- John Gaines
Many people enjoy reading DC Comics’ classic Batman and Superman books, but often forgotten are the other series that were produced during the 1950s and 1960s, the “Silver Age” of comic books. One such series is Challengers of the Unknown, and it is sad that it has been mostly forgotten because it contains many exciting adventures with striking artwork and a panoply of bizarre monsters for the heroes to confront. For readers willing to put up with some of the more dated aspects of its storytelling, Challengers of the Unknown is an enjoyable trip back in time to DC’s Silver Age.
This comic features an elite team of heroes who are confronted with a variety of dangerous situations ranging from alien invasions to ancient mythical creatures coming to life. The team consists of deep sea diver Prof. Haley, jet pilot Ace Morgan, champion wrestler Rocky Davis, and circus daredevil Red Ryan. Other than Ace (who flies the team’s jet around), the characters’ backgrounds are rarely utilized in the action of the stories and very little character development is given, leaving the comic as strongly plot-driven rather than character-driven. These well-written plots are completely contained within the context of each issue. Seeing this economical writing style which makes each panel a kinetic force may be especially compelling to modern audiences burned out on lengthy “event comics” such as DC’s Final Crisis that devote much of their space to boring filler. None of the heroes have any super powers, which makes the threats they face seem all the more compelling and dangerous.
Among the comics contained in this anthology, several stand out as particularly enjoyable. For example, “Ultivac is Loose!” is the story of a super robot created to serve humanity that goes horribly wrong. This one stands out for both the character design of the Ultivac robot and for its sad ending, a rarity in 1960s comics. Another of the highlights is “The Creatures from the Past,” in which the discovery of the Golden Fleece unleashes the legendary monsters of Greek mythology upon the modern world. The somewhat silly plot of this comic is counterbalanced by the artistic depiction of creatures such as the Cyclops, the Centaur, and a massive dragon. “The Man Who Conquered the Challengers,” the story of a villain, who has multiple lives that he uses to try to destroy the Challengers, contains many exciting action scenes built around their opponent’s unique gimmick of coming back to life with different powers each time. Finally, “Captives of the Space Circus” stands out for the writing and penciling work of the legendary Jack Kirby and for the visual imagination on display in all the alien creatures the Challengers encounter.
There are some aspects of this comic that do not date particularly well. Much of the science is rooted in what I call “comic book science,” which tends to use a variety of unbelievable concepts such as a tractor beam that allows the Challengers to breathe in space and aliens that show up on Earth--instantly speaking perfect English! Later popular science fiction settings, such as Star Trek, found ways to either work around these concepts or avoid them entirely, which makes them more glaring now than they would have when Challengers was first published. Even more troubling is the fact that the one female character in the comic typically serves to get kidnapped and then rescued in the episodes in which she appears. Given that DC had utilized at least one strong female character (Wonder Woman) long before Challengers began publication, this seems particularly glaring. Readers willing to cope with these dated elements will find a plethora of action-packed comics with eye-catching artwork.