A Tribute to the of

It’s been a long time since we’ve visited the Challengers of the Unknown and it seems like a fortuitous time to do so. You see, I have a new article out in BACK ISSUE magazine, #131 and the theme of the mag is the Jack Kirby Legacy at DC Comics. I had the privilege of doing a lengthy write-up on Kamandi, the Last Boy on Earth. I hope you’ll check it out and if you do, to let me know how you liked it.

Meanwhile, why not cover some DC Kirby here for this installation of the Silver Age Sage? Since one of Jack’s creations (or co-creations, depending on what you believe; as is sometimes the case back in the day, there seems to be some confusion as to who all was involved with crating the Challs, with some suggesting that Dave Wood had a hand in it and others Joe Simon) was the Challengers of the Unknown and it was squarely in the Silver Age, with two appearances in Showcase prior to being given their own title, it seems like a good choice.

Before I delve into issue #1 (April/May 1958) with a Jack Kirby cover and interiors with cover lettering by Ira Schnapp and Whitney Ellsworth listed as the editor, but those in the know at the Grand Comic Database insisting it was actually Jack Schiff, I’d also like to mention another bit of folklore regarding the Challengers. Unsubstantiated rumor has it that they were a prototype for the Fantastic Four over at the competition. People can and will endlessly debate this stuff, but for my money, the King, Jack Kirby, was so incredibly prolific that I can easily bet that he not only was the sole creator of the Challs, but that he wasn’t above tweaking an idea to use again, whether it was a daredevil foursome that evolved into the FF, or a particular story featuring anthropomorphized animals in a post nuclear world for Harvey Comics and a couple of decades later taking the same concept and developing Kamandi.

So, presumably for those who missed the earlier Challs adventures in Showcase #6 [Sage #29] and #7 [Sage #308], the splash page takes a moment to introduce the team of Ace Morgan, Fearless Jet Pilot, Prof. Hale, Master Skindiver (and apparently an error, perhaps by the letterer as it was always Professor Haley. Curiously, throughout the story, they only refer to him as “Prof”) Red Ryan, Circus Daredevil and Rocky Davis, Olympic Wrestling Champion.

These are men of reckless courage who seek out and defy the unknown which lurks in mysterious places, grimly coiled…the league of death cheaters!

Death means nothing to these heroic adventurers, who had escaped miraculously from certain doom and dedicated themselves to a second life! They are the men who live on borrowed time---Challengers of the Unknown.

Okay, moving on from the intro page, we then get to the actual splash page that rolls out “The Man Who Tampered with Infinity!” The quartet in the purple jumpsuits are preparing to take on some weird creatures while a bald, lab-coated guy in the background is urging them to run for it.

The tale opens in Washington, D.C. where the Challs are meeting with an unidentified Government official who briefs them that highly valuable scientific equipment has been stolen in multiple raids on industrial research labs. He further states that the thieves seem to be able to come and go completely undetected. Rocky pipes up that June Walker was in the lab and she disappeared along with the perps and he vows to make mincemeat of the criminals and further explains that June is an honorary member of their group. Ace Morgan, group leader, says that the robbers hadn’t yet got the new transistor they wanted, so they’ll strike again, and the Challengers of the Unknown will be ready for them.

Sure enough, a few nights later, the thieves get to the lab via some sort of teleportation device. They get the transistor and suddenly realize they’ve walked into an ambush. As Ace and Red grapple with one of the thieves, a device in the criminal’s hand gives off a white light that surrounds the men and they rapidly fade from sight.

They soon find themselves in another place, face to face with the bald guy in the lab coat who introduces himself as Olan Tagorian, scientist. Ace comments that he’d heard of Tagorian, infamous for his radical experiments and having fallen off the map about 3 years prior. Olan explains that he needed privacy for his work, and found it there in the heart of the mountain hideout. He then shows off the ray machine that brought the team there, that transforms the body’s structure into a basic molecular configuration and then moves it along within the ray.

Tagorian further boasts that the ray is a small thing compared to his laboratory that is also enclosed in the mountain. Ace Morgan counters that he is simply using stolen technology, but Olan insists he simply uses it as a means to an end and that with the transistor in hand, he can now go forward.

Rocky is losing patience and demands to know where they’ve taken June Walker. Tagorian says she is well and takes them to her in another room. The rogue scientist then leads the crew back to his laboratory to demonstrate his infinity machine. The design is to allow the operator to reach into the unknown, surpassing all known natural laws and capture specimens with it that will appear in a nearby chamber. Despite Ace’s warning, Tagorian fires it up and soon a couple of huge, otherworldly creatures appear and promptly break out of the observation chamber in a redux of the splash page.

In a moment of calculated panic, Olan uses the infinity machine to transport the creatures away. Ace demands to know where they were sent, but of course there’s no way of knowing. Now the question is where are they and what sort of mischief may they be causing. Rocky and Red have rounded up the henchmen, meanwhile and propose to have one of them stand watch over them while the rest chase down the transported creatures.

Plans are quickly laid and it is decided that June will stand watch while the Challs are beamed by the ray, still holding its prior coordinates, to the location of the creatures. Tagorian then activates the infinity machine and they’re off.

A shift of scenery takes us to “a small American community” where an amateur radio operator or “ham” is working his set when he’s interrupted by one of the weird critters coming right through his window.

Nearby, our heroes are appearing via the rays of the infinity machine when they spot the young man running toward them. The team splits up with Prof and Red going with the boy back to the site of the creature’s appearance and Ace and Rocky on a mission to track the other one.

When Red, Prof and the radio operator discover the one creature, the boy comments that he didn’t notice it until his radio did a fade, suggesting it had fed on the rig’s current. Taking that information into account, Prof suggests that perhaps it feeds on electricity and if it should find its way to a powerhouse or hydroelectric dam, the transportation infrastructure could be dealt a crippling blow.

Red approaches the creature with a rope, hoping to lasso it, but it begins to emit powerful sonic vibrations that put the men back on their heels. Prof observes that it’s using the electricity it consumes to convert it into supersonic waves that are causing mayhem. Prof instructs the radio operator to go to the local Sheriff and get a “ten by ten” box made of Fibertex.

We then join Ace and Rocky on their quest which has led to a mine shaft. The miners inform the Challengers that on level four a massive creature has dug into the mine. The teammates head down into the mine with Rocky scooping up a few sticks of dynamite for contingency purposes. He then encounters the seemingly unstoppable juggernaut and heaves the dynamite at it. The concussion sends the strong man for a loop, but only seems to have temporarily stunned the creature. Ace takes the shaken Rocky out of harm’s way and then throws a massive valve to flood the mine shaft. When the creature encounters the torrent, it burrows away, giving Ace an idea.

Once up top, the Challs speak to the state police and Ace informs them that it seems to be feeding on the minerals in the crushed rock. The Trooper replies that the city across the river is sitting on a rock foundation and one of the miners suggests it would be easy to access through the new traffic tunnel beneath the river bed. Ace then tells them that he knows they can trap it from both ends of the tunnel once they reach the authorities on the other side of the river.

We then join Ace and the police at the other end of the tunnel where the creature is emerging. Ace tells them to turn on the beacons at both tunnel ends and the brilliant lumens paralyze the nocturnal being, giving the Challenges of the Unknown the window of opportunity they need to activate the ray of the infinity machine and send it back to the laboratory.

Back to Prof where he’s been trying to keep the other creature at bay when the members of the Sheriff’s department arrive with the box he ordered. Once the box is set up, Prof leads it to the trap and gets it inside and disoriented long enough to activate the signal for the ray to pick it up as well.

At Tagorian’s end, they are sent back to their origin point as swiftly as they arrive and then the Challengers themselves return to the hideout. They then brief June on what the respective teams had done with Prof using a sound-proof box to neutralize his interloper, but before any further discussion can take place, Olan Tagorian seizes the rifle June had been using to hold his henchmen in check. Then it’s a free-for-all as the Challs take on Tagorian and his men with our heroes emerging triumphant and the lab being wrecked in the process.

Red radios a nearby Air Force Base and soon afterward a heavy blast rocks the mountain hideout when the energy shell inside collapses. In the final two panels the Air Force arrives to rescue the team and they contemplate a little R&R before their next assignment.

By issue #9 of the series, Jack Kirby had moved on, but the foundation he laid allowed the Challengers of the Unknown to continue for a long time and I credit the King with once again having the imagination and ability to crank out characters left and right, seemingly in his sleep and having them endure long after Jack had left the building.

While the superhero genre is my meat and potatoes, an adventure is an adventure and the science fiction angle is appealing as well. I’ll give this issue a 7 on the 10-point scale for some satisfying reading and for an added measure of appreciation for Jack “King” Kirby and his massive and enduring legacy.

The Silver Lantern is your destination for all things pertaining to the Silver Age of DC comics, so be sure to rejoin us regularly. The latest review in this space will take place on the 1st of November and my standing invitation remains. If you’ve got questions, comments or feedback of any kind, don’t be bashful. Fire off a note to me at: professor_the@hotmail.com.

Meanwhile, the webmaster and I bid you good day and never forget…

Long live the Silver Age!

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