Friday, August 11, 2017

Tandy Computer Whiz Kids and the Computer that said No to Drugs!

but it said YES to a crippling addiction to alcohol

"The Computers that said ‘No’ to Drugs!”
Writer – Paul Kupperberg
Penciller – Dick Ayers
Inker – Chic Stone
Editor – William Plamer
March 1985

Fort Worth is my hometown. I was born at Carswell Air Force Base hospital and after brief jaunts around the globe with my family, moved back to Fort Worth. I spent my formative years beneath the shadow of Cowtown.

One of Fort Worth’s biggest investors was Tandy Corporation. Originally a leather supply store called Tandy Leather, the brand expanded into the electronic craft retail market in 1963 with their Radio Shack stores. That was before SoC times, so I don’t know how that transition went.

I do know that the downtown Fort Worth skyline I grew up with wouldn’t be the same without the Tandy Center towers, two double digit buildings that flanked a large two-level shopping complex in the middle of downtown. It featured one of the few year-round ice skating rinks in Fort Worth and a few of my high school friends would end up employed by mall stores before we graduated. I have a bunch of fond memories of that place.

What I have less fond memories of are Tandy’s TRS-80’s computer systems. Dubbed “Trash-80’s” by those of us who had to use them, these monstrously heavy computers would be my first exposure to actual programming. They had all the graphics capabilities of a poor-man’s calculator and were about as much fun to operate.

That didn’t stop me from being attracted to the notion of working on one. My high school got four of them for their “computer department” and I was determined to figure them out. Having lived through the Atari – Intellivision – Colecovision wars with my fellow teenage friends, an actual computer would beat all of those, hands down. Or so I thought.

I decided I would sign up for Learning Computer Basic at school, however I wanted to do it the right way. So, I took a half-semester typing course first. When that was done, I signed up for the computer course only to have it be taught by the typing teacher – who didn’t know a thing about computers so she made us spend the first two-thirds of the semester typing before we ever got to touch the TRS-80’s at the back of the class.

I have to say that while I’m still a pretty shitty typist, I started out about 95% better than every real-world IT person I’ve ever met. I’ve encounter so many IT guys from that era who could only hunt and peck that it’s sort of funny.

I mention those computers, because that’s what this issue is about: selling computers to kids. This was a freebie comic given away at Radio Shack to create brand awareness and spur sales of Tandy’s new COLOR Computer 2. How does it fair as a story though? Oh, it’s a doozey!

We’ve got Paul Kupperberg writing a story, possibly in about ten minutes on his lunch break between doing DC Comics Presents issues, Dick Ayers and Chic Stone on art, working as hard as they can to make computers look like superheroes, and colors/letters handled by unknown hands.

We begin with drug smugglers who have just picked up a huge haul of drugs in their drug smuggling boat. If Tandy had been really smart the smuggling operation would have involved one of Tandy’s RC toy boats to cross promote their children’s toy line. Anyway: three bad guys…

Who are led by this fellow in the hat who looks a bit like Lex Luthor. They plan on making a million bucks, which in 1980’s dollars was a huge sum of money, unlike today where it is what most people end up paying for a four bedroom, two-story house.

Note the “drugs” are never identified. We don’t know what kind of drugs they are smuggling. Not to mention their plan to deliver them to their buyer is straight up stupid. But let’s proceed.

And proceed we shall, right to Alec and Shanna’s middle school where their teacher Ms. Wilson has three surprises for them. There were several different “Whiz Kids” comics printed and this issue counts as at least their second appearance. As for Ms. Wilson’s surprises, if you guess the first is a Tandy computer product, give yourself a gold star.

Okay, so this book is a hybrid. Some kind of weird cross between a set of computer catalogue ads from Radio Shack AND a comic book with a story about drug smugglers foiled by smart kids. Here we have the ad portion as we get exposition dumped-on explaining all about the new Tandy Color Computer 2 and peripherals.

I LOVE some of this so much because it is nostalgia of the best kind. Such shitty technology we had back then. “Daisy Wheel Printers” for those of you too young to remember, were printers that worked like old fashioned typewriters. They had ONE font, with the letters in upper and lower case on a circular shaped “wheel” that would spin and type the letters onto tractor fed paper. These were all replaced by dot matrix printers that were way more versatile in a very short span of time, so hearing them being discussed like they were the greatest thing is hilarious.

And I’d bet dollars to donuts that using that Scripsit word processing program would be like going back into the stone age. Bye-bye spelling and grammar check, ta-ta graphics, tables, fonts, highlighting, cut and paste…and so much more. Truly prehistoric is the only apt comparison.

And then we get to the modem! The DELUXE RS-232 program pack with DC-1 modem probably ran at speeds of less than 1200-2400 baud. 

While that was fast for the day, it would probably take 30 minutes or more to download a low-quality 3 MB song and close to a week to download a short low-quality movie. There’s a neat little infographic here comparing ‘then vs now’.

I point this out because it is integral to the plot in just a bit. Oh, yes! There is a story here remember. Not just a catalogue of computer parts and pieces. Drug smugglers! Nosey reporters! Precocious kids!

Speaking of those drug smugglers, what are they up to?

Ah, doing their civic duty by helping at the local Science and Technology Exhibition. How extraordinarily kind of them.

But wait! It’s all a cover up for their real purpose: smuggling drugs. The drugs they plan on hiding….duh-duh-dunn! …in a computer printer box! 
But back in the classroom, Ms. Wilson moves on to surprise number two, which ISN’T more products that can be bought at your neighborhood Radio Shack. Oh, no. It’s a visit from the Po-Po! One that some of these kids are already familiar with.

I’m sure there is no underlying racist message in that second panel, by the way.

The officer who shows up is Jack Shaw, who was in the prior Whiz Kids book. He fills these tykes heads with all the latest news about drugs, their street names, how easy it is to obtain them, which paper is the easiest to roll a joint out of…you know, the usual drug talk.

And I don’t know why, but my brain hears all this being read in Lesile Nielson’s voice.

So, after leading the kids in a chant against drugs, it is fitting that we have another product placement bit for a Tandy pager.
Meanwhile, the kids other friend from their last adventure, investigative reporter Judy Baker spots two suspicious men. She id’s them as smugglers recently released from prison and, using her special “Lois Lane” superpower, sneaks on to their boat.

By the way, asking politely if the drug dealers are in the cabin before barging in is just good manners.

Here is also where all kinds of logic makes its way right out the window. We start this mess off by finding out the main Lex-looking bad guy is asleep in his cabin.

Then we have a brief interlude with the class again, where the third surprise is that they will all get to take a trip to the Science and Technology Exhibit. Ms. Wilson needs help picking up a printer box from some nice men, apparently - *wink-wink*.
But before they go, they’ve got a computer lesson to get though.

I know very few will remember days like these, days when there were only a limited number of computers in computer class and you had to fight tooth and claw to get your 10 minutes of class time in front of one of those glowing, low-resolution graphics CRTs, possibly absorbing lethal doses of radiation but not caring. But I remember them. I remember the smell of the shattered bones and blood as I emerged from the twisted piles of broken slide-rules and copies of Dune before trudging off to my place behind a keyboard. I remember…and I know the struggle was real.

Now, back to our reporter. Who’s found the WRITTEN plan of the smugglers. Yeah, like a signed confession, the plan sits in a drawer on the boat in a black file folder. Here ya go! Take this to the police!

So just take that off the boat and…wait! Lady! WTF are you doing? Don’t unpack your exceedingly heavy laptop. Now is not the time to write your freaking news story!
Judy, how about GETTING OFF THE BOAT before someone returns to the boat! How about that?

And if you think this can’t get MORE idiotic, just you wait!

YES! She is setting up an agonizingly slow method of communication across a dial up link from a telephone THAT THE BOAT SHOULDN’T HAVE ANYWAY to “file her story”. And she has to hurry because the smugglers could be back at any time.

Needless to say, she has a chance to type out FIFTEEN WORDS…

…before she is caught at gunpoint and tied up.

For the kids who don’t know this, it probably took several minutes to setup that laptop and wait for it to boot. Those dial up modems would produce an audible whine that was unmistakable and impossible to sleep through for anyone in the same house as you, and software such as what she was using to file her story took time to open, login, and use as well.

What I’m saying here is this was probably in the range of around 20-25 minutes’ worth of work. For fifteen words. She could have gotten off the boat, walked down the pier, found a dive bar, called her newsroom, filed her story, asked for them to send a photographer down to the docks, called the cops, ordered a nice afternoon cocktail, drank it, walked back down the docks to meet her photographer and been on hand to take pictures and interview the smugglers as the police were carting them off in THE SAME AMOUNT OF TIME IT TOOK TO SETUP ALL THAT SLOW TECHNOLOGY!

Not to mention that boats don’t have phones on them. Remember, this is before the advent of affordable cell phone technology. That rotary dial phone may be accurate, but there is no way it is on a boat sitting in the middle of the bay. Nuh-uh.

Whatever lunacy came over Kupperberg at this point, he now double-downs on it by having the criminal not immediately leave port, shoot said noisy reporter, and dump her weighted down body into the bay.

Instead he uses his imaginary boat phone to call the cops and demand a ransom. Look a Judy’s face in the bottom left panel. That look of shock and surprise you see comes not from fear of being killed, but from realizing the amount of information you can relay via telephone in such a short span of minutes. If only she’d known sooner….

Meantime, Alec and Shanna make a drug delivery for their teacher to the science fair. Oh, wait! No, those are just boxes of computer parts.

When who should they bump into but Detective Shaw. Shaw plays by his own rules, including the rule that information from active investigations can be shared with random pre-teens. 
After filling them in, Alec and Shanna decide to conduct their own investigation using one of the Tandy computer’s at the science fair.

Note how in the third panel even Alec is getting sick of having to refer to every Tandy product by its complete name every time it’s brought up. Also Shanna must be like the most bored kid on the planet. No one should read the newspaper thoroughly enough to remember some random story about drug smugglers. Unless Shanna is the buyer and is worried about her next shipment.

Just to prove that adults can also use these same computers, the book gives Detective Shaw a chance to do some actual detective work. He, of course, passes all the work off to Bill who finds all the information for him.

Bill finds the boat and solves the case! Leading to the police rushing *very quietly* to the harbor. 

And while the criminals plot their escape, the police force’s crack scuba team surrounds the boat…wait! Wah? “crack scuba team?” Seriously?

Time to just give up and go with it. So the “frogmen” surround the boat, which would stop a boat not all, but whatever. Shaw arrives and we have cops literally crawling all over this watercraft. 

And the cops have some kind of imaginary *bzzzzt* gun that knocks out criminals instead of blowing large holes in them. Our boat boarder does just that to two of the criminals, but then Shaw decides to take things into his own hands.

Armed with a megaphone and a revolver, he forces a standoff that would never happen in a real hostage situation.

Disco Lex Luthor decides not to play Shaw’s game, since it appears Shaw DOESN’T have a *bzzzzt* gun and will probably perforate him with bullets instead of kindly putting him in a coma. Nice dutch angle on that last scene.

Judy is rescued, they pull the mask off the smuggler revealing him to be old man Jenkins, Jenkins says his line about “I’d have gotten away with it too, if…” and no one chews out Judy for her poor thinking. 

The Science Exhibit is quickly rechristened the “Use the phone in the bar up the street” symposium honoring Alec and Shanna’s knowledge of computers and random stories in the daily newspaper.

The drugs are never shown, although we assume they were found but little did we know it was just a huge box of Viagra to combat Lex’s case of erectile dysfunction. Charges were later dropped and Lex was allowed to cruise the bars in search of sweet honeys. Oh! And everyone celebrated the top geeks in their class, Alec and Shanna. (and totally beat them up later for their lunch money.)

This issue was a bit like stepping back into a time machine. And not a good time machine, where you visit all the people and things you are fondly nostalgic about…but more like a bad time machine, where you revisit your abusive step-mother who would lock you in your room while serving your two prettier step-sisters pie.

That tech…looking back on it now it seems so alien and foreign. There were times I pined for those Trash-80’s and now I wouldn’t take one if it were given to me. Sad that no matter how much Tandy tried to innovate, the couldn’t keep up with the changing pace of the very electronics revolution they helped usher in. IBM’s P/S2 knocked them out of the computer market for good. Now they and the Radio Shack brand are a thing of the past, much like those TRS-80’s.

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