Monday, August 6, 2012

"Wait 4 to 6 Weeks," The Arc of Adolescence: A Conversation with Kirk Demarais

Adolescence can feel like the Victorian Era writ small, each day's discovery challenging our myths and beliefs. Our forbears proved that thunder isn't God's wrath (let alone His bowling), and so we learn as preteens that X-Ray Spex won't allow us to see under Wendy's school uniform, or that the Sea-Monkeys won't gather and pose as a smiling family in front of their well-appointed Sea Castle. To anyone perched at its beginning, a century seems virtually infinite; the agonizing "four to six weeks" endured by kids awaiting parcel delivery felt similarly endless. Childhood is a series of fantasized scenarios that inevitably disappoint—on the playground, in the backyard, up in the bedroom with the long-awaited brown-wrapped package—and we wade through these bittersweet memories well into adulthood, trying to make sense of the cleavage between longing and reality, a gap that opens and closes with varying frequencies throughout our life. Kirk Demarais (Life of the Party) has spent a little more time than others thinking about that gap. He's written and complied a fantastic book., Mail-Order Mysteries: Real Stuff From Old Comic Book Ads!, that's nothing less than a scrapbook of childhood disenchantment, but a reminder, too, of innocence, delight, and the power of the imagination. 

As a boy, Demarais coveted but was denied the "Magic World of Surprises & Mystery" advertised in mysterious line drawings in the gray back pages of his comic books. Sternly, and sensibly, his dad pronounced that the gags, gifts, and tricks were rip-offs, designed to pry allowance money from gullible, certain-to-be-crushed boys. "Dad's arguments made sense at the time," Demarais writes in the book's introduction, "and I agreed that I'd rather invest in something I trusted, like a new Star Wars figure."
But what if dad was wrong? It's not like he followed every scientific advancement; maybe someone has just made a new breakthrough in ventriloquism.
          As the years passed my mind never stopped trying to decipher those enigmatic listings. The unresolved puzzles stayed stranded in my childhood, and my preoccupation didn't fade with time—it intensified.
For counter-spying and Girl Watching.
Via online auctions, Demarais began buying these "mail-order miracles," and has now amassed a large collection. In Mail-Order Mysteries he's gathered many of these items, cleverly organized by what they enticingly guaranteed: Superpowers, House of Horrors, High Finance, Top Secret, Trickery, etc.. Hilariously, and movingly, Demarais presents the items as how "We Imagined" them, then as what "They Sent." This is a brilliant move, as it emphasizes the unhappy, us-versus-adults dynamic within which every kid labored, but also shows just how fantastic childhood imagination is, and needs to be. Yes, as kids we absurdly imagined that X-Ray Spex would take us under, that the Hercules Wrist Band would bless us with mythic, bully-beating strength, that the Money Maker would allow us to print stacks of baseball card- and candy-purchasing dollar bills, that the Silent Dog Whistle would afford us, as Demarais writes, "the power to control the canine kingdom, or at least tilt a dog's head." What Demarais charts here is that eternal triangle among advertising, our imagination, and the real world, with passing days whirling toward infinity in the middle. It usually went like this: A scary monster! A scary monster!! A plastic balloon and some twine.

The book put me in mind of websites that compare advertising imagery of fast food with what glumly sits on your tray after you've ordered. (One such site here.) There's something a little heartbreaking about Mail-Order Mysteries in the sense of childish hopes and regrets that it evokes. Poor moms and dads, who had to stomach the sight of their child with his head hung low, another life lesson brutally earned yet dimly understood. Some of these coveted items, such as the Hypno-Coin, the various bodybuilding promises, and the Spy Scope, seemed designed to exploit preteen boys' desires for—or fears of—girls. Those of us who gingerly dropped our hard-earned allowance into an envelope hoped against hope that what returned after four to six interminable weeks would give us some measure of control, however jokey, over the hormonal nuttiness inside of us that we had barely named.

Recently, I virtually sat down with Demarais and asked him about Mail Order Mysteries, adolescent longing, and advertising.


Kirk Demarais, when the mail arrives
In your introduction, you write about the advertisements: "The mysterious listings, with their vague line art and impossible descriptions, were far more intriguing than the tell-all photos of the Sears Wishbook.... They left questions that I gleefully answered with fantasy and youthful optimism." 

I'm fascinated by this distinction between the obviously posed and contrived Sears ads—of toys and of kids enjoying the toys—and the obviously exaggerated magazine ads. Can you talk a little about the differences between the two "realities"? Can you talk a little more about what there was—or wasn't—in the ads' line art that was so intriguing?

The financial divide between those two retail worlds was so extreme that their advertising approaches were perfect opposites: full-page, full-color photographs paired with lavish descriptions versus teeny, black and white drawings alongside a few vague, emotionally-driven lines of copy. Yet, as a kid I was exposed to both and gave them equal attention. But, I think the limitations of the comic book ads worked in their favor because they played on the curiosity of young readers. The lack of real product info left so much room for interpretation, and kids had plenty of time and imagination to fill in the gaps, almost like a game. Of course, the outlandish claims fueled the fantasies.

Even if the novelty pushers could have afforded studio photography and child models, many of the products weren’t substantial or photogenic enough to make a sale. Again, polar opposites: Sears sold researched and developed, safety tested, licensed, nationally advertised playthings while the Ventrillo Company for example, sold small pieces of metal wrapped in a ribbon for oral use.
The mail-order outfits also seemed to make the most of their lack of accessibility. Unlike say, JCPenney there were no stores to take returns, or toll free numbers to phone in complaints. Some novelty distributors even used multiple business names and different post office boxes to presumably throw off their scent. But, I must say that surprisingly, I’ve heard firsthand accounts from people who successfully claimed the money back guarantee from some distributors, though I’m betting most consumers didn’t want the hassle, or have the patience for a potentially months-long transaction.

Were the questions that you answered with fantasy and optimism as simple as Will it work? or were the questions more complicated?

Sometimes it was as basic as “What is this thing?” especially when it came to stuff like Sea Monkeys, or Grow 2 Living Monsters, or The Money Maker. Then I’d wonder if it worked, what it looked like, how big it was, and how it would change my life. I usually decided that it had to work, it must look amazing, it’s huge, and it would improve my life immensely.

After finally getting your hands on many of these items as an adult, you write, "I welcome the role of the rube and revel in the lackluster surprises that fill my mailbox." Can you talk a little more about this kind of pleasure, which is opposed to the pleasure that you hoped to feel as a kid? How has that pleasure evolved?

Naturally, when I was a kid I just wanted cool, effective stuff. Now I like items of this type to be lousy because they become part of a bigger story that illustrates of one of life’s harsh realities. The more extreme the letdown is, the more interesting the story becomes. So I’ve become a mail-order masochist, begging the products to do their worst. When I receive these items, I don’t just put them on the shelf, I print out the ad and place it next to the product which adds this other dimension. And there’s definitely a so-bad-it’s-good fun factor, not unlike a B-movie, or kitsch in its many forms. But, if something does turn out to be cool, I don’t complain. I win either way.

I’m also fond of fulfilling childhood wishes, and that goes for a lot of the things I collect. I was powerless to make it happen then, but not anymore. There’s an element of victory there, and maybe a bit of revenge. They tried to gyp me when I was young, but they didn’t succeed, and now that I’m all grown up I have control of the situation, and I’ll show the world the truth!

What was your first and/or your worst childhood mail-order disappointment?

My childhood mail-order life was completely controlled by my parents, so thanks to their discretion I can't recall a single letdown. We sent away for many Star Wars premium figures, all of which were a blast. I got a great Atari Tron joystick that actually exceeded my expectations. It was a fully functional controller which I had assumed to be a hollow grip to slip over my existing joystick. Columbia House music club was also good to me, as long as I remembered to send back my ‘selection of the month’ refusal card.

The first misfire may have been during my teen years when I sent away to join the Freddy Krueger Fan Club. By then I was more aware of opportunity cost so I quickly realized that I could have done better with my fifteen bucks. As an adult ebay-user I once purchased a vintage Dolly Parton doll that was the victim of a haircut, but that was my own fault for glossing over the description. What's worse is that I just admitted I bought an old Dolly Parton doll.
A Kodak moment for the Sea-Monkey Family

What do you feel is the cultural value of nostalgia?

I must admit that the main reason I’m drawn to it is because it feels good. It’s a safe place to escape because unlike the future, it’s locked down. I realize that the term itself has to do with the sadness that comes about because you can't return to the past, but for me, my experiences seem like something that I have, rather than something I’ve lost. That’s probably why I revisit the past so often, because forgetting it means losing it. I think that’s why people (myself included) can become ecstatic when they unearth a forgotten memory. They feel like they’ve regained something. That’s been one of the most rewarding aspects of making my “retro culture” websites and books, getting enthusiastic emails that contain someone’s flood of recaptured memories, and knowing that they just had a really good time visiting the past.

If I may get a bit lofty, nostalgia can remind us of who were are and what has shaped us, offering insight into our current motivations and predicaments. It’s best when it helps us appreciate how robust life is, or how far we’ve come, or how many obstacles we’ve crossed. It can provide valuable perspective and make us thankful to be alive. 

The movement from expectation to realization is, of course, hardly unique to adolescence. But that's where most of us first experience it. In your book you document a kind of "golden era" of mail-order. Is the same kind of thing happening now? Where are kids in the early 21st century experiencing this kind of letdown now that the mail-order business as you describe it is confined to the past and to recreations of that past?

I think young people are more protected these days when it comes to mail-order scams. Of course, it’s evident that adults are still fair game when you watch late night television or glance in the back of certain magazines. Maybe the kids of today first experience it when they realize that they didn’t really win an iPod from that flashing pop-up ad. 


The Fun House guarantees your satisfaction!

All images from Mail-Order Mysteries.


Dull Tool Dim Bulb said...

I considered buying this book, now I will for sure. Thanks for a wonderful interview Joe!

Joe Bonomo said...

It's one of my new favorites, for sure.

Klaudine said...

This reminds me of the Hypnosis ring and hypnosis goggles back in the day. They remain to be a favorite novelty items of mine.

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