News & Politics

Studies in Crap: The Day Radio Shack Controlled Superman’s Brain


Each Thursday, your Crap Archivist brings you the finest in forgotten and bewildering crap culled from basements, thrift stores, estate sales and flea markets. I do this for one reason: Knowledge is power.

Superman: The Computers That Saved Metropolis

Author: Cary Bates, words; Jim Starlin (!) and Dick Giordano, art
Date: 1980
Discovered at: My parents’ attic
The Cover Promises: “Compliments of Radio Shack”? “Starring the TRS-80 Computer Whiz Kids”? Ah, shit.

Representative Quotes:
“Please, Superman, can we have a race? My TRS-80 against your super-brain?”

It’s bad enough that this one-off story turned the paragon of truth, justice, etc., into a shill for the world’s most overpriced supplier of printer cables. His mission: to convince kids to drop $499 on a “microcomputer.” Even worse, though, this taught children of the ’80s the lesson that Superman Returns confirmed 25 years later: that earth’s yellow sun has increased exponentially the great Kryptonian’s power to bore.

Here’s the story. One morning, Superman flies to a Metropolis elementary school with an urgent message.

Note the blonde boy. He is so distressed that Superman has sold out that he threatens to hitchhike to Gotham, where the local hero isn’t such a tool.

That boy annoys Superman throughout the presentation . . .

. . . so Superman uses his secret brain powers to snap the punk’s neck.

Always prepared, Superman lugged along a pair of TRS-80s, the early desktop computers manufactured by Tandy, sold at Radio Shack, and moaned about by kids who wished their parents had bought an Apple II, which at least had Lode Runner.

Here, the hero the narration calls “the action ace” recounts the scientific breakthrough that gave the TRS-80 its operating power.

This breakthrough was celebrated with collegial crotch grabbing.

Action time! On page 15, Superman pits his “super-brain” against the processing power of the TRS-80s.

Then the adventure starts. Turns out a villain named Major Disaster has somehow shut down all of the giant, old-fashioned computers in Metropolis. For some reason, this includes Superman’s super-brain. Suddenly, our hero is unable to do calculations!

(Oddly, all cognitive function that does not involve calculator-ready math problems hums along just fine.)

Meanwhile, an airplane is falling from the sky, and Major Disaster starts a flood at the Metropolis reservoir. Superman launches into action only after stationing Alec — that blonde kid — and his classmate Shanna at the TRS-80s to solve and then radio to him the the answers to math problems that his mind can’t crunch.

That results in moments like this.

This is exactly the kind of problem children should be trusted to solve after fifteen minutes of computer instruction. Since the programmers at Tandy thoughtfully programmed every TRS-80 with the potential energy output of Superman’s heat vision, the Whiz Kids only had to calculate the following:

  • temperature of floodwater
  • the temperature at which water evaporates
  • volume of water to be evaporated
  • the rate at which water is flowing
  • the water’s mineral content
  • elevation and geometry of flood channel
  • current humidity, to calculate energy losses to the environment
  • Superman’s height and distance from water
  • the steam and scald potential of such rapid evaporation
  • margin of error of Superman’s non-super-brain’s estimate of 6 million gallons

Nevertheless . . .

(Their answer — whatever it could possibly have been — is given off panel.)

From there, Superman flies on to fix a leak in a nuclear reactor. Fortunately, fourth-graders rocking transistor-tube computers find it a snap to calculate the precise speed at which he’ll need to circle a contaminated cloud in order to contain and lift it out of the earth’s atmosphere and into space. Let’s see a Vic-20 do that!

Shocking Detail:
The Computer Whiz Kids turned up in several other comics, including one more freebie with Superman, another with Wonder Woman, and at least eight without high-profile guest stars. Perhaps the issue titled “The Computers That Said No to Drugs” inspired the late Stieg Larsson, author of bestselling computers-can-do-anything thrillers The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and The Girl Who Played With Fire?

The dullest panels in Superman history?

Only BASIC can express the sadness of all this.

20 GOTO 10


Archive Highlights