In comics, anything was possible. Men could walk up walls, fly through the air,
and foil dastardly plots. I couldn’t do any of that. But I could learn the
secrets of Kung Fu, have larger muscles in just seven days, command the supernatural
to do my bidding, and command the armies of history.
As a precocious reader, I would devour comic books in the seventies like it
was the last thing on earth that I would read. And when I tell you I read everything,
that included the ads. Man, Marvel Comics in the seventies was the place to
be for cutting edge technology and products: remote controlled ghosts, real
army tanks, the secrets of self-defense, hypnosis, spy cameras, and of course,
the poster child of scientific superiority, the Sea Monkeys. You just knew for
a fact that the Russians didn’t have THOSE. Tanks and Kung Fu, maybe.
But Sea Monkeys were as American as GRIT, the family newspaper, and American
Seeds and American Greeting Cards.
I wouldn’t consider myself a gullible child, but who among you could resist
the allure of a six foot-long Polaris sub that actually fired missiles for only
$6.98 plus shipping? Or how about 125 Roman soldiers for only 98 cents? Besides,
in the second grade, we had learned all about sending letters, both how to write
the letter, and also how to address the envelope. I paid close attention to that
lesson. Letter writing was my ticket to a finer world. Back when my allowance
was something like five bucks a week, I could count myself a King of infinite
I started small by thinking big. The granddaddy of comic book ads was the Johnson
Smith company. They frequently bought the inside front or back cover and crammed
a thousand small ads in their allotted space. Caveman masks. Hovercrafts. A penny
in a bottle. Squirt cameras. Joy buzzers. Oh, and if you wanted to, you could
send away for their full sized catalog! That was what I coveted. If they had hovercrafts
listed on the comic book ad, what treasures could you obtain from the full-sized
The catalog showed up two weeks later, and it became my world. Even though I never
ordered anything from the Johnson Smith, I was fascinated that this company could
be responsible for so much crap. They were like a Spencer’s store in the
mall, only cool, and a lot more complete. It also, for better or worse, validated
my suspicions: if you sent money through the mail, stuff would come to you in
What Johnson Smith lacked was magic tricks. Oh, it had a few, but at the time,
there was a shop in Abilene that was pretty complete called Joke and Magic Land.
And what was in the Johnson Smith catalog wasn’t much different from the
selection at my local shop. I went back to my comics and found Funland Magic Company
and their full-sized catalog.
The Funland catalog took a while to come in, and it was nowhere near the level
of professionalism that Johnson Smith exhibited. But it was all magic, including
some larger stage illusions. I started making a list for my burgeoning repertoire,
and it came to roughly seventy-five bucks, and that was without the Guillotine.
I debated asking Mom for the money, but I knew it wouldn’t fly. So, I sent
away for some small tricks instead.
This was back when you could send money in the mail. I remember sending coins
in envelopes, and getting merchandise in return. My meager tricks came trickling
back to me, but I had already moved on to other, more profitable schemes.
American Greeting Cards was a big organization. Kids would become their pitchmen,
selling cards in the neighborhoods. You knew it was true, because there were pictures
of the kids along with their brief testimony. “It’s so easy, and fun
too!” Hell, I could get behind that. And besides, the prizes were pretty
swanky. The ad said, No Obligation. Okay, American Greeting Cards, you have piqued
This was an impressive package. Sample cards, full-color brochures, a prize catalog . . . oh,
man, it was heaven. But it wasn’t really easy. What they wanted you to do
was buy the cards yourself and then sell the cards to all of the old people in
your neighborhood. They didn’t specifically say old people, but one look
at the cards with flowers and lighthouses on the front, and I knew who their target
market was, even as a child. I debated trying the American Seed Company next,
but due to the similarity of the name, I had a hunch it was going to work out
the same exact way. Ixnay on the local business idea.
Finally, I took the plunge. Sea Monkeys. Nothing else came close. Now, I had a
pretty good idea that what I was going to get wasn’t going to look much
like the picture, but I still had a ray of hope. My dad took one look at the little
buggers inching their way through the water and laughed. “Brine Shrimp,”
Shrimp! It wasn’t a monkey, but it was still pretty cool! I kept them alive
for a couple of months. I forget how they died. Dad was disappointed because they
weren’t big enough to eat.
While all of this was going on, I kept getting regular catalogs from Johnson Smith
and Funland. From a kid’s standpoint, that’s cool mail. My mother
would always roll her eyes when I got a catalog, but it was always good to keep
me quiet for days while I tried to figure out how to come up with an industrial-grade
diamond to render the laser they were offering operational.
What I really regret was not ordering something from Charles Atlas, the muscleman,
or Count Dante, Master of Dim Mak, the Death Touch. I bet those brochures would
have been way-cool. I also regret not getting the Roman soldiers, the Civil War
soldiers, and the Cowboys and Indians (Army men were plentiful in those days).
I know others who did, and I coveted their treasures mightily. I also considered
coin and stamp collecting, haunting houses, and the secrets of hypnosis, but never
took the plunge. Thankfully, some of these things are still around. Count Dante
and Charles Atlas moved to the web. Johnson Smith is still producing novelty catalogs.
But it’s not the same.
Reading those ads, my imagination ran wild when I was younger. Back when the thought
of wearing a caveman mask might convince the neighborhood that the Missing Link
was walking about. Time travel was possible with little plastic figures. And there
was no scientific conundrum that couldn’t be bested. Of course, the promise
of the ads far outweighed the delivery. I know now that the Polaris sub was really
just cardboard, as was the Army tank. The remote control ghost was a balloon,
a trash bag, and some fishing line. How Brady Bunch can you get? And the anthropomorphic
Sea Monkeys are brine shrimp.
Those ads are gone, now, and I miss them. You can’t see them, except for
a few people on the Internet with a drive to keep sixties and seventies pop culture
alive. A lot of people thought the ads were rip-offs. Some of them were. Some
were just absurd. But for me, they were keys to my imagination. I can’t
think about the comic reading experience of my youth without remembering those
teacup monkeys, seven foot tall Frankensteins, and other crazy ads and the promises