Wednesday, August 24, 2011

The Classics - Challengers of the Unknown #47

By the time this comic came out (it's cover dated December 1965 - January 1966), I was picking up fewer of DC's titles and gravitating toward Marvel's line - but one of the DC books I held onto the longest was Challengers of the Unknown.

(Don't worry, I eventually came back to DC's titles - but it took several years.)

Like The Doom Patrol, the Challs were very different from most of DC's heroes. For one thing, they didn't really get along, although it was obvious they were friends and good teammates.

But they would argue, they would tease each other, they would crack jokes - they just seemed like a fun group to be around.

Which seems funny, since their origin was a bit odd and decidedly serious. The four men who made up the team were each experts in their field: Kyle "Ace" Morgan (a pilot), Matthew "Red" Ryan (a daredevil), Leslie "Rocky" Davis (a boxer) and Walter Mark "Prof" Haley (a scientist). They survive a terrible plane crash, decide they're living "on borrowed time" and devote their lives to exploring the ultimate mysteries.

That brings them in conflict with an amazing array of monsters, aliens and strange life forms.

This issue was a particular favorite because of the lead story (there are two stories in this issue). In "The Sinister Sponge," an ordinary man is transformed into a Sponge-Man, capable of absorbing anything - sound, energy, even color.

This gave long-time (and vastly underrated) Challengers artist Bob Brown lots of room for fun visuals, as a crime spree leads to widespread destruction.

But the surprising thing about the story is the fact that it doesn't wrap up with a happy resolution. Writer Bill Finger (one of the greatest of the Golden and Silver Age writers) takes what could be another "Challs vs. a monster" story and makes it a tragic tale.

The Sponge-Man is actually the victim of a freak accident and led into crime by a con man. When his actions accidentally threaten the lives of the Challengers, the Sponge-Man saves them. But the ending of the story is the real surprise, though I won't spoil it here.

The backup story written by France Herron and drawn by Brown is a bit thin, as the team is trapped by Mr. Tic-Tac-Toe (honest!), and other than some nice art and a few clever uses of the game design, there's not much there.

In fact, the issue is a good synopsis of the team's comics: when they were good, they were great fun; but when the stories were just OK, the series suffered.

After too much of the latter (and a shuddering infusion of campy stories), the series ended with issue #75. There have been some attempts to bring the team back, but these days they're rarely seen.

It would be great to see a series take the team back to its over-the-top style - but these days, comics are a serious business, so perhaps we'll have to be satisfied with the occasional guest appearances.

Grade: B+



Anonymous said...

I loved the Challs back in the day
too, Chuck! They just seemed more
down to earth than the members of
the JLA; I remember a sequence where they all kicked back after a
mission and drank beer! THAT I can
relate to.
And The Sponge Man was indeed a great tragic not quite a villain, much like the bad guys at Marvel.
I'd say more, but I don't want to spoil your review.

Sam Kujava

Chuck said...

Sam, if that story happened today, they'd change the beer to root beer.

Glen Davis said...

I first encountered the Challs in their 1970's "In Search Of" inspired series where they teamed up with Swamp Thing and Dead Man a lot.

I thought Mark Waid handled the group well in the first 12 issues of Brave And Bold.

Chuck said...

Glen, I agree, those were well done. I thought Karl Kesel did a good job in an issue of one of the Superman titles, too.

Anonymous said...

Elaine Benes said this classic issue of CHALLS is...wait for it...

Sam Kujava