Saturday, March 30, 2013

Hooked on Old Comics

Issue #1936
Radio's Orphan Annie's Secret Society was published by The Wander Co., Manufactures of Ovaltine. This was given away as a promotional item to members of Radio's Orphan Annie's Secret Society. Includes games, stories, and more fun. During the late 1930s and early 1940s, every afternoon at 4:30 you could hear this introduction by broadcaster Pierre Andre blaring from every radio in the neighborhood, "Wh's that little chatterbox? The one with the auburn locks? Who can it be? It's Little Orphan Annie." Full color, 12 pages, 6-in. x 8.5 in.

While my kids were "Hooked on Phonics", I have long since been "Hooked on Old Comics". Growing up, my mother claimed that she "didn't care what we read, as long as we read." 

Thanks, Mom! 

In addition to our studies, my brother and I were encouraged to read everything that had words on it; from billboard signs and license plates (while driving along the freeway) to the TV guide to Money magazine to the back of our morning cereal boxes - and, of course, our favorite comic books (which we immediately copied onto on Silly Putty). 

While Star Wars and Michael Jackson's Thriller overshadowed most everything in our young worldview, comics provided us with a window to our imagination - and a stick of Bazooka bubblegum, coated with a translucent layer of powdery goodness!

When the movie A Christmas Story by the diarist of American popular culture, Jean Shepherd, came out in 1983, it was actually targeted to my parents' generation, those who grew up with Little Orphan Annie and who still had that shiny metal disk that had long ago arrived via post...

1939 Mysto-Matic Decoder

as well as a bent-up Whirlomatic Decoder tucked underneath papers and old driver's licenses in their top dresser drawer (the one we weren't supposed to "get into"). 

The front of the 1942 Secret Guard Whirlomatic Decoder 
(because of the metal shortage, this one was made of paper).

The back of the 1942 Secret Guard Whirlomatic Decoder.

A 1941 Slidomatic Radio Decoder

A 1941 Secret Guard Magnifying Ring

A 1941 Secret Guard Initial Ring

A 1935 Brass Decoder

A 1936 Secret Compartment Decoder

A 1937 Sunburst Decoder

A 1938 Telematic Decoder

A 1940 Speed-O-Matic Decoder

The amazing 1942 Radio Orphan Annie Altascope Ring.
Only 9 known to exist!

As a kid, I was fascinated by mysteries. I ran home lickety-split from school every day just so I could make it in time to hear the theme song to Scooby Doo ...

grab a snack and reread The Sunday Funnies before it was time to start my homework.

Captivated by humorous monologues, feeding my young adventurous spirit, comics offered me a world of my own. An escape from school, parents, chores, and homework. The rest of the newspaper interested me - NOT! 

It was from comics and cartoons where I learned about trivia and popular culture, which while unbeknownst to me at the time, I was picking up via osmosis. Learning about the world referentially was fun, and truth be told, it's how I still assimilate and absorb facts in my own mind as well as how I present them to others. The subtle reality of life is magically sidearmed by fantasy in comics, which pioneered this sort of communication. 


Nine-year-old Ralphie, a fan of radio's Little Orphan Annie, had sent away for the Ovaltine-sponsored secret decoder to decipher messages given during the radio program. Weeks went by before he received the shiny metal disk in the mail. But, he finally got it! He ran off to the bathroom, seeking privacy as his little brother banged on the door, he decoded the jumble of letters that he had anxiously transcribed from the broadcast. Letter by letter the message revealed itself - 


"Ovaltine? A crummy commercial?" Ralphie lisped. "Son of a *breakfast cereal manufacturer!" 

*Text adjusted in honor of my girly sensitivities. 

Saturday Evening Post Cover
December 20, 1947 Sunday Funnies (Jack Welch)

Still, Ralphie's colorful sentiment is exactly how I felt when after entering an art contest (advertised weekly in the Sunday Funnies). I waited a couple of weeks, which at the time seemed like an eternity, for the mail to arrive. Instead of receiving a prize or bubblegum or money for my hours of comic genius artwork, I received, to my dismay, a lame advertisement to send some company money for art lessons. 

"What a ripoff!" I thought. 

Thus, I decided to investigate.... taking my cue from Little Orphan Annie...

I decided to check out the stack of Sunday Funnies and comic books my family had tucked away in boxes in the cellar. Sure enough, this conspiracy had been going on since my grandparents' time. Asking aunts and uncles, cousins and grandparents, they had all, at one time or another, been duped by licensing and merchandising hidden in their childhood comics. These corporate monguls had a receptive audience of millions of children hanging on their every word. 

In later years, I learned that cartoon advertisements for Red Ryder guns (toys, games and apparel) was ultimately what connected kids' dreams of reading about cowboys to being the supportive cast for their playing cowboys after school. If you didn't have a horse in your backyard, at least you had the gear should one somehow magically appear. 

Red Ryder Comics #54

Getting duped by cartoon advertisements is as old as some of the comics our family has tucked away for generations. Despite my frustration by the propaganda concocted by cartoon monguls and my childhood solemn assurance that I'd never ever again be duped in the future, comics and their professionally engineered advertisements supporting consumer habits and appetites for fantasy, are a right of passage for most kids that continues to teach generation after generation vital lessons on life - from spelling...

to the importance of good hygiene... 

to how to solve mysteries...

Mystery Men Comics #11 (June 1940) by Joe Simon
Courtesy Kirby Museum

"Joe Simon's cover to Mystery Men #11 was done while he was editor at Fox Comics. At that same time, Kirby was also there doing the Blue Beetle syndication strip. Joe's cover has the Blue Beetle using a rope or a wire for moving between buildings. Our hero has exited one building just in time to avoid an adversary. However his destination seems if anything even more perilously filled with enemies. I presume the Blue Beetle is using something like a telephone wire that connects the two buildings, that may seem more realistic than a rope that just happens to be conveniently available. Unfortunately, it does make it harder to understand how the hero manages to use the wire. With one arm being used to both hold the swooning woman and fire a gun, the Blue Beetle has only one arm to move along the support. It would seem a rather daunting challenge, but then again that is what heroes are for..." 

even the ones who use cartoons and comics as bait to lure its prey to spend bundles of money on cartoon paraphernalia that now goes up at auction, fetching ridiculously high prices. 

A life-size bronze sculpture of Tintin by Belgian artist Nat Neujean sold for £108,705

Of course, for those of us who own such pieces, we couldn't be a happier group of patsies!

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