By Arnold Drake, Ed Herron, Bob Brown & various (DC Comics)
ISBN13: 978-1-4012-1725-9 (TPB)
The Challengers of the Unknown was a bridging concept. As superheroes were being revived in 1956 here was a super-team – the first of the Silver Age – with no powers, the most basic and utilitarian of costumes and the most dubious of motives… Suicide by Mystery.
Yet they were a huge hit and struck a chord that lasted for more than a decade before they finally died… only to rise again and yet again. The idea of them was stirring enough, but their initial execution made their success all but inevitable. Springing from tireless and inspirational human hit-factory Jack Kirby – before his move across town to co-create the Marvel Universe – the solid adventure concept and perfect action heroes he left behind were ideal everyman characters for the tumultuous 1960s – an era before super-heroes obtained a virtual chokehold on the comic-book pages.
Kirby had developed a brilliantly feasible concept and heroically archetypical characters in cool pilot Ace Morgan, indomitable strongman Rocky Davis, intellectual aquanaut “Prof.” Haley and daredevil acrobat Red Ryan. The Challengers of the Unknown were four (extra)ordinary mortals; heroic adventurers and explorers who walked away unscathed from a terrible plane crash. Already obviously what we now call “adrenaline junkies”, they decided that since they were all living on borrowed time, they would dedicate what remained of their lives to testing themselves and fate. They would risk their lives for Knowledge and naturally, Justice. They were joined by an occasional fifth member, beautiful (of course) scientist June Robbins in their second appearance (‘Ultivac is Loose!’ in Showcase #7, March/April 1957), and she became a hardy perennial, always popping up to solve puzzles, catch criminals and generally deal with Aliens, Monsters and assorted supernatural threats.
A number of writers, many sadly lost to posterity, wrote these tales, including Bill Finger, Ed Herron, Jack Miller, Bob Haney and Arnold Drake, but one man handled the artwork: Bob Brown.
Brown was born August 22nd 1915 and he died in 1977 following a long illness. He studied at Hartford Art School and Rhode Island School of Design, and worked with his showbiz folks and sister in a song-&-dance act from 1927 onwards. He was drafted in 1940 – the year he also began working as a comics artist and scripter for Fox, timely/Atlas. As the war intensified, he was an aircraft radio operator, an aviation cadet and served in the Pacific as bombardier and navigator in B-29 bombers, earning six air medals and a Distinguished Flying Cross.
After jobbing around the industry during the late 1040s and 1950’s Brown settled at National Comics/DC, co-created the long-running Space Ranger, drawing Tomahawk, western hero Vigilante, Batman, Superboy, Doom Patrol, World’s Finest Comics and a host of other features and genre shorts. He moved to Marvel in the 1970s where he drew Warlock, Daredevil and the Avengers among others.
He was a consummate professional and drew every issue of the Challengers from #9 – 63: almost a decade of high-adventure ranged from ravaging aliens, cute-and-fuzzy space beasts to truly scary supernatural horrors.
The Challengers followed Kirby’s model until cancellation in 1970, but, due to a dispute with Editor Jack Schiff the writer/artist resigned at the height of his powers. The King’s exuberant magic was impossible to match, but as with all The King’s creations, every element was in place for the successors to run with.
Challengers of the Unknown #9 (September 1959) saw an increase in the monster-heavy fantasy elements favoured by Schiff, and perhaps an easing of the subtle tension and inter-group fractious bickering that marked previous issues (Comics Historians take note: the Challs were snapping and snarling at each other years before Marvel’s Cosmic Quartet ever boarded that fateful rocket-ship).
This second cheap-&-cheerful volume collects the contents of Challengers of the Unknown #18 – #37 – spanning February/March 1961 through May 1964 – and opens with ‘The Menace of Mystery Island’ which finds the team fighting crooks on a tropical island that contains a crashed alien probe. This accident has deposited a test animal with uncanny powers…
In the manner of the times, the tenacious troubleshooters adopt the fuzzy li’l space-tyke and name him Cosmo.
The second story of the issue offers darker fare, however, as the team are then shanghaied through time to save ‘The Doomed World of Tomorrow’.
In the ‘The Alien Who Stole a Planet’, the heroes aid refugees from a doomed world, but things turn sour after one of the survivors decides Earth would be suitable replacement home, whilst in ‘The Beasts from the Fabulous Gem’, a soldier-of-fortune uses a stolen mystic jewel liberate monsters imprisoned within it in ancient times. Their very own super-villain then resurfaces as ‘Multi-Man Strikes Again’ in issue #20, and June shows up for a spot of beastie-bashing in the hectic riddle of ‘The Cosmic-Powered Creature!’ In the next issue it’s apparently just the lads who are shanghaied to ‘The Weird World that Didn’t Exist’ but she plays a major role in the follow-up tale when Cosmo returns in ‘The Challengers’ Space-Pet Ally’.
‘The Curse of the Golden God’ proffers the usual action-packed crime-drama in the South American jungles, whereas #22’s second tale hits much closer to home as the squad’s secret base is compromised by ‘The Thing in Challenger Mountain’ and the team find that ‘Death Guarded the Doom Box’ in the form of ancient but still deadly mechanical devices, after which more aliens kidnap humans to ‘The Island in the Sky’.
In ‘The Challengers Die at Dawn’, the hunt for a swindler leads the team to a lost tribe of oriental pirates in the South China Seas, but the big story in #24 is ‘Multi-Man, Master of Earth’: a grand, old-fashioned battle for justice against a seemingly unstoppable foe. Although the stories were becoming a touch formulaic by this stage, the equation was a trusted one, and Brown’s art was constantly improving.
Challengers of the Unknown #25 (April/May 1962) was right on the cusp of the moment full-blown superhero mania hit the world and, although ‘Return of the Invincible Pharaoh’ is a story of ancient mystery and slumbering menaces, its plot of a lost secret bestowing superpowers was to become a recurring staple for “normal, human heroes” such as the Challs, Blackhawk – and even in the Batman titles.
The second tale, ‘Captives of the Alien Hunter’ features another thieving extra-terrestrial up to no good and once more both June and Cosmo are required to foil the fiend.
‘Death Crowns the Challenger King’ is a bizarre variation on the Prisoner of Zenda’s plot: set in a hidden Mongol city with Prof. replacing the true ruler in a series of ceremonial ordeals, whilst the rest of the gang run interference against the scurvy villains, after which a flamboyant impresario is shown to have an out-of-this-world new act in ‘The Secret of the Space Spectaculars’.
Issue #27 led with ‘The 1,001 Impossible Inventions’, wherein two convicts bamboozle a wounded alien into using his advanced science for crime, whilst ‘Master of the Volcano Men’ (the first story for which we have a confirmed writer – Arnold Drake) introduces another perennial villain: rapacious marauding lava beings from the centre of the earth.
It was once more rebellious robots causing a destructive fuss in ‘The Revolt of the Terrible FX-1’, but the real show-stealer of #28 is a classic time-travel romp sending the team back to ancient Egypt to solve ‘The Riddle of the Faceless Man.’
The next issue brought ‘Four Roads to Doomsday (again by Drake) wherein satellite sabotage draws the team into a plot by alien criminals to conquer Earth, whilst the raucous, antagonistic nature of the team is highlighted in Ed “France” Herron’s ‘The War Between the Challenger Teams’, as Ace and Red battle Prof. and Rocky to end a war between two sub-sea races.
‘Multi-Man… Villain Turned Hero’ turned out to be just another evil ploy by the shape-changing charlatan, but #30’s real treat is the introduction of Gaylord Clayburn (Don’t. Just don’t. Grow up): a spoiled multimillionaire playboy who wants to become ‘The Fifth Challenger’ and is prepared to go to any lengths to achieve his ambition…
‘The Man Who Saved the Challengers’ Lives’ in #31 is the first full-length story since 1960; impressively retelling their dramatic origin, and revealing the debt they possibly owe to a shady industrialist, whilst #32 declares business as usual in Drake’s ‘One Challenger Must Die!’
Here the boys fiercely compete to learn who would sacrifice themselves to stop another rampaging Volcano Man, before rediscovering the power of teamwork, which was just as well since the second tale reveals how and why ‘Cosmo Turns Traitor.’
Each an expert in some field of human endeavour, in #33, the Challs are confronted by a superior individual in Drake’s ‘The Challengers Meet their Master’, but as with ‘The Threat of the Trojan Robot’, teamwork proves the solution to any problem. Ed Herron scripted terse thriller ‘Beachhead, USA’ which opens #34, as a U-Boat full of Nazis frozen since World War II tries to complete their last mission – blowing up the East Coast of America, with only the Chall’s in place to stop them.
Multi-Man then discovers that no matter how smart you are, building the perfect mate is a very bad (and tasteless) idea in ‘Multi-Woman, Queen of Disaster.’
‘The War Against the Moon Beast’ is a spectacular sci-fi yarn, balanced by the quirky prognostications of a carnival seer whose crystal ball predicts an adventure of the ‘Sons of the Challengers’.
One of the death-cheaters became a monster in #36’s ‘The Giant in Challenger Mountain’, but is recovered in time to join the others as ‘Bodyguards to a Star’ on the location of a dinosaur-infested movie-epic.
This splendidly daft second volume ends with #37 and ‘The Triple Terror of Mr. Dimension’ – a cheap thug who lucks into a reality-altering weapon, with Herron scripting the taut drama of ‘The Last Days of the Challengers’ wherein the team struggle to destroy giant robots and thwart an execution-list with their names on it…
Challengers of the Unknown is sheer escapist wonderment, and no fan of the medium should be deprived of the graphic exploits starring these ideal adventurer-heroes in the evocative setting of the recent now; a simpler, better world than ours. Reader-friendly to anyone with a love of wild thrills (or Saturday morning cartoons), these long-neglected tales would make the perfect animated kids show too…
© 1961, 1962, 1963, 1964, 2008 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.