Sunday, October 4, 2009

Well, Now Everyone Knows!

I wrote this introduction to the first volume of DC's CHALLENGERS OF THE UNKNOWN ARCHIVES back in February 2003. Always loved the Challs, although by the time I discovered the book, the great Bob Brown had been the primary artist for years...

© DC Comics

“What’s out there?—Places we cannot see! Things we fear to touch! Sounds that do not belong to this world. Riddles of the ages...lurking beyond the bridge without a name!”

So began the premiere adventure of the CHALLENGERS OF THE UNKNOWN in the sixth issue of DC Comics’ try-out title, SHOWCASE (January-February, 1957). Four men—daredevils, scientists, explorers all—brought together by fate, given a second chance at life, daring not only to confront the myriad of things that go bump in the night, but overcome them as well.

The world has always been enamored of explorers. From Marco Polo to Christopher Columbus to Neil Armstrong, we’ve embraced those willing to leave their footprints in unexplored territory. Of course, by the late 1950s, the world was rapidly running out of nooks and crannies to explore and, at the time Showcase #6 hit the stands, we were still almost a year away from making the first, tentative steps into the great unknown of outer space.

But comic book creators have always had a license to go beyond the incredible, to delve into places both real and mythic, to leap all over the universe in needle-nosed rockets of imagination. Whether it was an ordinary man trained to the peak of physical and mental perfection, an android who could burst into flame, or a woman molded from clay and endowed with super powers by the gods themselves, nothing was too outrageous for comics. The very best creators made such fantastic scenarios plausible. The very best of the very best made them come to life.

Jack Kirby was the master—to be crowned, within just a few, short years, the “King”—of just that ability.

Jack Kirby, in fact, stands at the head of any list you might care to compile of the best of the best. And was, in his own way, an explorer as well...admittedly a bold statement to make about a man who spent most of his life sitting behind a drawing board. But Jack Kirby was usually one step (at the very least!) ahead of the pack. From that seat at his drawing board, entire universes were conceived and bold mythologies evoked because, quite simply, Jack could create circles around most everyone in the business.

He seemed to understand that a new age of exploration was coming, that comics were poised for a renaissance. Maybe he sensed it the way he had sniffed out earlier fads, beating other publishers to the punch. Maybe he just thought it was a cool idea whose time had come. (I’m betting on the latter; Jack Kirby never seemed to me a guy prone to deep analysis of prevailing trends. He preferred creating fads to following them.)

It’s no wonder that Jack had such a deep-rooted understanding of comic books; he had been making them since practically the art form began. Born Jacob Kurtzberg in the slums of New York’s Lower East Side in 1917, Jack possessed a natural ability that lead him, by 1935, to work in the animation field as an in-betweener for the New York-based Max Fleischer Studios, producers of Popeye, Betty Boop, Koko The Clown and, later, Superman theatrical cartoons. But even at such an early age, following other artists’ leads wasn’t fulfilling for him and, by 1937, he was already laboring in the four-color fields. At Fox Comics, Jack met Joe Simon, a writer-artist with a keen sense for business and a creative streak almost as wide as his own. The two formed a partnership that was to last almost two decades and be responsible for the creation of some of the best known characters in the field, and, since they were at it, a genre or two as well. From Simon & Kirby would come (to name but a few): Captain America, the Boy Commandos, Blue Beetle, Blue Bolt, Marvel Boy, the Vision, Captain Marvel, Sandman, the Newsboy Legion, Stuntman, Airboy, BOYS’ RANCH, BULLS EYE, CAPTAIN 3-D, FIGHTING AMERICAN, JUSTICE TRAPS THE GUILTY, MY DATE, WESTERN FIGHTERS, CHARLIE CHAN, HEADLINE COMICS, BLACK MAGIC, FOXHOLE, POLICE TRAP, and STRANGE WORLD OF YOUR DREAMS. With YOUNG LOVE, they created the romance comic.

Their output was staggering, the quality always top notch. They worked for most of the major publishers of the day, maintained ownership of many of their creations, and in the mid-1950s, started up their own publishing house. Throughout the 1940s and into the 1950s, the Simon & Kirby names on the cover were enough to insure success.

Of course, all good things must come to an end and so it was with this long-time collaboration. By the mid-1950s, comic sales had gone into a major slump, leading to the failure of their newly opened Mainline Comics imprint and the dissolution of their partnership. Jack found himself welcomed back at Atlas (the former Timely Comics, soon to become Marvel), as well as National Comics (DC Comics to you), Prize Comics, and Harvey Comics. He also hit the Holy Grail of comic book artist ambition: a syndicated newspaper strip, Sky Masters of the Space Force, which he wrote and penciled (and which was inked by Wally Wood and, later, Dick Ayers).

And, somewhere in there, Jack also managed to create the CHALLENGERS OF THE UNKNOWN.

In those days, comic books were sold on newsstands, available practically everywhere you went. Under the distribution system then in place (way before the development of dedicated comic shops), it could take some six to eight months for a publisher to find out how well a given issue had sold. Six to eight months during which subsequent issues could come out and bomb. DC inaugurated the idea of a “showcase” title to test new ideas before committing to regular monthly (or, as was more likely in those days, bi-monthly) publication. The first three issues of SHOWCASE gave comic buyers non-starters like Firefighters (starring Fireman Farrell), King of the Wild (animal stories), and The Frogmen (scuba divers, not mutants). The book didn’t get good until its fourth issue, in which an entire new era for comics was born (the Silver Age), and the long-moribund super hero genre was revived with the Flash.

But DC was still taking baby steps in bringing super hero comics back before the buying public. There would be three more SHOWCASE try-outs for Flash before Barry Allen would receive his own title. CHALLENGERS OF THE UNKNOWN fell somewhere in-between super heroes and straight adventure. Its protagonists possessed no powers beyond their own natural born brains and/or brawn, yet they wore costumes and were outfitted with enough gadgets and geegaws to do Batman proud.

Jack seemed to possess an instinctive understanding of heroic archetypes and myths. With Joe Simon, he had built an already impressive body of work in the area of adventure heroes (BOYS RANCH, BULLS EYE, BOY COMMANDOS, to name a few). Now, left to his own devices, he was free to expand on that base and the CHALLENGERS OF THE UNKNOWN was the result.

SHOWCASE #6 (the first of the team’s four try-out appearances, all reprinted in this volume) introduced readers to war hero and test pilot Ace Morgan, oceanographer, expert skin diver, and all-around brain Prof Haley, circus daredevil and electronics expert Red Ryan, and Olympic wrestling champion Rocky Davis. En route together to an appearance on the radio program “Heroes” aboard Morgan’s private jet, these four extraordinary men survive a crash that should have killed them all...but didn’t.

“We should be dead,” exclaimed the astonished Red Ryan. “But we’re not! My watch should be smashed—yet it’s unharmed, keeping time!”

“Borrowed time, Red!” said Ace. “We’re living on borrowed time!” And gathered there in the forest beside the twisted wreckage of their plane, the four men agreed to use this new lease on life to take “a few more challenge the unknown!”

“The CHALLENGERS are a suicide squad,” Jack once said. “They are the men who take the risks. These are the kind of guys who travel through time as casually as you or I go to the corner store. I wouldn’t want to travel through time like those guys. I’d be scared out of my underwear.”

Kirby’s decades of creative experience are on display in the very first CHALLENGERS story, his knowledge of story construction, the relationships between characters, the mixing of personality types to create dramatic tension. “It’s like any group of friends,” Jack said. “One is like this, another is like that, and they all complement each other. Groups have no need for duplicates, and God forbid if you had two hot heads—you’d never survive.”

And there it was, so simple a concept...

(one that an observant reader can’t help but notice possesses similarities with the origin of yet another fantastic quartet that Jack would be involved with in just a few years time over at Marvel)

...yet one that would lead to an eighty-seven issue, twenty year run (with a few gaps in publication here and there along the way), as well as a pair of revivals as miniseries in the 1990s. With stories sometimes supplied by Dave Wood, more often by Jack himself, with the occasional scripting over Kirby’s plots by France “Ed” Herron, the Challengers would unlock “The Secrets of the Sorcerer’s Box,” defeat a renegade robot when “Ultivac is Loose,” face “The Day the Earth Blew Up,” “The Menace of the Ancient Vials,” “The Man Who Tampered With Infinity,” “The Human Pets,” “The Monster Maker,” and a host of other menaces supernatural, scientific, alien, and even occasionally, human. On the art side, Jack’s always stunning and dynamic pencils were inked by such peerless talents as Marvin Stein, Bruno Premiani, and Wally Wood.

Jack would, alas, produce only twelve issues of the Challs adventures (four SHOWCASE appearance plus the first eight of their own title). A man who knew what he was doing and where he wanted his creations to go, Kirby admitted, “I’d get into fights with editors and I’d get into arguments with publishers,” sometimes leading to his departure from a strip, as happened between Jack and CHALLENGERS editor Jack Schiff. The Challs continued facing the unknown without Kirby under a variety of talented writers and artists, including scribes Herron, Wood, Arnold Drake, Bill Finger, Robert Kanigher, Mike Friedrich, and Denny O’Neil, and artists Bob Brown (for an impressive fifty-four issue run), Jack Sparling, Dick Dillon, and George Tuska. Even without Jack Kirby, the Challengers remained a vibrant, exciting book...but readers couldn’t help but wonder what plans the once and future “King” might have had in mind for his adventurous creations. (Of course, had Jack stayed at DC, he might never have found his way back to Marvel again where, with Stan Lee, he would help jumpstart a flailing industry in the 1960s. Instead, it might well have been DC, with Jack’s help, leading the way...!)

So, there it is: the why and wherefore, a little bit of back story, and a smidgen of historic context for the legendary CHALLENGERS OF THE UNKNOWN.

Now turn the page and prepare to tag along with Ace, Red, Prof, and Rocky as they investigate “The Secrets of the Sorcerer’s Box,” only the first of their many challenges of the unknown...!

# # #

Paul Kupperberg is an editor in DC’s Licensed Publishing group who not only once owned the entire run of the CHALLENGERS OF THE UNKNOWN, but also had the privilege of working with Jack Kirby on the 1985 SUPER POWERS miniseries, an event that still stands as the fan-boy high-point of his almost three decades in comics.

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