Monday, June 5, 2017

Showcase Presents: Challengers of the Unknown, Volume 1 by DC Comics

The prototypical fantastic four
Showcase is the name of a long-running anthology series from DC Comics that often introduced new characters on a trial basis before they were considered worthy of their own series. Showcase Presents is the title of the series of trade paperbacks in which DC now reprints their classic comics in black and white collections. This volume, published in 2006, collects the first adventures of the hero team The Challengers of the Unknown, starting with their appearances in Showcase issues 6, 7, 11, and 12, which ran from 1957 to early 1958. After that, they were granted their own series, the first 17 issues of which are also reprinted here, running through January of 1961.

The Challengers arrived a little too early to be part of the Silver Age superhero renaissance led by Marvel Comics in the early 1960s, but they could be considered precursors to it. The team was created by superhero artist extraordinaire Jack Kirby, possibly in collaboration with writer Dave Wood. The Challengers are four tough guys who, after having survived a plane crash, consider themselves living on “borrowed time” and decide to devote their lives to facing danger, solving bizarre mysteries, and combatting unusual menaces. The roster includes pilot Ace Morgan, champion wrestler Rocky Davis, underwater explorer Prof Haley, and circus acrobat (later described as mountain climber) Red Ryan. Though not endowed with superpowers, the team bears a nascent resemblance to the Fantastic Four, not only in quantity and matching suits but also in the brand of science fiction dangers they face.

The main attraction of the early Challengers adventures is Kirby’s art. His visual storytelling is superb, his panels action-packed, and he populates each page with a wondrously visionary array of awesome extraterrestrial beasts and stunning futuristic technology. The stories, on the other hand, are nothing to write home about. In a typical issue, the four encounter an evil scientist who digs up some ancient relics that grant him superpowers or allow him to conjure up giant monsters. Another common plot device is an alien who comes to Earth to enlist the Challengers’ help in fighting an evil mad scientist on his own planet. Though utterly predictable, what makes these stories enjoyable is the audacious imagination and hyperbolic rhetoric with which each peril is drawn and described. The most disappointing thing about the early Challengers stories is that, despite their various areas of expertise, there’s little to distinguish one team member from another, and they never disagree on anything. The key method of identifying each Challenger seems to have been hair color, which of course doesn’t help those reading these comics in black and white.

Kirby left the Challengers series after issue #8 (June/July 1959), which is about halfway through this volume. From that point on, the creative duties were taken over by artist Bob Brown and a writer unknown. Brown is a more than competent comics artist for the era, but needless to say he doesn’t measure up to King Kirby. The stories also get noticeably less exciting in the second half of the book. Surprisingly, however, once Kirby leaves, the Challengers begin to behave more like the Fantastic Four! Red Ryan assumes the mischievous personality of the FF’s Johnny Storm, while Rocky Davis becomes the spitting image of Ben Grimm. The prankster picks on the big lug, while the latter promises to clobber the former. This starts around 1959, two years before Kirby would cocreate the Fantastic Four. The Challengers comics don’t quite measure up to Kirby’s later greatness, but they are an interesting episode in comics history, particularly for those who enjoy DC’s science fiction comics of the ‘50s and ‘60s. The Kirby material merits a rating of four stars, while the post-Kirby stories are only good for about three.
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