank, How to Draw Monsters, Mystery Electronic Top) but most were “duds” (especially Hypno-Coin, Polaris Nuclear Sub, Magic Art Reproducer, and 9-Foot Hot Air Balloon). Some were just downright weird, like the Chick Incubator — which actually worked! — but then what do you do with the (very loud and hungry) baby chicks?

One very cool thing about the book: Demarais delights in telling us revealing secrets about all the incredible crap that doesn’t matter. But when he gets to the sections about magic tricks and classic novelties, the “secrets” remain secrets. As we all know, every good magician never reveals his tricks.

My only minor quibble (and it is indeed minor) is that somehow I got the impression that the author had originally bought most of these novelties and junk as an impressionable young boy. Instead, in his introduction he states that his parents were smart enough to keep him from doing such a foolhardy thing. The desire for such forbidden treasure stayed with him, manifesting itself in adulthood, where spurred on by the introduction of eBay (the entire world’s garage sale), he started tracking down his childhood dreams. Thus, his reactions to receiving these occasionally dubious goods are those of an analytic adult, not a child who may have carried the angst of disappointment into his adult life. That would have almost certainly intensified his descriptions of the reactions upon receiving some of this crap. But maybe that’s better left to the reader.

Still, the book is an essential guide to really important! pop culture, as well as a tome that is often as mystifying and angst-ridden as the ads themselves. Demarais has done an incredible job of cheerfully documenting an important — yet twisted — portion of childhood fascination and disappointment. Mail-Order Mysteries is just as magical and weird as the goods it chronicles. More of the same can be found at the author’s website and blog at

Comic book fans will be especially beholden to Mail-Order Mysteries for the secret cameos of such comic book greats as Russ Heath, Jack Davis, Neal Adams/Continuity Studio, and Joe Orlando throughout the book. (Look for 132 Roman Soldiers, 6-Foot Monster-Sized Monsters, Triple-Flips, and Sea-Monkeys!) (The publisher provided a review copy.)

2 Responses to “Mail-Order Mysteries: Real Stuff From Old Comic Book Ads!”

  1. Darling Pet Munkee Songs Based on Old Comic Book Ads » Comics Worth Reading Says:

    […] that writes songs about items found in ads in the back of old comics (similar to those covered in Mail-Order Mysteries). Their first song was “X-Ray Specs”, the video for which (as you might imagine) […]

  2. Westfield Comics Blog » KC COLUMN: MORE MISS/LIKE Says:

    […] that made a Man out of “Mac”). I reviewed a whole book of this stuff a while back over at Comics Worth Reading, and there’s a link there that will take you to a website with even […]




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