Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Challengers of the Unknown

So I finished up the first DC Showcase collection of the Challengers of the Unknown. For the uninitiated, the Challengers of the Unknown is a team of four daredevils - pilot Ace Morgan, acrobat and mountain-climber Red Ryan, skin/scuba diver and scientist Prof Haley, and champion wrestler Rocky Davis, with June Robbins being a de facto fifth member without being accorded the title of full member - who believe they are living on borrowed time. That sketchy knowledge causes them to decide to team up to confront the nebulous concept of the "unknown," which in the Challengers' universe usually involves giant monsters and aliens, often enough at the same time.

Created by Jack Kirby and Dave Wood (there's a bit of uncertainty about this; some seem to think Kirby created them on his own, others cite both Kirby and Wood as co-creators), Challengers of the Unknown appeared in 1957, during a time when superheroes were just beginning to come back into popularity in comics. From the late 1940s and into the mid-to-late 1950s, comic books had become the domain of horror, fantasy, Westerns, and adventure stories. Superheroes had largely faded from view, except for some of the most enduring heroes like Superman and Batman. Eventually, though, superheroes began to come back into their own. The early 1960s would be see the advent of Marvel Comics, but in 1957 Kirby was working for DC. Challengers of the Unknown is an obvious precursor to Fantastic Four, a comic Kirby (with Stan Lee) would come to create in 1961. The Challengers had no superpowers, though, relying mostly on dumb luck and headlong charges to see them through.

The stories have a strange, almost dream-like quality to them, and I do find that I enjoy them more when I'm just about to fall asleep. The Challengers challenge everything - death, fate, destiny, physics, and logic. Several times they encounter artifacts that, according to "real" scientists/archaeologists/whatever, are from ages where magic existed, and literal wizards who use actual magic are cited as historic personages, their abilities mentioned in passing like one would mention Magellan was a sea captain. The Challengers seem to run across a lot of formulae for "mixtures" from the ancient past that cause the imbiber to gain strange powers, aliens with weird devices and popeyes, reclusive scientists who come to create devices they quickly regret inventing, and criminals who use wondrous powers and machines to rob banks. One particular trope that amuses me is the weird science device that the user has to awkwardly hold in front of them and carry around to use, looking much like they're lugging around an 1100-watt microwave oven.

Kirby and the other writers seemed to not even bother with lip service to facts; it wouldn't have surprised me to see them posit the Earth has two moons and we just hadn't paid attention to the second one before now. They remind me of the kid who does the stories for Axe Cop, except they don't have the excuse of being five years old. That type of unfiltered writing is clearly a precursor to the stuff Kirby did later, when he hit his stride with Marvel. There is an energy here that is irrepressible. It also seems like a bridge between the Golden and Silver Ages of comics. The silly premises and the "get her!" plans of action can get tedious, but it's all definitely a piece of the Rosetta Stone for interpreting a lot of early Silver Age Marvel and DC.

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