A Tribute to the of

Merry Christmas to me. 

It was sort of an early present, but I visited the local comic shop at long last and while I was perusing their selection of Silver Age offerings I came across a familiar cover by Bob Brown.  Yes!  A nearly forgotten issue from my boyhood.  I remembered a little of the story and I just had to have it.  Besides, it's been a good long while since I reviewed a story featuring the Challengers of the Unknown.  As a matter of fact, this will be my first review of them in their own self-titled magazine.  Its issue #60 from March of 1968. Writer Arnold Drake presented Editor Murray Boltinoff with an adventure entitled "The Thing That Could Not Die!"

The splash page (pencils and inks by Brown) has an interesting statement at the top that I've not seen before or since:  "The World's Greatest Fear- Fighters."  The scene shows four figures using a palm tree as a lever to lift a boulder from a hole.  Just beyond the boulder and out of sight of our heroes is a large, clawed, reptilian hand.  According to the text, the team is searching for the living stone idol, Seekeenakee, whom they apparently buried under tons of debris, presumably in the last issue.  The verbal sparring between Rocky and Tino, (Yeah, I wondered who Tino was, too) gives us a little taste of the dynamic.  First it's Ace:  "Under this boulder is the last spot where he might be buried!  I'll be glad when we find that weirdo!"  "Why, Ace?  You wanna give him a decent burial?"  (Rocky:)  "I wouldn't mind—if I could put you in the same box, Tino-lover!"

As we flip the page, it continues:  "Okay ape-man, you've been asking for it—where do you want it?"  "Right on the chin, swinger!  If you can reach there without falling on your puss!"  Unfortunately during the exchange, Rocky and Tino relinquish their grip on the tree.  Ace loses his grip and Prof Haley ends up dangling from it near the top.  Using rope and pure muscle, they again bring the tree down and manage to flip the boulder from its hole.  Gazing into it, they decide that Seekeenakee couldn't have survived the fall and they begin to walk away.  The huge reptilian hand follows, however, and soon has Rocky in its grip.  Prof and Ace quickly pummel it with stones until it releases Rocky.  Then the rest of the massive lizard man emerges with a roar and an accusation that they've awakened him from his million year slumber.  The Challengers of the Unknown then beat feet until they come upon a large stone head that they topple toward the menace.  The creature smashes it, but before it can go in for the kill, Prof heaves a handful of mini-fire bombs at it from his silver cigarette case, which is actually a miniature chem. Lab.  Okay…  The flames engulf the creature, causing a strange transformation as it first becomes a pile of ashes and then a Phoenix, the legendary Greek bird that rises from its own ashes.  Ace then has a hunch.  He theorizes that the bird, lizard-man and stone idol were the same being, a creature that can change form at will.  He suspects Multi-Man.  The team is then off to a special jail created by them, in the heart of a dead volcano, housing the three most dangerous criminals in the world.  They introduce Tino to Kra, an outer-space robot, invulnerable to anything but water and held immobile under a shower head in his cell, and Volcano Man, a massive creature of living lava, held in check by a control belt.  When they arrive at Multi-Man's cell, however, the elf-like creature is still there.  He confirms for the Challengers that he did recently share his secret for the potion that gave him his abilities, Liquid Light, with a masked man who visited and offered him a deal.  The stranger then double-crossed Multi-Man and used the mixture for himself.  The villain offers to share who it was in exchange for his freedom, but the Challs don't take the bait and are soon off to continue their search.  Prof mentions that he'd done a chemical analysis of the Liquid Light formula and it contains one ingredient manufactured only two places on Earth.  That will be the key.  After the team's departure, Kra asks Multi-Man why he lied about not knowing who the figure was who tricked him out of his formula.  He says he wants that to be a surprise and then laughs maniacally.

We now join the Challengers in their customized jet aircraft.  They're now certain that the stone idol was indeed the same being who became the lizard man and the Phoenix, courtesy of Liquid Light.  Soon Tino and Rocky are at it again:  "If I didn't see those things happen, I'd say they were impossible!"  "A pea-brain like you would!"  "Still looking for a fat lip, eh?"  "Try it, sonny!  But ya better bring your big brother, too!"  The phrase no sooner left Rocky's mouth than he realized what he'd said.  Tino's face falls as he thinks about his big brother, former Challenger Red Ryan, who has apparently died recently (as seen in Challengers of the Unknown #55, dated April-May 1967).  The youth thinks to himself:  "Why'dja have to get yourself killed, Red?  I got all the bread I need!  Chicks flip for me right and left!  But what good is it without somebody to tell it to?"

Next stop is the Morton Chemical Plant just south of Los Angeles where the three Challengers with Tino Ryan are querying Mr. Morton himself about his supply of frozen Nitrox.  Morton says that the only thing they've recently experienced was a bizarre raid on a supply of Uranium the night before.  When they found the guard's body, it showed evidence of marks from a giant octopus.  At the Government's request, they'd kept it quiet.  As they examine the ruined vault, the Challs ask Morton if he'd checked the Nitrox room.  He suddenly realizes that the Nitrox vault is right behind the Uranium vault and it had not been checked.  As they rush to the vault they discover that all the frozen Nitrox is gone. 

We segue now to the Insituto Chemik in Pisa, Italy, where a crane is lowering a huge crate with air-conditioning machinery.  Abruptly, a huge hairy arm bursts through the side of the crate and soon it is rendered so much shattered scrap wood as a massive Gorilla explodes forth.  Soon the creature is doing its best King Kong imitation, hanging from the structure above the factory as nearby Italian-style National Guard troops try to bring it down with artillery.  Nothing seems to be working and they're about to fire a high powered laser when the Challengers arrive and take over.  Hastily, the foursome huddles and develops a plan to attack from both sides of the building, with Rocky and Tino scaling one side of the skyscraper and Prof and Ace the other.  Prof is armed with the changing antidote in the baby-bombs in his cigarette case.  As they reach the top of the building, Prof hurls the antidote at the massive beast and he transforms to his natural form of…Red Ryan!  Prof is overjoyed, but Ace is a bit more cautious, reminding his teammate that while it appears to be Red, he's also responsible as Seekeenakee, the living stone idol, for death and revolutions.  Prof says that he was off his rocker at that time and invited Red over to shake hands.  Ryan swings on the cranes hook and knocks Haley off the building.  Fortunately, he's still tied to Ace, but Prof is incredulous that Red could now be a mad-dog killer.  Red, his visage twisted with hate and fury retorts that he's anything he wants to be and when Rocky and Tino reach the roof and see him, he has regained his shape shifter abilities and expands into a giant man of metal.  Tino gasps and asks how he can be his brother.  Ryan screams:  "No man is my brother!"  He then swings on the hook and smashes into the building to go after the only other known supply of frozen Nitrox.  Tino, overcome with grief and anger shrieks that he must kill him to atone for the crimes Red has committed and the dishonor to their family. 

The Challengers of the Unknown with Tino close behind are soon chasing the strange figure until they enter the vault.  Then they hear a sickening sound of the vault door slamming shut behind them.  Red Ryan has trapped his former teammates in the refrigerated storage vault.  Prof soon discovers that it's also the storage area for the very thing Red is searching for, the frozen Nitrox.  They soon discover an air ventilator and send the only member small enough through it to unlock the door; Tino.  They realize too late that the youth is bound and determined to make things right.  Prof shouts in frustration that they've got enough Nitrox to make the biggest batch of antidote imaginable, but they can't deliver it. 

Tino, meanwhile, has exited the air shaft and managed to obtain a pistol from an Italian officer.  The tears continue to flow from his eyes as he works his way to the carnage his brother is making elsewhere in the factory.  We are given the youth's thoughts as he works his way up the stairs:  "Okay, Red—you can stop worrying!  Your kid brother is coming!  That bomb that blew up on you in Turkey didn't kill you—but it made you a scramble-brained killer!  Now—(sob!) I've got to put you out of your misery!"  Soon he finds the rampaging Red, who is tearing the place apart searching for the Nitrox.  "Red!  It's me—Marty—your cool kid brother, the rock-and-roll kid!  I changed my name to Tino and made a million!"  All the while he conceals the pistol and offers to take Red to the Nitrox.  As the giant metal man leans closer, Marty pulls the weapon on him at point blank range, but he cannot bring himself to fire.  Red scoops up the pistol and fires it at himself, demonstrating his invulnerability to it.  "You called me brother and refused to kill me!  Strange!  But I won't hesitate to kill you—brother!"  Ryan swings on Tino and tries crushing him under machinery, but the youth is too quick.  Soon Ace and Prof emerge after being released by the Italian police.  Red laughs at them, declaring that they'd need a massive amount of antidote to stop him and they'll never get close enough to deliver it.  He then realizes that they've left the vault unguarded and he sprints down a nearby ramp, knocking aside an old janitor with his cart.  The cart is soon in motion on the giant's heels and once it collides with him, a tremendous explosion follows.  The old janitor was Rocky in disguise and the trash barrels actually contained the antidote.  After the smoke clears, a restored Red Ryan regains consciousness and utters the words his teammates longed to hear:  "A-a-Ace!  Prof!  Good old Rock-head!  And—Marty—M—my kid brother!"

The final two panels of the story wrap things up, with Red standing before a judge who, based on psychiatric evaluation, finds him innocent of his crimes due to having no knowledge of them.  Marty then asks his big brother just what happened in the explosion in Turkey and Red replies that it's a long story.  The reunited Challengers of the Unknown then depart, raring to go on their next adventure. 

The accompanying, much shorter tale first saw print in Challengers of the Unknown #41, the December '64/January '65 issue. Written by Ed Herron, it is entitled "2 Hours to Die!" Bob Brown provided the pencils and inks.  In a nutshell, Prof Haley has gone on a diving mission with a small submersible to deliver an undersea explosive at a great depth to protect an underground oil rig from landslides.  Unfortunately when he arrives at the spot to drop the explosive a small slide occurs, pinning the craft on a ledge beneath a boulder.  He sets the bomb for its maximum time of two hours while his teammates try to rescue him.  Due to the tremendous depth, they have a difficult time reaching him and one by one they succumb in their efforts until finally Rocky succeeds in diving with the ship's anchor and swinging it until he dislodges the boulder, allowing Prof to drop the bomb and zip away with Rocky in tow, moments before detonation.             

I'm pretty certain this is the first Challs story I'd ever read and therefore it's a bit closer to what I think of when their name is mentioned.  The yellow uniforms with red accessories that were probably lifted by Wolverine; the snappy patter, even if it wore a little thin after awhile and the somewhat exaggerated physiques are rather different from their first incarnation back in the pages of Showcase.  I really enjoyed the science fiction angle and the visit to the special cell block with prior foes.  The tension of realizing they were up against a maniacal version of their comrade added a nice touch.  Needless to say, it also brought back some great memories.  Even though I didn't know Red Ryan from third base when I read this story for the first time, it was somehow satisfying to see him reunited with his teammates.  The classic Challengers backup story was icing on the cake.   I'll give this issue a rating of 8 for some good adventure in addition to a nice trip down memory lane.               

It has been our distinct pleasure to be your hosts this year.  Please join us on New Year's Day for the first edition of the Silver Age Sage for 2005.  You can always contact me with questions or comments at professor_the@hotmail.com.

Merry Christmas to you and…

Long live the Silver Age!

© 2000-2004 by B.D.S.

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