DC ARCHIVE EDITION VOLUME 1
By Jack Kirby & various (DC Comics)
Jack Kirby was – and still is – probably the most important single influence in the history of American comic books. There are quite rightly millions of words written about what the man has done and meant, and you should read those if you are at all interested in our medium. I’m going to add as few words as possible to that superabundance whilst I review two of the best ever compilations of his work.
When the comic industry suffered a collapse in the mid 1950’s, Kirby returned briefly to DC Comics where he worked on mystery tales and the Green Arrow while preparing the newspaper strip Sky Masters of the Space Force. He also created for Showcase (a try-out title that launched the careers of many DC mainstays) the first super-team of the Silver Age of comics.
The Challengers of the Unknown were four ordinary mortals; heroic adventurers and explorers who walked away unscathed from a terrible plane crash. Already obviously what we now call “adrenaline junkies”, they decide that since they are all living on borrowed time, they will dedicate what remains of their lives to testing themselves and fate. They will risk their lives for knowledge and naturally, justice.
The series launched with ‘The Secrets of the Sorcerer’s Box!’ (Showcase #6, dated January /February 1957 – which meant it came out in time for Christmas 1956) Kirby and scripter Dave Wood, plus inkers Marvin Stein and Jack’s wife Roz crafted a spectacular epic as the doom-chasers are hired by the duplicitous magician Morelian to open an ancient container holding otherworldly secrets and powers.
The story roars along with all the tension and wonder of the B-movie thrillers it emulates and Kirby’s awesome drawing resonates with power and dynamism, which doesn’t let up for the sequel, a science fiction drama caused when an alliance of Nazi technologies and American criminality unleashes a terrible robotic monster. ‘Ultivac is Loose!’ introduced the beautiful and capable boffin Dr June Robbins, who became the fifth Challenger at a time when most comic females had returned to a subsidiary status in that so-conservative era.
The team didn’t reappear until Showcase #11 (November/December 1957) in the alien invasion adventure ‘The Day the Earth Blew Up’, with the superb Bruno Premiani inking a taut doomsday chiller that keeps readers on the edge of their seats even today, and by the time of their last Showcase issue (#12, January /February 1958) they had secured their own title. The mystic threat posed by ‘The Menace of the Ancient Vials’ was defused by the usual blend of daredevil heroics and ingenuity (with the wonderful inking of George Klein adding subtle clarity to the tale of an international criminal who steals an ancient weapons cache that threatens the entire world if misused), but the biggest buzz would come two months later with the first issue of their own magazine.
The first issue was written and drawn by Kirby, with Stein on inks, and presented two complete stories plus an iconic introductory page that would become almost a signature icon for the team. ‘The Man Who Tampered with Infinity’ pitted the heroes against a renegade scientist whose cavalier dabblings loosed dreadful monsters from the beyond onto our defenceless planet and the team were actually abducted by aliens in ‘The Human Pets’.
The same creators were responsible for the two stories which conclude this volume. ‘The Traitorous Challenger’ is a monster mystery, with June returning only to sabotage a mission in the Australian Outback, whilst ‘The Monster Maker’ finds the team seemingly helpless against a criminal who can conjure solid and animate objects out of his thoughts.
In an era bowdlerised by draconian censorship Jack Kirby managed to create tension, fear, and thunderous excitement with his fantastic creativity. This glorious and lavish book is a worthy tribute to his matchless abilities and one of his most fascinating and enjoyable concepts.
© 1957, 1958 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.