Friday, August 5, 2011

A SUPERBOOK SIESTA: The Titan Crew Return in an Early-80s Bible-Themed Anime Series

I knew nothing about Superbook (or its sequel-of-a-sort series, The Flying House) until I met Ray and Sonia Owens in the mid-90s. The Owenses were living in Virginia Beach at the time, and that city, as you may know, is the headquarters of the Christian Broadcasting Network. CBN, working in tandem with Tatsunoko Studios -- the animation outfit that created Speed Racer -- originally created Superbook to proselytize Japanese families and teach them about the Bible. The show wended its way to many other countries as well, premiering in the U.S. in early 1982, and is still in circulation in numerous places. It's also been updated in CGI format (not too well, I'm told).

Reconstituted as Echo Productions, the Superbook production team reunited four of the five performers who'd worked on Astro Boy and Kimba all those years ago: Billie Lou Watt, her husband Hal Studer, and the Owenses. Only Gilbert Mack was not part of the rotation, and he still made occasional guest appearances. The Owenses' daughter, Helena van Koert, took Mack's place. Other "Americanized anime" hands such as Peter Fernandez and Corinne Orr pitched in on occasion, making Superbook a delightful audio mashup of some of the most beloved anime series of the 60s.

In its first season, Superbook's structure was pretty basic: "Typical kid" Christopher Peeper (Billie Lou Watt) and his friend Joy (Sonia Owens) are whisked by the magical "Superbook" (the Bible) to various events in Biblical history, mostly drawn from the Old Testament. The kids, accompanied by their "guardian robot" Gizmo (Helena van Koert) -- who started life as one of Chris' toys (does that really make any sense?) -- interact with the Biblical heroes and play roles (sometimes shockingly significant ones) in the unspooling of many famous tales. The high degree of interaction between the kids and the Biblical figures must have made some people at CBN nervous. The second season completely rebooted the concept: now, Chris and Joy stayed at home and watched on a computer as Gizmo, Chris' dog Ruffles, and Joy's little brother, who'd been magically sucked into the past by some unholy combination of spiritual might and computer snafu, wandered around ancient Israel while "true-life Bible stories" were taking place elsewhere. I never found this revised concept to be convincing, even in such a highly fanciful context. The Flying House, which concentrated on the New Testament and the story of Jesus, returned to the "direct interaction" approach and stuck with it -- with considerable success.

You can see "sanctioned" clips from season one at CBN's Superbook Classic Web site. I'll just note a few additional points here:

(1) As you might expect, Billie Lou uses her Astro Boy and Kimba voice for Christopher Peeper. It's a little raspier than it used to be, but still immediately identifiable. What amuses me about its use in Superbook is that Chris is not exactly your standard goody-two-shoes kid. He feuds constantly with his Dad, the persnickety Professor Peeper (Ray Owens), and cannot always be trusted to do the right thing right away. I find it funny to hear that voice used, if not exactly for evil, then certainly for something other than unalloyed good.

(2) Sonia Owens' Joy sounds W-A-Y too much like an adult woman. The Titan/Echo crew were caught between a rock (Simon Peter?) and a hard place here; Sonia's voice for Kitty would have sounded too cutesy, Billie Lou also had difficulty doing convincing young-female voices, and Helena Van Koert apparently couldn't come up with a compromise voice. The Flying House, which also has a young girl as a main character, falls victim to the same problem.

(3) I'm currently watching streaming vids of The Flying House, and, to be honest, it is superior to Superbook in virtually all aesthetic particulars. The scripts (which were done by our friends at Titan/Echo in both cases) are better, and the draftsmanship is vastly better. Superbook, however, seems to be much more fondly remembered for some reason. Maybe it's because of the simple charm of the original concept. I'll be getting to The Flying House before long and will elaborate on the comparison at that time.

UP NEXT: We return to KIMBA with Episode 27, "The Chameleon who Cried Wolf."


Pete Fernbaugh said...

Most interesting, Chris! I was never into "SuperBook" as a kid, but I was certainly familiar with it, growing up as a part of the evangelical subculture and all. Christian-themed entertainment is an interesting genre that probably deserves greater study.

There has been some highly talented individuals who produced material that wasn't completely focused on proselytizing. You have your "Veggie Tales," but the one I would encourage you to check out is "Adventures in Odyssey" from Focus on the Family (who often gets branded as a hate group, but they really aren't, even if I do disagree with them on certain social issues).

Going on 25 years, AIO is fast becoming one of the longest-running American radio programs in history. (Actually, another Christian radio show, "Unshackled!," holds that claim.)

Anyway, AIO employs some of the greatest voice actors in history. As a DuckTales fan, you'd especially appreciate their actors. Hal Smith (Glomgold, Gearloose)played the lead character, Whit, until he passed away in 1994. Alan Young (Scrooge) played a replacement character for many years, along with Townsend Coleman (The Tick, Ninja Turtles). Katie Leigh (Honker on Darkwing) and Will Ryan (various DT voices) continue to play main characters on the show. There are countless other actors who have played roles of significance on the program (Walker Edmiston, Corey Burton, Dave Madden, Kenneth Mars, Janet Waldo, etc. etc.)

The show is well-written, well-acted, and well-produced and can be enjoyed by believers and non-believers alike.

Anyway, I know this is a bit off-topic, but thought I'd mention it. Thanks again for the post!

Chris Barat said...


Thanks for the tip re: ADVENTURES IN ODYSSEY.

I look forward to writing about THE FLYING HOUSE down the road. That show is remarkably watchable regardless of your religious views.


Pete Fernbaugh said...

First, grievous grammatical error correction..."there have been some highly talented..."

And I call myself a writer... :-)

If you need some help navigating the 600-episode+ "Odyssey" ouevre, just let me know. Perhaps I'll start writing about the show on my blog.

I look forward to your write-ups on "The Flying House."

Jeremy said...

Hi there Chris I'm an aspiring writer/cartoonist/grahic novel creator/tv writer.

I recently saw your article on Superbook. Nice look at the series! I liked it too growing up. :) Unfortunately, I never watched much of Flying House at a young age, but I've seen all the episodes of the show recently (and still try to watch some again from time to time). I feel soooo deprived. XD

I did, however, grow up on Superbook season 2 and liked it. I absolutely loved the follow up theme song and thought the computerization sequence could almost rival some of the imagery in Ren and Stimpy's "Stimpy's Invention" episode.

Being a Superbook/Flying House fan, I thought you'd be interested in a project I've been working on lately. It's called 'Trouble Shooters'-- it unites the Superbook/Flying House characters (Chris, Joy, Gizmo, Justin Casey, Humphrey Bumble, etc.) together, with revamped, but fitting roles, set in an early 90s atmostphere. And yes, a big influence on this project was Talespin and the Disney Afternoon.

I just finished my first web-comic for it just yesterday. I hope to have it up sometime in the future. It's actually a small mini-prototype story, but I have loads more planned out in my head. :)

I have some art for the characters here on my art blog :)