More Moxie: The Rise, Fall, and Riotous Return of an American Icon — Part 3
The turbulent history and enduring legacy of one of the most popular superheroes ever created and the fascinating lives of the talented people who brought her to life. Start with Part 1
On Heavy Wings of Bronze
Nearly two decades after the forced departure of co-founder Ellen Goldman and the subsequent exile of their one-time flagship character to a suburban cul de sac, MC Comics was about to get their moxie back. Thanks to a rapidly changing culture and another exiled visionary, the nearly moribund publisher would find a new sense of relevance and profitability by exploring the concept of heroic legacy.
“Ms. Moxie” was written by iconoclastic comic book writer Steve McNeal and drawn by a young underground cartoonist named Katherine Zimmerman who worked under the pen name Kat Zee. McNeal had wanted a woman as a prominent member of the creative team in order to give the book the authenticity he deemed necessary to attract the desired audience. Colorist Adam Hartford and letterer Doris Wakeman, both Prodigal alumni, rounded out the creative team, and the first issue reached newsstands and specialty shops in the spring of 1973. It featured the adventures of the former Moxie Gal’s daughter as the titular hero and was an immediate, if modest, hit. While it didn’t break any records, it sold better than any of MC’s other titles, except for “The Adventures of Captain Virtue”, and even outsold Prodigal’s lower-tier books such as “Professor Pyro, Master of the Living Flame” and “Billy Cosmic, Wandering Space Hippie”.
The early issues of “Ms. Moxie” followed the blueprint that had made the Prodigal books so successful. It focused equally on Ms. Moxie’s superheroic adventures and Mary Lockheart’s real-life struggles as a college student and a young woman trying to make it on her own in a new city. The plots tended to follow real-world events, and McNeal even managed to get around the editorial restrictions on subject matter by using the tropes of superhero comics to his advantage. Toward the end of his first year on the title, after having Ms. Moxie bust a campus amphetamine ring, defeat a satanic cult bent on summoning an eldritch horror imprisoned beneath the college library, stop an organized crime family who were strong-arming college athletes, and expose a pay-for-grades scandal in her civilian identity, McNeal decided to see how far he could push the envelope.
He started by dusting off the story that led to his departure from Prodigal. To get around the prohibition against pre-marital sex, he had Mary’s roommate, Sheryl, encounter a mysterious stranger at a campus mixer. After sharing only a dance with him, Sheryl discovered she was, somehow, impossibly pregnant. It was revealed that the stranger was a member of an alien race that had lost the ability to procreate within their own species. In order to solve this problem, the males of the race, who could impregnate women through touch alone, would travel the galaxy, conceive children with women of compatible species, then extract the developing embryos to be implanted in the wombs of women of their own species, which, through the magic of comic book science, would then develop into purely alien babies. If the embryo were allowed to gestate fully in a human womb, the resulting child would be completely human.
This convoluted approach allowed Sheryl and Mary to discuss many of the issues surrounding the topic of abortion without actually discussing the topic of abortion itself. Though the story raised eyebrows among the editorial staff, it did not technically violate the restrictions and was allowed to go to print. The very frank and real conversation at the heart of a rather nonsensical plot resonated with readers, and it was the highest-selling issue of the series at that point, outselling even “The Adventures of Captain Virtue” and all but the most popular Prodigal titles. It drew praise from critics, fans, and feminist groups alike, and made “Ms. Moxie” a title to watch, raising MC’s fading star in the process.
Emboldened by the story’s success, McNeal explored anti-authority themes by having Teen Venture and The Adventure Society stand in for the police and military, usually pitting Ms. Moxie against her former allies and mentors. The issue in which Ms. Moxie fought Captain Virtue over her defense of campus protesters sold even better than the alien abortion story. The creative team was even able to allow Ms. Moxie to explore various drug experiences by employing similar narrative devices involving alien spores, magical potions, and various telepathic entities.
These types of stories began to increase as Steve McNeal delved deeper into his own recreational drug use, and the next few years found Ms. Moxie in a state of altered consciousness more often than not. For most of the mid-70s, every other month saw some manner of alien spores, magic potion or telepathic influence that would get Ms. Moxie higher than she’d ever flown before, send her on a trip to the farthest reaches of cosmic psychedelia, or leave her lethargic and languid in a dazed and confused stupor.
But if Ms. Moxie was tuning in, turning off, and dropping out, so was her writer. His scripts were consistently late, usually unfinished, and increasingly unintelligible. It was only through the efforts of Katherine Zimmerman and the rest of the creative team that the books made it out at all. By the summer of 1976, Steve McNeal’s bosses were getting fed up.
The audience was losing interest as well, and sales were falling as a result. They’d held on to a large percentage of their readership through inertia and Kat Zee’s stunning artwork, but the editorial staff could see that wasn’t going to last for much longer, so in August of 1976, Steve McNeal was fired. The editors didn’t need to look far for his replacement, and the September issue of “Ms. Moxie” went out with Kat Zee credited as writer and artist. After more than twenty years, a “Moxie” title was once again being published with a woman at the helm.
Kat pitched a series of stories to the editors that would bring action and adventure back to the title, with raw emotion and a deep connection to the real world that had been sorely lacking for too long. The editors were enthusiastically on board and early response to Kat’s first few issues as writer were overwhelmingly positive, with the boost in sales to back it up.
A bold new era for Ms. Moxie was about to begin, but that era would be tragically cut short.