Joe Orlando: a cartoonist and his sea-monkeys

The cartoonist’s art in a somewhat unexpected place: an ad for Sea-Monkeys from the 1960s, showing a Sea-Monkey family of three:

The ad turned up in the midst of a fascinating, intricate NYT Magazine piece by Jack Hitt on Sunday the 17th, “The Battle Over the Sea-Monkey Fortune: A former 1960s bondage-film actress is waging legal combat with a toy company for ownership of her husband’s mail-order aquatic-pet empire”. There’s a lot here, but some highlights:

Sea-Monkeys were von Braunhut’s most lucrative toy (and still are: In 2006, according to the filings in this lawsuit, sales were $3.4 million). Part of what made Sea-Monkeys successful was a scientific breakthrough Harold von Braunhut claimed he achieved in the early years. In 1960, after observing the success of Uncle Milton’s Ant Farm, [Harold] von Braunhut first started shipping Instant Life — simple brine shrimp that could travel in their natural state of suspended animation. This was the era when a good idea with smart marketing was the dream: D.F. Duncan’s yo-yo, George Parker’s Monopoly game, Ruth Handler’s Barbie. Around the same time, the big-time toy company of the day, Wham-O, started selling a similar product called Instant Fish, which was an immediate dud.

… With Sea-Monkeys, von Braunhut took his marketing to new levels. He spun off numerous whimsical books with all kinds of imaginary advice for caring for the tiny critters. You could coddle them with Sea-Monkeys “Banana Treat” or “Cupids Arrow” Mating Powder. (Inside joke for the arthropodologists: Sea-Monkeys don’t always need mates.) There were timely variations of the toy. There was a Space Sea-Monkey kit, and a Sea-Monkey Speedway that deployed giant eyedroppers to create racecourses. The same equipment was repurposed into kits for Sea-Monkeys Ski-Trials, Sea-Monkeys Fox Hunt and Sea-Monkeys Mystery Robo-Diver. In 1992, CBS broadcast a Sea-Monkey TV show starring, naturally, Howie Mandel. To this day, there is a website for Sea-Monkey zealots, who exchange Sea-Monkey lore and kitschy enthusiasms.

… after the Wham-O Instant Fish disaster … her husband changed the name from Instant Life and started marketing them as Amazing Live Sea-Monkeys. Joe Orlando, who would later achieve fame at DC Comics and Mad Magazine, illustrated the cover art. The image itself is famous. You know it: a Sea-Monkey family with three antennas wagging on their heads and long paddle tails lounging outside their underwater castle. Von Braunhut took his new marketing to the back page of comics — the one place where he could bypass parental skepticism and speak directly to children’s imaginations.

The briefesr of notes on Joe Orlando and his career, from Wikipedia:

Joseph Orlando (April 4, 1927 – December 23, 1998) was an Italian American illustrator, writer, editor and cartoonist during a lengthy career spanning six decades. He was the associate publisher of Mad and the vice president of DC Comics, where he edited numerous titles and ran DC’s Special Projects department.

Orlando’s early work was mostly in creepy-horror comics, but eventually he did pretty much everything. Searching on his name will pull up samples of his work from various points in his life. Much of this work is very dense and busy, and wouldn’t reproduce well here.


Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: