Comics : Amazing Spider-Man in the Skyscraper Caper (Magic Wand Speaking Reader Book)

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This story is part of a Lookback Series: Book of the Month Club

This review was first published on: Apr 2013.

Background...

This is indeed a very special book. Apart from being rather hard to find, it is also unique among Spider-Man books, thanks to the specialist technology which it incorporates, courtesy of its publishers - Texas Instruments.

Texas Instruments are manufacturers of computer chips, and in the 1970's and 89's they were well-known as the premier producers of the top-end scientific hand-held calculators popular among scientists and engineers.

Texas Instruments were also the creators of the children's interactive toys marked under the "Speak & Spell", "Speak & Math" and "Speak & Read" brand names. Those toys were built around a voice synthesizer chip which was subsequently used in the short-lived series of "Magic Wand Speaking Library" books that include this "Skyscraper Caper".

Approximately 16 books were produced in the series, before TI pulled the plug. This is the only Marvel licensed book among them.

In Detail...

Amazing Spider-Man in the Skyscraper Caper (Magic Wand Speaking Reader Book)
Year 1982 : SM Title
Publisher:  Texas Instruments Incorporated
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The book is large, at 8.8" x 11.3". It is a sturdy stitch-bound hardback format with 52 pages. The pages are full-color edge-to-edge printing.

Despite the extended page count and luxurious format, the story is delightfully facile. Spider-Man's Spider-Sense has conveniently alerted him to danger at the building site of the new "World Peace Building" in New York.

Yeah, suck it up, foreigners. Like it or not, most the World's "World" Buildings are in New York - like the World Trade Center, and the World Peace Building. Sure, the World Weather Building is in Washington D.C. But that's basically part of New York these days. Frankly, I don't know why countries outside of the U.S.A. even bother trying to be part of the world. Just face it.... it's America's World. The rest of us are just living in it.

Anyhow, at the World Peace Building, all the machines have gone crazy and are threatening to destroy the construction site! Who could be behind it all? Well, that's easy. The dastardly Wizard has sent a ransom note demanding $1,000,000 by midnight, or he will destroy the building!

Over the course of the next 20 pages or so, Spider-Man dodges the Wizard's trap, then leaps to the top of the building where he easily webs-up the Wizard and saves the day. Spider-Man and the Wizard exchange suitable quips throughout the process, and every word of dialogue is represented by a barcode which can be scanned into the "Magic Wand Speaking Reader" to be spoken back via its state-of-the-art electronic circuits.

After the main story, there's another 10 pages of word games and puzzles, all featuring barcodes to be scanned by the Magic Wand Speaking Reader.

In General...

So, the Wizard wanted a million bucks in protection money, eh? Well, that's actually pretty reasonable. Building a skyscraper in New York would cost you at least a hundred mill for a decent site, plus 15-20 mill per story on top of that. A prestigious "World" Building would probably cost the best part of a billion smackeroos before you were done.

Face it, corruption, backhanders, skimming, union racket protection fees is probably good for a hundred mill or more. So what's a million bucks among that lot? Frankly, if the building owners were smart, they should pay the Wizard a million bucks to run the site security!

Or even better... if the Wiz can control all the machines remotely, they should give him the construction contract, he could probably save a couple hundred million in skilled labour costs alone! Methinks the Wiz is playing the wrong game here!

Anyhow. That's all by-the-by. Let's get to the review. Is the book any good?

Well, the pictures are great. The artist is sadly uncredited, but it's adequately rendered Spider-Man art of the time. The colours are great, and the scenes fill the pages. The showdown between Spidey and the Wizard is hardly going to make the top one-hundred Spider-Man battles of all time, but it probably has enough ZAP! THWIPP! and KAPOW! to satisfy an undemanding ten-year-old.

The plot is embarrassingly simplistic, with no subtlety at all. Worthy cause, threatened by selfish bad guy, foiled by Spider-Man. Equally the dialogue is as superficial as politician smiling at an auto-tuned pop-singer's hair-style.

Overall Rating...

By all artistic measures, this book hovers between mediocre and trite - and on that merit alone would struggle to achieve a couple of webs in rating.

Fortunately, it doesn't end there. What we have to add in now is the "Wow" factor that would have been added to this book by the cutting edge technology of having a mechanical device in your hands that could read the story aloud, by "simply" swiping an optical reader pen along a barcode next to each phrase.

In 1982 (as Mr. Douglas Adams reminded us), "people [were] so amazingly primitive that they still thought digital watches were a pretty neat idea." Deluxe home computers included 16Kb of memory, and displayed black-and-white output when plugged into a TV via the aerial socket. The Space Invaders video game had only been released four years earlier, and Soft Cell had introduced the synthesizer into popular music the preceding year, with their hit "Tainted Love".

Technology snapshots like this book are fascinating. They provide a milestone for us to look back at, and realise how far we have come in three decades. They also make me squint ahead into the future in awed wonder, asking myself where might we be in three decades more. Amongst that frantic pace of change, it is difficult to project myself back into 1982 in order to imagine just how "cool" this book would have seemed.

I reckon the answer is probably something like "pretty damn cool", and that has to be worth a couple of bonus webs. So, let's say four webs total!

Footnote...

The barcodes used in this book do not appear to be any standard modern barcode format. I've tried feeding them through various online barcode reader systems, and none of them can parse it. So that means it's not UPC-A, UPC-E, EAN-8, EAN-13, Code 39, Code 128, QR Code, Data Matrix, PDF 417 or ITF. It's almost certainly a proprietary format constructed especially by Texas Instruments engineers.

What is also clear is that the Magic Wand Speaking Reader wasn't programmed with a complete vocabulary. Instead, it performed it's "speaking" by speech synthesis - constructing words and noises out of sound fragments based on the rules represented in the barcodes.

According to Erik Olson (son of engineer Albert Olson who helped develop these books), the barcodes could represent either full-blown LBC (Linear Predictive Coding) or just allophones with pitch and other hints

If you're curious to learn more about these books and the underlying technology, you should visit DataMath Calculator Museum.

The Magic Wand Speaking Reader is the subject of U.S. patent 4,337,375 and others (e.g. 4,466,801).