['Game Mag Weaseling' is a weekly column by Kevin Gifford which covers video game magazines from the late '70s all the way up to right now.]


This column is late as all 'eck, but there's a good reason for it. That's because I've spent the last couple hours poring over my computer-magazine collection (numbering over 2500 these days, and I'm proud to say there isn't a single PC World or Wired in it) in order to build something I've meant to create for a few days now -- The Top 10 Silliest Computer Mag Covers in History.

Now, keep in mind that when I say "silly," I don't necessarily mean "crap." I have a deep-seated love for nearly every home-computer mag from the 1970s and 80s, and it always pains me, in a way, to think about how boring the PC industry has become these days. Mag editors had real enthusiasm and ideas about the revolution they were fomenting back then. What they didn't always, however, was the top caliber in cover design. This occasionally leads to covers that, while normal-looking or even eye-catching in their day, look just plain silly in 2006. Hence, this list.

This ranking is based entirely off my own magazine collection, which is heavily geared toward the classic era of computing, so naturally it's not gonna cover every silly mag out there. If you have a magazine you think I'm missing, though, by all means leave a comment (and a picture, hopefully) and I'll cover it later.

[Click through for more.]

#10: BYTE, December 1977


GameSetWatch has discussed Robert Tinney in the past; he drew the covers for BYTE (the first dedicated microcomputer mag) from 1976 to 1987 and came up with all sorts of exotic visual metaphors for the infant technology of the day. This cover, though, reveals one very deep similarity computer nerds of the 70s shared with modern geeks -- they are all massive pop-culture SF nuts. I can't get enough of Sulu trying to poke at a primitive dual-floppy drive system (probable cost at the time: about $1000).

Even better, the cover actually forebodes an article inside: "The Computers of Star Trek" -- a highly entertaining speculative piece written by two engineers who were such total nerds that they actually worked for the US Department of Defense.

#9: Antic, February 1989


Antic (along with A.N.A.L.O.G. Computing) was the most widely-read US magazine devoted to the Atari 8-bit computers. Lesser known is the fact that Antic's editorial office has a magical Atari 800XL that shoots Video Toaster graphics out of the screen at the user.

The female user seems pretty happy about this, too. "Hey, Atari! Nintendo and IBM and Commodore got you down? Chill out, brah -- you've got PROGRAMMING POWER!"

#8: inCider/A+, April 1990


A sad yet common pattern with late-era 8-bit computer mags is covers that get boring due to lack of design funds. A+'s answer: put someone's kid (I think -- I'm actually having trouble discerning this guy's age) on the cover instead. Antic's final year or so also included a disproportionate number of random kids on its covers, too. Hmm. I didn't realize computer-mag editors got married so often, much less had children.

#7: Call A.P.P.L.E., November 1984


"Meet hotline veteran Butch Greathouse," this issue's "On the Cover" text box notes. "Butch is our daytime hotline staffer. If you need technical assistance, don't hesitate to get acquainted with him...who knows, it could be a beautiful relationship."

What the blurb doesn't discuss is why Butch is so shocked to have his Apple give him one of its boards for...Christmas? Who knows? Even the mortarboard atop the computer fails to make this cover photo's link to "Computers and Education" particularly strong.

#6: Kilobaud Microcomputing, August 1980


Wayne Green was one of the most successful early publishers of computer mags, and multiplatform title Kilobaud was his flagship product from 1977 until 1983, when he sold the whole operation to IDG. He was based out of tiny Peterborough, New Hampshire (population: 5883), and that may explain why, despite the mag's sales success (this issue is 242 pages long), the cover art isn't quite top-class.

All right, let's be honest, it's crap. MC68000 woman looks to be about 68 years old, though, so it fits pretty well, actually.

#5: 80 Microcomputing, May 1980


Green's other big early success was this title, a mag devoted to Tandy's TRS-80 line of PCs. This cover, however, quite possibly scared off a large number of younger computer buyers back in the day -- after all, if this was what most TRS-80 users looked like, then maybe this whole computer-revolution thing isn't quite what its cracked up to be.

I'm not going to identify the guy on the cover 'cos he still writes stuff and I'm sure he's a wonderful guy nowadays, but you couldn't personify the word "nerd" as defined in 1980 better than with this photo. Note the enormous horn-rims and the trio of scientific calculators in the background.

#4: Softalk, March 1981


Softalk is one of the most fondly-remembered Apple II mags for its friendly voice, its software sales rankings (the first in the industry), and for its underground mentality. Issues go for tons whenever they appear on eBay, and I'm very proud to own a full set.

This issue's cover, however, would make any red-blooded male run shouting from the computer industry if Super-Nerd from 80 Micro didn't scare him off earlier. Note, once more, the blonde in the background who'd actually be rather fetching if it weren't for those enormous hornrims.

By the way, these ladies all worked for Apple Computer in 1981. The one on the far right is Jean Richardson, who was Apple's marketing manager at the time. She later moved on to Microsoft, became a vice-president, and then appeared in compu-documentary Triumph of the Nerds discussing Bill Gates' poor hygiene.

#3: Boardwatch, April 1993


I could make another complete top-ten list with Boardwatch issues alone. Every issue seems to put one BBS sysop or another on the cover, and BBS sysops (at least those not running pirate BBSes) seemed to invariably be overweight men in their 40s.

I chose this one, tho, 'cos (a) its creative use of title fonts is divine, and (b) it's historically significant. I remember Rusty n Edie's BBS being all over the news in 1993; they were the BBS in Ohio that charged $90 a year for access and were (as the mag puts it) "the worst-kept secret in the industry" when it came to warez and scanned-in porn. But Rusty and Edie look like such nice people in their shopping-mall caricature! They wouldn't hurt a fly!

(By the way, personal request for info -- does anyone know when Boardwatch actually closed publishing? The last issue I have is from 1998 but it seems to have lasted far longer.)

#2: The Color Computer Magazine, August 1983


The Color Computer Magazine (devoted to Tandy's Color Computer series) was another New England-based mag, this one coming from New England Publications in Camden, ME, which also put out a variety of outdoors magazines. I think being a computer hacker in Maine would do this to anybody.

#1: Timex Sinclair User, August 1983


For someone about my age, this pretty much sums up computing in the '80s -- going to computer camp, putting your socks way up high, and wearing a propellor beanie. Nearly every issue of Timex Sinclair User (all seven of them) has an equally silly cover, but I chose this one because it struck a nerve -- I remember looking exactly like this, except I was hunched over a Commodore 64 and weighed about 100 pounds more. Sigh...memories.

Top 10 Runners-up

  • 21 years ago, Macs were giving you money. Now they cost a lot of money, and what's more, can't play games. How times change!

  • It's somehow gotten difficult for me to believe that Jaws was such a pop-culture event in America at the time, but I guess it was. Seems almost quaint nowadays.

  • Commodore 64 rag RUN reveals every office worker's inner dream: To be SuperFloppy. No, wait, that didn't come out right...

  • CP/M used to be a pretty popular operating system in America. But do you know who else used CP/M computers? Yep, that's right...

  • I love piracy-themed mag covers. The pirates on the cover always look like they're having so much fun, compared to the boring businessmen that usually take up residence there.

  • Fortunately for Commodore users, the games market took a noted upturn after this distressing cover was published.

  • Edward Gorey drew a computer-magazine cover once. Bet you didn't know that.

  • Here's an example of a cover that just gets creepier and creepier the more you stare at it.

  • The Rainbow gives us a taste of music in the year 2000. Perhaps.

  • Finally, Antic takes an early stab at attracting the financially vital furry geek marketplace. Bonus points are applied for the random flying neon letters -- now that's word processing, baby.

[Kevin Gifford breeds ferrets and runs Magweasel, a site for collectors and fans of old video-game and computer magazines. He's also an editor at Newtype USA magazine.]