“It’s a book that used to be a movie, instead of the other way around.”
I have this slight but persistent interest in the genre of the photo novel. Maybe it’s because a childhood friend of mine had a stack of garish, violent old Mexican photo novels back in the early 90s that I used to pore over whenever he and I hung out. I just think it’s curious form, at once really logical and equally peculiar. So I asked Dennis if I could create a post here to lay out the history of this minor genre, only to find after searching very hard for the details, there basically is no thorough, definitive, or even semi-half assed information on photo novels or fotonovels out there in cyberspace. I found exactly one sketchy, uncredited personal account of the genre on one offbeat webpage. I reprint pieces of it below along with some of the not many samples I managed to gather in my search. So this is not in any way the paean and informational scouring I’d hoped to put together here. It’s just a little nod in the photo novel’s direction in search of any thoughts, opinions, or memories you guys out there might be harboring. — Timothy T
‘Am I the only one who remembers Fotonovels? They were a uniquely ’70s creation, and they seemed to come and go within about two years. Two movie-loving friends of mine who’d also lived through the ’70s had only a dim recollection of Fotonovels, if that. Maybe they came and went so fast they didn’t even have time to leave a footprint in the collective cultural memory. The fotonovel was an attempt to bring back and modernize the original photo novels, which flourished internationally in the early 60s. But compared to photo novels, which were lurid, violent, seamy affairs often based on original stories, fotonovels were usually G-rated, cut and dried, faithful renditions of blockbuster movies, or, on occasion, narrative picture books tied to the romance novel genre. …
‘For the uninitiated, Fotonovels were quickie paperbacks that most often told the story of a movie (generally a movie with youth appeal), although original creations without movie souces were not infrequent. Fotonovels’s stories were told through full-color photos or stills; the dialogue was rendered as printed text, with open speech balloons (as in, say, DOONESBURY) pointing to whoever was delivering the dialogue. Fotonovels were apparently never welcomed with open arms. They were fair game for ridicule. Stephen King, writing about INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (whose 1978 remake was Fotonovelized), went off on a tangent in his DANSE MACABRE: “If there is a lower, slimier, more anti-book concept than the Fotonovel, I don’t know what it would be. I think I’d rather see my kids reading a stack of Beeline Books [porn paperbacks] than one of those photo comics.” …
‘Informally, I’d place the original Fotonovel US life span from 1977-1979. There may have been more after that, but I sure wasn’t spotting them in drugstores. I was around 8 or 9 during the “peak” of Fotonovels, so I’d collected quite a few of them, most of which I eventually sold at yard sales for a quarter each. I remember having SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER, ROCKY & ROCKY II (these were combined into one Fotonovel), the aforementioned INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS, BUCK ROGERS IN THE 25th CENTURY, and perhaps several others I’m forgetting.’ …
The comeback: first wave, 90s
‘Why is the Fotonovel making a comeback now? Perhaps someone noticed that the marriage of text and image on the Internet has been slightly successful. And for movies that don’t lend themselves to straight text novelizations, like THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT, the format seems a good match. Though on the other hand, BLAIR WITCH depends almost entirely on its cinema-verite camera jiggling for its impact; as a Fotonovel, it looks like a collection of grainy photos, with text. It’s the shittiest-looking $9 paperback I’ve ever seen. $9 may seem pretty steep, but the cover price on my old copy of the LOVE AT FIRST BITE fotonovel is $2.75 — a fairly high cost for a quarter-inch-thick paperback in 1979. That was probably one reason Fotonovels went under before: A book composed entirely of full-color photos is expensive to produce. …
The comeback, second wave, early 00s
‘Personally, I think they’re blowing it all over again. If they set their aim a little higher, both demographically and artistically, they’d clean up with uncensored Fotonovels of beloved Gen-X classics like CLERKS and RESERVOIR DOGS. (PULP FICTION would probably be too long to fit into a standard Fotonovel.) I would also go with primarily verbal movies — they’re making their old mistake (with BATTLEFIELD EARTH and DINOSAUR) of trying to convey a big-budget, big-screen experience within photos the size of a baseball card. A talky movie like CLERKS, which kinda looks shitty anyway, wouldn’t lose much by being Fotonovelized. You could even do a flip-page cartoon of Silent Bob dancing to “Violent Mood Swings,” the way they had Travolta doing flip-page disco in SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER. …’ — collaged
from Herve Guibert’s ‘photo novel,’ early 90s
Chad Michael Ward’s ‘Black Rust,’ 2003
Photo novel zine, undated
Jorge Simes Fotonovela No 3 Book No 1 (2000)
from ‘The Johnny Torture Series’
‘You don’t know what it was like to be a geek in the 1970s. There was no VCR and what we liked wasn’t taken seriously by those who produced things. It was rare to come across professionally-published things outside of a few cheap magazines (Famous Monsters of Filmland). Some fanzines managed to get good quality still photos, like Cinefantastique. But on the whole, photos were rare and scripts were even rarer.
Then Richard J. Anobile came along and made every geek go WOW! He pioneered a new kind of mass-market paperback that came to be known as a Photonovel or, trademarked, Fotonovel. Orgasmic cries could be heard throughout fandom when that book appeared. Those kinds of books have gone away because, really, who needs them now that we’ve had VCRs, DVD players, and, today, streaming video?
‘However, technology now makes it possible to create our own. That’s a Kindle displaying a PDF with screensnaps made from an episode of Eastenders. The directions for doing that are here: iPlayer for Kindle
‘I’m not up on the kind of software that’s available to do it with American broadcast TV or even DVDs. However, when Rubicon was on the air, there was a LiveJournal site that offered HD screensnaps from episodes — that I now see could be compiled into a DIY photonovel. All that was missing from them were the captions. So I have to think this is possible outside of using the UK setup from that post.
‘Maybe someone out there will attempt this. It’d be interesting to see the size of a digital photonovel with two snaps per screen (portrait mode) or four snaps per screen (landscape).’ — Mike Cane
p.s. RIP John Baldessari, a very great artist whose work was central and important to my development as a writer and artist. Also the nicest, most generous guy there could be. A very big, very sad loss. ** David Ehrenstein, Hi. Yeah, she’s super great, I agree. And I agree those three films of hers are her most towering achievements. Happy birthday to Van Dyke Parks. ** Misanthrope, Hi. Codeine? Oh, great. He needs some kind of boot camp or something. Drop him off in the middle of a forest with just a book of matches and a paper map or something. Half-kidding. ** Wolf, Waahoolf! I’d recommend ‘Daises’ and ‘Fruits of Paradise’ if you can score them. I did my ‘mine for yours’ favourites of 2019 post a while back as far as suggestions go. Here. Yeah, but is it denial, really? I wonder. There’s this idea that full attentiveness to the politics of the era and world around you accompanied by appropriate outrage and action is the right way to be, but I think it can easily be argued that living richly and trying to share whatever is good about yourself and what you know and learn with those who are realistically within your reach and field of personal power is just as much a life fully lived and cultivated. Anarchism-Central. Yay that IC-B got her work’s fingernails under your skin. Her writing’s like crack to me. Interesting day ahead? Our strike/protests are supposed ratchet back up into something disruptive to behold today, so my day, other than working, is a question mark. Love, me. ** Joseph, Hi, Joseph! Holy moly, it’s very good to see you, sir! That’s a lot of jobs. Ugh, man, sorry. I hope you got some poem writing in yesterday as per your plans. Congrats on your marriage! And to a gamer, nice. And to gamer who loves Banjo-Kazooie! Holy shit. She is already my friend for life. And I’m not surprised if she picked up on all the B-K in ‘God Jr’. Wow, that’s cool. Great, have a good one, man, and I hope to get to see you again soon. ** Bill, I think you’ll like ‘Daisies’. That gig sounds nice as hell, obviously. As does that crepe. How much longer are you there? ** Steve Erickson, Her films, especially the big three, are a natural for Criterion. Huh. Oh my God, I’m so sorry to hear about your friend’s wife. That’s horrifying. Our friend/performer Kerstin, who was supposed to star in our TV series, died of that this summer. I count my blessings, as my mom used to say, that I’m not living in the US right now pretty much every second these days. ** scunnard, Hi, J. I saw there was an email from you this morning. I’ll get to it today. Thanks! ** _Black_Acrylic, ‘Fruits of Paradise’ is amazing too. Welcome home! May 2020 be your personal red carpet. ** Right. Today you get a restored, very old, quite odd post made by TimothyT, who, if memory serves, was a silent reader of my blog who gave it this gift one day. See you tomorrow.