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."