TOYHEM! Wolfman Mark spins the discs for your entertainment…
Welcome to TOYHEM! For the fifth straight holiday season, we’re bringing you a series of features and columns celebrating the toys of our youth, which often made for the best memories this time of year. Click here to check out the complete index of stories — and have a Merry Christmas, a Happy Chanukah and Happy Holidays! — Dan
By MARK WAID
Regular visitors to 13th Dimension don’t have to be educated about the Batmania that swept America in the wake of the 1966 TV show. By now, Dan’s shown us all many a time some of the coolest, most amazing toys and merch that kids like me were begging Santa for during the Christmas of ’66.
But have we discussed the 45s?
For those of you born in this century — you’ve seen these things called vinyl albums for sale in hipster stores, right? They’re played on electronic turntables that revolve 33 1/3 times a minute. We also had smaller such records back during the Pleistocene era. They revolved at 45 RPM (hence the name) and contained about three minutes of music per side. I realize how pedantic this sounds to many if not most of you, but remember, someone once had to explain gramophones to you, grandpa.
Anyway, there’s your context.
“Song and story” 45s made for children were big business in the 1950s and ’60s, playing everything from nursery rhymes to fairy tales to cartoon jingles. One of the leading manufacturers of these brittle vinyl now-collectibles — maybe the most successful — was the drably named Synthetic Plastics Company of New Jersey, sometimes (but not here) known by its subsidiary label, Peter Pan Records.
Faster and more thoroughly than anyone, SPC jumped aboard the Batmania train, issuing not only five wildly popular Batman-themed 45s complete with die-cut cardboard picture sleeves, but plenty of other DC and Marvel-branded records as well. In fact, depending on how you fudge the count, there are 13 discs in all, which means — naturally — I was asked to rank them qualitatively for this article. I, however, reminded our editor that as much as I loved them when I was a kid, by today’s musical, audio, and storytelling metrics, they’re all in a 13-way tie for last place.
That said, there’s still some interesting history — and some really cool graphics! — attached to these platters, so let’s walk through them, shall we?
The cream of the crop are the aforementioned 1966 Batman 45s, sold in double-sided cardboard sleeves beautifully illustrated by the legendary Murphy Anderson. There’s Batman taking a swing at a dastardly foe, there’s Robin racing past us with a huge grin on his face, there’s the Batmobile roaring from the Batcave, and there’s Joker and Penguin plotting their perfidy. Each 45 had a different song on each side celebrating its subject, with titles such as “Look Out For the Batman,” “The Joker Gets Trumped,” and “It’s the Battiest Car Around.”
None of them were going to win a Grammy, and even though they were doubtless written and recorded in less time than it takes you to read this sentence, I loved them as a boy and listened to them incessantly. I can’t remember what I had for lunch yesterday, but I can still sing every word to “Here Comes Robin.” These 10 ditties, sung by an in-studio group called “The Merrietts,” were also collected on an album called “The Children’s Treasury of Batman Musical Stories” released on SPC’s Tifton label.
Wait, there’s more! Shortly thereafter, Tifton released “The Children’s Treasury of Superman Musical Stories,” 10 songs about Superman, Superboy, Krypto, Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen. That’s right, at least two commercially released songs have been recorded about Krypto the Super-Dog. The album’s cover sported five Anderson illustrations clearly done for 45 sleeves like the Batman ones, but for some reason, only “Superman/Clark Kent” was ever released in that format. Somewhere, there’s presumably a market research report on how few children would spend 49 cents on “Mr. Mxyzptlk/Don’t Want to Go Back to the Fifth Dimension.”
Hang on, hang on — there’s also a third Anderson-illustrated Tifton album, this one comprising songs and stories featuring the Justice League of America. Yes, stories! Metamorpho in “Fumo the Fire Giant!” Flash in “The Three Faces of Mr. Big!” Wonder Woman in “The Return of Brunhilde!” Plastic Man in “Invasion of the Plastic Men!” Aquaman in “Defeat of the Dehydrator!” Wonder Woman and Metamorpho even got picture-sleeve 45s out of the deal!
And if some of you hear a faint bell of nostalgia ringing, that’s probably because all these tales were re-released as 45s under Peter Pan’s Power Records label in the 1970s. (Heck, the Metamorpho and Plastic Man Power Records include the stories and the goofy-ass songs!) Don’t lecture me about how Plastic Man and Metamorpho weren’t actually Justice Leaguers; you know who you’re talking to, right? So what? In a rational world, do you know how many Silver Age DC superheroes you’d have to list in terms of likeliness of merchandising until you got to Metamorpho? Good on him. My best guess is that DC wanted these last two heroes spotlit because both were then under development for Saturday morning cartoons (that, alas, never came to pass).
Finally, limping along behind the DC superstars surrounded by beautiful graphics were four Marvel song-and-story 45s, one each for Spider-Man, Hulk, Thor, and Captain America. Unlike the DC record sleeves, these were illustrated seemingly by some in-house artist who had the characters described to them over the phone. All four heroes look off-model and, frankly, exhausted. Do Not Recommend.
And that, my friends, is pretty much all in the world there is to know about these discs. SPC/Peter Pan/Tifton didn’t totally corner the market on DC’s stars, however; an MGM subsidiary label, Leo the Lion records, also pumped out a handful of song-and-story DC records in 1966. Someday we’ll talk about them. Until then, if you dare, there’s a YouTube channel called Weird Wax where you can listen to some of these charming melodies yourself, if only to sate your curiosity. Have at it.
— The Complete TOYHEM INDEX of Stories and Features. Click here.
— The Eternally Groovy CORGI BATMOBILE, by DAN JURGENS. Click here.
MARK WAID is one of comics’ most prominent writers and personalities. Right now, he’s writing Batman/Superman: World’s Finest, Shazam! and other goodies. The superb World’s Finest: Teen Titans just wrapped up and, as usual, I will use this opportunity to beat the drum for an early-days World’s Finest: Batman and Robin spinoff by Mark and his frequent collaborator Chris Samnee. I’ve been going on about this for ages and I will not rest until it happens. — Dan