June 20, 2016


Hey there readers! This post marks the first time I've ever featured a guest writer. What's the occasion? Ryan McSwain, author of Monsters All the Way Down, is nearing the final days of his Kickstarter campaign to produce his latest book, Four Color Bleed, in a manner that lives up to his creative vision. It's a novel about comic books, nostalgia, and the nature of reality, and it's full of stuff that Fun Blog readers would appreciate.

But what follows isn't just a flat out commercial, Ryan covers one of the classic comic book mail-order products, the Magic Art Reproducer, an item that appears in his new book. So check it out, and check out his Kickstarter page. It's a product so cool, it got me to temporarily lift my ban on Kickstarter posts!

-Fun Blog Mgmt.

The Magic Art Reproducer by Ryan McSwain

Like many of the readers of this blog, I’m on an unending nostalgia trip. This manifests itself in different ways, from a love for old comics, to buying vinyl records, to browsing pictures of old toy stores. Sure, I’m excited about virtual reality, but I’ll want to use it to visit the 1939 New York World’s Fair.

In my latest novel, Four Color Bleed, I wanted to share this feeling with my audience. So there are bits about Pez dispensers, Mego dolls, all the things I love that are both old and cool. And if you’re looking for something that is old and cool, you should check out the Magic Art Reproducer.

If you’ve read old comics, especially from the ’50s and ’60s, you’ve seen a Magic Art Reproducer ad. It’s as ubiquitous with comic book advertising as that blasted cardboard submarine. Available from Norton Products, these ads started appearing in comics in late 1952 and early 1953. These ads continued to appear into the ’90s, at least in that bastion of culture, The Weekly World News.

The promise of instantly becoming an artist is a tempting one. My father is an incredible artist, mostly oil painting, and it’s a hard-won skill. I’m sure there were plenty of times he drew in his notebook while his friends were outside hula hooping. The Magic Art Reproducer promised to let you have your cake and hula, too.

So if you ponied up your $1.98 back in 1951, what would the mailman have delivered?

I snagged one of these in the box while researching Four Color Bleed. It only costs me $14, including shipping. According to the inflation convertor, $1.98 in 1952 money is $17.88 today, so I think I came out ahead.

As you can see, the box is the memorable ad. This is how the ad looked in the mid-’50s, so I assume that’s when this specimen was purchased. The one pictured in Mail-Order Mysteries has a more streamlined box, but I prefer this one. I wonder how if it was always such a drabby color, or if it used to be a bright, Reverse Flash yellow.

 Holy cannoli, it still has the insert.

The instructions are actually pretty helpful for getting this thing to work. That is, as well as it could hope to work. You even get some simple anatomy lessons.

My copy includes black paper and a white pencil to make silhouette pictures. Silhouette portraits used to be a big deal. In fact, the legendary magician Dai Vernon, known in some circles as The Professor, cut silhouettes as his day job. The more you know, eh?

The Reproducer itself is sturdy as a middle-school cafeteria lady. The tinker toy assembly holds nice and tight, even after six decades of magical reproducing. The tiny brass knob allows for adjustments.

How well does it work? Surprisingly well, especially if you follow the instructions. If the subject is well lit and the paper is in shadow, you’ll see a strong image when you peep in the tiny hole up top. I know Kirk wasn’t too impressed with this thing in his book, but I think you get your two dollars’ worth of artistic assistance. There’s a professional artist on YouTube who claims to still use his every day.

Silhouette bonus aside, I can’t imagine a kid getting one of these in the mail and not being disappointed. It reproduces art, sure, but with optics. Not magic. You’ll still need practice, Leonardo.

In Four Color Bleed, Ralph Rogers puts in the practice. But it doesn’t hurt when he finds his dad’s old Magic Art Reproducer in his grandfather’s attic. It’s not really magic—although there’s plenty of magic in Four Color Bleed—but it still takes him on an adventure.

The Magic Art Reproducer was a two-dollar version of the camera lucida, first patented in 1807 but first described in print all the way back in 1611. Art supply companies are still selling these things for upwards of $200, and the promotional images are nearly identical to the old ads. There was even a recent Kickstarter campaign for a refined version that raised over $400,000.

If you still haven’t read Kirk’s Mail-Order Mysteries, check it out. It’s one of my favorites, and I recommend it to comic fans all the time. And if you’re interested in the kind of novel where a Magic Art Reproducer plays a role, check out Four Color Bleed on Kickstarter. I have eight phenomenal artists lined up to illustrate, and advanced readers are already raving about the book. I’d appreciate your help making it happen.

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