Spotlight Sunday 8.2.20

My recent discovery of a long-running YouTube channel means that there are spoilers ahead for…

Superman and Wonder Woman: The Computer Masters of Metropolis!
Writer: Paul Kupperberg
Penciller: Curt Swan
Inker: Frank Chiaramonte
Cover: Rich Buckler, Dick Giordano
DC/Radio Shack

“Oh yeah? And what more can Ms. Expert tell us?”

Several months ago, as I whiled away the hours watching videos, YouTube’s algorithm decided to take a break from trying to get me to watch videos made by incels who are whining about about how girls have infected Star Wars with cooties or made by anthropomorphic swastikas – but I repeat myself – and decided to recommend some things that relate to my actual interests.

Thus, I stumbled upon LGR, a channel featuring an affable and entertaining guy who makes videos about retro computer hardware and software. It was an enormous time-sink, as he’s been making a lot of videos for a long time, and they’re fun to watch.

As Radio Shack and Tandy computers popped up a lot in his videos, it got me to thinking about an old comic that I once owned and had an odd nostalgia for. As odd nostalgia is a big part of the appeal of LGR’s videos, I decided to re-acquire a copy of the comic and shine the Spotlight on it.

The comic in question was a giveaway from Radio Shack, the third in a series of such comics, produced by DC Comics and featuring Superman and Wonder Woman, designed to educate kids about computers generally, and to extol the virtues of TRS-80 computers specifically.

I didn’t get my copy from a Radio Shack – I don’t remember if we even had one around at the time; I don’t recall going to a Radio Shack at all until later on in my teens – but instead got it as part of a bundle of comics I’d picked up from a used bookstore, which is another tie to LGR, as some of his most popular and entertaining videos feature him shopping at thrift stores.

This one was the last one produced, so far as I know, and while I have them now, I don’t think I ever had the two comics that preceded it, though as I look at it now I feel like I may have had the second, which features Superman and Supergirl, but I’m not entirely certain. It could just be that it seems familiar because it’s quite similar to this comic in terms of content.

In any case, the comic opens – as was typical of most comics from DC in that era, about which more later – with a kind of summary page that depicts a scene that is representative of what happens on the pages that follow, but does not show an actual scene from the story.

Next we find ourselves at an elementary school just outside Metropolis, where the teacher, Ms. Wilson, tells the class that it’s time to begin their math lessons, but to the surprise of the students, they won’t be needing their workbooks!

Instead, they will be using Ms. Wilson’s new Network 3 Controller!

Wait, they have color computers now?

Ms. Wilson informs the students that she has another surprise for them, though I’m not sure how anything could be more exciting than the Network 3 Controller (available at your local Radio Shack)!

Turns out it can be more exciting, because the surprise is a visit from Wonder Woman herself, though given that this class has previously been visited by Superman and Supergirl, it’s still possible that the Network 3 Controller is more exciting, as it’s a bit more novel. However, to make up for it, the Amazing Amazon has a surprise of her own: she’s taking the class on a field trip to the Computer and Technology exhibit at the Metropolis World Fair. (I guess the school system they were in didn’t require permission slips.)

This is, apparently, a remarkable thing, as Alec – one half of the TRS-80 Computer Whiz Kids duo – wonders how she was able to arrange such a thing. Wonder Woman says that she’s got an inside “connection,” and while Shanna – the other half of the duo – wants to know who their mysterious benefactor is, Wonder Woman isn’t telling, noting only that the class will know the person on sight.

Meanwhile, we cut over to the Fair itself where Superman is meeting with Mr. Murphy, the man in charge of the whole thing. It seems that the devious Lex Luthor is threatening to wreak havoc on the Fair unless he’s paid a one billion dollar ransom. Lex is mad that the Fair isn’t showcasing his inventions, and if he can’t get respect, he wants money. But Murphy said no deal.

*Sigh* If only we lived in a world in which old white guys were unwilling to glorify the ego of a criminal maniac…

Superman agrees to keep an eye on the Fair to ensure that it won’t fall prey to whatever evil scheme Luthor is hatching, but unbeknownst to the Man of Steel, the criminal mastermind is observing this all from his hidden, lead-lined lair a hundred feet below the fairgrounds!

While this is going on. Wonder Woman and Ms. Wilson’s class hop on a train to the Fair, and WW takes the opportunity to teach the kids a bit more about the pivotal role that computers play in our modern society, explaining how they make it possible for an entire fleet of new, high-speed trains to crisscross the area without incident.

Upon arriving at the Fair, they’re spotted by Superman who thus far has been unable to find his nefarious nemesis, but decides to take a moment to stop and say hello and reveal that he’s Wonder Woman’s “connection.” He briefly confers with Wonder Woman – out of earshot of the class – about the threat of Luthor, and she informs him that if he needs her assistance she’ll be returning to the school after they tour the exhibit, and then returning to the Fair in her civilian identity.

As Wonder Woman guides the class through the exhibit and informs them – and us – about a bit of the history of the development of personal computers, and how computers are being used every day, Luthor contacts Mr. Murphy, who confirms that they have no intention of paying him, and so the evil inventor prepares to put his devious scheme into motion.

Back at the school, Wonder Woman tells the kids even more exciting stuff about computers, such as how they can access information or even shop online!

After that, she takes her leave, and Alec and Shanna are both excited to go home to their own TRS-80 color computers (available at Radio Shack!) and try out some of the exciting new things they learned, and also get in a game of chess.

Sure, they could actually meet and play chess the old-fashioned way, but from what I’ve seen, no one really seems to like Alec very much, so I guess Shanna can only stand to spend virtual time with him. There’s another lesson for kids, I guess: computers can help make interacting with people tolerable!

At the Fair, Luthor makes his move, but it turns out to be a trick intended to draw Superman into the planetarium, which Luthor had rigged ahead of time as a trap. He renders the Son of Krypton powerless with simulated rays from the sun of Krypton – the radiation emitted by Earth’s yellow star is what makes him a super man, but he’s just a normal, non-super man when exposed to the radiation of a red star like the one of his native world – and then locks Superman inside, heading off to wreak havoc without interference.

Superman quickly finds that he can’t use even his non-super strength to try to break out, as the door is rigged to explode if anyone forces it open. However, Luthor overlooked one detail when he set the trap: there’s a telephone in the room.

But who’s he gonna call? Ghostbusters didn’t exist yet, and I’m not sure they’d be helpful in this situation anyway. In any case, Superman decides that he has two problems: getting out without being blown up, and figuring out which part of the Fair Lex plans to attack first. For the latter problem, he has an idea, as he recalls an article that ran in The Daily Planet that could provide a clue, but without his powers he doesn’t have his super-memory, and so can’t recall the details.

After getting a busy signal when he calls The Daily Planet, he realizes there’s one solution to both problems: The TRS-80 Computer Whiz Kids!

One other detail Luthor overlooked is that Superman has the phone number of a pre-teen boy committed to memory. For some reason. Anyway, the TRS-80 Whiz Kids get to be like little proto-Oracles, and didn’t even have to get shot through the spine by the Joker to do it.

Shanna does manage to contact Wonder Woman at the Fair, overcoming the security guard’s skepticism in what strikes me as being a bit like the kind of social engineering employed by hackers, even if it is for a good cause.

You’re lucky things worked out, because you’re kind of a terrible security guard.

Once Wonder Woman is brought up to speed, she sets Superman free…by lassoing the planetarium and yanking the whole thing up in the air.

I’m not sure how that helps, honestly. I’m assuming it’s that she disconnected it from the Fair’s electricity, powering down the red sunlight generator and the explosives? Anyway, she puts it right back once Superman is free.

With Superman free and super again, and armed with the knowledge of where Luthor plans to strike – the Computer and Technology exhibit, which, y’know, seems kind of obvious – thanks to Alec and his TRS-80 Color Computer (The inside front cover of the comic includes an order form for a FREE TRS-80 computer catalog from Radio Shack!), the two heroes make quick work of capturing the bald baddy, and the day is saved.

Later that saved day, Mr. Murphy attempts to present Superman and Wonder Woman with the Key to the Fair as a token of gratitude, but they’re not having it, insisting instead that the real heroes are Alec and Shanna and their TRS-80 Color Computers! Get yours today from your local Radio Shack!

(Plus, I don’t think either of them wanted it. Wonder Woman doesn’t have anywhere to put it in her small Washington D.C. apartment, and it would look pathetic amongst the trophies from all across time and space that Superman has in his Fortress of Solitude.)

The issue closes out with a small glossary of computer terms, and a quiz about computers.

Test your own knowledge!

I imagine this comic and the others like it were distributed to schools that had purchased TRS-80 computers, and to other schools that were potential customers, but my school was never one of them.

I’m not sure why I have such nostalgic fondness for this comic, or why I even bothered picking it up in the first place. At that age, I didn’t have any kind of specific interest in computers beyond just my general interest in the march of technological progress and science.

I do know I liked the cover, and honestly, I’d love to see Alex Ross do a painted recreation of it.

In terms of the comic itself, for what it is, it’s honestly not that bad, and with a few tweaks – a bit less in the way of shilling for TRS-80 Color Computers – it could very easily have been a standard comic of the times. It’s largely indistinguishable from an issue of DC Comics Presents.

That’s mostly due, of course, to the fact that it was produced by the same people who produced comics for DC at the time. Paul Kupperberg wrote plenty of comics – including Superman and Wonder Woman comics – for DC back then, and Curt Swan was the primary artist on both Superman and Action Comics for decades, starting long before I was born.

So it looked like a regular comic, and having it written by a pro helped make it interesting and readable, and the attempts at giving the kids personalities beyond simply serving as shills for TRS-80 Color Computers helped make the constant product placement a little less jarring.

Of course, they didn’t have much in the way of personalities, and in Alec’s case it was more a matter of telling rather than showing – lots of people saying things like, “Wow, this is so exciting that even Alec is shutting his stupid piehole for a change!” – but, as they say, an attempt was made.

(And that opening quotation is something that Alec said in response to the announcement that Wonder Woman would be telling the class even more about computers, which tells you a little about his personality. Somehow the Amazing Amazon managed to keep herself from giving him the full Max Lord treatment.)

Like I said, at the time, I didn’t have much interest in computers. That wouldn’t happen until a year or so later when Superman III came out, and my school got a computer, albeit a Commodore 64 rather than a TRS-80 Color Computer.

That interest didn’t really last long, though, and while I took a computer class in high school – if I recall correctly, we used Tandy 1000s – for a time, I came to resent computers. Mostly because my best friend at the time had an Amiga and wouldn’t shut up about the damn thing and I just didn’t care and didn’t want to hear it.

For my part, my parents couldn’t afford to buy a computer of any kind – and they certainly couldn’t afford the extravagance of having two phone lines the way Alec’s parents and Shanna’s parents could – so I didn’t really have that much access to computers.

Once I got to college and had to write multiple papers almost every week I started utilizing the computer lab, and once I graduated I bought a computer of my own. While I originally got a computer – a cheap Leading Edge 486 with a 33 MHz processor with no FPU, and 4 MB of RAM, bundled with a multimedia upgrade kit that included a 2X CD-ROM and some kind of sound card – for writing, I soon found other uses for it, and started developing an actual interest in computers again.

Mostly I bought things like PC Magazine and immediately began coveting the much better – and much more expensive – systems featured therein.

But by the late-90s I got started on producing digital art, and have continued to work almost-exclusively in digital media since. (One would think I’d have gotten better at it in that time, and yet…)

And because I’m not a gamer, my continuing interest in computer hardware is more centered around productivity and creative work than anything else, but I do maintain an interest in the latest hardware and software developments, and I also feel a bit of nostalgia for the days when my initial interest formed, and for the days in which it re-formed and solidified.

Hell, I even feel some nostalgia for the goddamn Amiga.

I also feel some nostalgia for this kind of comic. While it’s not really a PSA in the way that some of the other comics I’ve looked at here were, it’s similar, and they’re all a type of comic you don’t really see anymore.

The closest modern equivalents are the too-seamless Snickers ads that sometimes run in DC comics – seriously, it’s not always immediately apparent that the ads aren’t part of the story, and it can be jarring – or those weird back or inside cover ads for the band Joywave that Marvel runs.

The last full-on attempt at creating a comic like this one was part of some partnership between Marvel and Northrop Grumman, which was met by people saying, “The fuck?” and was quickly abandoned.

But it was nostalgia that led me to LGR’s YouTube channel, and nostalgia that led me to write this post, one in which – somewhat fittingly – I’m pretty much providing some advertising for LGR, whom I think everyone should check out.

And I’m not getting paid to say that; I just genuinely like his videos, and I think many of you will as well.

And since this post isn’t sponsored by Radio Shack, LGR, or anyone else, I’ll remind you that…

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