With a site named after (what I consider) the greatest invention/ripoff in the history of comic book advertising, it's no wonder I'd be a huge fan of a book like this...
But Mark Newgarden's "Cheap Laffs: The Art of the Novelty Item" isn't just some dumb book about dumb products. Au contraire, mon ami. It's a very smart book about dumb products. Mimicking the look and tone of a snooty auction catalog, it treats fake barf, whoopie cushions and the indescribable "Little Sick Squirt" (stick the fake thermometer up the fake piggie's butt and it vomits water!) with all the respect they don't deserve.
Newgarden (a pop culture scholar and cartoonist who finally has a collection coming out this year) devotes two pages to each item: One has a description of the product, broken down into categories like "Originator," "Date of Manufacture," "Slogan" and "Target Audience." The facing page has a tasteful, almost artistic photo of the product. (Think of Geoff Spear's photos in Chip Kidd's book, "Batman Collected," then substitute "Dry Dan the Drinking Man" for a Joker action figure. Not really that different, is it?)
It's on those descriptions where Newgarden really shines. Sure, there's genuine information about the gags, gimmicks and geegaws, but Newgarden doesn't forget just some damned strange some of this stuff is. The "target audience" for the aforementioned "Little Sick Squirt" is described as "bewilderingly unknown," while the audience for the "Beatnik Beard" is, quite logically, "non-Beatniks."
All the classics are included: chattering teeth, smoking monkeys, fake dog poop, the "Beagle Puss," and, of course, the Joy Buzzer. Newgarden even reprints the original 1931 patent drawings for the buzzer and calls it "the twentieth century mechanized prank supreme." I agree, if only because a pair of "eyeglass frames with double-card inserts containing dyed-red guinea-hen feathers" isn't, strictly speaking, a "device."
Which brings me, naturally, to my beloved X-Ray Spex. When I finally paged to the product that gave this site its name, I discovered something very disturbing about the spex's inventor, Harold Van Braunhut. Apparently, when he wasn't creating fake X-ray glasses and peddling brine shrimp as Sea Monkeys, he was funneling the profits of those products over to his pals in the Aryan Nations. Yikes! There's a good story about the whole sordid mess here. Van Braunhut died in 2003, and we can assume he's peddling Sea Monkeys in Hell right now. At least I hope he is.
Why devote so much space to a bunch of (let's be honest here) crap when Will Eisner's obit gets a mere three graphs? Because to me, one of the great things about comic books are how damn weird they are, or at least used to be. These days, the ads are all slick come-ons for videogames, DVDs and energy drinks, but comic books were once chock full of sales pitches for monsters, army playsets and submarines. The stories weren't the only things that made little sense. The ads did too.
I mean, really, when you get right down to it, is there anything more fun, anything more amusing, anything more gosh-darn American (and I mean that in a good way) than a Joy Buzzer, some fake dog poop or a pair of X-Ray Spex? The Japanese can have their manga, the French can have their bande-dessinee, and historians can have all those tapestries, cave paintings and hieroglyphics that supposed inspired the adventures of Bizarro Lois Lane and Paste Pot Pete. Me? All I need is a can of Shasta, a pair of X-Ray Spex and a coverless copy of some old 80-Page Giant and I'm a happy boy.
I just wish some clown hadn't clipped out the Palisades Park coupons!