An Ode to Advertisements in Old Comic Books

I’ve been reading some older comic books lately, and I’m struck by how a large part of the aesthetic pleasure which results from this activity comes from the advertisements sprinkled throughout the books and on their back covers. In other words, the activity is more about re-experiencing material culture to create pleasant nostalgia than it is about revisiting my favorite super heroes. Here are some examples:

Defenders advertisement

This is a great page of ads from The Defenders #53!  It’s colorful, the range of fonts make it visually interesting, and it is also a fascinating artifact of the time when comic book dealing was becoming big business. There’s also the obligatory strength-training ad.

Here’s the back cover ad from the same issue:

Dr. J ad

Who doesn’t love a cartoon version of Dr. J? Are you a nerdy, 98-pound weakling type who needs the strength training offered earlier, or an athlete who likes to shoot hoops with his friends after school? Comic books bring both types together, just like a print version of The Breakfast Club.

But Marvel did not have a monopoly on great ads. Here’s a fantastic Bubble Yum ad from Tales of the New Teen Titans #4, complete with instructions for a magic trick:

Bubble Yum

And here’s an excellent Dungeons & Dragons ad from the back cover:

Dungeons & Dragons ad

The ads are light-hearted, meant for children, unlike those in comic books today. For instance, in the X-Men issue I wrote about in my previous post, there was a car ad and an insurance ad inside the book, and a motorcycle ad on the back cover (though I must note that the insurance ad was written in comic form like the Dungeons & Dragons ad above). Obviously the target audience for comic books has shifted in the past twenty years from younger teenagers to adults who grew up with comics and still read them (this shift has almost exactly coincided with my own maturing–I was the target audience in 1992 and I am still [or, perhaps, am once again?] the target audience today), but I think something is lost in the more expensive, high-gloss comics of today. The books themselves feel sterilized and are unpleasant to hold. The artwork is beautiful, but the objects that contain it are not.


2 thoughts on “An Ode to Advertisements in Old Comic Books

  1. Hi Daniel– it’s me Carl from NIU– I like your blog, and this entry in particular had me thinking; I know what you mean about the ads in comics. I’m of the strong opinion that right now comics (especially mainstream) are better than they’ve ever been. They take artistic risks and some of them even present a pleasantly challenging narrative, and I agree with you that the advertising is the blandest it’s ever been. I’m wondering (at 3:30 am on a Tues. morning). if there’s an interesting social condition at play here; maybe the more subversive/risky a comic is, the less creative advertising it gets, but, the more widespread/extrapolative (sp?) a comic gets, the more creative its ads get, because the advertisers know its reaching a bigger, more consumer orientated audience? I’m excited about your thoughts about this, because I think it suggests a dialectic between pop culture and advertising that I never really thought about before.

    1. Hey Carl,

      I like your thesis about the relationship between subversiveness and the lack of interesting advertising. I can see how many comics these days would scare away a lot of advertisers. I also think, though, that since comics now are more adult-oriented, so are the ads, which are just more boring because adults buy more boring stuff than kids do. But I wonder when these more “adult” comics will start to include more interesting “adult” advertising. For instance, the issue of X-Men I wrote about included a car ad even though the comic itself was marked as “Teen (14) or above.” 14-year olds aren’t going to be buying brand new cars, so it’s clear that advertisers don’t care about the younger edge of the reading market, they’re shooting for the adults with cash instead. So does that eventually lead to ads for dating services or chat lines? I’m interested to see if any sort of trend emerges.

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