Axel-In-Charge: Extending "Secret Wars," Excitement for a "Totally Awesome Hulk"
DC Challenge! was a 12-issue limited series which ran from the summer of 1985 through the summer of 1986. According to the text pages in issue #1 (cover-dated November 1985), inspiration struck Mark Evanier late on the Friday of the 1983 Comic-Con, while he and a few colleagues socialized on the roof of San Diego’s Executive Hotel. They would do a “round-robin” story, with each writer taking a different issue,* and each building on his predecessors’ work.
The result was a shambling, shaggy heap of a story which is perhaps best remembered for its principles than its execution. I’m not sure what good it would do to describe the plot, or even to try and discern it. Regardless, for reasons not always related to its merits, DC Challenge! is worth a second look.
SPOILERS FOLLOW, for whatever that’s worth.
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The rules of DC Challenge!, as related by Evanier in issue #1, were simple:
– Each writer had to advance the overall plot, “tie up some story threads left by those who have gone before,” and “leav[e] new story threads for those who follow.”
— A writer couldn’t use as a major character someone he was currently writing. For example, “if Len [Wein] ends his chapter with Batman about to be killed, [then-current Bat-writer] Doug Moench not only has to rescue Batman but he must immediately change the story so that Batman becomes a minor character in it.”
— There was no “solv[ing] a story problem by declaring something a dream or a hoax or a hallucination. In other words, no cheating.”
— Each issue had to end on “a big cliff-hanger,” with a solution (not binding on the next writer) “planted somewhere in [that] chapter.”
— The outgoing writer had to give the next story its title.
— Perhaps most importantly, “[e]veryone is on [his] own. There is no consultation.”
Other than that, though, the sky was the limit. The rules of DCC! were designed to stretch each writer’s capabilities while trying to keep the overall series coherent. They also helped give DCC! something of a play-fair-mystery aspect, since Evanier had challenged readers to come up with their own solutions.
The first issue (written by Evanier, penciled by Gene Colan, inked by Bob Smith) went something like this:
On a “lost floor” of the Daily Planet building, rookie copyboy Floyd Perkins runs afoul of a bald, pointy-eared alien, human conspirators, and Humphrey Bogart. Elsewhere, as Jimmy Olsen meets Groucho Marx, Superman fights a demon who’s materialized out of a small-time (and, it turns out, long-dead) criminal. Over at Wayne Manor, a clue from the Riddler (via Betamax tape!) sends Batman to a local museum. There the Darknight Detective stops another small-timer (hired by Adam Strange) from stealing an ancient stone tablet. Meanwhile, Superman’s made his way to the Moon, whose phases have something to do with the demon-manifestations. On the Moon he finds an alien communications relay powered by red-sun energy, but is promptly zapped unconscious by an unknown assailant. Too bad, because back at the Planet, Adam Strange tells Floyd, Jimmy, and Perry White that Superman is the only one who can stop the demons. Speaking of which, Wonder Woman is investigating the theft of a mini-nuke when the scientist who built it manifests his own demon. Wonder Woman can’t stop it, so she trails it in her invisible plane. Finally, after confirming that the Riddler is still in prison and knows nothing about “his” message, Batman follows another clue from the museum to the Gotham Power Plant. There, an alien, not unlike the one Floyd discovered on page 2, points Batman to a strange sequence of numbers, and tells him he has eight seconds to stop the stolen mini-nuke — which has been smuggled into Wayne Manor — from destroying Gotham City.
To be continued … in “Blinded By The Light!” by Len Wein and Chuck Patton!
Again, I don’t know how productive it would be to summarize each issue,** because they’re all like that. In fact, reading DC Challenge! all at once, as I did to prepare for this post, is probably the worst way to experience it. When I finished issue #1, I didn’t want to go to issue #2 right away. Each issue begs to be picked apart and diagrammed, preferably with the help of a big dry-erase board, so that the reader can see what happened, what caused it, and where it might all lead. (At the time, DCC! had its own CompuServe group, which was undoubtedly very thorough.)
Of course, actually “solving” the Challenge! — in the sense that a reader’s deductions would match accurately the final result — was next to impossible. Despite its rules, DCC! allowed its eleven writers tremendous freedom to take the story in all kinds of directions. By the time issue #12 came along, readers had been to Rann, a “netherworld,” and a Nazi-friendly alternate Earth (complete with Nazi Challengers of the Unknown). Sinestro replaced Superman’s head with a miniature red sun, Deadman inhabited Detective Chimp, and Metron chewed out the Guardians of the Universe. Rip Hunter became the new Silent Knight. One issue featured an alien invasion, and another had the Earth cracking in two. At one point Albert Einstein used his powers over time and space to try and sort everything out — but that was just issue #6, so it didn’t last long. (Issue #7 was narrated by the Joker, if that tells you anything.)
Mark Evanier returned for the first part of issue #12, to try and explain the backstory from the bits his colleagues had contributed. Bork (not this guy), ruler of planet Molanto, wanted to conquer the galaxy, so first he sent his top aide to conquer Rann. After the Rannians executed him, a Rannian wizard named Mordorh discovered that when Molantans die, their spirits go to a “netherworld,” from whence they can be brought back. Upon learning of Mordorh’s research, the Molantans revived their colleague, who was now “invincible and totally obedient.” This inspired the Molantans to create armies of the formerly-dead, but they were stymied without Mordorh’s formula for reaching the netherworld. When they invaded again, Adam Strange stopped them from stealing the formula. To hide it from the Molantans, Adam and Mordorh inscribed the formula on a stone tablet (the one Batman ran across in #1) and sent it via magical Zeta-Beam into Earth’s past. The Molantans then focused on Earth, using its dead to raise their own, with the ultimate goal to replace Earth with the netherworld. Meanwhile, the Guardians of the Universe vowed to stop the Molantans, alerting Earth’s superheroes to the danger. As if all that weren’t enough, Darkseid found out about the netherworld, seeing it as a clue to the Anti-Life Equation, and sought to co-opt the Molantans’ plan for his own ends.
Now, that may sound like a reasonable basis for a superhero story, but it might also remind you of the grave-robbing aliens of Plan 9 From Outer Space. Given the general air of wackiness surrounding DC Challenge!, I wonder if that’s a coincidence. As early as the cliffhanger for issue #2, in which an out-of-control car containing a time-lost Jonah Hex was about to run over kids and nuns, DCC! refused to take itself too seriously. That’s fine by me, although by the start of issue #9, when Metron complained to the Guardians that an explanation was overdue, I was getting a bit overwhelmed with the wacky.
Still, though, that probably goes back to reading the whole thing in one sitting. If DC ever collects this series — and let’s be clear, I’d expect to see Absolute Sugar & Spike before that happens — it should reprint all of the text pieces, including letters from readers. Better yet, it should go the Bottomless Belly Button route and instruct new readers to read each issue, and the accompanying text pages, on its own. The series relied pretty heavily on the four (or five) weeks between issues, not just for readers to digest each chapter, but for successive creative teams to produce them. Needless to say, that’s a style of comics which has all but disappeared today.
Ironically, it is very tempting to see in DC Challenge! the corporate-superhero-serial business in miniature — a sprawling, shambling mess of narrative threads, cultivated by isolated teams of writers, artists, and editors, and subject only to the loosest governance. If you think DCC! is incoherent, what does that say about the whipsaw macro-plots DC and Marvel have thrown at their readers over the past several years?
I won’t go much farther with that comparison, because it sounds a little too cute. One could also cite DCC!‘s “fun-or-bust” attitude in support of an ultra-serious “realistic shared universe” agenda, and I don’t think that’s quite accurate either. Even though it entertained some wild tangents, DCC! still had an end-point, which meant that its writers had to try and make everything make sense. Ultimately it had to at least look more like a cohesive story than a collection of plot points hung on a spindly narrative skeleton.
At its heart, however, DC Challenge! is about the relationship between the producers and readers of monthly superhero books. It assumes a certain degree of knowledge on the part of both, not just to wiggle out of each cliffhanger, but to do something constructive with each new chapter. The series might best be thought of as an interlocking set of games played by three groups of competitors — the current issue’s creative team, the next issue’s creative team, and the readers — all on the same field.
Although the comparisons aren’t perfect, those same dynamics are at work (to a certain extent) in the perpetuation of today’s corporate superhero serials. The problems arise when one group aims to “beat” the other — specifically, when professionals take their readers for granted, or when readers try too hard to second-guess the pros. Because DC Challenge! highlights its creators’ unpredictability, it reminds us not only of the mystery inherent in those relationships, but the value of that mystery. By the same token, readers should be able to solve some mysteries, and thereby have their intelligence rewarded. The game is only worthwhile when everyone feels like winners.
DC Challenge! was lettered by John Costanza, colored by Carl Gafford, and edited by Bob Greenberger. Its creative teams were
#1. Mark Evanier, writer; Gene Colan, penciller; Bob Smith, inker. (Dick Giordano was listed as editor for the first two issues.)
#2. Len Wein, writer; Chuck Patton, co-plotter and penciller; Mike DeCarlo, inker.
#3. Doug Moench, writer; Carmine Infantino, penciller; Bob Smith, inker.
#4. Paul Levitz, writer; Gil Kane, penciller; Klaus Janson, inker.
#5. Mike W. Barr, writer; Dave Gibbons, penciller; Mark Farmer, inker.
#6. Elliott S! Maggin, writer; Dan Jurgens, penciller; Larry Mahlstedt, inker.
#7. Paul Kupperberg, writer; Joe Staton, penciller; Steve Mitchell, inker.
#8. Gerry Conway, writer; Rick Hoberg, penciller; Dick Giordano and Arne Starr, inkers.
#9. Lofficier, plot; Roy Thomas, script; Don Heck, artist.
#10. Dan Mishkin, writer; Curt Swan, penciller; Terry Austin, inker.
#11. Marv Wolfman, plot; Cary Bates, script; Keith Giffen, penciller; Dave Hunt, inker.
#12. Mark Evanier, Dan Mishkin, Roy Thomas, Gerry Conway, Len Wein, and Marv Wolfman, writers; Dan Spiegle, Denys Cowan, Luke McDonnell, Stan Woch, Steve Lightle, Ross Andru, and Tom Mandrake, pencillers; Dan Spiegle, Rodin Rodriguez, Rick Magyar, Jan Duursema, Gary Martin, Frank McLaughlin, and Tom Mandrake, inkers.