Sunday, August 13, 2006

The Tandy Computer Whiz Kids: The Computers That Said No to Drugs

The Tandy Computer Whiz Kids: The Computers That Said No to Drugs, July 1985 (second printing), Archie Comic Publications
writer: Paul Kupperberg
artists: Dick Ayers & Chic Stone
editorial director: William Palmer

Superman has his Kryptonite. The Green Lantern, the color yellow. The Joker . . . Hostess Fruit Pies. Anyone that has been reading comic books since their Silver Age remembers how frequently these tasty treats incapacitated even the most vile villains, and more impressively, in just the breadth of a single page advertisement! Even Batman and Robin often needed a solid issue’s worth of detective work to track down the Clown Prince of Crime. What is the secret crime-fighting ingredient in those delicious snack pies?

The world may never know. Wait. I’m getting my sweet treats mixed up.

For decades, comic books have been an influential vehicle for corporate promotion to America’s youth, from food to toys to electronics. Hostess is the most popular example, thanks to the sheer frequency of their inside front cover ad strip, but sometimes, corporations actually published their own titles to attract kids’ attention to their product. Without demographic research from these old corporations, the success of these marketing ventures is difficult to determine; perhaps the absence of a series like “The Wacky Adventures of Wal-Mart’s Night Shift” from the Diamond catalogue is indicative of their overall effect. Nevertheless, without their effort, dollar bins around the world wouldn’t have the pleasure of claiming a comic like The Tandy Computer Whiz Kids amidst their discounted ranks.

Despite the recurrent plugs (no pun intended) for Tandy Corporation computer products, the Whiz Kids’ adventures are surprisingly exciting considering their context. Alec and Shanna are butt-kissing teacher’s pets, and with all of this issue’s stretches of the imagination, the biggest shock is how all of the other kids in their class don’t absolutely hate their guts. The Whiz Kids get the exclusive privilege of ditching class for day to help set up a local museum exhibit, and their classmates cheer, “Yay, Alec and Shanna!” Yeah, right. Try telling this story today. “Screw you, Alec and Shanna. I’m not coming to school tomorrow, either, just so I can meet you outside the museum and kick your –”


Fortunately, the Whiz Kids were in the right place at the right time. During their voluntarism, Alec and Shanna used the Tandy Color Computer 2 to help Detective Shaw track down the crooks that kidnapped investigative reporter Judy Baker and planned on using the museum’s traveling exhibit, including the new DWP-210 Daisy Wheel Printer, to smuggle drugs into Coastal City. Whew. That was a close one. Can you imagine a time when kids used computers to fight crime instead of creating spam viruses and teasing middle-aged pedophiles with their MySpace profiles? If only the Whiz Kids’ legacy endured.

Retrospectively, the continuous, contrived pitches for various Tandy computer products reveal how new, and in some cases impressive, many of these advancements were for the time. Consider Judy Baker’s amazement when she realizes that she can type her article about the boatload of drugs while still secretly aboard the ship: “The Tandy Acoustic Couplers on the telephone will let me hook up my Model 200 with the computer at the newspaper. The staff there will call the police narcotics team.” Ah, perhaps she wouldn’t have been captured if she had wireless DSL. Still, reading from the future, I can’t help but feel that this technology was still a luxury back then, even for police and investigative reporters, two occupations that benefit from its use the most. I feel like a caveman posting some of these reviews from dial-up. The Whiz Kids would be ashamed.

The textbook style supplement pieces at the end of the issue, including “Bits & Bytes of Computer History” and “Student’s Guide to Computer Language,” were dry but educational, and frankly, this information would have been better received if woven into the main story. With so many other awkward computer references, what would’ve been the harm? Any comic book distributed through Radio Shack can’t be judged on the sophistication of its dialogue, after all.

However, The Computer That Said No to Drugs should be commended on its strong anti-drug message, as characteristic of the mid-‘80s as its hilarious techno lingo. With this sociopolitical theme, the Whiz Kids bridge the gap between comics published to promote product versus comics published to push public service announcements. To answer our original inquiry, we may not be able to determine how many computers the Whiz Kids sold, but books of this genre somehow convinced certain special interest groups that comics were a significant means of reaching America’s children.

Enter: The Scrapyard Detectives. To be continued.


Jamey said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jamey said...

Amazing! Thank you! As a kid, I was endlessly amused by the corporate hijinks of Alec and Shanna, and even went to write a few stories of my own, where Alec had to choose between his love of Shanna...and his Tandy Computer.