See The Pictures! Hear The Record!

This past week has been a busy one. I’ve been working on a few shorts for work (little promotional videos that I helped write and produce) and while we were doing the filming last week, I realized just how specific filming a story is; similar to creating a comic inasmuch as you are dealing with characters, cameras and pacing, but then there’s a whole other element that we are dealing with now — sound.

I was thinking about what I used to read and listen to as a kid before I really got into comic books and I remembered the collection of Disney “See and Hear” record books my parents scrounged for me. I used to listen to these records all the time — they included a 33 or 45 RPM record (or two!) with a picture book, and I think they had a lot to do with why I appreciate comics today. At the base level, there is the text and illustrations; you can totally just read the book without the record and get a good idea of what the story is all about. The illustrations were big and often pretty detailed, and I used to really, really look at the drawings and make up stories in my head about what was going on in those illustrations. This was really where I started getting used to the picture telling one aspect of the story, with the words providing further, supportive detail, which would help bring the story to life. This was a great way to lean how to read, since my parents could read the text along with me and I could point out what was also going on in the illustration.

As I figured out how to use my mom’s old record player (one of those portable jobs with the flip-out player and connected speakers) on my own, I was able to read the story alongside the record and, later, once it was supposed to be lights out for bed, I could just listen to the record and use the words and drawings as a springboard for the movie in my head, supported with voices and music from the record. I had a ton of these records — including a few that my dad grew up with from the 50s — and I remember them really clearly. I hunted for a few of the stories online and you can still find classics starring this kid Sparky, who had a penchant for hanging out with talking pianos and trains. It’s all pretty lo-fi compared to the kid’s DVDs and interactive games, but I think there’s something to be said for the kid having to do some of the work, you know? KFRC in San Francisco used to play old radio plays late at night and I used to love them–you were given some elements of the story, but most of the work was done in your head.

I can’t find it now, of course, but when NPR was doing a segment about Sin City, they actually did a kind of radio show version of the first few pages of one of the books and it sounded quite cool. I remember Frank Miller remarking that he had always thought that comics and radio dramas were very similar, and I always thought about how that might be because both mediums demand something of their audience, which helps makes the stories more personal. We’ve talked about this before — somehow I’ve cast the same voice as Batman in every Batman comic I’ve read, and when I would listen to a radio show scene happening, I definitely had clear pictures inside my head. Again, the reader is a co-creator, adding her imagination to the sequences on the page. I think that’s partly one of the reasons I have never been drawn to animated versions of comics. I know there are some good adaptations out there and I acknowledge that they are designed for a different audience and necessarily are different than comics, but for me, watching the videos just strikes me as too passive, like, I just don’t feel like I am getting as much in return for the time I am spending. (And yes, I also admit that there are quite a few comics that went by too quickly that never came close to being worth that $2.99 or whatever it was!) Somehow, that “missing” aspect — missing sound and voices in comics, missing visual in recordings–is more interesting to me. After perusing Graphic Audio’s website, it looks like they have a few titles that could be pretty fun to listen to; the voice acting and sound effects sound really professional and could be a great way to listen to a few comics during a road trip. 

I think it is partly because of these early radio show/read along record experiences that I’ve always been a huge fan of soundtracks, and it strikes me that comics never really “get” soundtracks, at least, not lately, as far as I know.  Now, I am sure there are other examples, but I do know of at least one comic that came with a soundtrack in the past — Nexus #3 by Mike Baron and Steve Rude. My friend Michael had it — it was basically just a dramatized recording of what was happening on the page, complete with sound effects and theme song, and the very memorable quote that we still bust out today, “This child is cursed… cursed… CURSED!!!!” It was more of a gimmick than anything else–the plastic disc was flimsy (see the pic to the right) and if the record player’s arm was weighted too heavily in the needle, it wouldn’t work as well, but still, it was kinda cool. Mike Sterling has a list of some other flexi-disc comics here.

I wonder if there would be a market for making soundtracks or at least background scores for comics, especially since these days music is just as portable as comics. It would be tricky, of course –people read at different speeds — but you could definitely create a general soundtrack that helped support the story. I assume people would dismiss it as a gimmick, but I wonder if it would add anything to the storytelling. Maybe you could have an optional sound track for the web/screen comics out there.

A lot of my friends are having kids these days, and a lot of them have asked me about comics for kids once they get older. There are plenty of great titles, but now I am going to start recommending these “read-along” storybooks — if they even exist anymore! Those books really helped me appreciate the different elements of telling a story and are big reason I still continue to draw, read comics and, hopefully, be open to different ways of telling stories.

How about you? Did you ever check out those record books as a kid? Which ones do you remember? If you have kids that are too young to read comics, how do they get their stories?

Mike Romo is an actor in Los Angeles and really liked Robin Hood when he was a kid...”oo dilally, oo dilally, golly what a day!”



  1. I remember playing with 2-XL back in the early 90s.  Anybody remember him?  A gray and blue robot with a tape deck in his crotchal area, and different buttons to press to answer prompts from the robot. Basically an audio version of Choose Your Own Adventure.  In addition to subjects like science and history, I remember there being Batman, Spider-Man, and X-Men tapes.  Such a cool idea, and I spent hours and hours with that thing.  

    I love when you can combine media for an interactive story experience like that.  And when it incorporates puzzle solving aspects like 2-XL did, that’s a really cool way for a kid to learn as well. 

  2. Ah man I grew up with 2-XL!  Only the version I had my brothers had been given before me so instead of a cassette deck it ran on 8-Track.  We had shoeboxes full of these 8-Tracks but the one’s I always went to were "Superhero Identities," "Cities," and "Lincoln."  In my dreams I still hear that nebbish smart ass electronic voice telling me to try again. 

  3. I absolutely loved those Comics w/45 RPM Record that Marvel used to have way back in the early 80s or late 70s. I had a Fantastic Four one and a Captain America one. The acting was pretty cheesy by today’s standards, but I would listen to them and read along over and over again.

     The Fantastic Four was a retelling of FF #1 with them becoming the FF and facing the Mole Man. The Captain America one was Cap and the Falcon vs. the Red Skull. 

    Awesome stuff.  They really should make those again. 

  4. Oh, and my daughter had some children’s books that came with a tape, she loved listening to those and reading along.

  5. I remember having a little 45 of a SUPER POWERS story that went along with the toys and the comics.  That was great.

  6. Oh, oh, I had a 45 of some Spider-Man story featuring the Wolf Man.  Got it at a rummage sale.  Damn, what happened to that…?

  7. This must have been before my time. I grew up with Teddy Ruxpin, until I broke his jaw and he worked more as a voice-over.
    I’m working on downloading the original radio shows NPR did of the Star Wars movies, so I guess we’ll see how I respond to radio dramas.

  8. I need some help guys. I’m doing a presentation about comic books for my economics class and I was wondering if you could give me some links to guys to have very large collections of anything superhero related. Any good human interest stories would also be nice. Thanks a bunch!

  9. @IroncladMerc — Dude, totally had that Cap and Falcon vs. The Red Skull comic/record! I loved that one!

  10. When I was a kid (late 70s, early 80s) Power Records would release comics with 45s.  They were sold in department stores.  Voice actors and sound efx would flesh out the action on the page and there would be a beep when it was time to turn the page.  I had several but the one that sticks out reprints the famous Captain America issue where Baron Zemo falls into a boiling vat (hence the melted face).  I believe they were the actual original comics reprinted in a different format packaged with a 45. 

  11. Great topic! I am of course dating myself, but does anyone remember the old DC records/lps? I snagged an old Metamorpho Record on ebay…anyone remember those? Like this one: 

     I’m gonna get that baby ripped to cd/mp3 asap. Does anyone have any of this stuff on cd already?

  12. In the days before VCRs, (they existed, but my family certainly didn’t have one) this was how I got my Star Wars fix.  I’m talking early grade-school age, but at that time, Star Wars read along books WERE the movies for me.  Voiced by Anthony Daniels, they were full of special effect sounds and they allowed me to relive the movies I had only seen a couple of times before on the big screen.  "When you hear Artoo say "Whirl-Dee-Tweep"… turn the page." 

  13. Whenever I look at the title of this article I immediately think:

    "Feel the magic, hear the roar!  Thundercats are loose!"

    Best. Theme song.  Ever.   

  14. Oh, btw… I also really really liked Robin Hood as a kid.  It’s definitely one of my all-time favourite Disney movies.  I had that book as well.  That Rooster sure could spin a yarn!

  15. @ Paul — God, I miss that show. I can’t wait to see how Hollywood will eventually fuck that franchise up.

  16. This reminds me that I was just introducing the g/f to the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy Radio Show on our drive back from Nevada.

    I may need to check out Graphic Audio, now.


  17. Thank you for this article. It took me back to memories of listening to my modest Power Records collection. I had Spider-Man: Invasion of the Dragon men, A Werewolf title starring Jack Russel, and a Star Trek title!

    I got them when I was around 11 or 12 at a convention back in like 1975! I remember being mesmorized by them when I saw them on the dealer’s table.I had never seen anything like em, and I was the envy of the block. My friends would come over and we would listen to them while we cheered and pumped our fists! LOL.

    Thanks for the memories!

  18. I had those read along books too!

    My earliest favourite story/movie-related record was the soundtrack to Disney’s Cinderella. Not because it was good (it wasn’t), but because when the mice sang in their squeaky voices, my dad would go NUTS, ranting and raving about how awful it was. He hated it, and for some reason winding him up was really amusing to 6 year old me.

    Records were such a great way to share the pain with the whole family.

  19. I remeber listing to that Plastic Man/ Metamorpho one for hours on end when I was a kid. Thanks for bringing back some fond memories.

  20. Loved the Power Records!  My bothers and I had a bunch, but the two that stand out in my memory as the cream of the crop were the Fantastic Four "The Way It Began" and Werewolf By Night "The Curse of the Werewolf." I used to wonder why they needed to alter some of the dialogue when translating them to audio.  I remember being 9 or 10 and sitting down with my "Origins of Marvel Comics" and the Power Records Fantastic Four and making a chart of all the dialogue differences between the two. Once a nerd, always a nerd…