In my endless, dedicated, principled, completely rash and foolish quest to acquaint myself with as much as DC history -- and comics history in general -- as possible, I've recently been perusing Showcase Presents: Challengers of the Unknown Vol. 1.
I have two reasons for finding this series interesting:
1. It is technically not a superhero comic -- though it essentially operates like the standard superhero comic of its day. (From the late `50's/early `60's DC superhero titles that I've been exposed to, at least.) Nonetheless, it decidedly has prominent adventure, fantasy, and science-fiction elements. (Perhaps I should cross out "science-fiction" and leave it at "fantasy", as, in true Silver Age DC fashion, attempts at being scientific often come off as dumbed-down and clumsy.) What's interesting about this title is that it began when what's retroactively been identified as the Silver Age was just under way. And, with it's lack of any proper superheroes, and the adventure/fantasy/sci-fi thrust, it's roots clearly belong to the waning years of the Golden Age (when, as I understand it, superheroes ahd fallen out of property). But given the series' late `50's beginnings and its subsequent run throughout the `60's coinciding with the heyday of the Barry Allen Flash, the Hal Jordan Green Lantern, etc., it's technically a Silver Age title. But, I really think it falls into a grey area between the two.
2. The four Challengers "pilot" issues of Showcase (DC's monthly one-shot/anthology series that began in 1956 and ran until 1970; not to be confused with the contemporary Showcase Present collection, which is how I've accessed these early issues of Challengers), and the first eight issues of the Challengers of the Unknown series proper, were drawn by Jack Kirby. And, Kirby also wrote those eight issues of the Challengers’ own title (but not the earlier Showcase ones.) Again: Jack Kirby -- need I say more? (If you're interested in comics, but don't know who Jack Kirby is, look him up, for you could do far better than me in seeking an authority on the subject. But, I'm glad to point you in the direction of Mark Evanier.)
I've read most of Kirby's `70's DC work, but virtually none of his `60's Marvel work -- which, ironically, featured characters who are far more famous than, say, the Forever People, Etrigan, or Kamandi, and that Kirby’s secured a place in history for having co-created (though he’s long been overshadowed by his collaborator, Stan Lee. …yeah, who??!!!) You see, I've almost never read a single Marvel comic. (Hey, we can only do so much in one lifetime. I've got 70 years of DC to work on first.)
The title ran until 1973. Other than a short lived 1977-78 revival, this property/franchise has for the most part remained dormant…unlike various bottom-rung DC characters and titles that, barring the occasional hiatus, have managed to hang on throughout the years, or those long-forgotten, long-obscured ones that have enjoyed successful revivals/“reimaginings”. I'd actually never even heard of Challengers until a few months ago, while "cramming" the Showcase Presents collections of the original Doom Patrol series. (I plan to eventually read both the '80's Doom Patrol relaunch, and then the Vertigo incarnation that it turned into, in complete, so I wanted to be familiar with the source material first.) When I got to Doom Patrol #102 and discovered that it was a continuation of a Challengers of the Unknown/Doom Patrol crossover that'd begun in Challengers of the Unknown #48, and that that first installment had not been included from the Doom Patrol editions of Showcase Presents, I was irritated. I don't like jumping into things cold…and by that I don't only mean an individual story that's already in progress, but the internal world and constructs of an entirely different ongoing series.
The institution that is the Showcase Presents collections is certainly a boon for those like me who are curious about DC history. Recently, while browsing at those in stock at one of the comics shops I frequent, trying to decide which one I'd like to read next, I noticed Challengers. Scanning the table of contents and realizing that I held in my hands a book that collected a consecutive twelve-issue Kirby run, but wasn't promoted as such (creators are never accounted for on the exterior of Showcase Presents editions). Then, judging the story titles, and both the front cover and opening splash page images, I was able to discern heavy paranormal/fantastic themes and content, which I found appealing. I processed all of this hurriedly glimpsed info, and decided that I'd singled out a promising choice. (And it'd rectify, retroactively, my announcing that I had had no orientation with the Challengers’ world when I’d read Doom Patrol #102.)
From my experience, it was pretty standard in the late `50's and into the `60's for an issue of any DC title to be divided into two stories, each varying in length from 10 to 15 pages, with the occasional event of an issue-long opus. When working away at a collected run, I always wince at the abundance of the skimpy short stories, eager for the infrequent prospect of really getting my hands dirty in the full-blown, more ambitious, cover-to-cover features.
Thus, I shall zero in on issue #4, as it presented a book-length story, and is from the phase where Kirby was both writing and drawing the book.
Here's the cover:
See? Big and bold...and yet stark, throbbing with a dynamic ense of momentum, feelings/sensations, and energy -- that's Kirby! (And this is just a drawing of guy pressing a futuristicy, sci-fi-y button connected to a futristicy, sci-fi-y machine while four other guys flail around in the air -- wait 'til you see Kirby's explosions and battle scenes!) I think the image itself conveys that the guy pressing the button has the four other guys compromised somehow, but if we read the dialogue, we learn the specifics. ...oh no! Will they manage to avoid becoming "trapped in the future"?! Will they capture this Tiko fellow and stop him from continuing to be so reckless in the use of his "time cube"?! Well, obviously, you have no choice: in order to learn the answer to these imperative questions, you are going to have to take to take this comic up to the drug store counter and use the dime you earned from painting Mrs. Johnson's fence that you'd planned on using to buy candy for the comic instead! There's no way around it, none at all. Your course has been plotted for you, and you are bound to it.
Before we delve into the story, I suppose we should cover the series' basic premise: the Challengers of the Unknown are four guys. (The guys flailing in the air, trapped in that upward-directed beam of light thing, on the cover shown above, in fact.) They're actually kind of interchangeable: each is in peak physical condition, has a chiseled jaw, is an antecedent of Race Bannon, and is famous around the world for some sort of daredevil specialty -- for instance, one wrestles ferocious wild animals, another deep sea dives where no one else dares to, and another climbs mountains that no one else dares to. This is primarily how each man is distinguished from his teammates -- by the particular way of showing off and basking in his own glory that he’s mastered. Kidding aside, they are all quite manly. (Legitimately, conditioned by extensive trying experiences. They're no Jersey Shore-type steroid-bloated creampuffs.) Recognizing their common nature, they have decided that it makes perfect sense to band together and...well, challenge the unknown. Every issue's opening blurb heralds, "Their motto is 'dare anything' and their assignments are the most unusual and incredible tasks ever encountered! Follow the Challengers of the Unknown into the vast darkness beyond the realm of man -- where ominous shapes and shadows lurk!", or something like that. But in actuality, the Challengers are only ever pitted against the same kind of mad scientists and gigantic, city-destroyging monsters found in many, many other comics of the same era. (It's interesting to think where latter-day writers such as Alan Moore and Grant Morrison would do with a revival of this particular title, taking the whole “beyond the reaches of man” things running with it. Considering that they’re so steeped in and fluent with the occult, mysticism, and various other spiritual esoteria, and -- especially in Moore’s case -- their brilliant appropriation of the principles of physics and other areas of science toward realizing their densely envisioned, expansive conceptions of ways in which there’s endless levels to reality and existence, would do with a revival of this particular title...)
Okay, I think we've got the series crash course covered. Let's dive into issue #4's story, "The Wizard of Time". As soon as it kicks off, no earlier than the very first panel (which is on page 2, page 1 being the title page), we see that Kirby understood the need to present a mystery and foster intrigue and suspense. As clumsy as the exposition might be, this is one of the most dynamic openings found amongst the first several issues: two workers (can't tell from their uniforms if they're pilots, mechanics, or what have you) are lounging outside an airfield hangar (presumably on break), getting a kick out of a story in the newspaper about "three thieves "break[ing] into a big optical firm and steal[ing] a telescope", finding it especially absurd and amusing that "two of them were dressed like ancient Egyptians!" No sooner has this been uttered (in fact, we've now moved on to only the second panel!), one of the workers starts at the sight of three men, with the visage of "ancient Greeks!", prowling across the airfield. In the third panel, we pull out to a wide-angle perspective of a rear-end view of a biplane, having been hijacked by two of the "Greeks", taking off and making way for the horizon. One of the workers chases after it, shaking a fist angrily, while his coworker has wrangled hold of the third Greek. In this three-panel sequence, the tension and level of spectacle is increased exponentially from one panel to the next. And the way has been paved for, in the fourth panel, cutting to what's presumably the police station where the captured would-be third hijacker with an anachronistic sense of fashion is being held.
The prisoner, the panel's dialogue reveals, has undergone a psychiatric evaluation that’s determined that the Challengers of the Unknown be called in. In the next two panels, it's explained that the man can't be identified, seems to really believe he's somehow a transplant from ancient Greece, and that, "He wants to return to the Island of the Wizard!"
On page 2, despite the communication hindrances, the Challengers bring this perplexing, perplexed individual along with them in their jet, and manage to pinpoint the island he's alluded to. (This is the first instance in this story in which a major leap is casually made to resolve a riddle/hurdle/obstacle, and one can't help but protest that it shouldn't have been that much of a cinch.) On page 3, they've found that a mad scientists has built a laboratory on the island, and proceed to barrel their way inside. The Greek bows down subserviently before the mad scientist, addressing him, "Great Wizard!" The mad scientist is stocky, has dark hair, a widow's peak, a pointed goatee, and leering eyes. "Angular" features is a time-tested shortcut method of showing how "evil" a villain is, but to Kirby's credit, this character isn't the most generic mad scientist I've ever seen.
Anyway, the mad scientist identifies himself as Darius Tiko, and boasts that he's invented and indulged freely in a means of time travel, and that he had his time-displaced servants procure the telescope and the plane so that he can "establish friendly relations with the people [he] contacted in ancient Greece!" (Page 5 now…) When the Challengers censure him for not considering "what the impact of modern inventions in the hands of the ancients might have on the course of history", Tiko literally dodges the ethical questions he's being confronted with by diving into his time machine and leaving the Challengers high and dry. But they're at a loss as what to do next for barely only a moment, for the Greek is quick to show them that, conveniently, there's another time machine in the next room. The caption at the top of the first panel on page 6 explains that we've cut ahead in time a bit (by means of a narrative jump; not time travel in the sense of what Tiko is up to...just to be clear!), and that the Challengers have "carefully stud[ied]" some of "Tiko's notes", and are braced to give the second time machine a whack. (Another one of those leaps made to squelch what should be an insurmountable dilemma, with Kirby kind of brushing past his protagonists overcome impossible odds with incredible ease.) The idea is that, as Tiko mentioned ancient Greek and ancient Egypt (and the exact "year" is "indicated by Tiko's notes“, Kirby throws in there...though I'd think they'd stand a better chance of nabbing him if they had the exact second of his destination! An entire year leaves a lot of margin for error...), then two of the Challengers, Rocky and Ace, will be left in ancient Greece, while the other two, Professor Haley ("Prof") and Red proceed to take the time machine to ancient Egypt. That way, as they're not sure which one Tiko has retreated to (curiously, they never consider that he may have gone to some other point in time...), they'll at least have both covered.
This is standard operating procedure for most prior Challengers stories -- in the heat of a catastrophe, whether it be an alien invasion or a rampaging angry, giant beast, the Challengers split up into two pairs and deal with the situation on two different fronts. Usually, after near-defeat, one of the duos overcomes comes out on top, and then comes to the aid of their other two teammates, who are still in their jam. Or both situations are resolved in isolation, but, by the design of the plot, they depend on each other, and everything comes into perfect alignment not a moment too soon (if the story is artfully paced!) That in this story the two pairs of Challengers branch off into different points in history is a pretty distinct variation of the formula. I'm not saying it's a brilliant one; just that it stands out more so than the other occasions it’s up to this point been employed.
Early issue-length Challengers stories were divided into four chapters. Each begins with a recap of what’s happened so far. I won't be the first person writing about comics of this era to wryly ask if the writers and editors expected readers to have forgotten what they'd just read. Anyway, Chapter II covers what happens to Rocky Ace in ancient Greek, and Chapter III is concerned with Prof and Red's plight in ancient Egypt. In both cases, the represented Challengers get in hot water with the relevant authorities and masses.
In ancient Greece, Rocky and Ace are brought to "the Great Oracle", a bony, wizened, disagreeable, ornery old man. When he grasps that they're looking for Tiko and want to return the stolen plane to the 20th century (not sure when Tiko had had the chance to take it there), the Oracle barks the inevitable, "Guards! Seize them!" The just-as-inevitable chase ensues -- Rocky and Ace appropriate a horse-drawn chariot, outdistance their pursuers, and, in another instance of serendipitous fortune, find the plane "in [a] large field!", though "it's heavily guarded!" Rocky suggest, "Maybe they'll scatter, if we fire our guns into the air!" It works, and a couple panels later, Rocky and Ace have the plane in flight. (Ace's vocation is stunt flying.) But, the plane’s "leaking oil", and Ace fails to avoid a crash. Climbing from the wreckage, Chapter II ends on a cliffhanger as Rocky and Ace face "thousands of" Greek soldiers on horseback charging toward them...
Chapter III opens with a narrative jump to ancient Egypt, where Prof and Red have been captured and sentenced to the teams of slaves that are being forced to build pyramids. Red instigates a riot by blowing on "a shrill whistle", as the Egyptians "had never heard one before!" In the confusion, the two Challengers get the jump on their "overseer", and demand that he take them to "Rhamis, the Pharaoh's astrologer!" Red notes that Rhamis is "Tiko’s contact in this period" -- presumably another helpful detail they’d mentally filed away from Tiko's “notes”. In "the quarters of Rhamis", the Challengers find the astrologer frantically setting up the stolen telescope. He's affronted by the intrusion, bemoaning, "I must work swiftly on these charts of the heavens! My work has aroused the jealousy of the Sorcerer's Sect -- and they may strike at any moment!" A panel later, Rhamis' anxiety is vindicated, as warriors representing the Sect raid the quarters, destroying the "evil" telescope. For some reason, Rhamis feels like leading the two Challengers with him through an escape tunnel, and points them to two horses that are ripe for the taking. After they part ways with the astrologer, they return to the time cube, finding it "right where [they] left it!", under an outcropping rock ledge. (Remember, their arrival here was "off-screen"; we caught up with them when they were already enduring forced labor.) This escape is carried out with as much ease as Rocky and Ace found the plane. As soon as the warriors storm Rhamis’ workspace, the Challengers’ make for the entrance to the tunnel, and there’s no further conflict.
Anyway, they're good to go, so, poof!', they're off to ancient Greece, rescuing Rocky and Ace from the overwhelming odds bearing down on them just in the nick of time! (of course…) This is the point where most Challengers stories end: when the divided teammates reunite, having wrapped up their separate, respective missions. But in this case, we're in store for a deeper, final phase -- or act. (A venerable writer of teacher of mine described this device as such: "This is like the kind of movie when the psycho killer is behind bars, everyone goes home and sighs a sigh of relief… but it’s soon going to be revealed that the psycho killer’s mom is mad as hell!")
Anyway -- a few pages into Chapter III (the escape in Egypt was almost a mere blip), the Challengers have returned to their "own" "present", where they mope about in Tiko's lab, ruing that they didn't find the ill-intending scientist, and don't know what he's up to and what kind of destruction his time-hopping will rouse.
And then, some of the most outrageous, what-are-the-odds leaps are made yet. Prof realizes that "[t]he Oracle of ancient Greece" and "the astrologer of pharaoh's Egypt" clearly "had one thing in common"...that being "the ability to predict the future!" Deductible enough. And Prof is a professor after all, so if anyone recognizes this, he should be the one. Ace -- who seems to usually be cast as the other brains of the outfit, while Rocky and Red are the team's muscle (which must make them feel inferior, as Prof and Ace are both exceptional in their intellectual and physical prowesses) -- sees where Prof is going with this, and voices the rest of his thought for him, exclaiming that Tiko brought the Oracle the plane and Rhamis the telescope "in exchange for their formulae for calculating the future!" Okay, we seem to have a working hypothesis here, I’ll give them that...but then Ace declares, "I have a hunch", and leads the team in using the time machine to reach "[t]he 15th century" and visit "a man called Nostradamus!" Okay, I see the connection, but it's kind of a long shot...I mean, Ace said himself that it was just "a hunch"...
But what do I know? In the brief span of less than two pages, Nostradamus (who's rendered like your cliché wizard, with long white beard and pointed cap) is really freaked out by the Challengers visiting his study and summons his guards, who are deprived of their swords by Red (okay, guess he gets to be the brains sometimes, too) turning the time cube into a magnet (huh?), freeing up the Challengers to interrogate the horrified famous prophet and learn that Tiko made a bargain with him for knowledge, and then find more of Tiko's "notes" that happen to be right at hand, which reveal that he left Nostradamus' study for "3,000 A.D." Gee, everything they need just falls right into place for the Challengers, doesn't it? Spoiled brats. Have no idea how lucky they are! Considering all they’ve been through in the past three chapters, you’d really think they’d have been killed by now.
And that brings us to Chapter IV, set in a whiz-bang futuristicy, sci-fi-y city of the year 3000. The Challengers locate Tiko, who's been reveling in the joys of a rampant robbery spree (Silver Age villains loved to rob...), and he subjects them to the scenario depicted on the cover. But the authorities, who dress quaintly in capes attached to tall hats, intervene, and captured all five of the displaced 20th century-ers. They're subjected to the absoluteness of "Electronic Judge" -- they sit in a circle around a whiz-bang futuristic-y sci-fi-y cylindrical machine. Helmets attached to it are secured on their heads, and the machine probes their minds to determine their guilt. Wow, seems that no one will ever get the death penalty in error in this future! But for some reason, the machine determines that the Challengers and Tiko are equally guilty, which really makes me apprehensive that this justice system is pretty fallible after all. But, there's a loophole: all five of the defendants, "motivated by antiquated conditioning, cannot be held responsible for violating the laws in a more rational society!" (Which doesn't look so rational to me -- what exactly the Challengers are guilty of is never addressed!) Anyway, all five are allowed to return to their proper place along the space-time continuum, but are warned that once there, they are to "leave the time cube at once and abandon its immediate vicinity!" Back home, Tiko resists the mandated exiting of the vehicle, but the Challengers force him to comply...and lucky for him, as the time cube then blows up,
That's a detailed summary. Now, I'll boil the operation of the story down to its dry skeleton: a couple weird things happen that lead Challengers to mad scientist. Mad scientists evades Challengers in his time machine, and they chase him with another time machine. Two Challengers get in hot water and flee a riled army in one time period, while the other two go through pretty much the same ordeal in another. They escape their predicaments, return to the present, and deduce what still-uncaptured mad scientist is up to. They finally close in on their prey in the distant future, but find themselves in yet another thorny situation, but thanks to a contrived plot twist, their would-be oppressors excuse them, they're allowed to return home, and the villain's time machine's destruction is ensured.
Or, even simpler: weird thing happening prompts story, conflict in Greece, conflict in Egypt, deduction, culmination of chase, one last threat/predicament in future, tidy final resolution.
I mean, basically, both stories follow the "villain threatens world, Challengers chase/track villain/villain's machinations, Challengers are nearly defeated and their collective fate evidently sealed, Challengers come through at the eleventh hour" of almost every story in the book to date. But Kirby's imagination is keen. And his art has a way of being earnest and yet showing practiced, expert skill. So, as a whole, I find it a likeable comic. The premise is appealing, the stories' trappings are a pleasure to be immersed in, and the drawings are a delight to behold. Given the abundance of absurd plot devices/contrivances/excuses, it’s not the most ingeniously, seamlessly designed story ever. Chapters II and IV -- Greece and the future -- are the most fully-realized sequences. Chapter III -- encompassing Egypt and Nostradamus -- is ill-timed and rushed. I have a theory that the story, at some point in its conception, was supposed to end when Prof and Red rescued Rocky and Ace from the Greek army, but then Kirby had the idea for the Electronic Judge -- and hence, Chapter III seems so truncated. (Evanier has described -- quite vividly, beautifully, lovingly, and eloquently -- how Kirby's imagination was so accelerated, he was always getting ahead of himself.) But we ultimately get over the bumpiness of all the astronomical conveinences and coincidences, and of the hurriedness of Chapter III. And in the end, thanks to the adherence to the structural framework I’ve outlined -- and incorporating the art -- on those terms, it’s a solid, satisfying read.
As you'd expect, it's mostly an action-driven, specatcle-depending piece of mass entertainment. I could use a bit more intellectual and humanistic content, but I'm barking up the wrong tree if I expect such of a Silver Age mass-distributed comic book. From what I know, Kirby was very humanistic, and was a champion of freedom and had a strong distaste for the relishing of power and tyranny. There's traces of this in Red provoking a slave rebellion, and the idea of, implied by the Electronic Judge, having a means of objectively ascertaining guilt and innocence. But he's nowhere near as vocal about these subjects as he would be in his `70's work.
And I’ll give Kirby/the story kudos for the way that Rocky and Ace realize that their botched flight in ancient Greece must have been the source of the "famous Greek legend of Phaeton", and how, after Rhamis manages to preserve the charts he'd been working on even though the telescope that had enabled their creation was destroyed, Red assures him, "I have an idea you'll make it! History records astronomical charts like yours!" These are cute, sensitive, sweet little touches that weren't necessary to the telling of this story, but give it a flicker of earnest, if elementary, literary/academic content, fleshing out its predominant action-adventure thrust just a tiny bit.
Kirby's art isn't as stylized, non-literal, or deliberately, jaggedly crude as his '70's work. But the boldness of the images -- particularly in faces that are atypically emphasized at close angles -- and the razor-sharp, mind's eye, dynamic sense of composition are qualities that are unmistakably Kirby. I've noticed before how some Golden and Silver Age artists knew how to draw human figures, scenery, and objects realistically, but their composition could be awkward and clumsy, and the anatomy of various character poses stilted and unnatural. Not so with Kirby. The art is very graceful. And Wally Wood's inking is quite subtle (which deserves more than this passing mention, alas). The illustrative, full-page splashes that open each chapter are especially resplendent. And I found myself partial to Kirby's depiction of the plane in flight-- and then spiraling out of control and ultimately crashing -- set against an ancient Greece backdrop. Such juxtapositions of the ancient and the modern have been done before and since, sure. But that doesn't preclude Kirby from doing it well -- as he certainly did.
Wanted to cover the subsequent issue's (#5) book-length story (two book-length stories two issues in a row -- that was rare!), "The Riddle of the Star-Stone", in this same post, but this is already an unwieldy piece on its own. So, stay tuned!