Superman. Wonder Woman. Lex Luthor. Radio Shack. BE THERE. – Superman in “The Computer Masters of Metropolis”
There was a minor confluence back in the 1980s, as comics and technology came together in a kind of book that was really hitting its stride: the giveaway. The ’80s were the golden age of the free comic book, which often had some sort of goofy theme as its raison d’être — of course there were also more serious iterations. And the device that would change the world just as much as any other technological innovation, from the light bulb all the way back to the wheel, was just then making its presence felt: the personal computer. It’s no surprise that the two, genre and gizmo, would meet in comic book about, you guessed it, the power of the PC.
Enter Radio Shack. And enter Superman. And Wonder Woman. And Lex Luthor. And a couple of tech-savvy kids. Add them up, and you have computer-themed hijinks that are, if nothing else, at least worth the price of admission.
There were actually three Superman Radio Shack comics back then, forming a loose, somewhat connected trilogy. And all, naturally, pushed the earliest boxy iterations of the PC onto the American public, and highlighted their dual educational/entertainment capabilities. And when we talk about early computers, we’re talking early computers. My first PC as a kid was an Apple IIGS, which my parents bought in 1988. It was a fairly solid piece of work for its day (and it remains the only Apple product I’ve ever used/owned), and I assure you, many an afternoon was spent (my father said “wasted”) on it playing the greatest computer game ever invented: Sid Meier’s Pirates!. But the damn thing lacked a hard drive. Repeat: IT LACKED A HARD DRIVE. Kind of difficult to conceive of in this age of laptop hard drive space measured in the TB range, but there you go. These were formative years, when fire was still being harnessed, as it were.
The big product pimped here is even more old-timey: the TRS-80 Color Computer, manufactured by Tandy, and marketed through Radio Shack (some iterations of the machine had the store name emblazoned onto them). It was one of the very first computers designed for home use, and as such, carved out a warm place in the hearts of many programming enthusiasts (it’s endearingly referred to as CoCo, like Conan O’Brien). Sure, “color” was stretching it a bit. Sure, the keyboard was as clunky and anti-ergonomic as you could get. But modems! The old kind, where you put a phone on the pad thing! Remember those? I don’t — that’s how old they are! Spectacular!
You’d almost think such a miraculous product would sell itself, and maybe they did. But thanks to this comic, there was also a little hard-selling going on, not so much of the specific product itself, but of computers in general — still a bit of a novelty in a world that was shedding the last horrid remnants of disco. And despite Superman’s prime placement as the big star of the book, it’s Wonder Woman, bare flesh and all, who handles the propaganda duties.
First, a note bout this specific copy. You may notice from the cover above that it’s a little beat up. This isn’t actually from Blog into Mystery archives, which maintain the highest of condition standards. This is a borrowed book, on loan from a friend, and it’s been mutilated in two rather amusing ways, adding to its fodder luster. The second we’ll get to in a little bit. The first is one of the odder things you’ll ever see done to a book, giveaway or not. Throughout these pages, there are a number of coupons affixed. Not inserted but stuck on — these things don’t come off easy, and they take a lot of page with them when they do. Are the coupons for comics? No, for knocking forty cents off of Special Recipe Barbecue Sauce:
Was there a big demand for comics, computers, and barbecue sauce all together? Was this Special Recipe BOLD enough for discriminating American palates? The world may never know. Anyway, on to our story — crafted, as you can tell from the above (unobscured) credits, by Paul Kupperberg, Curt Swan and Frank Charamonte.
No time is wasted getting to the untold wonders of PCs. This indoctrination takes place, like so many other brainwashings, in the school system, as a prim Metropolis schoolteacher delivers her sermon to improbably enthusiastic pupils:
Are they the most unobservant kids in the history of education? Did they not notice the array of computers behind their desks when they walked in?
Ms. Wilson isn’t going to have to deliver this whole spiel on her own. My own K-12 experience had a noticeable lack of scantily-clad women stalking the halls, but Wonder Woman is more than happy to pause her world-saving to pop in for a little talk (her pose reminds one of an old Cartoon Network bit):
And guess what — she’s not just going to settle for giving the kids a boring talk. No, she’s going to take them on a field trip to the Metropolis World’s Fair! Greatest day ever!
Sadly, the Metropolis World’s Fair looks to be the most mundane World’s Fair ever. Maybe it’s hard to gin up the civic pride necessary for such an undertaking when you have a flying god in town. (There’s an interesting, pointless psychological study in there someplace.) Not only is it boring, it’s also being menaced by that noted party-pooper, Lex Luthor, who’s pissed that the fair board refused to display some of his (surely nefarious) inventions. Fret not, though, for the Man of Steel is on the case:
Dr. Evil billion dollar threats or no, the show must go on, and Wonder Woman takes the kids to see the many computer-themed exhibits, including radio-tubes and transistors and sketches of pasty Nobel-winning scientists:
Unfortunately the kids can’t sneak away to catch the freak show (do they have those at World’s Fairs?), and it’s back to school. That’s when WW really gets into her full Price is Right spokesmodel mode — why not just drape yourself across the monitor, Diana?:
Kid, an ageless Amazon is standing right in front of you. And you want to get a sneak peek at the courseware?
Two of the students, Alec and Shanna, then take the lead (as most kids intuitively do with new tech). Look! The old modem! Bitchin’!:
As the hard-sell continues apace, we get our second instance of comic book mutilation, the classic “draw nipples on Wonder Woman” gambit. Apparently the kid who had this comic wasn’t as absorbed with the courseware as his fictional peers:
Hey, remember that Luthor thing? How Superman was supposed to be protecting the Fair? D’oh!:
Our hero, ladies and gentlemen, falling for a puerile ruse. Not Superman’s greatest day. Not his worst, but definitely not his greatest.
You might be wondering who’s first up on Superman’s emergency list of people to call (Lex has considerately left him depowered but alive in the planetarium’s red radiation, with access to a phone — so thoughtful). Batman? The Martian Manhunter? Green Lantern? Hell, Aquaman? Nope, it’s computer whiz kids Alec and Shanna, both of whom he met in a previous Radio Shack comic:
Yes, thank God for the subscription to the information retrieval service.
Their big task is to get a phone call through to Diana at the World’s Fair. (She’s touring the grounds in her civilian guise, so there’s a “Will Wonder Woman please pick up the red courtesy phone” announcement over the PA system). She’s on the case, magic lasso and all:
Launching the whole planetarium into the air somehow stops the red sun radiation inside. I have absolutely no idea how, but she’s the pro, though, so whatever.
Lex is captured, the kids get the key to the fair, all is right with the computerized world, and Radio Shack has thoroughly advertised one of their pricey little luxury items. The TRS-80 saved Superman’s life, so just try to deny your kid that piece of hardware, American parents. And hey, you even got a handy-dandy glossary of computer terms in the back — yes, cassettes (remember them?) were once a computer storage device:
This isn’t one of the more inspired giveaways you’ll read — those usually occur when something more important is at stake. It’s a delightful trek back to another day, though, when things we take for granted were still new and strange. That I’m writing this post on a cheap but excellent laptop hasn’t escaped my notice. Alec, Shanna, barbecue sauce coupons and Wonder Woman’s spectral nipples would all be proud that we’ve advanced to this futuristic paradise.