Spotlight Sunday 9.27.20

From the Archives, Spotlight Sundays

The number of joking references that I’ve made to this comic recently and the fact that soup, of all things, has been in the headlines mean that there are spoilers ahead for…

Captain America and the Campbell Kids
Writer: Bill Mantlo
Artist: Alan Kupperberg, Herb Trimpe
Marvel/Campbell Soup Company/U.S. Department of Energy

“I don’t know if I can stop them! You see, one of the Energy Drainers’ secret weapons is to drain the world of its energy–and the key to stopping them…is YOU!”

When I first started doing these Spotlight Sunday posts, the intent was just to put something on this site, given that it’s not really being used for its intended purpose and I don’t seem to be able make it do what I want it to do.

I called it Spotlight Sunday for the sake of alliteration, which is a linguistic device that has a long and storied tradition in comics, and also because I planned to post them on, you guessed it, Sundays. After making that decision and committing to it, I immediately had regrets and thought that I should have instead called the feature Comic Conversations, which might have been somewhat misleading – I’m the only one talking, after all – but perhaps gives a better idea of what these posts are.

As I’ve said many times, they’re not really reviews so much as me telling you, in a somewhat conversational tone, what happened in a comic I read and what I thought about it. It’s very much like what would happen if you and I were friends in real life and you were inclined to listen to me talking about comics I’ve read.

I don’t have any plans to change the name now that I’ve been committed to it for years, but given that the comic in the Spotlight today is about energy, with a lot of talk about lights, it just got me to thinking about the name of this irregular – like everything else here – feature.

So anyway, where were we? Oh yeah, soup. Wait, no, energy. I mean, comics. I mean, a comic about energy that was sponsored by a soup company.

Yes, it’s another PSA comic, and like the last one we had a “conversation” about, its focus is on energy and energy conservation, and it also features characters owned by Disney (though that wasn’t the case at the time of publication).

Unlike that one, however, I got this one when I was in school. In fact, it was the first of the three PSA comics I got in school. (I talked about the second one here, and will talk about the third in a future post.)

Despite what’s indicated on the cover, the Campbell Kids never actually appear as characters in the story, serving instead as narrators and guides to the Games, Puzzles, Quizzes, and Energy Fun!

Instead, the Sentinel of Liberty is accompanied by these four kids.

As with the promo comic for the TRS-80 Color Computer – available at your local Radio Shack! – and as is indicated by the kids’ introductions of themselves, the setting for this story is a fair. Specifically, a science fair at the Energy Museum.

…there’s a working nuclear power plant at this science fair? All the TRS-80 Whiz Kids got was a giant model of a TRS-80 Color Computer – Get yours from Radio Shack! – though really, that does seem safer.

After the initial introductions and the troubling explanations of their exhibits, Cap decides that the kids are in need of some lessons about the future. What troubles Cap is that the kids’ exhibits all seem to use a lot of energy, and do so in wasteful ways.

The kids all think there’s plenty of energy to go around, so they don’t understand why Cap is so uptight. He explains that America is too dependent on foreign energy sources, and the current sources we have are inadequate and present problems – such as the disposal of nuclear waste – and so it’s important to find alternative sources of energy.

Before he can finish, however, the Star-Spangled Avenger is interrupted by the sound of an evil laugh. A trio calling themselves the Energy Drainers has attacked the museum, and it’s up to Cap – and the kids – to stop them.

The three villains are the Thermal Thief, who is able to steal heat and use it for his own wasteful purposes, causing the museum to experience extreme cold that makes the waterfall that’s part of the hydroelectric display freeze solid, the Wattage Waster, who is able drain electricity, and the Doomsday Man, who is able to drain all energy, including Cap’s.

Some quick thinking on the part of Soapbox – who had the foresight of providing an alternative energy source for his gasoline-powered soapbox racer in the form of pedals – saves Cap from the villains’ clutches, but the threat is far from over.

I knew those kids were no good! Then again, I say that about all children.

To explain what he means about them being the key, Cap takes the kids to the Home Exhibit, where the kids learn that their science fair projects are actually part of the exhibit.

That proves to be the key – the exhibits are all examples of wasting energy!

Yeah, I guess you didn’t, Ricardo.

After shaming all of the other kids for their wasteful ways, which seems to help restore the energy the Doomsday Man drained from him because shaming children, more than the super-soldier serum coursing through his veins, is what powers him, Cap sets out to face off against the Energy Drainers once more.

After making short work of the Thermal Thief and Wattage Waster, Cap once again falls when he faces off against the deadly Doomsday Man.

While the Doomsday Man has Captain America held captive and busies himself with engaging in your standard villain monologue, the kids come to the rescue, weakening the villain by cutting off the sources of his power.

They shut down all of the exhibits – though a bunch of kids just casually shutting down a nuclear power plant seems unwise – and while the Doomsday Man is able to figure out what’s happening and turns his attention to the children, he’s not fast enough to prevent Soapbox from closing the skylight, thereby depriving him of the last source of energy for him to drain.

Without the sunlight to feed him, the Doomsday Man fades away, and the four kids – and all the kids who read the comic – are now much wiser about the importance of conserving energy and finding alternative energy sources.

Those kids will never engage in energy-wasting pursuits again. Because now they have a taste for murder, and will focus all of their energy on that. “I killed a supervillain… and it made me feel like a god! To hell with soapbox racers of any kind!”

The rest of the comic is filled with, as the cover promises, Games, Puzzles, Quizzes, and Energy Fun, though how fun any of it is depends on your definition. Mostly it’s facts about the history of energy and some of the standard energy-saving tips, like not leaving the lights on when you’re not in the room and so forth.

In terms of the actual story told, while it’s written by comics veteran Bill Mantlo (more on him in a bit), it doesn’t quite work as well as a story as, for example, the non-PSA promo comic for the TRS-80 Color Computer – Contact your local Radio Shack for details! – which, apart from the extreme product placement, wasn’t too different from a standard comic of its time.

Nor was it as compelling, serious, and poignant and the anti-drug comic featuring The New Teen Titans, which came out just a few years after this. That said, I did like it more than the similarly-themed Disney PSA comic. In many ways, it’s more like an issue of Spidey Super-Stories than anything else.

The art was solid, and fairly representative, if in a bit of a generic way, of the style at the time – at least in certain corners of the Marvel Universe – and it’s worth noting that one of the listed artists, Alan Kupperberg, is the brother of Paul Kupperberg, who wrote the promo comic for the TRS-80 Color Computer (Visit your local Radio Shack!).

I liked the design of the Energy Drainers. The Doomsday Man in particular had a solid Kirby vibe, and that close-up shot of his face has some of the clearest evidence of Herb Trimpe’s style.

I also thought they were conceptually clever as villains, in that they were tangible manifestations of the energy-wasting activities people engage in every day, as is made especially clear in the included maze.

Of course, the Doomsday Man doesn’t represent any specific energy-wasting behaviors, serving instead as a manifestation of general anxiety of the times – this came out just as the Energy Crisis of the 1970s was winding down – and the cumulative effects of a lack of conservation.

While it did make reference to them, this comic had less of a focus on the promise of alternative energy sources and kind of undercut their value by having the villains be able to drain and waste that energy, too. The emphasis was almost entirely on conserving energy for its own sake rather than, as in the Disney comic, emphasizing that conserving energy now will pay dividends in the future by allowing humanity to live long enough to develop clean, unlimited sources of energy.

Again, there was some of that, but that wasn’t the main point the comic was trying to make.

Additionally, there was little in the way of focus on pollution or the dirty nature of most of our existing energy sources – apart from the reference to nuclear waste – and nothing whatsoever about greenhouse gases and climate change, though that latter point isn’t surprising for 1980.

There was a good attempt at having some diversity with the kids, though it didn’t escape my notice that it was the blue-eyed blond boy who took the most active role in helping Cap defeat the Energy Drainers.

I do kind of wish that, given the current discourse and the involvement of Campbell, actual Antifa super-soldier Captain America would have taken down one of the villains with a can of soup, but I suppose that Campbell wanted to make it clear that soup is for your family.

There are references throughout the activities in the comic to an “Energy Diploma,” and the inside back cover shows an image of it and proclaims that you earned it by reading the comic and completing the activities. It also tells teachers to order enough diplomas for their students. My teacher didn’t order any, and while I could have sent away for one using the address listed on the page, I just didn’t didn’t have the energy to do so back when I was a kid, I guess.

The majority of my nostalgic fondness for this comic stems from the excitement of getting a comic book at school, a bit of excitement I felt again later when I got the anti-drug comic, though that one was especially exciting because it featured the team from my favorite comic book.

Still, it’s a fun little comic, and while dated, many of the lessons contained in it are still applicable, albeit for somewhat different reasons.

As I mentioned, this was written by Bill Mantlo, who, in addition to his work on many other fine comics, handled a couple of the licensed titles at Marvel, The Micronauts and ROM: Spaceknight. I would say that he didn’t bring his A game to this special project in the way he did to those licensed books, but it was a solid effort aimed at an audience that wasn’t necessarily the typical audience for comics and needed to appeal to kids who might not be that familiar with the Marvel style of sequential storytelling.

He was exactly the kind of dependable writer you’d want to tap for a project like this.

Bill is probably best known as the co-creator of Rocket Racoon, though he contributed much, much more to comics than that. Far too much to list here.

Sadly, in 1992 Bill was seriously injured in a hit-and-run accident and has required institutional care ever since.

Bill Mantlo with his famous creation in 2014.

I just thought this was a good time to mention Bill, his contribution to comics, and his current circumstances. Then again, it’s always a good time for that.

In any case, that does it for this energy-efficient edition of the Spotlight. Be sure to come back…well, whenever I post another one, I guess. (Which may be soonish, but probably not next Sunday.)

In the meantime, while you work on supporting the Earth by not being an energy-waster, a reminder that…

Supporting OpenDoor Comicsis a thing you can do, by whitelisting the site in your ad blocker, by purchasing something from the OpenDoor Comics Shop, by creating your own comics on the OpenDoor Comics platform, or through directly giving money via Patreon or PayPal.


Leave a Reply