A Tribute to the of
It's been said that how one responds to adversity is a significant indicator of character. Here's the scene: You're a passenger on a jet aircraft flying through a storm when your pilot, an ace Army Air Corps Captain with 19 confirmed kills in Korea has the controls lock up. The plane plummets to the earth and crashes, but you, the pilot and the other two passengers on board escape without a scratch. Now if it were me, I'd thank the good Lord above, seek out a fresh set of underwear and find myself a nice, quiet desk job someplace, figuring I've just won the ultimate lottery and that my good fortune had peaked. However, if you answer to the name Rocky Davis, Olympic wrestling champion; Red Ryan, circus daredevil; Prof Haley, master skin diver or Ace Morgan, war hero and fearless jet pilot, you reach an entirely different conclusion. You decide that you're now living on borrowed time and that it's your forte to take more chances with your fellow survivors from this life defining event. You become one of the Challengers of the Unknown.
The "Challs" as they were sometimes referred to, came to us in Showcase #6, the January/February issue from 1957, [Cover art by Jack Kirby] a few short months after The Flash's Silver Age debut in Showcase #4, available in the archives of this feature. According to the Overstreet Price Guide, this hardy quartet also holds two important distinctions. They were not only the first of the Silver Age hero teams but they were also the first original concept Silver Age series. I just mentioned the Flash and he was, of course, a reincarnation of his Golden Age predecessor, Jay Garrick. Hal Jordan likewise replaced Alan Scott in the character of Green Lantern and the pattern continued as the Silver Age evolved, but the Challengers were all-new and came to us courtesy of this story, titled "The Secrets of the Sorcerer's Box!" Writing was done by Dave Wood with art by Jack & Roz Kirby and Marvin Stein, editing chores handled by Jack Schiff.
Since I've already synopsized the origin contained in the first few pages of this four part story I'll jump right in to the meeting of the Challs at their headquarters where they're looking over a letter offering to contract with "...men who fear neither devil nor death" for a cool million dollar payday. The author of the letter goes by the name of Morelian and they rendezvous with him the next day in a remote wooded area in Northern Canada. Morelian, dressed in a dark, hooded robe, escorts them to his castle on horseback, where he reveals the details to his bizarre offer. He reveals that he is a practicing sorcerer, directly descended from Merlin and that their task is to open a huge four-chambered box. Referring to it as "Pandora's Box," Morelian disappears leaving the group with the warning that they will be startled by it's secrets. Chapter Two has our heroes taking the box to Aku Island, a small atoll in the Pacific, where any unexpected repercussions from their chore will be limited to the remote locale. Rocky wins the dubious honor of opening the first chamber which contains a massive egg. An inscription upon the surface is hastily translated by Prof to read "Dragon Seed." Deciding to camp for the night, they discover the broken shell the next morning and soon find what has emerged. A giant hand rises from the ocean, scooping up Red. The figure is an animated statue, red in color, resembling an ancient warrior. Impervious to the handy bazooka the team has on hand, the behemoth wades into the shipping lanes, upsetting vessels and making a general nuisance of itself. Ace and Prof pursue it in their plane while Rocky reluctantly stays behind to guard the box. Bored, curious or both, Rocky decides to take another crack at the box and opens a second chamber, leading to Chapter Three. Red Ryan has escaped the grasp of the warrior and is shuttled to the island by the crew of the ship only to find Rocky in a frozen state. The crew comments that for a Pacific Isle, the temperature is considerably less than tropical. Red discovers broken pieces of a vacuum tube just outside the open chamber and wonders what new terror has been unleashed. Meanwhile, unknown to those below, Morelian is indulging in some aerial reconnaissance to see what progress has been made on his project. His thoughts reveal that one of the chambers contains a secret he must possess, but we readers are left to wonder what it could be as Red finally stumbles upon the latest menace. It is described as a pulsing blaze of cold light, crystallizing the very air and gradually making the island into an iceberg. It resembles a small, orange-colored sun and Red can hear it's telepathic thoughts. It begins to chase the Challenger, seeking to rob him of his body heat. It finally stops when he gets near the box from which it has been freed. Red puts his brain into overdrive and conceives a plan. He jury rigs a chamber-like device and then lures the creature to it, trapping it inside and then pumping air from it, creating a vacuum which effectively immobilizes it, exactly like the tube from which it originally emerged.
Flashing back to the intrepid duo battling the giant and they continue to be frustrated in their attempts to neutralize it. Ignoring 500-pound bombs, it makes it's way toward a military bomb testing area on a nearby land mass and detonates it as well, once again to no visible effect. Prof then comes up with a theory. Posing the idea to Ace that the only thing that can't burn, drown, explode or fuse by nuclear fission can only be a product of thought, not unlike the monster you may have seen on the old Sci-Fi movie "Forbidden Planet", he concentrates mightily and manages to cause the creature to disappear. Prof Haley has wished the being out of existence. Triumphant, the duo returns to Aku Island and joins with their comrades. This time it's Ace's turn to open a chamber in the mysterious box and removes a metal cylinder. When the end of the cylinder is freed, Ace is abruptly wrapped up like a mummy faster than the human eye can follow. The silkworm-on-steroids disappears and Ace is freed by his companions from the cocoon which appears to be composed of a plastic substance. Quickly boarding their aircraft, they pursue it to Sydney, Australia, where the city is enveloped in the same material. As they examine the cylinder from which it sprang, the Challengers reach the conclusion that they're dealing with a remote controlled machine and that they have the capability to affect it's flight with a dial on the tube. Manipulating the machine back to Aku Island, the quartet discover none other than Morelian waiting for them.
Morelian announces that he has himself opened the final chamber to get what he was really after. He shows off a large diamond ring that grants immortality to it's wearer. He points out an inscription on the box and Prof reads "I am danger -- I am death -- but, also, find contained in me eternal immortality." The smug sorcerer then takes off in his plane but only momentarily. The craft goes into a spinning dive and crashes directly into the Pandora's Box, destroying both. Our heroes then deduce the real meaning of the inscription on the box. Immortality was in the box itself. The ring meant sudden doom.
As the Challengers of the Unknown fly off from Aku Island they remind one another that they are still on borrowed time and wonder what adventures lie in wait.
This concludes the tale, with promises of great exploits ahead for the daring group.
The Challengers made three more appearances in Showcase, #s 7 [Mar-Apr/57], 11 [Nov-Dec/57] & 12 [Jan-Feb/58], and like so many of their contemporaries, were given their own title that lasted for 87 issues if my reference material is right. Much like Adam Strange, The Doom Patrol and others, they tended to have a niche following and didn't enjoy the same mainstream popularity as their super-powered peers. One could nearly suggest that the Challengers are like Batman split into four distinct personalities. The athleticism of Rocky, the brainpower of Prof, the daring of Red and the skill of Ace are all attributes that belong to the World's Greatest Detective and like the Challengers, he is a mere mortal, using his abilities for good.
One other thing I'd like to point out is an observation from one of my regular readers who has generously shared his expertise from this era. (Hi, Adam!) He said that one important point of distinction between the other super teams and the Justice League of America was that they (the JLA) were composed of a group of already established heroes in their own right who typically gather when a large scale crisis is in the offing. These other superteams, such as the afore mentioned Doom Patrol, The Blackhawks and of course the Challengers of the Unknown basically operate only as a member of their respective group. They gain their identity from the collective and not individually. The Legion of Super Heroes, in fact, literally began as a Super Hero Club. I haven't read many Challenger stories, but the few I have seemed to be a little choppy. They either really interested me or bored me into the seat cushions. There is a decided science fiction bent to the stories and it wasn't unusual to find our heroes dealing with aliens or discovering strange life forms in the depths of the oceans. Their debut was pretty good and for their groundbreaking status I give this issue a 7 on my 10-point scale.
If you've got comments or questions I'll be happy to entertain them at my e-mail address of email@example.com. Who knows? Maybe I'll mention you in a future review, too. ;-) Come again, faithful reader in about two weeks where we'll explore another offering from the glory years of DC Comics.
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