Who Do They Think You Are?: Comics and Ads

There is a certain kind of comics fan—I tend to fall into this category, and if you’re seeing this you probably do too—who ends up spending as much time reading about comics as he does reading comics. As I’ve mentioned in this space before, the creators of this entertainment are so accessible that it has created the illusion of expertise among the readership over time. You read the book; you see the writer tweeting about his process working on it; you hear the podcast where the artist talks about her process working on it; you read the blog of the big retailer and learn about how he decided to order that many copies of it; you got the press release about it regurgitated all over you about five different times in your RSS feed. Look at the comments attached to any of the things mentioned above, and you will see a bottomless well of expertise going to waste in armchairs and message boards all across this country. Although they’d deny it, deep down a lot of fans secretly think that if Jim Lee had a family emergency and had to be out of the office for a while, they could probably come in cold and run DC Comics for a couple of days. And boy, during those couple of days, there are going to be some changes around here.

I’m a lot better about all this than I used to be even a year ago, but every so often I find myself unable to resist the urge to try reading between the lines, to feel like I understand how This Whole Thing really operates. Every would-be publisher behind every Starbucks counter has his or her own favorite way of doing this. A few years ago, you saw a lot of the popular online game Speculate Whose Fault It Is That The Book Is Late, but the post-event era we seem to be living in right now has made all that less urgent than it was when Civil War was causing a twenty-book pileup during rush hour across Marvel’s entire line. These days, people seem to have returned to that perennial favorite, How Much Of That Was Editorial? and its hot new spinoff game, They Had To Do That Because The Movie Is Coming Out.

Personally, I have my own behind-the-scenes niche interest. I read the ads like they’re tarot cards.

Can I be the only one who ever stops to think about this? I never hear it come up. In addition to getting your three-to-four bucks, several of these publishers sell ad space in their comics. A couple years ago (around the same time as Speculate Whose Fault, Etc.) there was a lot of chatter about how many ads the books had in them and how their page placement kept disrupting the flow of the stories, but that too has died down, either because Marvel and DC addressed readers’ concerns or the internet just saw a shiny thing or squirrel and went running off after it.

The reason I get fixated on these ads is, in a way, they tell me who these publishers think I am. Somewhere, there’s an Ad Sales department where a salesperson spends all day calling Reebok and Bic and Trojan and convincing the people on the other end of the phone that Deadpool readers have a lot of disposable income that they want to spend on shoes, razors, and condoms (hopefully to be used on separate occasions). If that salesperson is going to Always Be Closing, he/she must have some convincing data to back up that pitch. To sell ads, they have to know their audience, and the ads they sell tell me what they think they know.

So, who are we? Well, I recently thumbed through some comics from various eras from the late eighties to last week, and if you read between the lines you do start to see a story emerge. A 1988 Iron Man sold me Jolly Ranchers sticks (eeugh), some Nintendo games, and Dungeons and Dragons, along with one lone in-house ad for The Evolutionary War. There were also four pages of ads for mail order comics shops which would vanish entirely within the next few years. In general, they thought we were geeks (safer bets are hard to come by) but they also seemed to think we were kids. That was the way it was, generally: lots of toys, lots of candy, an occasional BMX racing team endorsing something. Lots of those old child-labor, go-door-to-door-selling-garbage scams. An occasional ad for zit cream.

When’s the last time you saw an ad for zit cream in a comic?

1991: almost the same as the ’88 comic, but suddenly there were three pages of ads (one a centerfold) for high-end baseball cards. They were starting to smell the stink of the speculator all over us. (There was also an ad for a Spider-Man 1-900 number; I still don’t know what to do with that.)

1995: You would think the X-Men cartoon was the only thing being legally broadcast. I especially like the can of Chef Boyardee X-Men pasta with Arthur Adams art on it (which I am shocked and appalled to report is nowhere to be found on eBay today). These ads told me nothing, except maybe “times are starting to get a little tough in Ad Sales, kiddies.”

2001 was when I really got back into comics and all of this started puzzling/standing out to me. The content of the books has grown up, but the ads are for The Jetsons Meet the Flinstones on DVD and Kids Foot Locker. A single issue also contained ads for Corn Nuts, Cheese Nips, Juicy Fruit, and something called “Fruit Gushers.” All right. I get it. I eat like a raccoon in a dumpster. I’m working on it. Jeez.

2006 was equally manic. Nerds Rope, Scooby Doo 2, Power Rangers on JETIX, and then an ad for a car. Even I don’t know who I am now. Is this the stuff I should be interested in if I’m reading this book?

Throughout the 21st century, of course, my comics also grew increasingly obsessed with whether or not I was smoking, doing drugs, or smoking the drugs I was doing. At the height of Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” years, my comics just wanted to sell me video games and munchies, but now…? My mother was less concerned about whether I smoked pot than my comics have been the last few years. They did not think I was high currently, but they would not put it past me. At least these ads told me exactly how old they thought I was: “TOBACCO IS WHACKO (if you’re a teen)”, said the one I will cackle at every time I see it until the day I die. Unfortunately, most of these ads seemed to suggest they also thought I was an imbecile, but never mind.

Through it all, throughout all those years, Marvel comics always devoted a page to a subscription form. Even in the early 2000s, you never got through an issue without being offered the chance to subscribe. When’s the last time you saw one of those? What does that tell you about the changing shape of the marketplace?

Right now, frankly, I have no idea what to make of the ads I see. In many ways, things have stayed the same: video games, some gum, UFC action figures… DC is weirdly fixated on toothpaste at the moment… every book is positive I’m about to smoke a bowl. I’ve also noticed, though, that you’re starting to see all the ads row in the same direction. If Marvel runs an ad for a thing, even if they don’t make it, that thing has Marvel characters all over it. Wolverine t-shirts, Spider-Man toothbrushes and backpacks. (Now, does that mean they think their readers are kids who need backpacks, or people who are buying backpacks for their kids? It starts to feel like you’re cracking the da Vinci Code. “What could it all mean??”) Look in the latest DC or Marvel books, and you’ll notice most of the ads… are for the latest DC or Marvel books. Marvel in particular stands out: X-Men #2 had exactly three ads in it, none of them for anything but upcoming Marvel comics.

What’s that about? I can only guess; that’s the fun of it here in the armchair, after all. Are those Disney dollars I smell? The Time-Warner treasury? Maybe they don’t need ad revenue like they used to. Or maybe they’re just placing the safest bet of all: the one thing we know comic book readers always buy is comic books.


Jim Mroczkowski thought about joking that Deadpool readers obviously have disposable income (they spend money on Deadpool, for crying out loud) but then thought better of it, but then couldn’t bear to see such a cheap joke go to waste. This sort of thing is better suited to Twitter.


  1. Ahh, I will always love that tobacco advert! Not only is it funny, in and of itself, but it also reminds me of the family guy smoking subliminal messaging. SMOKE.

    Good article Jim, I too analyse the adverts and they really don’t make any sense sometimes. DC have also definately hit me with some jarring ads recently. Why drop a double page splash of computer game advert, right in the middle of a reveal/large plot point?

  2. Hey man, you laugh but that tobacco ad was the sole reason I put off smoking until I turned 20.

  3. I rarely consider this. Perhaps I should? Perhaps it doesn’t matter and they sell ads where they can.

  4. I don’t think comic books should have any advertisements in them at all, even self promoting adverts for upcomming titles.  If i’m going to cough up 3-4 bucks per issue, i shouldn’t even be bothered by solicitatioins.  Right?  I mean FTS. 

    Some smart publisher should drop their issue price by 1 buck and tout that they have no bothersome advertisements.  Maybe they could even claim they’re going "green."  Maybe kick off the new initiative by having a "Green Green Lantern" special issue.  I digress.  In the end, the clever publishers will more than likely give us docile sheep the "option" of paying MORE for an issue sans advertisements, or put up with them and pay less in a separate issue.  In the end, another reason to go the TPB route. 

  5. I’m pretty sure the lack of non-house ads has way less to do with Disney or Time-Warner money and more to do with the fact that comics just don’t sell much in issues anymore. Often I’ll notice that there are no ads in my comics about anything non-comics related. This is a different situation from the mid-’90s when the X-Men cartoon was actually setting demographics records for animated programs. Back then, X-Men animated characters selling pizza or pasta was a big enough deal, and that’s why those ads made it into the books, because it made sense. Today you get ads for Spider-Man PJs in comics where the average reader is 30. So, recently those comics-related ads are in there because there’s no other choice; no one else wants to advertise, besides the occasional car company or video game.

    I couldn’t believe it a month or so ago when I flipped through some of DC’s anniversary issues and found like zero outside advertising.

    And it used to be that DC and Marvel’s top series didn’t even need in-house ads to sell. Individual issues of Claremont/Lee’s X-Men or Morrison’s JLA didn’t get house ads (beyond events or #1 issues). But latest we get ads for things like the latest non-descript issue of Wolverine: Origins or R.E.B.E.L.S. It’s like, hey, they might as well fill those unsold ad spaces with something.

  6. Jimski. You are awesome. Thank you.

  7. That smoking ad terrified me on trying cigarettes until I was like 14. I mean who knew cigarettes make you claw at your own throat and release enough static electricity to give Fabio a fro?


    But seriously I just got done reasing some early 2000s Marvel stuff. On one page is Wolverine. claws dripping with blood, chopping people in half. The next page is an ad with wolverine climbing a mountain and throwing footballs high fiving kids. I mean it just seemed like a joke.

  8. At one point, I sat down and counted all the ads in my comics that were for things I might ever want to buy.   My conclusion was that, since I don’t play video games and it’s too late in my life to consider joining the military, there wasn’t all that much.  I haven’t done the numbers lately, though, so now I’m curious. 


  9. Great article!   Ads in comics is a never ending source of amusement and bewilderment.   I’d love to see some marketing demographic data for who buys most comics.

  10. I remember that teen smoking psa ad, it was put out by tobacco companies to shut up people up.  I often specualated that the reason the cover price has gone up is that there are less ads in comics. Well that and the fact that we are willing to pay for it.  Long before Disney bought Marvel, most of the ads in Marvel books were for Marvel products or other comics.  I can’t say it upsets me. I’d rather see ads for upcoming comics then zit cream these days.  However, I wish I didn’t have to see the same comics ads in each book. I get that companies are pushing an events or new books but maybe they should advertise smaller books now and then to generate interest.

  11. What a fun topic!  I’ve been reading one issue of Uncanny X-Men a night for the last few weeks, starting with about issue 115 and the ads have been almost as fascinating as the stories themselves. Reading ads from 1979 and 1980 crack me up. There was a stretch in 1980 when Sugar Daddies and Sugar Babies had (seemingly) just come out and there were multiple ad for them in each book! I also love seeing that all school children were always dressed in slacks and collared shirts. Society must have seriously deteriorated by the time I was in grade school several years later.

     Also, Spider-Man and Power Pack want to remind you "IT’S NOT YOUR FAULT!"

  12. One of the few advantages of being a trade-waiter: No ads.

  13. Digital books lack ads as well. But I like looking through old books and feeling nostalgic when I see the ads.

  14. It’s weird pickin up a comic and seeing an ad for a Hulk endorsed SCION, or zit creme presented by Dave Mira.  I get the teen thing, but, I always find the weirdest ads in comics, nowadays.

    I guess everybody bought up X-Ray specs, huh? 

  15. Modern age books may not cost much in the future (though I am a universe away from speculating), but these ads will be golden.

  16. pssssst.…..Hey Kids!!!

    Want to learn the secrets of MAGICK?!?!

    Amaze your friends with your MIGHTY MIND POWERS!!!

    Meet GIRLS and impress her parents with your dissapearing virgin act!!!


    Send a S.A.S.E. with $2.95 for s&h to:


    Morty’s Magic Emporium

    44 1/2 FishMonger Alley

    Lower Vest Side, New Jork


  17. The anti-smoking ad was part of the tobacco lawsuit that the companies lost.  They were forced to spend money on antismoking campaigns for teens, and dumped money wherever they could find it.  Comics were the lucky beneficiary of that money.

  18. What Comic Books Have Taught Me through ADVERTISING:


    I am an ARMY OF ONE.

    If I smoke pot, my dog will be unattended and lonely.

    I should like Mountain Dew and all things EXtreme.

    I should dye my hair, use some product with the word MEGA in it and were Axe to get the broads.

    Pedophiles can even get the POWER PACK, so I best be careful around strangers!!!

    Superheroes love Twinkies…Enough so that they will fight villains over them.

    Wrasslin’ is where it’s at!!!

    I need to own video games.  And they’re always going to be cool because instead of a screenshot they always use promo art.

    If I do drugs, it’s because I learned it from watching YOU.

    Don’t kill myself because I can always call the Boystown hotline and talk to somebody that REALLY CARES!!!

    Dungeons and Dragons have Dragons in them….Apparently.



  19. At least half of the reasons I’ve been buying less and less single issues of Marvel/DC is because of the damn ads.  I feel much better for it and the reading experience without them is much more enjoyable.

    I still don’t understand why they can’t just put them in the back of the book!?

     @jimski, or anyone that knows –  it was mentioned in this article that the publishers may have adressed the issue of ads disrupting the flow of the story.  a.) Is that fact?(or just something you meant as a vague possibility as to why it’s not addressed anymore) and b.)  if so, how did they address it?

  20. comics make money on ads, good for them!  that money can help subsidize other books and get them out, or even pay for the creative teams’ salaries, etc. . .  there aren’t ads on any other media we consume. . . oh wait, Fandango!!  yay!!!  Comics would probably get sued if they put more adult ads for beer or whatever.  

    what ads would you like to see??    also it might not be so much what do comic book publishers think you are but who do advertisers think you are. and Marvel or DC ads for their own products are lost revenue space, comics are mostly funded through their cover price but I’m just guessing cause I don’t know the figures, how much would a full page ad in, let’s say, the New Avengers cost???  10k, 20k, 50k???  Also, full page ads are pretty easy to skip, just flip the page, or does that hurt your fingertips too much?   

  21. I think I might still eat like a raccoon in a dumpster….too funny.  Ads at the time are annoying but turn nostalgic be they comics or tv.

  22. Our of curiosity, were there any anti-drug ads in The Rise of Arsenal?

  23. The whole issue was a reason not to start doing Heroin.