While thumbing through last week's comic book haul, a dire realization struck me like a bolt from the blue, like a veritable ball lightning of inspiration blasted out from the meridional regions of the Wizard Shazam's toga. What was it? The 21st century doesn't have its own version of the famous Hostess Cupcake ads. And you know what? That's just plain wrong.
When you open your average 2011 comic book, the ad spread is underwhelming — there's maybe a handful of ads for in-house comics, a few video game or TV plugs, a spot for the occasional superhero movie (which may or may not be a franchise of an opposing publisher), the vagrant candy ad (it's astonishing that there are bleary-eyed hucksters on this planet burning the midnight oil to craft propaganda on behalf of SweeTarts), and the rare, absolutely befuddling car ad ("When I think of the Punisher filleting gangbangers with a Bowie knife, my mind simultaneously turns to the family-friendly durability of the Ford Taurus"). And this just goes for The Big Two. Indie comic publishers have even fewer opportunities for consumer intrigue.
Of course, comic books are not the Super Bowl. Nobody reads an issue of Iron Man for the advertisements. They read it for Tony Stark jetting around in his chichi power suit and raining bon mots and laser death upon bad guys. But if you'll let me put on my Andy Rooney bonnet for a minute — in other news, I don't care for lentils, in my experience, they're the most arrogant of the legumes — sorry about that, allow me to lament the death of a lost art. That is, the deranged comic book advertisement.
Perhaps comics have become a much more serious business nowadays. Perhaps publishers are much more protective of their superheroic stable. Perhaps advertisers are loath to purchase space in a Squirrel Girl comic when they can simply tie-in to her inevitable summer blockbuster. Perhaps Madison Avenue ad agencies simply don't have an Imagination Room where modern snakeoilers can roll around Augustus Gloop-style in the ketamine fjord and scale the snowy zenith of Mount Sinusblood.
Perhaps (nay, definitely) someone caught on to the fact that 20th century comic book ads were selling low-budget tchotchkes with nigh djinn-like powers (which, if you bought, were a valuable lesson in learning humanity's unabashed capacity to destroy children's hopes and dreams). In any case, modern comic readers are poorer for their passing.
Comic books are a fantastic medium, and the ads in your average comic nowadays could pass in any periodical. Barring the in-house ads, of course — I'm not sure readers of Family Circle and The Boys overlap on a Venn diagram.
Not all retro comic ads were inspired or gonzo, but gone are the halcyon times when Meatloaf teamed up with Spider-Man, Superman harassed confused children to teach them heavy-handed lessons about personal responsibility, or video game companies bought out entire splash stories that cleaved into the comic's narrative like a scimitar. Even in the depths of fraud, old comic book ads made reality just a twinge more fictional. They were otherworldly extensions of the antics ensconced within the pages, not rude intruders trying to shill Oldsmobiles and nerve tonics.
A good place to remember these batshit print spots is Comics Should Be Good's "I Saw It One Day!" archive. And yes, a layman like you really could buy a nuclear sub through the mail.