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Well, it’s the premiere weekend Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, which features the titular heroes as well as Lex Luthor and Wonder Woman. The reviews have not been complimentary, as many complain about the incessantly dark and serious tone. So let’s take a look at an old, forgotten comic book with a simpler story featuring three of the four main characters in Batman v. Superman. In 1980, DC Comics published three promotional comic books for Radio Shack and the second, which pitted Superman and Wonder Woman versus Lex Luthor, was called “The Computer Masters of Metropolis!”
The basic premise of “The Computer Masters of Metropolis!” is that Lex Luthor feels jilted that he has been excluded from the Metropolis World’s Fair and so has made threats that he will destroy the fair if he is not paid a billion dollars. Superman is on the scene to guard the Fair. Meanwhile, Wonder Woman helps out a school with their class trip to the Fair before joining Supes in the climactic (and quick) battle against Luthor. However, they would not have been able to win without the help of Alex and Shanna (called the TRS-80 Computer Whiz Kids) and the Radio Shack TRS-80.
In reality, the action-adventure story of “The Computer Masters of Metropolis!” is just a loose frame for the main purpose of the comic book – promotion of computer technology and specifically the Radio Shack TRS-80 computer. It’s important, though, to understand the time during which this comic book came out. Even though wide-spread Internet usage didn’t take off until the mid-1990s, computers were a big deal in the culture of the early 1980s. They were becoming a more common part of offices and many people had home computers, machines mainly used as word processors and to play games. Although today’s Radio Shack may be only seen as a place to get overpriced cables and adapters, they were once a big player in the home computer market. The TRS-80 specifically was used in many schools – for many children of the 1980s, it was the first computer they ever used.
Also, promotional comic books were more frequent in the 1970s and 1980s. Often related to good causes, such as world hunger, there are also many examples of straight-up business cross-promotion. In the case of “The Computer Masters of Metropolis!,” Radio Shack was the sponsors of the comic, which was then available for free at Radio Shack locations. DC provided real talent on the comic, though – the writer is Paul Kupperberg and the interior art is by the legendary Curt Swan (cover art by Rich Buckler). The comic book aided Radio Shack in a few ways: 1) it could conceivably bring kids and/or families into Radio Shack stores to get the comic and then see the computers; 2) the comic itself is mostly a Radio Shack TRS-80 commercial.
A good portion of the early part portion of the comic book is a teacher explaining the TRS-80 and how it can be tied via a computer network to a master computer. Wonder Woman shows up and there is discussion of how important computers are to businesses. Later, Wonder Woman and the class go over using home computers to access a national network to get information and play games. In a fascinating way, the comic is a pretty good predictor of early uses of the Internet.
When the class arrives at the Metropolis World’s Fair, Wonder Woman then gives them a background of the development of the computer, and it’s actually pretty engaging and makes me imagine what kind of super awesome teacher Wonder Woman would be! Of course, the story needs to eventually have the kids and the computers play a role, so when Superman is trapped by Luthor in some Silver Age nuttiness (Superman is lured into a planetarium that features a red sun facsimile), he calls Alec who then teams with Shanna on their computers to find info on Luthor. The intel provided by Shanna provides useful for Superman and Wonder Woman to find Luthor, basically saying to impressionable children of the 1980s – Hey Kids, Don’t You Want to Be Great and Help Superman and Wonder Woman? Then Badger Your Parents to Buy You a Computer!!!
It’s worth pointing out that while “The Computer Masters of Metropolis!” was of its time for its computer themes, it was not representative of the early 1980s style in comic books. Comics were more complicated and soap opera-y during this period. After all, this was the time when Chris Claremont was writing his X-Men sagas and it’s after the Comics Code has basically been abandoned by Marvel and DC. “The Computer Masters of Metropolis!” was a throwback, even at its time, to the wacky and innocent Silver Age Superman stories. This makes sense on a few levels. Radio Shack wanted something enjoyable and appropriate for any age since it was a product tie-in that would be available for free to all audiences. Also, while this is a kids’ comic book, the Silver Age qualities of it may have appealed to parents who had read Silver Age Superman stories but now had grown up, perhaps given up comics, but were intrigued about the new world of computers.
“The Computer Masters of Metropolis!” is a fun look back in a few different ways. For one, it shows the beginnings of people’s understanding and reliance on computers in homes. It’s also a good example of promotional comic books with prominent product tie-ins. Kupperberg tried to balance the demands of story and commerce, but the comic is still hilariously straight forward in its promotion. At times, Wonder Woman practically sounds like she works for Radio Shack. Really, though, it’s not so far removed from Felicity pulling out her Windows Surface Pro on Arrow. So here’s to weird comics and the TRS-80 Computer Whiz Kids!