...Captain Marvel! (It'll be a cold day in Fawcett City before I call him "Shazam!"). And what does Cap always say (besides, of course, Sha-youknowhat)? Well, you know he declares...Holy Moley!
Panels from Captain Marvel Adventures #90 (November 1948)
Well, first of all, in-depth research in the vast Bully Archives of Literary and Cultural History (or what my good personal pal, Tim "I don't know who Meredith Vieira is either" Berners-Lee, called the World Wide Web) tells me that Captain Marvel debuted in 1940, the same year Fantasia, Elmer Fudd, Truth or Consequences, and McDonald's first appeared. (Don't tell me that 1940 wasn't a year of important cultural firsts!). But the phrase "holy moley" dates from well before that! (Sorry, Cap, you didn't invent it...you just popularized it.) Here's an example from the novel Running It Off by Nat Gould (the original Dick Francis), published in 1892:
Ah! That fits in perfectly with the Big Red Cheese's usage of "holy moley" as an expression of shock, surprise, and astonishment, as in "Holy Moley! Mister Mind has eaten all my delicious cabbage leaves! That fiend!" However, it's not the only way the phrase is used. Searching for spelling variants while combing literature for the phrase, we find New Legends by Hervey Allen (1929), which, despite its title, is not a tale of the heroes of The New 52, but a book of poetry:
From context (yes, this little stuffed bull can read for context, altho' I like the pictures too), moly is some sort of plant, right? (Because deer don't eat fast food.) And sure enough, our pal Wikipedia, "The Encyclopedia Where You Can Scribble in the Margins," tells us that moly (Greek: μῶλυ) is a magic herb mentioned in book ten of Homer's Odyssey:
"As he spoke he pulled the herb out of the ground an showed me what it was like. The root was black, while the flower was as white as milk; the gods call it Moly, and mortal men cannot uproot it, but the gods can do whatever they like.Yes, the gods can do whatever they like? Isn't that right, Hercules?
Panel from Hercules: Prince of Power v.1 #1 (September 1982), script, pencils, and inks by Bob Layton; colors by Christie Scheele; letters by Rick Parker
Oh, that Herc. Never fails to crack us all up. You go, Prince of Power!
Unfortunately, while I've got acres of comic books, but I don't have a copy of The Odyssey. Unless...wait...yes!
Cover of Classics Illustrated #81 [The Odyssey] (March 1951), painted cover by Alex Blum
Classics Illustrated! Once again, as in The Adventure of the Overdue Book Report, you totally save my bacon. Now let's look at The Odyssey, which is filled with cool gory pictures like these:
Panels from Classics Illustrated #81 [The Odyssey] (March 1951), pencils by Harley Griffiths
As the Greeks would have it (and didn't the Greeks have it!), the sorceress Circe
Page from The Eternals #3 (September 1976), script and pencils by Jack Kirby, inks by John Verpoorten, colors by Glynis Wein, letters by John Costanza
...yes, yes, the same one that was named Sersi in the Marvel Universe by Jack Kirby...Circe turned all the men of Odysseus's ship into pigs. Well, it gets boring on those Greek islands, what else are ya gonna do for fun?
That magic charm? Not a rabbit's foot, not a double-sided coin, not plane nor bird nor even frog: t'was moly, ancient herb of the gods! In other words...ahem...holy moly.
(may not be actual moly)
So, is this true, Captain Marvel?
Panels from "The Devil and Captain Marvel" in World's Finest #254 (January 1979), script by E. Nelson Bridwell, pencils by Don Newton, inks by Kurt Schaffenberger, colors by Adrienne Roy, letters by Shelly Leferman
Moly, the wonder plant! Plant of the gods! Plant of mythology! Plant of...heroes!
Huh! It can't be picked by Hercules. But I thought the gods could do whatever they like? Hercules really can't pick it? 'Zat true, Herc?
Panel from Incredible Hercules #113 (February 2008), script by Greg Pak and Fred Van Lente, pencils by Khoi Pham, inks by Paul Neary, colors by Stephane Peru, letters by Joe Caramagna
Hercules...a liar? Can that be true?!?
Panel from Sandman Special one-shot (1991), script by Neil Gaiman, pencils by Bryan Talbot, inks by Mark Buckingham, colors by Daniel Vozzo, letters by Todd Klein
So...Moly! To sorceressessessessesses, it's like garlic is to vampires! Except you can't put it on your pizza. Moly! Is there anything it can't do?
Oh, it is like vampires and garlic! And apparently, like capes. Any last words, Homer?
You have no idea.
ADDITION on September 2, 2012:
One of Comics Oughta Be Fun's most faithful commenters, SallyP, points out that Erasmus Fry uses moly to capture the muse Callipe in Sandman #17. (I didn't remember that! Thanks, Sally!)
Panels from Sandman v.2 #17 (July 1990), script by Neil Gaiman, pencils by Kelley Jones, inks by Malcolm Jones III, colors by Robbie Busch, letters by Todd Klein