Much of what we discuss when we talk about comics in this country is from an incredibly Westernized viewpoint, often crediting the origin of sequential storytelling as having taken place in the '30s. In reality, it began much, much further back in other countries. For instance, in Japan, scrolls that were very much like comic books, in storytelling if not in format, have been around for centuries. The collective American “we” certainly didn't invent comics, although typically we're happy to take credit for them.
On the other hand, American comics have always had a very distinct flavor to them. Superman initially showed up on the scene spouting Woody Guthrie-era socialist politics, while Wonder Woman punched Nazis for the Allies in WWII. As times changed, so did the outlook of the publishers and the corporate interests behind them, which now has led many to claim that social justice never had a place in comics at all despite being more or less central to the ideology on which superheroes were founded.
One thing has stayed consistent in Western World comic books, however, and that's the often bizarre advertisements. Referencing the early issues of Action Comics, widely considered to be the first superhero comic, there are barely any ads at all. It's not until the comic shifts from the '30s to the '40s, gaining international success, that we begin to see utilization of page space for ads.
In the beginning, these ads were what you might expect: a lot of brightly colored advertisements for candy and toys appearing sporadically all throughout the '40s. Things like a “Superman Ray Gun” and an “Exciting Ant Farm” could be bought with a dollar bill and a cutout coupon.
These ads would later go on to be the bane of comic collectors, with many surviving issues of the time period ravaged by scissors wielded by young kids looking to buy toys they could only get from comics. At the time, this was a world with no television, so ads for toys were found almost exclusively through magazines, newspapers, and radio programs. For some time, comics were one of the best venues for toy sellers to market their wares.
One recurring and ubiquitous ad was for the magazine Grit. Founded in the early 1880s, Grit is, somewhat surprisingly, still going today, catering to middle America with very little change in content over the last century and claiming itself to be America's "Greatest Family Newspaper." From the '40s to the '70s, ads for Grit would appear regularly in comics, not necessarily offering subscriptions but recruiting “newsboys” to sell their paper for them. There's little information on why this practice ceased, although one presumes it might have something to do with the increased focus on child labor laws in the '70s. Regardless, there was a gag in a Richie Rich comic citing that Richie himself sold Grit as a way of maintaining his fortune, and the newsboys were an integral part to the success of the paper for decades.
From the beginning, comics ran a lot of ads for toy guns. Many of those ads are cringe-inducing in the modern era, but definitely reflect plenty of American values over the last several decades. Often, ads featuring a young child holding a somewhat disturbingly realistic toy gun and firing it would appear via full-page ads in the middle of a story, released by any number of toy companies. Now, the imagery around toy guns has changed, lessening their realism and enforcing the idea that they aren't intended to be authentic, but the dark legacy of toy guns does indeed appear consistently throughout comics history.
Also fairly upsetting through a modern lens was the attempt to appeal to young creeps with things like hypnotizing kits and X-ray glasses. X-ray glasses were definitely not what they claimed to be, disappointing many by proving to be nothing more than a couple of pieces of cardboard inside a plastic frame creating a sort of loosely defined optical illusion that made people look somewhat like X-ray photos.
Likewise, it's doubtful that any child that purchased the hypnotizing kit actually succeeded in hypnotizing anyone, but the ads cause discomfort to this day by enthusiastically supporting young men in their attempt to spy or creep on young women. Things like inflatable dolls and Sophia Loren body pillows were also advertised, which is slightly less disorienting but still pretty high up on the scale of weirdness.
The Charles Atlas ads that began appearing in comics of the late '30s all the way up unto the '80s, long after his death, began a huge trend in body-building, height-enhancing, weight-losing, and weight-gaining ads in comics. Typically, the Atlas format would be to show a young man with a girl, then getting bullied on the beach or in a park by a much bigger man. The skinny kid would go home, angrily chastising himself for being so small, then would send off for Atlas' book on weight training. Suddenly buff, he would return to the site of his embarrassment, smack the other guy around, and be immediately surrounded by women. Far from the only ad of its kind, these would permeate comics pages for decades, giving a fairly good glimpse into what the considered target demographic of comics were at the time, not to mention how our society viewed “weak” men.
After ant farms were popularized, a man named Harold Von Braunhut came up with a plan to market brine shrimp to kids. Called Sea Monkeys by Von Braunhut, the familiar ad populated comics for decades, making him millions of dollars. Despite their incredibly short lifespan, Sea Monkeys remain one of the most infamous comic book pop culture references.
Von Braunhut himself is a disturbing historical figure, aligning himself with Nazi ideology and recklessly going on to market actual lethal weapons to youngsters after the success of Sea Monkeys and his other dubious invention, the aforementioned X-Ray Specs, left him with too much time on his hands. Despite being of Jewish heritage himself, he added “von” to his name in order to appear more Germanic. Mailing children anything from hermit crabs to squirrel monkeys to “invisible” goldfish (yep), Von Braunhut is a fascinating individual, but certainly no one you would want around your children, making his legacy as a child's toy inventor all that much more bizarre.
Shockingly, there was a series of ads in the late '60s that offered children the opportunity to win an actual live monkey. These ads are decades old, yet they still inspire a sense of dread as one wonders what could possibly compel a person to offer this service.
Stories about this ad are somewhat legendary and impossible to prove or disprove, and they run the gamut. Some say that they received monkeys that, having been shipped literally out of a jungle, were unfortunately and traumatically already deceased. Some claim that a monkey showed up, but, being taken captive and shipped out with no other pretense towards socialization, simply lost it when introduced to a child and their home. Perhaps most believably, even if only via my own personal wishful thinking, others say that no one ever actually received a monkey, the contest was impossible to win, and those offering the monkey didn't even have the access required to begin shipping monkeys to children, despite the comparatively lax regulations around transportation of animals of the time.
On a lighter note, Hostess Cupcakes began taking out ads featuring superheroes around this time. Comic ads were often hand drawn and utilized flat colors to match the printing process, fitting in perfectly with the art style that was at the time specific to American superhero comics.
Hostess did them one better, though, by having superheroes show up to actually battle criminals over these tasty fruit pies. Having now been parodied ad nauseum, the effect of these specific ads have lasted decades, and they've become a pop culture reference in and of themselves.
In the 1980s, with the advent of the home video game console, comic books became valuable marketing. As game advertisements in comics continue to this day, you can actually trace the history of video games through reading comics from the mid-'70s into the modern era.
Ads (and the games themselves) were often somewhat shocking and offensive, subjugating women and exoticizing people from other countries, which has been covered more in-depth by writers such as Anita Sarkeesian in recent years.
Likewise, comic companies would advertise for themselves. Typically, this was nothing more than a full-page offering subscription, with characters like Superman or the Hulk urging readers to “save today!” by buying year-long memberships to their favorite titles.
In the late '80s, Marvel got a little more creative. In anticipation of their Fall of the Mutants crossover, they placed ads in their comics claiming that any child could be a mutant, coercing parents to turn their own children over to the fictitious anti-mutant government of the Marvel universe of that time. Utilizing a great deal of the visual anti-gay propaganda intended to combat what is in retrospect referred to as the Lavender Menace, these ads were both intriguing and somewhat disturbing.
The '90s and 2000s saw the rise of anti-drug advertisements in most mainstream comics, with Marvel going so far as to include an ongoing feature printed inside their monthlies of Spider-Man, attempting to fight the evil scourge of marijuana. Called Fastlane, with eight-page inserts in every single Marvel comic for no less than four months, the story was commissioned by the White House Office of Drug Control Policy, and the story is about as hip as you would think it would be.
Even for the time period, Fastlane is completely absurd, featuring a young man in flannel with a soul patch who at one point dropped his weed pipe and then actually leaped out of a helicopter to try and catch it. Indisputably, no person in the real world ever has or ever will do this, and it's odd to witness Reefer Madness-levels of propaganda in the year 1999.
Spider-Man has been featured in so many similar stories over the years that there's a collection called Spider-Man Fights Substance Abuse, a must-own for those of us strangely obsessed with the weirder parts of comics history.
While advertisements now have mostly toned it down, they're still a huge part of mainstream comics, dominating nearly half of every issue on the stands. It's hard to say at the moment how the ads of this era will be remembered by future generations, but, if history has shown us anything, it'll probably be with a sense of delight and bewilderment as readers attempt to understand what exactly was going on in people's minds in the early 21st century.