Thursday, November 10, 2005

Retro Toy Flashback # 16: Photonovels

Before TiVo, before DVD box xets, before VCRs even, the intrepid genre fan really had to do some deep searching to find good ways (other than catching the right rerun...) to relive his favorite episodes of Star Trek, or a favorite genre movie like Alien. There were comic book adaptations, of course, and lavishly illustrated storybooks (the subject of a future flashback here!) and even novelizations. However, once upon a time, there was also another great avenue in which to relive your favorite production, the strange and unusual collectible known as...a photonovel.

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 (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...


  1. Anonymous11:13 PM

    I really loved the Photonovel format. I'd still buy them today (if they would make them) even though I have most of the shows and movies I love on DVD. Back in the late 70's and early 80's, just seeing frames from the finished films was a thrill (in the age of the internet, frame-captures from shows are common now). I particularly loved the special effects photos. Plus, they also served as written version of the scripts (with illustrations to boot!).

    I had most of the Star Trek photonovels, plus Battlestar:Galactica and Invasion of The Body Snatchers. I really wanted Buck Rogers, but I couldn't find it in bookstores. Fantastic Films magazine published some wonderful color photos of Buck Rogers (including special effects shots), so at least I mangaged to get some nice photos (Starlog tended to publish more publicity and behind the scenes photos) in '79.

    I agree with you about the Star Trek II photonovel. What a letdown. Black and white photos and cheap paper. I wonder if that was done for the same reason that some Starlog editorials back then complained about the rise in the price of paper (I miss those old Kerry O'Quinn editorials in Starlog!).

    I had so many happy memories reading my photonovels. I would take them on long trips and vacations. No matter how far I was from a tv screen, I could still enjoy the shows in color. Plus, when I brought them to school the other kids drooled...they loved them too!

  2. I had the Battlestar Galactica one and still have the Alien and Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Never ever seen the Outland one before though !!

  3. Anonymous4:13 PM

    I love my Fotonovels. My favorite ones are the Battlestar and Buck Rogers ones.

  4. Hope you don't mind me commenting on a two and a half year old post! Surprisingly little out there on Photonovels / Photo Stories / Video Novels though.

    I agree with most of your thoughts on the genre - a truly underrated and, at least in my case, missed form.

    Some titles you didn't mention from my collection include the adaptation of the pilot TV movie of The Incredible Hulk TV series (1978), Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) and Mork & Mindy (1978). Other's I've seen in second hand bookstores ( but have been able to resist picking up, thankfully ) include "Grease", "The Champ", "Heaven Can Wait", "Rocky" and The Village People movie "Can't Stop the Music"!

    I also believe there's a Photonovel of the Bakshi version of The Lord of the Rings.

    All the best and thanks again for your remembrances,

  5. Hi John:

    I could spend days on end reading and commenting on common areas of interest in your blog! Wait, I have!

    Photonovels were great! I wasn't even a Trek fan, yet I have several of those photonovels (or had? I went looking for said Photonvels and couldn't find them - hope I didn't eBay them??). I have Hair and Invasion of the Body Snatchers, too. I think I may have had Grease!

    Sadly, Space: 1999, a rich visually oriented series, was never to have a proper Photonovel release except for a similar item from Italy! These were hardback books (8x10) that covered 2 episodes per book with many color photos. Unfortunately, many of the photos are grainy (due to enlargement perhaps?).

    Some day, I may post about these books on my own woefully underused blog!

  6. Matthew Mckinnon3:40 AM

    Even here in the UK, Photonovels were popular. I lived in a small provincial town as a kid, and I picked up the Bodysnatchers, Lord Of The Rings, Close Encounters (for many years the only proof of the 'pillow' scene!), Battlestar and Alien books. The Outland book took a bit more finding, it wasn't widely distributed. And yes, the Star Trek II was a big disappointment at the time, considering how lushly colourful the movie is.

    Only just discovered the Star Trek TMP one this year, and it's a beauty. Notice how many of the images respect and reproduce the whole panavision frame! It's important to note that Richard J Anobile edited the Alien, Outland and Star Trek books, and seemed to take great care with the quality of the images and presentation, so the result is less like a comic book and more like a graphic album. Kudos.

    Anyone read any of the more recent ones? I see there seems to have been a revival around 1999/2000.

  7. Here I am commenting on a post almost 10 years later.;) Anyways fun article and the second one I read on photonovels today. I was reflecting on them today due to John Byrne creating new TOS ones. Funny I never thought I would see new ones pop up in the 21st century.;) Anyways I enjoyed your article and like you and even as a kid I was shocked at the shoddy work on the WRATH OF KHAN photonovel. I have most of the ones you list minus OUTLAND, ALIEN and I am sure there are a few others. The ones I have I still have on my shelf. Thanks for the memories. Cheers.


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