Last weekend my girlfriend and I attended a street fair and dropped into a vintage toy shop. While basking in the nostalgic glory of vintage Transformers and Star Wars toys I happened upon a bargain bin of fifty cent comic books. Not one to overlook cheap comics, I perused the longboxes to see if I could find some diamonds in the rough whereupon I came something that caught my eye. I let out an excited yelp (reenacted here) as I quickly purchased the comic, titled TRS-80 Computer Whiz Kids: The Computer Trap (hereafter known as “The Computer Trap”) and, according to a garish explosion bubble at the bottom of the cover is “Compliments of Radio Shack: The Name in Classroom Computing.”
You may ask what I would find so exciting about some cheap promotional comic. Well, I’ll tell you why, theoretical naysayer. For a while I’ve been interested in the public acceptance of the personal computer and I always find it fascinating to come across material designed to make a reluctant populace more receptive to computing, especially in light of how we take personal computing for granted today. With that out of the way, let’s get to the fun part: overthinking something about designed for children.
For the benefit of my readers who are not up to speed on computer history or were born after 1980, the TRS (or Tandy Radio Shack)-80 was a line of personal computers developed by the Tandy corporation and distributed through Radio Shack during the 1970s and 1980s.
This particular episode in the adventures of the TRS-80 Whiz Kids was published in 1984 through Archie Comics at the behest of the Tandy Corporation and Radio Shack and, according to the front matter on the first page, “distributed free in limited quantities to students, teachers, schools, and other persons interested in science topics.” According to a site maintained by the library system of the University of Pennsylvania, the TRS-80 Computer Whiz Kids, later called the Tandy Computer Whiz Kids ran for eight issues from 1984 to 1991, of which “The Computer Trap” was the first (the great people at the Classic Computer Magazine Archive have scans of the full run on their website). The Whiz Kids also made appearances in a number of Superman comics, helping the Man of Steel save the day while advocating the benefits of Tandy’s numerous computing products.
The story told in the pages of “The Computer Trap” is nothing to write home about. A team of would-be kidnappers attempt to abduct a wealthy businessman at a technology museum only to be foiled by a pair of kids and a newspaper reporter armed with a portable TRS-80 100 with an acoustic coupler (an attachment for a telephone receiver that allowed TRS-80 computers to communicate via phone lines). Out of curiosity, I looked up the writer, artist, and inker for “The Computer Trap” and found that it wasn’t done by some no-name schmucks looking for a quick paycheck. It was written by Paul Kupperberg who wrote for a bunch of DC Comics in addition to serving on DC’s editorial staff for over 15 years. The artist and inker, Dick Ayers and Chic Stone respectively, worked on numerous projects with the legendary Jack Kirby at Marvel Comics, namely Fantastic Four.
In any case, the real star of the printed and illustrated show is teaching students about computer usage, demonstrating several capacities in which computers are used. One of the really interesting things about this kind of advertising is how it aims to educate the potential consumer (Roland Marchand’s Advertising the American Dream is probably one of the best studies of advertising in this regard). Not only is Tandy introducing products like the TR-80 Model 4, the Model 100 and the Acoustic Coupler to their audience; they are also establishing clear boundaries for how they are used and what they are used for. More specifically, the main kind of computer usage we see in this comic involves the computer as a communications device. In “the Computer Trap,” the computer isn’t a game machine, rather it is a tool, one that can write word documents for school, help law enforcement officials investigate terrorists, allow paramedics to send and receive medical information for patients, and, yes, foil kidnapping plots. The comic also includes a brief glossary of computer terms.
Another thing I find interesting about this comic is it presents computer usage as gender neutral. Scholars (as well as video game) usage have called attention to computerized technology as a masculine domain (see for example, Nathan Ensmenger, The Computer Boys Take Over). Critics during the 1980s and 1990s saw computers and video games as exclusionary to women, and this gender exclusion as barring women from the computer-intensive jobs of the future (for example, see: Marsha Kinder, Playing with Power in Movies, Television, and Video Games: from Muppet Babies to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles; Justine Cassell and Henry Jenkins, From Barbie to Mortal Kombat: Gender and Computer Games). The folks at Tandy seemed to be trying to head off this criticism. For example, a female student explains to her male counterpart how to run the word processing program Scripsit to say nothing of the female reporter who demonstrates her skills with her Model 100 and acoustic coupler.
There is also a scene where the kids are taken on a field trip to a museum of science and technology, where they and the reader are given a brief history of the computer as one of several “Wonders of Science,” standing alongside another major (American) technological innovation: the space shuttle. This section, which delves into such devices as the radio tube, the microprocessor, and the integrated circuit, could also suggest a Cold War era emphasis on science and technology (hence the special attention to space technology next to computers), but I’ll have to leave it to someone more qualified than I to explore this further.
Quite a bit of text for a comic book I got for fifty cents. I’d say it was money well spent but that’s just me. I’d love to hear what you think. See you next week!
(Note: I plan on posting some excerpts from the comic here later, but in the meantime you can check out scans from the comic here.