"Superman Meets Computer Crook"
View-Master Reels

Kids today have it easy. Between videotapes, DVDs, TiVo and YouTube, they have plenty of options for watching their favorite programs whenever the mood strikes them.

For my generation, the closest we got to "video on demand" was the GAF View-Master, a handheld viewer that gave us 21 "stereo pictures" on three discs we inserted and advanced manually with a small lever. If we were lucky, we had a lighted viewer, so we weren't dependent on sunlight or a nearby lamp to see the pictures. If we were very lucky we had the "Talking View-Master", which added narration and voices.

Of course, "lucky" is a relative term. The sound was provided by discs attached to the back of the reels which, when loaded into the viewer, spun around and played like a real record. That is to say, like a record that had spent an afternoon on your car dashboard in mid-August. Even brand new, most Talking View-Master reels had the warbled, garbled sound of a badly warped LP, resulting in voices that managed to sound comically tipsy and unsettlingly creepy at the same time...like Foster Brooks possessed by Beelzebub.

Like Superman himself, the GAF viewmaster made a splash at the 1939 World's Fair, where it debuted as a 3-D alternative to the traditional picture postcard. In a variation on the old "stereopticon" concept, each circular reel featured 14 color transparencies, 2 each of 7 scenes. For each scene, two photos were taken of the same subject from slightly different angles, so that when they were viewed together an illusion of three dimensions was created. In the early years, reels focused on tourist attractions like the Grand Canyon and Carlsbad Caverns, but as time passed many popular sets were unveiled featuring licensed characters like Popeye, the Peanuts gang and the Flintstones and many live-action TV shows (including "Batman") and movies. (For a great history of GAF View-Master and complete list of reels, see this site.)

The Superman reels date to the mid-70s, as reflected in the artwork. Superman looks much as he did in the Filmation cartoons of the 60s and the Superfriends show of the early 70s, while Lois Lane features a stylish, bobbed haircut and then-trendy mini-skirts. Another element tying this set to the early 70s is its complete lack of violence. Just as the Super-Friends gave us a parent-approved TV Superman, the View-Master reels are long on super-feats and rescues, but utterly bereft of fisticuffs. Superman's only real opponent in a physical sense is "Computer Crook," a robot, and even this mechanical menace never gets punched. Still, despite coming late to the game, and in one of the character's less exciting eras, "Superman Meets Computer Crook" seems to have been a big seller for GAF, remaining in circulation well into the 80s and perhaps beyond, in various forms of packaging.

Thanks to modern techonology, I've managed to recreate the "Talking View-Master" experience for you here on the Web. The first step was to capture the images with a transparency scanner. I worked from two sets of images; a regular (non-talking) Superman set and an abbreviated 2-disc set included in a multi-character "Superhero Good Guys" gift pack. The records on the backs of the talking reels made it impossible to scan them. The next step was to record the audio and remove skips and stutters; the "warped" effect remains intact for your "enjoyment." (Listen for the "lightning bolt" on slide 3...it sounds more like a sick mosquito!).

Finally I brought all the elements together in a Flash file (see below). You'll notice that the quality of the pictures varies. While the 2-disc set still looks new, the images from 3-disc set have taken on a reddish tint over time. Below each image, I included the text that displayed with each image on the reels. Please note that errors in syntax, etc are from the original discs, not me.


Load up the Viewmaster Reels!


You'll notice that the narration doesn't exactly match the text on the reels, making for two slightly different story-telling experiences. Yet a third version of the story appeared in an accompanying booklet, complete with illustrations. I've reproduced it here in PDF format for anyone who might be interested. It's reproduced at the original size, too, so if you've lost your own booklet (or bought your reels in the days of "blister packs" with no booklets), you can print this one out as a replacement.