Saturday, 7 November 2015

How Ads in Comics Have and Haven't Changed

Since I started watching the CW's superhero shows, Arrow and the Flash, I've not only started buying new comics, but have also revisited some of the older books I picked up when I was in high school or college. And in doing so I've rediscovered one of the finest pleasures of reading old comics: the ads.

I feel like it's a cliche that old comics were full of stuff like Mike Marvel and Charles Atlas ads for bodybuilding (so much so that Grant Morrison based his Flex Mentallo charactor on them), along with the small ads for useless crap you could send away for, like X-ray glasses or magic tricks. But if it's a (slightly broader) cliche to note that it was a different world, it's also interesting to see how long some of that stuff lasted. For example, the picture below is from a comic that came out in 1992:

Elongated Man Europe '92 #1

That Atlas Body ad in the top right appeared in comics going back to the 60s, but you feel like you can almost trace Charles Atlas's shifting fortunes by the form the ads took. From the full page ads promising books to teach you sex appeal, the ads went smaller and the address would change. By the 90s, the address is a PO box in Madison Square Station, which suggests rather straitened circumstances.

It's not a million miles off from this page, grabbed from Justice League of America #46:

JLA (vol. 1) #46 (copyright DC)

The model ad at the top is charmingly of its time - I guess if you were a boy your options were sports or models, or visiting crappy amusement parks in New Jersey. What's striking is how wordy it all is: the word balloons nearly crowd out the art because the kids are so busy relating how great the models are. And turning to the one at the bottom, I love how $0.85 must have seemed a princely sum to kids in 1966 (who were, let's remember, paying $0.12 for this issue). These days a trip to Six Flags sets you back at least $33. And you can't see it very well, but I've always been intrigued by what kind of ride the Caterpillar must have been (bottom left).

Another thing you'd never see now is this:

JLA (vol.1) #138

This one's from 1977, which was almost as fertile a year (judging by this issue) for neat ads. There was another one for Slim Jims that made prominent reference to werewolves, because if I recall correctly horror was big in comics at the time. But I like this one because it's kind of the last gasp of comics as a thing for all kids, rather than just the nerdy ones. What could be more all-American than BB guns?

I could go on. For this blog I actually lined up six comic books and took a picture of what I thought was a nicely representative ad, though admittedly the later ones are a little less interesting visually - in The Authority #11, from March 2000, ads were all full-pagers for video games or apparel. One from JLA #1, which came out in 1997, is hawking a video box set of Michael Jordan's greatest moments.

Nowadays, unfortunately, I don't know what ads are being published, because I only buy trade paperbacks, and I suspect my local shop wouldn't like me taking photos of their wares on my iPhone without buying them. I can only presume the ads aren't as charming as these old ones, though - even in that Elongated Man one, looking at that array of notices and ads told you that there was this network of fans and mail-order stores nationwide.

This is, of course, one of the reasons I love old comics, and old stuff in general. I've always been fascinated with what the world was like before I was born, and it's poignant seeing that some of those aspects survived into my own times, even though I didn't notice then. It'd be interesting to find out what happened to all those old advertisers, though...