Let me just come out and admit that I’m an enormous hypocrite. Sure, I might go on and on about how awesome something is, and how superior it is over another option, but if there’s one thing I’m pretty easily swayed by, it’s the presence of Awesome. Should anything suddenly present its Awesomeness unto me, oh man, will I be over there in a second. I am an Awesome addict, and given the vast, vast array of addictive substances that our modern world presents us with, I think I’ve made the healthy choice. Awesome… and raw beef tatake, which is basically Awesome in meat form.
My hypocrisy in point : the great ‘graphic novel vs. the comic book‘ exploration, way back in September. Who remembers September anyhow? That was like, three years ago. I advocated the simplicity and compactness of the graphic novel over the traditional comic book, but it became recently clear to me that I’d neglected some very important aspects of The Mighty Comic Book in my quest to save space and money.
See, I’ve become enamored with The Inhumans, a genetically altered superhuman team of outcasts from Marvel Comics, who either live in the Himalayas or the Moon, depending on when you’re reading. In searching for their original 12-issue Inhumans miniseries, it dawned on me that the series was not yet collected into a trade paperback format, and I’d have to hunt down the original single issues if I wanted to read about their classic 1975 exploits. While Marvel and DC are both actively collecting their older comics into Archive Editions and Masterworks collections, many miniseries are still unreprinted. So, after a search, I found myself with a complete run of The Inhumans and Machine Man, drawn by amazing legends like George Perez, Gil Kane and Jack Kirby.
The comics are yellowed, the staples are loose and they’ve clearly been read a few times before. This is a death sentence for anyone with pure collecting on the brain, but those folks can buy officially graded comics if it’s monetary value and preservation that you’re after. There’s a whole creepy conglomerate of giga-nerds who take care of this sort of grading and artificially inflate the values of comics. Me, I wanted to lay in bed, sick with the flu, and drift off into the adventures of The Inhumans as they first appeared. And drink cocoa and have a pretty girl bring me soup. And maybe a unicorn. After I started flipping through the first few issues, I noticed the one hugely important thing that most trade paperbacks are missing, besides the romance of delicately turning a brittle page and smelling the pulp: the advertisements.
Now, comic book advertisements from 1975 are a whole other breed of advertising, very specifically targeted to the comic-reading audience of young males, and so beautifully, heartbreakingly surreal. It’s fairly apparent that they’re not bothering to conform to any standards of honesty or realism. Often, the comic will break for two pages at a time to make way for black and white ad space. In this way, the original panel flow between paired pages isn’t interrupted, and the ad sections can be easily skipped by the reader. The bottom of the comic page preceding an advertisement even warns the reader that the next couple of pages will be full of advertising, so as not to break the pace of the story too severely. In my own enlightened era, I’ve found that these wide-open spreads of empty promises and quixotic notions to be just as entertaining and emotionally charged as the comic itself. They’re very amusing when you’re not the beleaguered kid stuffing two dollars into an envelope with the promise of learning Instant Kung Fu in 6-to-8 weeks in a desperate attempt at preserving one’s own ass on the way home from school.
If you’re unfamiliar with this brand of advertising, take a look at this gem from the Masculiner Company. Nestled in the warm bosom of the fantasy universe of The Inhumans, those attractive women and outcast muscular men of great ability, the reader is presented with an exciting prospect of his own. The implication that slapping some gluey tufts of hair on your face will make a romantic lothario out of you seems all-too-possible in such a fantastic context. If Black Bolt can level cities with a mere utterance of sound, who’s to say that your new, convincing (and spontaneously appearing) sideburns won’t finally net you that cheerleader who doesn’t know you exist? Pair that with ads that sell you secrets about how to grow 6 inches taller in a week and how to gain 25 pounds of muscle by tomorrow, and you have one violently unrealistic portrayal of the human body and, well, life itself, and it’s all spelled out without any implication that ‘results may vary’ or ‘hammerfist kung-fu technique cannot be learned overnight’ or ‘hell, we’re totally screwing with you here’. Anyone who thinks that only the body images of girls are preyed upon in the media clearly has never read a 1970s-era comic book.
This kind of advertisement featured five distinct categories : body improvement, wacky products, money making schemes, Hostess fruit pies, and individuals selling other comics (often interspersed with the comic publishers selling their own branded accessories). As the decade came to a close, ad space was taken over by full-color ads for video games, candy and Saturday morning cartoons, but a page or two of black-and-white untruths lingered on. Stay tuned.