Sunday, November 15, 2009

Showcase #6: Challengers of the Unknown

Jack Kirby had created a few memorable series for DC in the Golden Age, including the Boy Commandos and the Newsboy Legion, before moving back over to Timely/Atlas. For awhile in the later 1950s he worked again for DC, creating the Challengers of the Unknown, who quickly graduated to their own long-running series.

As the story begins, four men are winging their way towards a radio program. Rocky Davis is an Olympic wrestling champion, Prof Haley is a master skin (scuba) diver, Red Ryan is a circus daredevil, and Ace Morgan is a war hero and fearless jet pilot. However, their plane runs into some rough weather, and:

Despite Ace's efforts, the plane crashes. Miraculously the four men emerge from the wreckage uninjured. Red notices that even his watch is still working, and Ace comments that the men are "living on borrowed time". This phrase becomes the signature of the Challengers series. Figuring that they should be dead anyway, the four men decide to band together and take risks that nobody else would. And in short order, they become famous for their daring.

They fly to northern Canada, where they are greated by a mysterious man named Morelian. He's obviously quite wealthy, having had a castle disassembled brick by brick in Europe and brought to North America and reassembled. Morelian reveals that he's a descendant of the original Merlin, and that he too dabbles in black magic. He explains their task:

It is obvious that danger awaits within the box, or else Morelian would open it himself. The Challengers confer:

They decide to open the box on a deserted island, to minimize the risk to humanity, and settle on a small isle near the Bikini Islands. An aside: Did you know that the name of the bikini swimsuit was based on a pun? From Wikipedia:

Bikini Island is well-known for being the subject of nuclear bomb tests, and because the bikini swimsuit was named after the island in 1946. The two-piece swimsuit was introduced within days of the first nuclear test on the atoll, and the name of the island was in the news. Introduced just weeks after the one-piece "Atome" was widely advertised as the "smallest bathing suit in the world", it was said that the bikini "split the atome".

Rocky gets first crack at the box. The Challengers' safety precautions are not exactly impressive:

Inside the first chamber, Rocky discovers a giant egg. Translating from Ancient Greek, Prof reveals that an inscription says something about a dragon seed. Ace speculates that this may have something to do with the Greek legend of Cadmus, who supposedly planted dragon's teeth in the ground and grew a crop of fighting men. The men decide to let Prof continue attempting to translate the innscription, while they break for the night. But while they are sleeping, the egg begins to crack open.
They discover the egg has opened and a giant has emerged, which grabs Red:

Ace and Prof fly off in pursuit of the giant, leaving Rocky behind to safeguard the box. But Rocky finds the temptation to open another chamber irresistible. As Prof machine-guns the giant, it lets Red go in frustration. He's picked up in a lifeboat of a ship that had been abandoned when the giant came upon it. The men on the lifeboat row Red to the island where the box is located. Red discovers Rocky frozen on the ground. As he explores the island, he discovers:

Red tricks it into following him:

He slips out the side, then seals the sun inside, trapping it.

Meanwhile, Prof figures out how to defeat the giant:

Despite the great dangers they have barely defeated, the Challengers are determined to open the final two chambers of the box. The third chamber contains a "whirling weaver" which quickly spins a cocoon around Ace, then takes off for the mainland. When the Challengers follow, they discover the weaver has already hit Australia:

Note that atypically for DC in this era, a real city is named. Prof notes that there's a dial on the container that held the weaver, and deduces that it's actually a control device. With the weaver under their power, the Challengers head back to the island, where they discover Morelian has already arrived:

But when he flies away, his plane suddenly veers out of control and crashes into the box, killing Morelian and destroying the box. The Challengers realize that the box itself granted immortality, not the ring.

Comments: An interesting and entertaining story. Kirby's art still looks like his Golden Age work, and not like the Silver Age style he made famous. It's notable that the story is broken into five "chapters". This was unusual for comics in the Silver Age; about the only other comic series that had that same format was the early Fantastic Four (which Kirby also drew and plotted).

Oddities: At one point, Rocky is referred to as "Rod" by Prof. And it seems unusual that there is no real villain per se in the story; although Morelian is clearly something of a strange duck, there's none of the usual "Bwahahaha, you fools, you have given me the key to eternal life! Now I shall kill you!"