Gweek 019: Mail Order Mysteries

By Mark Frauenfelder

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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:

Screen Shot 2011-09-29 At 5.44.53 PmI 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.

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After the jump: 6 sample pages from Mail Order Mysteries!

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Published 8:00 am Mon, Oct 3, 2011

About the Author

Mark Frauenfelder is the founder of Boing Boing and the founding editor-in-chief of MAKE. He is editor-in-chief of Cool Tools and co-founder of Wink Books. Twitter: @frauenfelder. His new book is Maker Dad: Lunch Box Guitars, Antigravity Jars, and 22 Other Incredibly Cool Father-Daughter DIY Projects


22 Responses to “Gweek 019: Mail Order Mysteries”

  1. John Neumann says:

    I must confess, I (after many weeks torn between the conflict of too-good-to-be-true and that-gadget-will-change-my-life) finally broke down and ordered the pocket pen telescope. 

    I was 13 and read too much sci-fi so I just had to see for myself. It was not a bad device if you could squint into the tiny eyepiece. I of course took it to school and lost it. Then, the next day i about had a heart attack as I saw one of the school football jocks messing with it. 

    I knew I would never own anything so nifty and geeky again in my lifetime. 

    PS – Micronauts was a great comic (and the action figures rocked!)

  2. franko says:

    please tell me he covers the one about the DIY hovercraft. i wanted that so badly.

  3. Nadreck says:

    Grant Morrison did a lot with these ads.  There was a sequence in “Doom Patrol” where there was a secret organisation below the Pentagon that had the “really-working” versions of all this stuff and, of course, his character “Flex Mentallo” was the Charles Atlas ad come to life.  Alan Moore’s “1964” series had great versions of these things too: “Giant 7-ft Communists”, “Must I Lose My Mind?” and “Learn to Speak The English”.

  4. Stefan Jones says:

    What a great idea for a book!

    I never fell for any of these ad / scams. Partially due to a lack of money, partially due to a MAD Magazine fueled suspicion of exaggerated claims.

    I remember being very skeptical about certain advertisements in Boy’s Life magazine. They made certain, wild-seeming claims for a hobby / plaything. Then I found, on the ground at summer camp, an actual catalog from the company . . . Estes Industries, purveyor of model rockets. That 1970 catalog blew my freaking mind. As soon as I got home I ordered a catalog for myself and have been in that hobby on an off every since.

  5. burgerboing says:

    I especially like the “Usually ships in 1 to 3 months” availability on Amazon.  Maybe I’ll just purchase the $114.89 + $3.99 shipping copy listed on Amazon as well instead of waiting.

    • @burgerboing Author here, for some reason Amazon had the wrong release date listed from the beginning (sept 10) and as soon as that day came and went the “1 to 3 months” message automatically went up.  The real release date is October 11.   Unless they got hold of a review copy which is very unlikely that $114 listing is completely bogus.  I just got my copies on Saturday so I know they’re just now being distributed.

  6. ill lich says:

    *sigh*  Yes, I bought the 100 soldiers for a dollar back then, they turned out to be flat brittle plastic.  Sea Monkeys were a similar disappointment, as were the X-ray Spex.  But I did get a lot of use out of the “joy buzzer”, although I was disappointed it didn’t deliver an actual electric shock.

    • demidan says:

      I too had a Joy buzzer, and had it with me while living in New Orleans,,,hint: never repeat NEVER use it on a war correspondent/photographer they are a bit jumpy!

  7. Stefan Jones says:

    Thinking back:

    A kid in my 5th grade class bought the “laser pistol” plans. I was disappointed when I realized that they were a crock. It would have been cool to have been able to burn the limbs off of certain tough kids.

    Another kid bought that “footlocker” of 100 soldiers.

    A HOBO IN A PARK tried to sell a ventriloquism thing to my family. He was “throwing his voice” into a handkerchief, actually pretending there was a bird in there. The device was a cardboard and waxed paper thing.

    • Ambiguity says:

      A kid in my 5th grade class bought the “laser pistol” plans. I was disappointed when I realized that they were a crock. It would have been cool to have been able to burn the limbs off of certain tough kids.

      I had the laser pistol plans (although mine had a white cover, not the yellow one illustrated), and I actually thought they were kind of neat, except for the “if you want to shoot a real laser beam, you’ll need to replace the plastic laser rod with a ruby one” part. I looked into it, but making a synthetic ruby laser rod seemed a bit out of my pre-teen ability.

      The phaser plans (“make things appear to disappear”) from the same company kind of sucked, though. They claimed that by putting a flashbulb behind, say, a 20x magnifying lens that it would make the light 20 times as bright. Even I knew that was a crock….

  8. freddiefreelance says:

    Too bad he was too young to order the “Real Live Monkey.”

  9. Michael J. Epstein says:

    We’ve been writing songs about comic book items like these: http://donotforsake.com/dpm/ (Darling Pet Monkey, X-Ray Specs, Monster S-I-Z-E Monsters, Sea-Monkeys)!!!

    • Mark_Frauenfelder says:

      These songs are unbelievable! Thanks for letting me know about them, Michael.

    • @M. J. Epstein Wow, just had a listen and those are amazing!  Great concept.  Well done. The book covers 5 of the 7 products you covered, lacking the monkey and the sandals.  I was tempted to try to include both but I figure people know what monkeys look like, and I could never verify that the “kung fu sandals” on ebay are from that ad.

  10. keithfulkerson says:

    This was a brilliant concept for a book.  I aims to get my grubby little paws on it some day.

  11. cdh1971 says:

    As others here have said, Micronauts was great. 

    I’m 40 and read comic books as a little kid for entertainment, until I bought my first computer at 10 but even then I would still read them. Anyway – I ordered a few of these…mostly magic tricks and the magic tricks were pretty much as described. The Sea Monkeys were clever too. However, at the age of seven, I realized how cruel mail-order product advertising can be. The x-ray glasses…were not. 

    Later at age 25 I  decided to try again and sent off for a mail-order bride. After six weeks a courier shows up bearing a small box with air-holes…Texas postage – the same town my bride is from. Turns out what was in the box wasn’t a suitable bride. Click the thumbnail below for a look:

  12. Antinous / Moderator says:

    I really, really wanted that spiral hynotizer disk.  I had nefarious plans to seduce my fifth grade gym teacher.

  13. Eddie Guevara says:

    Franco send me an e-mail and I will get the plans to you. Kirk contacted me and asked me about them…Houseoftheunusual@gmail.com…Eddie.

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