Although it’s impossible for today’s kids to imagine it, there was once a time before home entertainment allowed people to watch movies and TV series in their houses whenever they wished. Yes, before DVDs — and their neanderthal-ish precedessors, VHS cassettes — the children of the 60’s and ’70s had to make due with the turntable and the printed page of book and record sets. With no art from their subjects, but instead featuring comics by artists of wildly varying quality — and with records invariably made without the actual actors or sound effects — these things were still as close as kids could get to reliving their favorite movies and series. While they might be considered laughably low tech by today’s standards in the right hands the book and record sets could exceed their limitations to become pure magic — and at the very least, they were cheap as hell. Here are the five best sets we could find, and the five worst. Turn the page when you hear the beep! (Just kidding. There is no beep.)
Even Tim Burton wouldn’t start a children’s record set with the suicide of a clown but that’s exactly what happens in this adaptation of Marvel’s dark comic series. If you’re looking for an explanation why Swamp Thing has been perennially more popular than Man-Thing, this thing might be the culprit.
4) Planet of the Apes
Power Records chose to do all of the PotA feature films except for the fourth film Conquest, where the apes violently overthrow human society, which they deemed to violent for children’s fair. That still left the world being blown to bits in Beneath and Zira and Cornelius’s violent assassinations in Escape, which Power considered perfectly fine and acceptable. Despite the little trims here and there, the entire series is pretty well interpreted and not at all dumbed-down for kids.
3) Fantastic Four: The Beginning
Marvel had some real highs and lows in the record business, but this retelling of the origin of the Fantastic Four is just a solid win. As an added bonus, it had no H.E.R.B.I.E the Robot nor any Thing Rings, meaning it easily kicked the ass of any Fantastic Four cartoon series in the 1970s.
2) Batman and Robin: The Joker is Wild
A Batman story with Neal Adams art and a voice cast playing it totally straight seems almost ho-hum now, but this book n’ record set was made 17 years before The Animated Series debuted and the world was still in the fallout from the Adam West series. Many a young Batman fan listened to the record’s genuinely badass Batman and wept tears of pure joy.
1) Star Wars
You’re a kid and you’ve just had your mind blown by seeing Star Wars in the theater. Sadly it’s going to be about four years before the movie will hit VHS, so if you want to re-live the saga, your options are sadly limited. You can either watch the film via a silent super 8mm that contains only a few clips, or you can listen to this book and record set which reuses many of the terrific sound effects in the film. Unless your parents have a projector, you’re getting the book and record. But hey, add some action figures to the mix and you’re in nerd heaven.
There’s still no beep, so just turn the page to discover the worst book & record sets .
5) Little Women ?
In order to expand its market, Power Records decided to do a series of Classics Illustrated sets which included colorful tales such as Robin Hood and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Alas, they made one or two too many, it seems, as the work of Louisa May Alcott doesn’t lend itself to the comic and record medium as much as, oh, say, stories with giant squids and submarines.
4) Space 1999: Return to the Beginning
Space: 1999 was a short-lived but fondly remembered science fiction series that ran in the mid-’70s. Its premise was that the Earth’s moon is now marooned in space, causing the residents to implausibly visit a new planet every week. The Power Records version doesn’t have the crew of Moon Base Alpha explore a new planet, but instead has them magically sent back to biblical times to witness Noah and the great flood. The results are both extremely wordy and boring as the Alphans add nothing to the events and just go home defeated. Power Records made a series of religious records at the same time as this, so there was really no need to shoehorn this bible story into a perfectly goofy sci-fi story..
3) Star Trek: Crier in the Emptiness ?
Most of the Star Trek book and record sets are great fun and you can gloss over the fact that they’re not even trying to pretend that it’s Leonard Nimoy voicing Spock. The “Crier in the Emptiness” is the true exception as the Enterprise is invaded by a being that uses music to communicate. Beloved crew member Conners (?) drags up his “Edoan Ellisiar” (which sounds exactly like your grandmother’s bon tempi organ) and plays some lame songs until the disgusted alien leaves. The results actually resemble one of the more low-budget third season episodes, which is something nobody wanted.
2) Gemini Man ?
This book and record set got into stores just to see the series it was based on be cancelled and forgotten. Gemini Man was a pretty witless series about a secret agent who could turn invisible for 15 minutes, which is pretty fricking unspectacular in general, but especially unspectacular when you’re listening to it. Fans of Mystery Science Theater 3000 may recognize the series as the episode Riding with Death, where it was given the beating it deserved.
1) The Amazing Adventures of Holo Man ? The Amazing Adventures of Holo Man is almost a textbook case of why it’s sometimes best to leave the superhero creation to the professionals. The story of a scientist transformed through an accident with lasers into a living crime fighting hologram, the action in this book is ground to a halt when there is a two pages of raw text explaining what holograms are (of course, the book has no actual holograms for you to see) and as the final crotch punch, the whole origin story simply ends with a cliffhanger. Holo Man never returned, and is presumed dead.
Robert Bricken is one of the original co-founders of the site formerly known as Topless Robot, and its first editor-in-chief, serving from 2008-12. He brought the site to prominence with “nerd news, humor and self-loathing” as its motto, raising it from total internet obscurity to a readership in the millions, with help from his savage “FAQ” movie reviews and Fan Fiction Fridays. Under his tenure Topless Robot was covered by Gawker, Wired, Defamer, New York magazine, ABC News, and others, and his articles have been praised by Roger Ebert, Avengers actor Clark Gregg, comedian and The Daily Show correspondent John Hodgman, the stars of Mystery Science Theater 3000 and Rifftrax, and others. He is currently the managing editor of io9.com. Despite decades as both an amateur and professional nerd, he continues to be completely unprepared for either the zombie apocalypse or the robot uprising.