Sea Monkey Dreams: 30 Years of Advertising in Comics

Advertising in comic books is one of those things that you can’t help but notice. It’s not that interesting, but because it’s visual, it’s difficult to ignore… Besides, for a lot of my early comic book life, these ads were so foreign that they stood out simply by dint of being for items that I couldn’t understand or obtain. As a child, comic book ads were a glimpse into a strange, foreign culture, and as an adult they are a barometer of society’s changing attitude towards comic books.
The ads in comic books first drew my attention when I was a very little girl. With almost no experience of any kind of advertising at all (I hardly ever watched TV, and 2 out of the 3 channels that existed had no ads), I was particularly susceptible to it. I had no filter, no ability to ignore advertising as non-content. To me, every comic book page was filled with valuable, relevant information, and I drew no line between the ads and the stories. At that age, with no money or understanding of feasibility, reading my dad’s comic books from the ‘70’s, I was enthralled by the American ads. Brash and brightly-colored, these simplistic ads for paper routes and toys that probably didn’t work were huge sources of desire. Despite my mum’s assertion that they didn’t work that way, I was convinced that if only I lived in America, I could buy sea monkeys, which – just like the drawings – would grow to be a tiny society of small, pink people with webbed feet, who’d live in a bowl in my house. According to these impossible ads, you could earn points by delivering magazines, and get things like bicycles (I couldn’t ride one) or footballs (we didn’t play it). I saw the drawings of x-ray glasses and truly believed that they’d work, so I couldn’t understand why everyone didn’t want them.

When my parents were just married, and living in New York as 21 year old newlyweds, someone signed my dad up to receive literature from Charles Atlas (the usual suspect would be my dad’s little sister.) Apparently, for my slim dad, this was pretty insulting. Getting constant literature in his mail, explaining to him that he could be a real man, and be less repellent to women, if he’d work out. As a little kid, I thought it was amazing that once, someone had actually responded to one of these ads in a comic book, and something real had happened in the world in response to that. I vowed to send away for sea monkeys as soon as I was a grown up and had that kind of power. It all sounded like some far away, magical fantasy, but
once I was disabused of my dreams of these magic toys, I couldn’t
understand how the ads made money. If everyone knew that they weren’t
really true, did anyone respond to them? Were sea monkeys actually
alive and conscious, and if so, was selling them legal? Living in my
drab reality of London, I decided that maybe in America, things worked

Later on, in the ’80’s, as a teenager buying my own comics, I noticed brash, full-color ads for strange, foreign sweeties that I’d never heard of. These things were called “candy” not sweets, and had very specific characteristics (outside of being sweet, which was how most sweeties had been marketed to me up until that point). There were Sour Patch Kids (who were they, what was this “patch” and why were they sour?), some kind of much-beloved Butterfinger (it sounded amazing!), and Hostess Cupcakes (readily available cakes? Where was this amazing cake-fest?) Most puzzling of all, the ads for a brand of candy called Willy Wonka; Surely he was fictional? I’d read the Roald Dahl books and was convinced that no real-life company would ever take on that name, after all, we’d only be drastically disappointed by the obvious lack of Oompa Loompa’s in their employ, and the distinct lack of actual real-life chocolate bar transporters, or meal-gum. How could he have a real-life candy company? What was going on?

I guess it would have been sometime in the early 90’s that I noticed Game Boy ads, and occasional movie ads in comic books. This was strange, but I ascribed it to the fact that kids must now have more money for toys than they did when I started reading comic books. I never occurred to me that perhaps the kind of readers that the advertisers were marketing to might have changed. In retrospect, it seems as if the advertisers had picked up on the fact that the comic book readers were gradually evolving into a slightly different kind of animal.
Then about ten years ago, something started to change more drastically. Perhaps because my life was changing, it just made sense, and so once again, I didn’t question it. I had a “real” job that I took seriously, and I did a lot more shopping, drinking and going out as a result. Now the comic books that I bought weren’t advertising sea monkeys, they were advertising irritatingly fashionable Vans shoes, games like Mortal Kombat, (with its almost cult like fervor), and there were double page ads for big-name movies. These ads looked distinctly stylish and well-designed. Rather than looking like part of a comic book, they looked like something out of a magazine. It struck me that these ads were different, it felt incongruous and strange to see sexy ads, depicting attractive men and women (not kids) enjoying their consumer products.
Obviously things were changing, and if I’d thought about it at the time, I’d have seen this for what it was; The signs of the changing demographic, interested in reading comic books, and seeing comic book related movies. If I’d been part of a comic book reading community, I might have noticed a general shift in the attitude towards comic books in American society. And while those may not yet have been acknowledged in general society, advertisers were seeing the changes, and capitalizing on them. Comic readers were getting older, they had bigger incomes and they were beginning to be represent a broader cross-section of people.

Recently I noticed an ad in a comic book. Not in passing as I usually did, but it screamed at me, and demanded my attention. It was a car ad, and not for a cute, little, quirky car, but for the same kind of car that my friend’s mum drives. A proper adult car, depicted in a proper adult way, in a comic book. And once I noticed one ad, I started to see them all over the place; Massive car advertising campaigns, dominating double page spreads and glossy back covers. When did this become the norm? Are comic book readers all working adults now, looking to purchase cars and terrifying PS3 games (for mature players only)? And what about the few 12 years who read comics? What are they to make of this brave new world of comic books, where do they get their wonder from, their sea monkey dreams? Or do they just wish they could afford a Scion or a Prius? It’s a strange place to be in when children can’t dream about unattainable candy anymore, because they’re too busy saving up to buy games like Borderlands when they’re 18.

Sonia Harris lives and works in San Francisco. She moved there from London, where she cut her comic book reading teeth, and learned about America. You can email her at


  1. i miss the days of the specially produced comic book ads staring the superhero of the comic you were reading. How could anyone forget all the crimes that were foiled using a simple Hostess Cupcake? I think Batman must have actually had a special place in his utility belt made specifically for those delicious treats

  2. Interesting article.  I still see adds for kids toys and stuff throughout some books though. 

    And is it sad that I still own that stars wars game in the picture above? nah…i guess not

  3. Yeah, what strikes me most about comic ads these days is how half of them seem to be for kids 10 and under…and the other half seem to be for adults capable of purchasing cars. I’ll be reading a new Marvel or DC comic, and on one page I’ll see an ad for Fantastic Four-themed birthday party stuff, then an ad for a Spider-Man sippy cup…and then an ad for a new Honda. Real strange. I guess it kind of makes sense, though, if the average comic reader is like in his or her early 30s, because they could be on the lookout for stuff to buy their kids? To be honest I think a lot of the ads for products aimed at really young kids are just in there because they feature Marvel or DC characters. The company that Marvel has teamed with to make Wolverine jammies for 5-year-olds might not realize that the average X-Men reader is like over fives times older than the kid in the ad.

  4. I have absolutely nothing to add to this discussion, but this was probably my favorite Sonia article so far. Keep up the good work!

  5. I so remember being young and trying to imagine what a Twinkie must taste like. I begged my parents to take me to America just to find out. Alas it was not to be. 

    Later my sister tried to buy some sort of Wonder Woman outfit due to an ad in a comic and me being two years older could mock her for expecting it to be delivered all the way from America.

    What do twinkies taste like and can you really use them to catch super-criminals? 

  6. This quote wins it:

    "we’d only be drastically disappointed by the obvious lack of Oompa Loompa’s in their employ"

  7. I just want to say that the Secret Invasion ad with the three little girls with one of them being a skrull was awesome.

  8. I always like that the "dad" sea monkey’s tail covered his genitalia.  Just one more mystery to unravel when your package arrives 6 to 8 weeks later.

  9. The ads just go to show who comic books are really written for through the years. Back when you started reading, comics were written strictly for kids, as evidenced by not only the simplistic stories, but the ads for the x-ray specs and other mail-order kiddie gags. Nowadays, that audience is still reading comics, so comics are seeming to grow up with them, as evidenced by the more mature dialog and stories, as well as the automobile ads. It’s definitely an interesting look into comic history.


    Great stuff as always, Sonia! 

  10. Batman’s must be working out. He looks really rip in that pic.

  11. Kids are not reading Superman and Batman and other mainstream superhero comics these days. No, today’s kids read Tiny Titans, or Marvel Adventures titles, or stuff like Bone. Today’s mainstream comics have continuity that is so intertwined and confusing that no kid could ever hope to understand it all. I have trouble understanding what’s going on at times and I’ve been trying to catch up on 15 years of no comics reading for the last 3 years.

  12. Nice Article Sonia.. My Alltime FAvorites are  1) The Various MArvel Comic Clubs and all the awesome giveaways they had in the late 70’s (FOOM anyone?)

    2) All the Sat. Morning cartoon Ads(smurfs etc.etc) and 3) The awesome page of .99c stuff (magic tricks, fake poo, Xray glasses)


  13. Great overview!  I tend to regard it as an event when I see something advertised in a comic book that I would actually consider buying.  I’m not a gamer, and I’m not likely to join the military, so that doesn’t leave much.  I suppose I’ve occasionally gone to movies or watched TV shows that were advertised in comics, though the only one I remember for sure checking out b/c of a comic-based ad campaign was "Fringe" (which lasted about half an episode for me, but at least got my attention).  Anti-smoking and anti-drug campaigns seem to be a big buyer for these things as well.  But anyway, I can never decide if this disconnect means I’m really not part of the audience for these books, or that the advertising isn’t very well targeted. 

  14. You inspired me to do something I’ve been meaning to do for decades: look up what "x-ray specs" actually did. From Wikipedia:

    The lenses consist of two layers of cardboard with a small hole about 6 mm (.25 inch) in diameter punched through both layers. The user views objects through the holes. A feather is embedded between the layers of each lens. The vanes of the feathers are so close together that light is diffracted, causing the user to receive two slightly offset images. For instance, if viewing a pencil, one would see two offset images of the pencil. Where the images overlap, a darker image is obtained, supposedly giving the illusion that one is seeing the graphite embedded within the body of the pencil. As may be imagined, the illusion is not particularly sustainable.

  15. I am also delighted to report that sea monkeys are still readily available for purchase:

  16. Fantastic article Sonia.

    I wish I could see these old ads back into our comics. Why can’t we have seamonkey ads, or win a free bicycle, or just toys! Why does it always have to be video games? Market to the little kids as well!

    I have an old issue of Uncanny X-Men and I laugh my ass off seeing those ads. Bring back Hostess!

  17. I think it could be a case that comics advertising doesn’t target children as much partly due to availability shifting the demographic.I know in Australia newsagents no longer sell Marvel or DC comics whereas when I was growing up most used to sell a wide range of titles.Most suburbs have at least 1 newsagent,often more.Now you generally have to visit a comic shop to buy comics and kids can’t easily take themselves off to the local comic shop.I think in the whole Sydney area (a very large area) there are maybe 4 comic shops as opposed to the hundreds of newsagents.If their parents aren’t interested in comics they probably have a hard time convincing them to go buy a few comics,especially when just buying 4 adds up to a significant purchase these days.Still,maybe its very different in America and my theory is wrong.


  19. Slightly off topic, but has anyone seen the throwback Bullpen page in Marvel books this month? I love that picture of JR Jr. I was once contemplating stealing that image to use as my avatar. Such great hair.

  20. You just brought back the pain of being a kid in grey London of the 70s. I would look at those sea monkeys, x-ray spec ads full of desire. But what was this strange S symbol, cents and most bizarre of all I had to have a zip code (in the UK zip is the thing that helps hold your trousers together)? Some kids were obviously having a lot more fun than me, with faces full of cherry based snacks…not fair!

  21. I always loved the Hostess Snack Cake ads with Batman, Green Arrow and such. I think they did Marvel ones two actually.

  22. OMG DC and Marvel totally both did them!…….wierd


    We can learn from these ads!

  23. I begged and begged for items from comic ads.  A locker full of thousands of toy soldiers!  A real giant submarine!  I would show them to my dad and he would break the spell.  ‘thats just a cardboard box’  ‘those soldiers are the size of a fingernail’.

    But I did get the Spidey web-shooters with the suction cup darts.  Hidden under my sleeves during school in case of a surpirse Scorpion attack.

  24. @Wolfdog

    Hells yes! You gata watch out for that shit! I got jumpe by The Shocker once in Chem class

  25. Heh, on a recent re-read of Squadron Supreme, I started thinking about this same topic.  Ads for comic distributors that have long since gone out of business are intriguing to me for some reason.  Expecially that one with the Thor lookalike dude with the letter B randomly emblazoned on his costume for some bizarre reason.  There were the omnipresent full page ads for sales clubs too.  I would show them to my parents, interested in getting telescopes and Nintendos and bikes and all the other cool loot, and every time they’d say "Those things are just a scam.", and I would be lootless, my dreams of being the cool kid with the awesome stuff, shattered.  Then I’d get beat up at school the next day.