Saturday, August 23, 2014

A "Literary" History of the Golden Age of Video Games - Golden Age Video Game Books Part 2

Next up is another Pac-Man cartoon book, written by Mike Thaler and published by Pocket Books in 1982.  (I am still waiting for my copy to come in the mail, so the photos below are from another website)


While this one goes beyond the single-panel drawings of Pac-Man found in Pac-Mania, it does tread a similar path, with many of the cartoons based on puns. In also includes other types of cartoons like the one below on “The Birth of Pac-Man”.



As with Pac-Mania’s Dick Chodksowski, Mike Thaler has an interesting story. Billing himself as “America’s Riddle King”, Thaler has penned over 200 children’s books, for including the Blue Lagoon series of picture and chapter books (published by Scholastic), the Christian-themed Tales From the Back Pew series (“The Preacher Creature Strikes on Sunday”, “Walking the Plank to the Baptism Plank” etc.), and a number of other tiles (“A Hippopotamus Ate the Teacher”, “Cinderella Bigfoot”), including over 45 riddle books. For most of the books other than the riddle books, Thaler wrote the text while Jared Lee provided the illustrations (for the riddle books, Thaler did both, as it seems he did with The Pac-Man Riddle and Joke Book). He also created “The Adventures of Letterman”, a popular series of animated skits spoofing super-heroes that appeared on the PBS educational series Electric Company.

Mike Thaler - from the author's website

Born in Los Angeles in 1936, Thaler originally drew cartoons for adults until 1961, when Ursula Nordstrom, editor-in-chief of juvenile books at Harper & Row, saw one of his cartoons in a magazine and suggested that he write for children. He sat down and wrote “the Magic Boy” about a boy with various magical powers (like the ability to turn off the moon so he could go to sleep). He solid it the next day and followed up with “Penny Pencil”. For more on Mike, visit his website at

Next up is Shoot the Robot, Then Shoot Mom by Tim Skelly


I don't actually have a copy of this one as it is a bit rich for my blood (Amazon is currently one for $100). This is a collection of 73 video game cartoons created by Tim Skelly. Yes - THAT Tim Skelly. The one who designed Star Castle, Rip Off, Armor Attack, Warrior, Reactor etc. While I don't have the book, I did manage to find a few of the cartoons in the June, 1983 issue of Electronic Fun and the April, 1983 issue of Video Games

As an interesting note, the back cover of the book featured a photo of Skelly lying atop a row of Reactor machines. According to a poster on KLOV, Skelly got in trouble for the photograph either because it leaked the game or because it leaked the factory layout.
Here's another example of Skelly's cartooning skills, from a tongue-in-cheek article on the history of video games that was printed in 1979 in either RePlay or Play Meter (I forget which)

Finally, we come to what may be the most significant of the video game cartoon books, Blips! The First Book of Video Game Funnies, by Jovial Bob Stine with illustrations by Bryan Hendrix.


This one had cartoons that were a bit more Mad-magazine in style. Note that the last example includes only the second page of a two-page gag. In the first, the kids tell mom that she should let them play video games because they can do so indoors and avoid getting into fights (personally, I like it better without page one - seems more like a random act of violence).


Illustrator Bryan Hendrix owned Bryan Hendrix Funny Pictures, which he opened in 1981. He has illustrated a number of other books, including 100 Monsters in My School.

But that's what's so significant about the book.

So what IS so significant about Blips?

It's the author - Jovial Bob Stine.

Stine penned a number of books for Scholastic, including 101 Silly Monster Jokes, Don't Stand in the Soup, and Pork and Beans Play Date.
But that's not the significant part.

Stine also founded Scholastic's 1970s teen magazine Bananas.

OK. I'll pause for a minute while you recover from the 70s nostalgia OD (who here remembers Cheryl Tiegs? Who hadn't thought of her for years until they read this post?).


Once again, for those too young to remember, Bananas was one of two magazines produced by Scholastic Books. Bananas was aimed at high schoolers while Dynamite was aimed at junior high school students. I read them both, but since I was in JHS at the time, I mostly read Dynamite (remember Count Morbida anyone?), though I occasionally cadged my older brother's copy of Bananas. Back in the day, which is to say MY day, you used to be able to order Scholastic Books right from your classroom. IIRC, every year, or maybe twice a year, they would give out lists of the various books that you could order and they would deliver them to you in class. (True confessions time - I was the dork who ordered more books than anyone else).

But anyway, that's STILL not the significant part.
The significant part is that in 1986 Stine wrote a kiddie horror novel called Blind Date, launching a new career as a children's horror author. Yes, that's right "Jovial Bob" Stine is none other than R.L. Stine - the "Stephen King of children's horror" and creator of such series as Goosebumps and Fear Street.


Saturday, August 16, 2014

A "Literary" History of the Golden Age of Video Games - Golden Age Video Game Books Part 1

Today I thought I’d start a series on a subject near and dear to my bookworm heart – video game books. Several months back, I did an overview post on this subject. This time I want to go into a bit more detail.

Starting in 1982, a spate of video game books hit the shelves. My own list shows 56 different titles published that years along. While I didn't have all 56, I bought every one I could get my hands on. In the 21st century, when both video games and video game books are legion, it’s hard to explain just how cool these things were to a teen or pre-teen video game geek in the 1980s. I can still remember clearly one day when a friend of mine from high school walked into band hall (yes, I was a band geek) with the first issue of a magazine called Electronic Games tucked under his arm. When I saw it, my jaw hit the floor. An entire magazine about nothing but video games!!!???? Are you kidding me!!??? The cover story was on “Asteroids Vs. Space Invaders”. I was hooked instantly and, starting with issue 2, I bought every one and read them to tatters. Many gamers pored over these things with the intensity of a prepubescent ogling the latest issue of Playboy. Electronic Games immediately replaced the Sears Christmas Wish Book as my #1 source of consumerist daydreams. I had an Atari 2600 and (later) and Apple II but if I’d had unlimited funds, I would have had an Intellivision, a ColecoVision, an Atari 800, a Commodore, an Arcadia 2001 (how I wanted one of those!)…you get the picture. I remember dreaming about getting all of the Coleco tabletop arcade games and the various handheld arcade ports and starting my own miniature arcade (the idea of having my own actual arcade was more than my teenage brain could handle – such was reserved for the likes of Ricky Schroeder).

A Bit of Pre-History

Anyway, enough reminiscing. Let’s look at the books. So what was the very first video game book, coin-op or otherwise? Actually, I don’t really know. The first one I have been able to find was something called The Coin-Operated and Home Electronic Games Market by Frost and Sullivan, published in 1976. This was a market report on video games, and some might argue that this wasn’t really a “book” at all. Unfortunately, it isn’t easy to come by. A quick search of Worldcat shows that the Library of Congress has a copy. At one point, I was planning on taking a research trip there, but once I largely completed my collection of RePlay and Play Meter (and found out that they didn’t have a complete collection of either), my ardor for a visit somewhat cooled. In 1977 came Len Buckwalter’s Video Games (Grosset & Dunlap) and Video Games: A Complete Guide (Tempo), which some have said are the same book. I can’t say, since I haven’t seen the former. I do, however, have a copy of the latter. Since it is a home video games book, I won’t cover it in too much detail. Here are some photos.
Len Buckwalter (presumably in his days at Electronics Illustrated)

Oh, what the heck. I can’t resist a LITTLE bit of history – at least on the author. Len Buckwalter was actually quite well known for his electronics hobbyist books of the 1960s and 70s (he wrote 22 of them for Howard W. Sams). His love of electronics started as a teen when a friend visited and told him that a kid in the neighborhood had built a radio that he used to actually talk to people from around the world. Buckwalter rushed over and saw the kid talking to someone in Albany. Albany was just 90 miles away but to Buckwalter it was like he was talking to someone from “Alpha Centauri”. It was the start of a lifetime in radio and electronics. Before long, Buckwalter got his HAM license and began reading everything he could get his hands on about radio. In the late 40s, Buckwalter enrolled at New York University to study electronics – with an eye toward a career in radio broadcasting rather than engineering (during his student years, he worked nights at WINS radio station). After graduating in 1951, he was drafted for the Korean War. Because of his aptitude wit Morse code, he want assigned to the Army Signal Corps. After returning home, Buckwalter worked at a number of radio stations in Trenton, Boston, and other areas. As the low man on the totem pole, however, he was invariably assigned to the night shift, which wreaked havoc on his personal life. Miserable, Buckwalter quit. At the time, a friend and mentor was writing for a magazine called Electronics Illustrated and suggested that Buckwalter do the same. Buckwalter was quickly hired as a technical editor and column writer (in 1961 he started a column called CB Corner on Citizen’s Band radio). In his spare time, he wrote manuals for General Electric’s series of electronics projects kits, like the Basic Transistor Lab. Dissatisfied with the quality of construction articles he was seeing, Buckwalter eventually quit and launched a career as a freelance writer, penning a series of well-known, and well-loved build-it-yourself electronics books like Electronic Toys and Games You Can Build.  His most famous work (one site called it “legendary”) was Having Fun With Transistors (now THERE’S a title only a geek could love), which included 13 build-it-yourself projects using transistors, including Boris, the Talking Skull and The Electronic Eyeball. In later years, Buckwalter turned to another love – avionics. (For more on Buckwalter, included audio interviews, check out


The Electronic Eyeball

Rounding out the 1970s were a number of books on repairing video games, including How to Design and Build Your Own Custom TV Games and How To Repair Video Games (both published by Tab Books in 1978) and McGraw-Hill’s Electronic Games: Design, Programming, and Troubleshooting (1979). Aside from another Frost & Sullivan volume, these are the only video game titles I’ve been able to turn up from the 1970s. From looking at them, it would seem that publishers considered video games a hobbyist fad which, if true, is a bit surprising given the popularity of the Atari 2600 (not to mention arcade games). I would have thought that someone would have produced a book or strategy guide for the 2600 in the late '70s (maybe they did and I don’t know about it).

The Golden Age

The 1970s video game book offerings were sparse. The video game publishing industry didn’t really take off until late 1981 when the first issue of Electronic Games and Tom Hirschfeld’s How to Master the Video Games appeared. Normally, I’d have started with those, but instead I’m taking a different tack. Since strategy guides were the most common titles, I’m saving them for last. Instead, I’m going to start with what was seemingly the least interesting genre – cartoon and humor books. Now I have to say at the outset that the “humor” in these books doesn’t always hold up – at least for me. Maybe it’s the fact that they were written for pre-teens but I don’t think that’s the only reason. Something tells me that today’s pre-teen would find these things far too tame (though perhaps that’s a commentary on kids today rather than the books themselves). Then again, I grew up on Mad, Cracked, and Crazy, which featured much edgier humor that has stood the test of time (though perhaps only through the rose-colored glasses of memory). OTOH, I also read tons of cartoon books like Peanuts, Beetle Bailey, The Wizard of Id, and even (yes, I'm ashamed to admit it), The Family Circus.The Family Circus was about the wussiest series on earth but people read it, so maybe kids enjoyed the video game cartoon books after all. In any event I didn't exactly fall out of my chair laughing at any of these books. Perhaps this is because this was the one genre that I didn’t actually read back in the day and have only done so recently as an adult. If I had read them in my teen years when they were published, I would probably wax much more nostalgic about them (judging something you loved in your youth is well-nigh impossible as the nostalgia factor invariably overwhelms your objectivity). Nonetheless, I did enjoy “reading” most of them. More important, when I did a bit of research, I unearthed a few facts that I, at least, found quite interesting.

Video game cartoon books were a mini genre in the 1980s, with a handful of titles published. Let’s start with Pac-Mania.


Pac-Mania was a book of Pac-Man “cartoons”, one to page, almost all of them similar to the following.




Pac-Mania was credited to “Haller Schwarz”, which was actually the name of an advertising agency (who thought the book would be a good way to generate PR) and the pen name for a group of writers including Dick Chodkoswki, Dan Dixon, and Rick Teich. Of these, I was able to find more info on Chodkoswki. Born in Connecticut, Chodkowski became interested in drawing at an early age. He won school honors (and a mention in the local paper) when he drew a picture of Santa Claus using only numbers and mathematical symbols. After moving to California at age 13 and finishing high school, Chodkowski enrolled in the prestigious L.A. Art Center, only to have to drop out when he could no longer afford the tuition. Determined, he took a job at the Post Office to earn money to continue. Before he could do so, he was drafted and, after serving for two years on active duty, returned the Post Office and to the Art Center. He never graduated, but he did go on to a long career as an artist for various ad agencies (including Haller Schwarz). According to his website, Chodkoswki created the Funburger and the Fun Meal for Burger Chef, as well as the characters Burger Chef & Jeff. For those too young to remember. Burger Chef was a major fast food chain in the 1960s and 70s. At its peak, in 1973, it had 1,050 locations. (I personally liked Burger Chef and its burgers far more than McDonald’s).

Created in 1974, the Fun Meal was later ripped off by McDonald’s for its Happy Meal (as with other things Burger Chefian, I preferred the Fun Meal to the Happy Meal). Among his other work was the Kool-Aid comics and Cookie Crisp cereal, another concept Chodkoswki claims he came up with, along with its mascot, the Cookie Wizard. In addition to the two Pac-Mania volumes, Chodkoswi wrote 5 other books (including Snakes Alive, It’s a Reptile Clive). He later created Because I Care a series of greeting cards promoting condom use that merited a mention on The Tonight Show. For more on Dick Chodowski, check out his website:
There were a number of Kool-Aid comic book series, and I'm not sure which one Chodkowski worked on, but from the art, I'm guessing it was this one.
 As for Pac-Mania, the idea came from Chodkowski (who also created the vast majority of the cartoons and puns). Chodkowski had never actually played Pac-Man and had no experience with video games. He drew inspiration from Roger Price's popular Droodles series of cartoons, like the following, titled "four elephants examine an orange."

Coming up with gags based on "pac" was easy, as were the drawings, and Chodkowski had so many left over that Pinnacle printed a sequel.