Retro Toy Flashback # 16: Photonovels
Now, I have to say, I grew up with photonovels, and I love them with a passion. I'm sure there are elitists out there who say that photonovels are basically nothing but elaborate picture books, but I would counter that they are much more than that. I have always believed that film and TV are first and foremost visual art forms. That the images we see, and how we see them, tell us as much about a story (if not more...) than dialogue does. After all, without visuals, film and TV are simply...radio (which is way cool too; but a totally different medium). The great thing about photonovels is that they re-capture the images of a particular film or TV episode and re-tell the story in a kindred fashion, in images (with cartoon balloons in some cases, like comic-books, providing the pertinent dialogue.)
Now, children may not care about the visuals in movies; but I certainly appreciate this aspect of the photonovel today. As a kid, what I did care about primarily was that photonovels grant one the opportunity to linger on things, on details such as make-up, sets, and costumes -- things you don't necessarily get to see much of in a film for long; and certainly not in detail. For instance, the photonovel from the film Alien provides beautiful images not just of the film's exquisite (and trademark) hardware, but its terrifying central creature too.
My fascination with the form of the photonovel begin in the late 1970s with a trio of books: Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, Battlestar Galactica and the remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. I was a big fan of all three productions, and the chance to hold images in my hand from these films was a great gift. Again, moments that passed by quickly on film or the boob tube could be studied in detail. I could check out Princess Ardala's mid-riff in one book (!) or Caprica's skyline prior to the Cylon attack in another.
And then I discovered the Star Trek photonovels from Bantam and Mandala Productions. There were ten of these "fotonovels" in all, each featuring 300 "full-color authentic" scenes from favorite episodes. Published in 1978, these fotonovels took me back to classic tales such as "City on the Edge of Forever," "Where No Man Has Gone Before," "The Trouble with Tribbles," "A Taste of Armageddon," "Metamorphosis, "All Our Yesterdays," "The Galileo 7," "A Piece of the Action" and "Day of the Dove." Many of these episodes I had seen only once or twice at that point, so to be able to experience them again in this form was a treat. I don't think WPIX had ever rerun "A Taste of Armageddon" while I was a kid in 1978 (at least not that I saw...) so the photonovel caught me up on an episode I had missed.
I recall that "Where No Man Has Gone Before" was my favorite of all the Trek fotonovels because I had the opportunity to go over in detail the differences in production design from this pilot to the regular TV series. I could look at the phaser rifle, the differently-designed communicator, the gooseneck monitor on the captain's chair, and other seemingly small things. I could even linger on Captain Kirk's (incorrect) tombstone, which read James R. Kirk. This was just fascinating to me (and still is). In some way, I still groove on this earliest Star Trek design most of all. It's very cool.
Another great thing about the Mandala/Bantam fotonovels was all the back material. After the episode proper, each story featured a glossary (including terms such as "Sensor" or "Horta" or "PXK Reactor") and then there was even a quiz about the preceding story, with multiple choice answers. Finally, each fotonovel culminated with a lavish two-page preview spread for the next edition. It was just fantastic....everything a starving Star Trek fan could desire, save for a new series.
The Star Trek: The Motion Picture photonovel was also quite beautiful - in full, glorious color - and it allowed me the opportunity to again pore over every detail of the Star Trek universe. I could look at the new design for the Klingons (bumpy heads) and marvel at the baroque design of their battlecruiser bridge. I could gaze in awe at V'Ger, or at the re-designed and gorgeous Enterprise in drydock, or the interesting new costumes. Boy, did I wear that photonovel out! There was also a second photonovel, for The Wrath of Khan, but it seemed like a cut rate production by comparison to other photonovels. For one thing, it was all in black-and-white, a cost-saving expedient, I guess. For another, in the two versions I bought, there was a pagination error, where the story was told out of sequence for a number of pages. It seemed like a quick, made-for-a-buck rip-off, especially compared to the lovely Motion Picture book.
Some of the large size photonovels are also worth mentioning. Published by Avon, the Alien "movie novel" features over 1,000 full-color photographs, and is much larger than the little paperback editions for Star Trek. Selling at $8.95, this gorgeous book re-told the entire Alien story in all of its gory glory, including the infamous dinner/chestburster scene. It is simply a gorgeous book, and I only wish there had been a photonovel of the sequel, Aliens.
Another favorite comes from a less popular film: the 1981 space western movie Outland, starring Sean Connery. This book features 750 full-color photographs, and sold for $9.95 from Warner Books,. The layout was basically the same large-sized format as the Alien book. Outland is an underrated film, featuring some genius art design and sets, and you can get a feel for its atmospheric, gritty, frontier world by reading the photonovel.
I recall that some teachers complained about the photonovels -- about the idea of reading picture books - but I actually think that photonovels helped me come to understand the mechanics of "film grammar," the value of each frame, and how characters exist (or are blocked...) within it. The photonovels encouraged my love of the visual arts, and gave me hours upon hours of fun reading.
Anyone out there collect these (or other) photonovels? Are these things still around? I still have many of mine as you can see from the photos here, but they are well-used, and starting to show their age...