Sunday, July 3, 2011

Challengers of the Unknown #5: "The Riddle of the Star-Stone" (Dec. 1958/Jan. 1959)

Have returned home and settled back in.  Time to take care of some unfinished business and, as I'd said I would, spotlight this issue. 

Without further ado, a Google image search-procured scan of the cover:

Kirby used a simple, repetitive, piecemeal structure for this one that I imagine allowed him to work with expedience and with few doubts about where he was going with it.  The villain -- Vreedl, who's from the same mold as last issue's Tiko, replte with angular features, a lust for power, a leer, a conniving disposition, etc. (the use of stock villains isn't so much Kirby's fault as it is that of both the genre and the medium) -- crosses the globe to track down, one-by-one, four jewels.  When used in conjunction with the ancient, outer space-originating Star-Stone of the title, each jewel infuses one with a specific uncanny ability.  However, the effects of each jewel are temporary, except in the case of, as the Challengers are warned at the outset of the story, the powers granted by the fourth and final jewel, which will be permanent.  The Challengers spend the issue chasing Vreedl from the site (read: setpiece) of one jewel to the next, each time finding themselves compromised by some conflict or obstacle that causes them to fail in stopping the villain from achieving his objectives.  Finally, Vreedl succeeds in acquiring the fourth jewel, and its benefits turn out to be immortality and invulnerability.  But of course, the clever Challengers, who've overcome each of the predicaments that had slowed their pursuit and have finally caught up with Vreedl, figure out a way to outwit their foe.

The first-page hook that Kirby employs is similar to that of "The Wizard of Time": we open on some "regular" people as they witness the sudden occurence of unnatural, spectacular phenomena.  Then, we cut to the Challengers just as they're being drawn into the affair. 

The second chapter, which takes place in the Middle Eastern city of Djiizari, which has been "little changed by passing centuries", allows Kirby to flourish in depicting an idealized version of an ancient, "exotic" locale -- much like he did in the scenes in "Wizard of Time" that were set in ancient Greece.  At this point in the story, Vreedl is enjoying the second jewel's gift: flight.  He darts and swoops above and through the streets of Djiizari, its citizens mistaking him for the "Birdman" of their folklore that'd been passed down from preceding generations.  This scenario is a compelling blend of quasi-history and myth.  I was reminded of the modern-biplane-taking-flight-in-ancient-Greece juxtaposition executed in "Wizard of Time".  Yes, the current scenario lacks the "modern technology in the ancient world" conceit, but it still has the "flying machine or person seeming fantastic because of its incongruence in an ancient, or ancient-like, setting" angle.  I liked that Vreedl's appearance when in flying mode was reminiscent of that of a circus performer, or perhaps a court jester...rather than something more typically supervillainy. 

The deep-sea diving sequence that plays out over the first half of the third chapter, in which Vreedl once again evades the pursuing Challenges when they're beset by a regiment of sharks, is perhaps the equivalent of the ancient Egypt-set portion of "Wizard of Time": cumbersome, rushed, under-developed, and tedious.  At this point, Vreedl has been enhanced by the third jewel (he has become a "shock bolt"-firing "fish-man"), details that seems arbitrary and of no consequence -- I strongly get the feeling that Kirby felt obligated to go through the motions of Vreedl exhausting another power and the Challengers facing another dilemma, even though he already had the finale (and perhaps the next few issues, from what I know about Kirby!) in sight...

And that brings us to...well, the finale.  Kirby did an effective job of depicting Vreedl reveling in his newfound strength and might, in both his appearance (now more muscular and standing upright) and disposition (beaming with confidence, bursting with energy), and his malevolent abuse of his abilities, tearing formidable trees up out of the earth (as seen above in the cover scan) and obliterating the Challengers' plane with one swift blow. 

Ace tricking Vreedl into relinquishing his powers seems to go over too easily -- having reached the penultimate page, this final play seems hurried.  But overall, as was the case with the previous issue, it's certainly a comic with some fun stuff, the narrative is more or less solid, once one accepts that the simplicity of its framework is a given.  The nature of the Star-Stone is a concession do the "Unknown" portended by the series' title -- but what we get is more or less tried-and-true "heroes thwart villains' plans for world domination" fare.  "Wizard of Time" was in the very same vein, but actually had more substantial content, considering the social issues suggested by the "Electronic Judge " scenario and the clever story twists in the way that the Challengers', after their time-travelling exploits, realized ways in which they'd influenced, or at least witnessed, key moments in history.  Anyway, I'm sure production schedules necessitated Kirby's reliance on genre tropes.  "Star-Stone", singularly, is not a masterpiece -- rather, working steadily within this form, Kirby's brilliance, from what I've seen, is more apparent when taking stock of his ouevre as a whole, emerging both gradually (culminating in the '70's) and in spurts, in many of the ideas he brushed upon before he was forced to move on. 

And of course, this story's art -- characters' faces, when seen up-close, seem to be captured in high-definition; the blaring, screaming energy of the most action-ridden panels; and all of the hyperactive, jerky poses (when characters in a Kirby comic merely point a finger at something, it's done so with exceptional urgency and deliberateness) -- is pure Kirby.

An item of curiosity: when June Robbins was introduced several issues earlier, I was sure that she would immediately become a regular lead and a full-fledged Challenger.  But alas, so far, the Challengers remain a boys' club, with June relegated to "honorary" membership and irregular appearances in the title.  June is highly intelligent and skilled, and seems to be in perfect physical shape (yes, I'm saying she's hot...) other words, she seems cut out to join the team.  Could it be that Kirby had had every intention of letting that happen (and going the obvious route of playing up, to some degree, romance and/or sexual tension between her and one of her teammates), but his editors had resisted?  (I may very well be able to find information on this Internet.  If I do, there will be an update.  But for now, I'd prefer to not preempt my observations and speculations, and do the research in its turn.)

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