Saturday, August 3, 2013

Hooked on 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.

My kids were "Hooked on Phonics" but I have long since been "Hooked on Comics". While I would not say that reading comics was exactly encouraged in our household, growing up, my mother did say that she "didn't care what we read, as long as we read."  

Thanks, Mom! 

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

While Star Wars and Michael Jackson's Thriller overshadowed popular culture, comics provided us with a window to our imagination... as well as 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 grandparents' 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 as fast as I could from school every day just so I could make it in time to hear the theme song to Scooby Doo,

grab a snack and read some comics before it was time to start my homework.

Captivated by humorous monologues, feeding my young adventurous mind, comics offered me a world of my own. An escape from school, responsibilities and homework, it was from comics and cartoons where I learned about trivia and popular culture.


In the movie clip above, nine-year-old Ralphie, a fan of radio's Little Orphan Annie, 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!" 

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

Ralphie's colorful sentiment is exactly how I felt after entering an art contest I came across in the Sunday Comics. I too waited a couple of weeks, which for a 10-year old kid seems like an eternity. 

Finally, the mail arrived. Instead of receiving a prize, bubblegum or money for my hours of laborious artwork, I received, to my dismay, a lame advertisement to send a company some money for mail order art lessons. 

"What a ripoff!" I thought. 

I decided to investigate.... Little Orphan Annie style.

I directed my search toward the stack of Sunday Funnies and comic books my family had tucked away in the cellar. Sure enough, this conspiracy had been going on since my grandparents were young. Asking aunts and uncles, cousins and grandparents, I discovered that they had all, at one time or another, been duped by licensing and merchandising hidden in their childhood comics. 

I suppose comic advertisements for things like Red Ryder guns (toys, games and apparel) are ultimately what is needed to transfer the activity of reading about cowboys or superheroes to being the supportive props kids need for acting out their childhood dreams. In this respect, the cleverly disguised gimmicks serve as a means to an end: fostering imaginary play.

Red Ryder Comics #54

Getting duped by cartoon advertisements is as old as some of the comics our family has been tucking away for generations. Despite my frustration with the propaganda concocted by cartoon tycoons and their publishers as well as my childhood solemn oath that I would never ever again be duped in the future, comics and their professionally engineered advertisements support consumer habits and appetites for fantasy and are a right of passage for most kids that continues to teach generation after generation vital lessons on life.

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