In 1979 Kirk Demarais bought a comic book at a neighborhood gas mart. It was a copy of Micronauts #9. Kirk was a kid at the time, and the comic book’s plot confused him. But he was drawn to the advertisements. Here’s how he describes it:
I turned to an overcrowded page of fascinating black-and-white drawings; I was captivated It was an ink-smudged window into an unfamiliar realm where gorilla masks peacefully lived among hovercrafts and ventriloquist dummies. A dozen pages later an outfit called the Fun Factory featured another full-page assortment of wonders, and elsewhere in the issue I found a hundred toy soldiers for a buck, an offer for a free million dollar bank note, and an ad for something called Grit.
To me the ads' seductive nature was the result of a powerful combination of factors. Most obviously, the products were otherworldly: X-ray vision, karate courses, a money-counterfeiting device -- they almost seemed too good to be true. For the first time I wasn’t thinking in terms of playthings; these were life-enhancers that offered the means to satisfy a familiar range of wish-fulfillment, including power, glory, revenge, and romance. The assortment was also more “grown-up” than the stuff in my toy box. Much of it was designed to deceive, horrify, and even humiliate; the selection was exotic, like nothing I had access to at the local toy aisle. The mysterious listings, with their vague line art and impossible descriptions, were far more intrigung than the tell-all photos of the Sears Wishbook. They teased my mind, causing me to ponder each item long after the book was shut. They left questions that I gleefully answered with fantasy and youthful optimism.
Like many kids tempted to buy these alluring products, Kirk had wise parents who discouraged him from spending his allowance on them. But Kirk never really stopped thinking about them. A few years ago, he began scouring eBay and other online collectors' sites to purchase the novelties that he’d been denied as a child. These purchases are the basis of his hilarious new book Mail Order Mysteries, which reveals the disappointing truth behind fantastic-sounding products such as X-Ray glasses, voice throwers, 7-foot remote control monsters, and secret spy scopes.
In the introduction to his book, Demarais writes, "For me the collection represents so many things: a series of hard-earned revelations, my remaining sense of wonder, and the coming-of-age discovery that even kids need to be shrewd as serpents lest we get bit by one."
I interviewed Kirk on the phone from his studio in the hills of Arkansas.
After the jump: 6 sample pages from Mail Order Mysteries!
Mark Frauenfelder is the founder of Boing Boing and the editor-in-chief of MAKE and Cool Tools. Twitter: @frauenfelder. His new book is Maker Dad: Lunch Box Guitars, Antigravity Jars, and 22 Other Incredibly Cool Father-Daughter DIY Projects