COVER STORIES for 09/30/2007
COVER STORIES INSTALLMENT #125
Welcome, faithful readers (and those of you joining us for the first time) to the latest installment of Cover Stories, the weekly column in which I, Jon B. Knutson, present a group of covers with a common theme!
This week's column is...
A 1-10 featuring "The Challengers of the Unknown!"
The Challengers of the Unknown was the last great Kirby creation (well, to be honest, there's some dispute over who created the Challengers) at DC Comics before he went to Marvel, there to eventually co-create the Marvel Age with Stan Lee, Steve Ditko and others.
In some ways, the Challengers could almost be seen as the grown-up version of the kid gangs of the Golden Age Jack created with Joe Simon, such as the Newsboy Legion and the Boy Commandos... and in other ways, they can be looked as precursors of the Fantastic Four!
As with the kid gangs, the Challengers featured members with distinctive names and personalities... they were pilot Kyle "Ace" Morgan, daredevil Matthew "Red" Ryan, strong and slow-witted Leslie "Rocky" Davis, and scientist Walter Mark "Prof" Haley. Their personalities were pretty much what you'd expect of the four. Introduced in Showcase #6, the four men met for the first time on an airplane flight piloted by Ace, taking the foursome to appear on a television show when disaster strikes, and the plane crashes. Miraculously, the four survive this crash, and since they figure they should've been killed by it, that means they're living on borrowed time. Thus, they form the Challengers of the Unknown!
Hey, it was the Silver Age. People did stuff like that in comics then.
So, here's issues 1 through 3. Issue one looks like something one would expect to find in one of DC's science fiction anthology books, because in them, people were always experiencing role reversals, where they became pets of the same kind of creatures they'd keep as pets! Of course, the Challs end up being even more threatened, because their space captor's household pet is going after them too!
It's true... the cover even says so (that, too, is something that would be seen on a lot of DC sci-fi comic covers).
Inside this first issue, we have "The Man Who Tampered With Infinity" by Jack Kirby (June Robbins, whom I'll get to later here, appears in this tale, called June Walker). The cover story is next, "The Human Pets," also by Kirby.
Issue 2's cover features big giant hands reaching for the Challengers... and this is something that they needed to start getting used to! I like how Red (I think it's Red) just immediately assumes the hands are intending to crush their plane to bits... and also how Ace is about the only one of them not reacting to any of this!
Inside, we have "The Traitorous Challenger" by Dave Wood and Kirby, plus "The Monster Maker" by the same team. Both stories were reprinted in Challengers of the Unknown #76, as well as in the Archive and Showcase Presents volumes previously mentioned.
Issue 3's cover was a revelation to me when I first saw it! Does that cover look anything at all familiar to you? Experimental flight giving someone strange powers... like the ability to hurl bolts of fire? This had to have been at least a partial inspiration for the Fantastic Four, eh? Rocky must've gained some super-strength on this flight, too, given how he's ripped the space capsule open.
The babe in the back would be June Robbins, the token female and "honorary Challenger." Just about all of DC's non-super groups had a token female character, and the Challs didn't start out with her, but as noted, she did start appearing pretty early in their adventures!
"The Secret of the Sorcerer's Mirror" was by Wood and Kirby, while "The Menace of the Invincible Challenger" was also Wood and Kirby. As I implied, the story's considered a dry run for the FF, as Rocky's powers include freeze rays, super strength, invisibility, fire powers and giant growth!
Issue 4's cover is pretty fun for a number of reasons. First of all, "The Wizard of Time" there sports a costume that looks vaguely similar to that later worn by Marvel villain Immortus. Secondly, the suspension beam used here would return in many Kirby-drawn Marvel books (I'm thinking of a few FF adventures, some of which could've used the same poses in it, for all I know).
Issue 5 kind of shows what happens when the basic concept doesn't seem to be inspiring enough... Vreedl, whom I can only guess to be some kind of alien, apparently didn't have super-powers when the Challs first meet him, but he develops them sometime afterwards... demonstrating them for the first time when two of the Challengers are in a tree!
Issue 6 features that hoary comic book device of one of the characters (usually the female character) becoming a sorceress or witch and turning against the rest of the cast. I think this same thing happened to Rip Hunter and his crew, the Sea Devils, and probably others I'm not thinking of right now. Sometimes the character actually assumes some kind of historical identity, too!
But that's not the first story... that honor goes to "Captives of the Space Circus," by Wood and Kirby, with Wally Wood inks! This story was reprinted in Super DC Giant #S-25. "The Sorceress of Forbidden Valley" was written by Ed Herron, with Kirby and Wood on the art. This tale was reprinted in Challengers of the Unknown #78, and the entire book, naturally, was reprinted in that Archive #2 and Showcase Presents #1!
Issue 7's cover has the Challengers threatened by a giant hand again... or is it that the Challengers have been shrunken?
"The Beasts from Planet Nine" was written by Kirby and Herron, with Kirby and Wood on the art. "Isle of No Return" has the same credits, and was reprinted in Challengers of the Unknown #78. I'll bet you can guess which Archive and Showcase Presents volumes issue 7 (and for that matter, 8 was in the same Archive, and 8 through 10 are in the same Showcase Presents volume) were reprinted in!
Issue 8's cover has to be making you wonder just how many extraterrestrial threats the Challengers faced up to... and the answer would be quite a few! I think the alien's apparatus was probably used, in modified form, by a number of other would-be conquerors from space!
"The Man Who Stole the Future" was written by Dave Wood and Kirby, with Kirby and Wally Wood on the art, and was reprinted in that Super DC Giant I mentioned previously. "The Prisoners of the Robot Planet" appears to have been written by Kirby, with art by Kirby and Wood.
With issue 9, sadly, the Kirby covers end (same goes for the interior art)... and the Challengers face what appears to be a gigantic super-powered space mole. Bob Brown did the cover art, and inside, we have "The Men Who Lost Their Memories" by Ed Herron and Bob Brown, and "The Plot to Destroy Earth" by the same team plus Wally Wood on inks.
And then, with issue 10... it's another giant hand (this one mechanical), plus the Challs having a difficult time accepting reality! I'm not sure why someone would carve their faces in a mountain beneath the sea, but there it is!
This is Bob Brown on the cover again, and "The Four Faces of Doom" and "The Cave-Man Beast" were both written by Ed Herron, with art by Bob Brown!
If you want to find out more about the Challengers, the best website I've found for them is at http://www.challengersoftheunknown.com - and tell 'em that "Cover Stories" sent ya! (It'll probably get a few heads scratched in puzzlement).
Join me next time for another installment of "Cover Stories," when the theme will be Circus Time, and in the meantime, you can check out my blog, "Jon's Random Acts of Geekery," at http://waffyjon.blogspot.com for photos of classic toys, other comics covers, comic book advertisements, monster movie stills, and other musings and ramblings by me, or email me with comments about this column at !