Educational comics are always a sure bet for
good questionable storytelling. In 1980, Captain America taught us about the importance of conserving energy, in a tale brought to us by the triple-threat of Marvel Comics, the U.S. Department of Energy, and the Campbell Soup Company. Because when I think of energy conservation, I think of soup.
Captain America and the Campbell Kids
The Battle of the Energy Drainers!
Before we get to the story, here's a quick message from our heroes.
Yes, kids, don't ruin that crappy free comic you found crumpled at the bottom of your fourth-grade library bookshelf! Use tracing paper - you know, tracing paper, everybody's got plenty of tracing paper lying around. That way you can still do all the puzzles - and so can the next kid to find this comic, two or three years from now! Just don't move a god-damn muscle or the puzzle won't line up anymore and you'll have to start over with a fresh piece of tracing paper. Yes, I know most tracing paper is hard to read words through - the Campbell Kids don't have this problem, their gigantic eyes give them freakishly superior vision. Just get really, really close to the page and squint. Are you squinting? Do you have that slippery tracing paper in a death grip? Do your eyes hurt and your fingers ache? Good, you're ready to start! Isn't conserving energy fun?!?
My spirits sank a bit when I saw the first page of this story and realized that Captain America would not actually be teaming up with the Campbell Soup Kids themselves, but that the Kids would instead be acting as the narrators of our tale. I think we can all agree that whatever joys the next thirty-five odd pages hold, they can never measure up to the wonders that would come of Cap and a pair of hydraencephalitic child soup-enthusiasts teaming up to fight crime.
But then I saw that instead our young heroes would be a quartet of multi-culti teenagers, and I felt a little better. Ethnically diverse teenagers make every story better, especially corporate-sponsored educational comics. "Let's see, we've got a white kid, an Asian kid, and a black kid...that's all the kinds of people there are, right? We need four...throw in another white kid."
"They call me Soapbox, which is odd because I build cars with motors, which by definition aren't soapbox racers!"
"I'm Clean Clara! I'm always inventing new ways to keep myself clean! I've invented buttons that let me bathe, brush my teeth, and poop all at the same time! Never clean enough! NEVER CLEAN ENOUGH!"
"I'm Reading Ricardo! Oh, hey, I guess I'm Latino - rainbow complete! Anyway, I invented robots and light switches, and for some reason I'm treating those two things as if they are comparable achievements!"
"I'm TV Tanya, and I didn't invent anything! Instead of doing my science project, I just stacked a couple of TVs on top of each other and then laid in bed all day. They said it was more than almost anyone else did, and they were giving me fourth place. Yay America!"
Cap is a little concerned about how much energy the kids' projects use...
Yes, there is plenty of energy to go around, Reading Ricardo! Don't let Cap or anyone else tell you differently. DON'T BELIEVE THE LIES OF BIG SOUP!
I question the imagination of the designers of the Energy Museum, but I admire their boldness. Finding creative ways to represent and teach about the various methods of generating energy is too hard, so they just built multiple working power plants and put them all in one gigantic room. It must have been staggeringly expensive to build, but they probably make up for it on their electric bill. I wouldn't want to stand under that oil derrick, though. Or get too close to the nuclear power plant. Or breathe too deeply next to the coal mine. You know what? Let's go to the zoo instead.
(Clara, I think you stepped in a patch of oil. Better change your shoes. Better wash your hands a few times while you're at it.) Cap explains, in a page with a word-balloon-to-image ratio far too high to post here, about the problems with our current sources of energy - dependence on non-Americans, nuclear waste, oil and coal running out (blatantly contradicting what he said three seconds ago). He starts to discuss alternative energy sources, like solar power, but the kids are dismissive of all that hippy talk.
Then this asshole shows up:
The terrifying severed melons of the Campbell Soup Kids, bobbing on top of that active geyser, inform us that this is the Thermal Thief! He's wasting energy by draining it from everyone and everything around him in a selfish effort to keep himself alive!
By the way, nice of the museum to put that dainty wire fence around two sides of that fifteen-foot high fount of steaming hot water. That'll stop the mass scaldings. Good thing this museum is so crappy there's barely anybody there to get drowned/burned.
Or you could run up the side, there. Doesn't look to be any ice on it at all.
We may not have been shown it, but that had to have taken a good twenty minutes of Cap continuously climbing a few feet and then sliding back down while everybody stood around, embarrassedly cheering him on.
Not to bring too much science into this science-based comic book, but if the Thermal Thief can absorb solar energy to such a degree that you can actually feel the temperature dropping - 1) why is he bothering absorbing heat from anything else when he can clearly drain an inconceivable amount of energy from the sun, and 2) why hasn't Cap called in the rest of the Avengers to deal with this massively overpowered threat?
Huh. Maybe he's not so massively overpowered, since Cap defeated him with his super-power of punching. But look out, Cap! You may have defeated this guy by sending him sliding down an ice ramp, but TV Tanya has spotted something behind you!
It's the Wattage Waster! It's odd that she and the Thermal Thief both think of themselves as wasting the power that they drain. Wouldn't they be using it for reasons that they would personally find highly productive, like crime and murder? I like her belt pouches, though. What do you think she keeps in there? Keys, credit card, change of
Uh-oh, Cap! The bad guys have learned to avoid that whole "take on the hero one at a time" pitfall, and are coming at you two at once! It's the Doomsday Man, leader of this terrible trio who cleverly snagged the best name for himself. The kids are frightened for Captain America - what can they do to help? The white kid has a plan! He's their leader!
At no point do the other three kids help him with his plan. He just wanted to show off his damn car again.
"I installed it in case the soapbox derby judges discovered my illegal motor, so I'd have a back-up way to cheat!"
Soapbox pedals his little car as fast as his chicken legs can, straight into the aforementioned safety-hazard geyser! He jumps clear and the racer...wait, I'll let the Soup Monsters tell you...
With staggering luck the car directs the steaming water directly at our villains, and while they're blinded, Cap takes the opportunity to bravely run away.
Captain America's pretty surprised considering the fight with them hasn't ended yet. We know who they are, Cap, they will not stop saying their stupid names! The Energy Drainers float away in search of their secret weapons, but the kids are baffled. What secret weapons could they use to drain the world's energy?
Yeah, I got a pretty good idea, Campbell Soup Boy. I've used my keen power of remembering to remember that I'm reading a comic about energy conservation - I think I know what's coming next. And I didn't even win my elementary school science fair. (Stupid Olga, growing a stupid plant in the stupid dark...)
But before we continue with the story, let's do a maze!
You know what? That maze looks surprisingly difficult. And you want me to do it through a piece of tracing paper? Let's save energy by skipping it. You're welcome, Captain America!
While we were deciding this puzzle was too much work, Cap brought the kids to the "Home Exhibit", where Reading Ricardo is in for a surprise...
I'm still thinking he could have just submitted the robots and still won the science fair. (Even though they can only bring him books from the bottom shelf.) Everyone's amazed by the wonders of Ricardo's fair - even Clean Clara, for whom the bright lights do nothing but illuminate the dirt. Everyone but Cap. Authority disapproves - time to turn on your friend, kids! Pig-gy! Pig-gy!
"And your haircut is fucking ugly." I'm saddened by the robots, plaintively offering books to all passers-by, as if they know they're about to be junked. "Book, sir? Book, madam? Any book you want! Please don't hurt me...I'm only doing as my God commanded!"
The kids are fired up - now that they've shown Reading Ricardo what an energy-hogging bastard he's been, the Energy Drainers are as good as dead! Right?
Busted! Clara always feels extra-dirty when she's been told she's bad. Better go somewhere she can scrub her faults away.
You can tell it's a super-futuristic bathroom from the thing with the buttons.
Soapbox - no, the wind could not do as good a job as that mammoth hair dryer. Go take a shower and then ride your illegal soapbox racer around town, see how much longer it takes you. Tanya - yes, a towel probably would work better, but towels carry bacteria. She's "Clean Clara", remember? Logic's not going to work here. Ricardo - you are being straight-up passive-aggressive to Captain America because he called you out on your shit, and I like it.
Clara's so trusting. "Yup, up to the top and nice and hot so I can soak for hours and scrub all my sins I mean dirt away! Isn't that great? Never...clean...enough!" But Cap's got a trick - he proves to her that a quick crappy shower will use less water than a long satisfying bath. Clara's quite distraught - she wants to save energy, but she also wants to be clean! And if she doesn't wash her hands three times as soon as she enters a bathroom, someone she loves will die! I'm feeling a bit distraught myself reading about Captain America's manipulation of a teenager with OCD. Campbell Soup Kids, distract me!
Not a like that, not like that! Put a shirt on, you twisted mutant child! Is there no hope left in the world?
Oh, well, that's all right then. All our energy problems were solved ten years ago - good to know. I think I can go back to the story now, since I know it'll all be ok in the end.
"This is what I watch all day - the Connect-the-Dots Channel and white people porn!"
WHO chose the winners of this science fair? How bad were all the other entries that the winners of a science fair sponsored by the Energy Museum don't understand the most basic concepts of energy conservation? What exactly were the guidelines of this contest? Even if TV Tanya isn't concerned with saving energy, is she really dumb enough to not notice that the air conditioner doesn't work particularly well if you leave the window wide open? (Not to mention that she installed it in the window by just setting it down on the sill - look out below!)
Even assuming that there's some valid reason these kids won - like maybe only five kids entered, and the fifth kid's project was about testing the effects of stab wounds on puppies vs. kittens - why did the Energy Museum think it was a good idea to install the kids' projects as is, when those projects seem to solely consist of, "I turned on everything in my room at once. Science!" Now I know why they need all those working power plants on the premises.
It's a bad museum, is what I'm saying. Rant over. Let's get back to Captain America making teenagers feel bad about themselves! Soapbox, you're up.
The white kid gets off pretty easily, I guess because he saved Cap's life. Not a word about cheating at soapbox derbies, which is still really bothering me. Soapbox, Clean Clara, TV Tanya and Reading Ricardo tell Cap they've learned their lesson - no, really, they learned it after the first room, you can lay off now, Cap - and they won't be the Energy Wasters' secret weapons any longer. Cap tells them to stay safe in the home exhibit - you know, read a book, watch some TV, maybe take a bath, Clara, you're filthy - while he hunts the villains down.
Cap's ambushed by the Thermal Thief, who uses the combination of his own high temperature and the low temperature of the room to create a hurricane (it's basic thermodynamics, kids). His plan is to use the winds to toss Captain America into the rapidly whirling blades of a windmill, but...
It's a convention of comic books or comic strips that the events in a single panel are not happening all at once, but instead occurring over a brief span of time - generally our brains accept this without even registering it as odd, except when we come across a panel like this one, in which the Thermal Thief is talking about Captain America as if he's dead, when he's obviously splanging towards the villain at high speed. Anyway, Cap punches him in the face again.
Cap has no time to catch his breath, as he's quickly attacked by the Wattage Waster!
Far be it from me to disagree with a little girl who works for soup, but I think the writer of this comic (the otherwise pretty great Bill Mantlo) may misunderstand the recycling process. How many power plants run on aluminum cans and old newspapers?
Uh-oh, Cap! You're about to be sliced to ribbons by another deadly exhibit. Why is this Energy Museum still in operation? Why did Captain America agree to participate in their contest? Didn't he take a look around first? They have a conveyor belt, with no barriers or guard rails or anything, standing in the middle of the exhibit floor. It's ok, though, it's not like small children are fascinated by moving conveyor belts, go ahead and put those rotating metal spikes in the middle. It'll be fine. And yeah, go ahead and put a giant furnace at the end. Just slip the OSHA guy a twenty, he'll look the other way.
Am I being too petty if I point out that Captain America doesn't have super-speed? Yes? Ok, I'll move on. How on earth did he survive, when Wattage Waster saw him enter the grinder?
"Yup. Just crouched down behind my trusty old shield here. Just crouched right down. Well, I guess I must have laid down, because the sifter grabs trash that's only stacked about eight inches high, so I had to get pretty low. Still good, though. Got my whole body underneath this shield, which is about the size of my forearm. I'm flexible like that. Just ask Bucky."
Cap made short work of the henchmen, but the Doomsday Machine himself comes up behind and zaps our hero into blissful unconsciousness (blissful because he is offered a brief respite from this story). When he awakes...
Yup, working solar space station. In the ceiling of the Energy Museum. Because why not? Whatever state this museum is in, I want their Senator to come to New York, because he or she is the master of pork.
I would not want to work maintenance at this museum. Besides breathing in coal dust and absorbing radiation all day, you'd have to avoid being roasted to death every time you dusted the solar panels, you'd have to mop up all the spilled oil from the derrick and scalding water from the geyser, you'd have to dispose of the mangled remains of curious children...screw that. I hope the overtime's good.
All seems lost for our hero, doomed to die and leave a well-tanned corpse. But suddenly...!
Shreeeee! What's happened? It's the kids, of course! Clara has realized that, since they aided the Doomsday Man by being energy-wasters, maybe they can weaken him by being energy-savers! All four kids have realized that Cap is fucking useless and they have to save his star-spangled ass once again.
Get out of the damn car, Soapbox, you look pathetic. The Doomsday Man attacks the kids, but they scatter to the various exhibits. Clean Clara gets her hands dirty by shutting down the hydroelectric dam.
What's with the "Shreee"? Is that his catchphrase? He's shreeing because Soapbox and
Ricky Reading Ricardo have shut down almost all of the other power exhibits.
But there's still one more source of power to shut down. Looks like it's up to Tanya!
Oh, no, never mind, it's the white kid again. Tanya doesn't do shit. Too much TV watching, she can't handle it when things get real.
Doomsday man blasts Soapbox's soapbox to illegal smithereens, but the little Aryan boy dives clear and...
...saves the day by pulling the conveniently marked "shade pull"! Doomsday Man is helpless against fabric! His power gone, he falls to the ground. Cap, freed from the now powerless solar station, and the kids gather around in triumph.
"What a world! What a world!" We're almost at the end, so I'll take this opportunity to point out that at no point in this comic is Campbell Soup mentioned, let alone shilled for. Not even a word-search-in-alphabet-soup puzzle. The only thing Campbell related was the narration of the Campbell Kids, and the tiny mention of the company's sponsorship on the cover. That's very unusual for a corporate-sponsored comic, and I guess somewhat admirable. Especially as, with only the Campbell Kids to give me an impression of the product, all I come away with about Campbell Soup is that it'll make your kids fat.
"Hooray, we killed him! Let's go kill the other two now!"
"Great job, kids! Remember - never turn on the lights or the Doomsday Man will come back to life and kill you. Now let's go have some soup! Not you, Clara. Go take a bath, you're covered in super-villain cremains. You disgust me."