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Some of the greatest novelty items ever, straight out of the comic book pages.

Book Review: Mail-Order Mysteries: Real Stuff From Old Comic Book Ads! by Kirk Demarais

For nerdy guys of a certain age (like me), Mail-Order Mysteries is a treasure trove of fun. One of the coolest aspects of comic books of the ’60s and ’70s were the wild ads. There were a plethora of pages devoted to the greatest novelties a 10-year-old boy could imagine. X-Ray Spex, Sea Monkeys, and Magic Dice were all available by mail, if only your parents would allow you to order them. Like myself, author Kirk Demarais was fascinated by these strange items. And just like me, his folks always talked him out of sending off his hard earned allowance for them. The phrase “That’s just a waste of money,” still rings in my ears.

Through the magic of online auction sites like e-Bay, Demarais has managed to track down a nice assortment of these beauties. He shares his finds with us in his new book, and we finally get to know just what would have arrived in our mailboxes way back when. Mail-Order Mysteries contains over 150 entries, which are broken down into various categories. These include chapters such as “Superpowers and Special Abilities,” “War Zone,” “Top Secret,” and “Oddities,” among others.

Let’s use the first entry as an example. This would be for the famous X-Ray Spex glasses. At the top of the page is a reproduction of one of the many ads for them, promising “X-Ray Vision Instantly!” The first portion of the text is called “We Imagined,” which in Demarais’ case was “Glasses that enable you to see real skeletons and nudity.” The next section is “They Sent,” in which he describes the item itself. This is generally the funniest part, as the customer’s expectations we had are met with the harsh reality of what was sent. After this comes “Behind the Mystery,” where he describes how the product works, and the tenuous connection between what we thought we had ordered and what we got. The entry winds up with “Customer Satisfaction,” which in this case reads, “Not X-actly what we X-pected but they’re X-alted as the quintessential mail-order novelty item.”

The author’s style is very engaging, and just seeing the reproductions of those great old ads is a thrill in itself. Along the way Demarais also presents some very unusual novelty item trivia as well. One of these is in the “Top Secret” chapter, which is devoted to secret-agent, spy type stuff. The entry is for the “Electronic Lie & Love Detector” (only $5.95). This was supposed to be a pocket-sized lie detector, which was released in 1969 by the Nintendo company. How perfect. The video-game goliath we have all come to know and love actually started out in the comic book mail-order racket.

Another factoid I found quite interesting has to do with the rubber masks (with hair!) sold by the Topstone company. The sculptor of these was a man named Keith Ward. Mr. Ward’s other claim to fame is as the illustrator of all those wonderful Dick and Jane books we remember so well.

One look at the cover of Mail-Order Mysteries had me hooked, and the manner in which the items are presented does not disappoint. Kirk Demarais has made a believer out of me, and now all I want to do is go on e-Bay and get some of these wild toys for myself. This is a great book.

About Greg Barbrick

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