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The Challengers of the Unknown

Catching up on various episodes of “Batman: The Brave And The Bold,” I was pleasantly surprised that one teaser (YouTube — careful!) focused on the Challengers of the Unknown.

Not having read their Silver Age adventures, I wouldn’t consider myself a Challengers expert, but I do like the basic idea. They’re straight-up adventurers brought together largely by a shared experience of cheating death, and because they live “on borrowed time,” they have decided to spend that time saving the world. First appearing in 1957′s Showcase #6 (just two issues after the Silver Age Flash’s debut in #4), and springing at least in part from Jack Kirby’s fertile imagination, the Challs are often tied to a pre-superhero Silver Age either explicitly (as in Darwyn Cooke’s New Frontier and the recent Legacies miniseries) or as spiritual representatives of that time (as in Karl Kesel and Tom Grummett’s Superboy or Mark Waid, George Pérez, and Jerry Ordway’s run on The Brave and the Bold). Attempts to “update” the team, whether by aging the originals or creating new Challengers, haven’t gotten much traction, despite the best efforts of folks like Jeph Loeb, Tim Sale, Steven Grant, Len Kaminski, John Paul Leon, and Howard Chaykin.

That may explain why the Challs don’t have a New-52 makeover like the Blackhawks, another group associated with a particular era (World War II) without being wedded to it. An ill-advised “superhero phase” notwithstanding, Blackhawk started off as a Golden Age title which survived well into the Silver Age (1944-68, 235 issues), and was revived in the ‘70s (7 issues), early ‘80s (23 issues) and late ‘80s (22 issues, including a 3-issue Chaykin makeover). The characters have never really gone away, and until the New 52 relaunch came along, the original-recipe team survived in the person of a time-displaced Zinda “Lady Blackhawk” Blake.

However, Blackhawk appears to be the exception. The Challengers and their non-super cousins like Cave Carson or the Sea Devils are too evocative of the era in which they were conceived.

Moreover, I’m not really here today to argue for a new Challengers of the Unknown. Instead, the more I wondered why DC wouldn’t give the Challs another shot, the more the Challs looked like symbols of the Silver Age. As they go, so it goes — and why indeed is the Silver Age so persistent?

For one thing, there are Dan DiDio’s comments from a few years ago about DC’s need to reinforce the most “recognizable” and/or “definitive” versions of various characters in order to make its superhero line new-reader-friendly. Because the Silver Age laid the foundation for the next few decades’ worth of superhero books, DC apparently imagined that those characters would, by and large, get the nod.

I remain skeptical of this approach. It is inherently conservative, seeking to preserve an existing take rather than moving forward with a character’s development. Along those same lines, the “most recognizable” version of a character is not necessarily the most creatively satisfying. Furthermore, terms like “most recognizable” and “definitive” are more subjective than they might look — and they don’t always match up, either — allowing pros and fans alike to argue for what they want while claiming fidelity to some Platonic ideal. Naturally, one person’s ideal is another’s corruption, and with DC’s legacy-character model, there are plenty of “ideal” candidates.

Of course, there’s always fidelity to the original intent of a character’s creator(s), but that can be problematic. Grant Morrison and Rags Morales’ “Springsteen Superman,” currently seen in the New-52′s Action Comics, is meant to recall the less-powerful, socially-conscious hero of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s earliest adventures, but with its cobbled-together costume and younger Clark Kent, it’s not quite a re-creation. Indeed, Superman’s other New-52 appearances follow a more conventional interpretation, even substituting Kryptonian battle armor for red briefs and spandex.

This is to be expected: the Superman who could only leap an eighth of a mile, and whose resistance to damage was measured by a “bursting shell,” is now an artifact, occupying a niche. Likewise, the original Wonder Woman stories of creator William Moulton Marston and artist H.G. Peter are in their own niche, although apparently Morrison wants to return that certain “weird, libidinous element” to the Amazing Amazon, perhaps as soon as 2012.

Then there’s Batman, whose original conception as a grim, gothic avenger lasted just under a year before Robin arrived to lighten things up. Of DC’s Trinitarians, Batman’s current depiction is arguably the closest to the Golden Age originals, but it wasn’t always so. When Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams (and editor Julius Schwartz) reintroduced the “Darknight Detective” in late 1969, the character was about five years removed from the end of the “Sci-Fi” period, which had begun in the late 1940s/early ‘50s. Accordingly, although O’Neil and Adams sought deliberately to tell their versions of Kane/Finger stories, their interpretation was about as radical in the early ‘70s as Morrison and Morales’ Superman is today. Clearly it was not the most recognizable version, which at the time might well have been Dick Sprang’s or even Adam West’s. Regardless, O’Neil/Adams became the model for the Batman of the ‘70s and ‘80s, and (even if you think it’s been superseded by Frank Miller’s work) is still a powerful influence.

We can group another set of interpretations under a sort of hybrid approach, where original intent has become augmented by details accumulated from various sources. This is the “ideal aggregation” I described almost (yikes) four years ago, which holds that something like All Star Superman or the Christopher Reeve movies may be the most definitive versions of the character.  No doubt there are other ways of gauging interpretive validity. However, let’s shift gears.

While it’s not really accurate to apply those analyses generally to DC’s shared superhero universe, I believe the publisher does something similar for each feature, especially the New 52 and their follow-ups. Thus, you have original-intent books like Action Comics alongside “most-recognizable” titles (Batgirl, Aquaman), updates like Blackhawks, and outright reinventions (Fury Of Firestorm, OMAC). Although each title has significant roots in the company’s past, at least in broad strokes the line doesn’t look particularly like any previous era. Instead, it’s an aggregation (idealized or otherwise) of what somebody — creative personnel, editorial, marketing, whomever — thinks DC Comics should be publishing.

And that’s fine, for what it is. It’s not a wholesale Silver Age revival, which I suppose is ironic considering all the contortions DC went through to bring back Hal Jordan and Barry Allen. That’s fine too — it doesn’t have to be, especially if dense Silver Age history gets in the way of accessibility.

However, the New 52 risks being so new that it loses the appeal of maturity, and that’s (part of) what bothers me about it. It’s one thing to say that the superheroes have only been around for five years or so, but it’s another to use that timeline to limit the kinds of stories you can tell. If All Star Western could move Jonah Hex to Gotham City, Men of War and Blackhawks could easily have kept their WWII settings (although Sgt. Rock was more grounded in reality than the Blackhawks). It would help distinguish them from the superhero books; and for whatever it’s worth, they would be DC’s only New-52 titles set primarily in the 20th Century. New seems to be working out pretty well, but retro ought not to be dismissed entirely. In that context, a period-piece Challengers of the Unknown could be a nice complement, telling the kinds of Eisenhower-era stories readers might expect from a company which reinvented itself fairly significantly back then.

So yeah, a Challengers revival would be nice. Maybe there’s one in the pipeline already. I just hope it’s faithful to the feature’s origins, not modern for the sake of being modern — and I say that not because I think everything’s gone downhill since the Silver Age ended. (I don’t think that, by the way.)  The aggregation of qualities in DC’s main-line roster isn’t as ideal as it could be. It needs a little borrowed time.

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Comments

20 Comments

Intriguing theory. It does seem like DC is being a little more conservative nowadays, but that begs the question–when were they the complete opposite? And just how conservative or liberal is Marvel in a sense nowadays?

philfromgermany

November 4, 2011 at 2:42 am

I’m hoping for some Challengers later on in DC Presents, why not?

I’d like a series that either: rotated stories about The Challengers, Sea Devils and Cave Carson; or featured them in a shared-time period, 3-stories a month (8-10 pages each) book, with an occasional full-book crossover tale.

Great idea Kenozoic. If DC needs a Challs writer, they should try Marc Guggenheim, who did a terrific job with them in JSA this year, as did artist Jerry Ordway.

I could see Darwyn Cooke doing a Challengers mini set in a certain time period that would go over well with todays readership. Might be a bit predictable. ( For a bit of a twist, have Chris Samnee on art.)

Morrison plans ( planned) to have a Challengers Of The Beyond book as part of Multiversity.
He also has a Captain Marvel book called Thunderworld but with the Shazam back up coming in Justice League we’ll see how that pans out.

A Challengers book would have added a bit more diversity to the new52.
Pretty much a Fantastic Four in the DCU but not a supergroup. I’m sure it’s been mention online before – the Challengers could have been used to explore the new52. The DC Universe book should function as that as opposed to a Deadman mini since DC still doesn’t think a Deadman solo book will sell.

Despite enjoying a good number of the new books, I still think DC could have had more to offer with their New52 had they focused less on using their most “definitive” and “iconic” versions of their characters.

Only Batman and Superman have such versions, with them even having tweaks here and there.
All other characters have “this” or “that” versions that they prefer.

MEN AT WAR at his original idea is definitely a great idea.

This whole “iconic version” of characters thing bothers more than anything else at DC these days. I kind of feel like you can have a character or you can have an icon, but you can never have both. An icon is something that is known by everyone and never changes. A character is something that grows and changes as the story progresses. If you want to tell stories where things actually happen, you can’t really do it with icons.

Didn’t Darwyn Cooke already do a Challs mini-series called The New Frontier? ;)

The Challengers should get their own earth,period. now that theyre planning a multiverse title they should give those none powered characters their own earth where they should have “michael bay” type of action oriented adventures. The challengers, Cave carson, sea devils, secret six, baron winters, all those type of characters not used by DCs current changes

Googam Son of Goom

November 6, 2011 at 1:45 pm

Michael Bay? They can do better than that. Although I do like your idea of a world without super-powered heroes.

The 52 Challengers would have been a secret blackops paramilitary outfit fighting a shadow organization that secretly controls the world. So thankfully, they were left out.

What this article points out is just what is wrong with DC now. It’s a stinking mess. Despite DC ballyhooing its approach as restarting everything so it’s accessible to all, what they’ve created is something pretty much un-accessible. The “stories” are little more than running around and punching. There is very little meat on them bones. Often the authors require that readers have some prior knowledge of the characters and/or their earlier stories. So this really isn’t a restart. The artwork is often terrible. Elements that are apparently important to the “story” are barely visible on the page, or completely absent. Framing is confusing. And with only 20 pages available per issue the artists are using the same page layout designs that they used in 22-page stories (i.e. one or more splash pages and often double-truck layouts which eat precious story-telling real estate).

Yes, DC has sold a lot of issue but, honestly, who really thought they wouldn’t sell a lot of #1s? Give it 18 months, maybe 2 years and DC will be back selling overall the same number of copies as they sold prior to New52. And the reason for that is they are really not capturing new readers; and the reason they’re not doing that is simple: Despite all the “newness” they are really just doing business the same old way — story, art, and audience. Think about it. If you ask the people who got you into the mess to get you out of it, what can you expect but more of the same. And to me that’s an analog to the definition of insanity.

This long-time DC reader is saying thanks, but no thanks.

Shamachu,

Agree with you that IF DC are going to use these characters they’d have more impact on another Earth. But there are certain characters that DC should stop trying to make work as an integrated part of their nu u. Most of those are Kirby characters. No one has come close except for Mark Evanier and Steve Rude to the feel but they were merely homages. Make Challs a Vertgo book. Keep it as the four adventurers living on borrowed time, just keep it to a HBO styled show, not Michael Bay.

IMO, a new Challengers series should be similar to rgw Ghostbusters, whose mission statement is to investigate and stop all manner of weird monsters and evil scientists. Also, all of the team members should each have their own special super science advance signature equipment and weapons. The team roster should consist of the the original Challengers (plus June) and the new Challengers from the 90′s.

Realitätsprüfung

November 7, 2011 at 8:07 am

carparts – your definition of icon – “I kind of feel like you can have a character or you can have an icon, but you can never have both. An icon is something that is known by everyone and never changes ” – is incorrect. An icon is a powerful image that’s readily, often widely, recognizeable. That doesn’t meanthey don’t evolve or change. Real life icons certainly evolve, from national flags to public figures to actors and so on.

In comics, Superman, Batman and the rest have all evolved over the years.

Taking that back to the topic at hand, DC is probably less conservative *now* than they have been since 1987. If anything, abandoning the minutiae of the post-Crisis quagmire and legacy-fest was a brave, bold move that DC knew would alienate a segment of their 20-year-plus fanbase – much like they did with the original Crisis in 1985. But that was done with an eye towards attracting an immediate, larger audience – the 1 million kids reading Marvel books. And even if they only attracted 30% of that audience, it would still have been a resounding success.

Today, no such larger audience (read: safety net) exists, which makes this relaunch, especially within a shrinking direct market, a very bold move. I’m shocked at how well it’s working, too.

Challengers of the Unknown is a perfect property to develop for television. SciFi action adventure. If handled properly; it could be TV’s biggest show.

For more on the Challs, see their website:

http://www.challengersoftheunknown.com

Hate to contradict, but the Challs aren’t strictly Silver Age. They’re more like “bridge from Golden to Silver Age” characters. In the mid-50′s DC was still terrified by the SEDUCTION OF THE INNOCENT slams, so produced Westerns and dogs (Rex) and Detective and funny Superman and funny animals and TV stars like Bilko and Gleason. The Challs were non-threatening in that they were non-super, but had super adventures. Hence, bridge to the Silver Age.

DC is definitely conservative with the portrayals of their icons. They don’t want them to get too far away from their original points of origin.

This is why Marvel created the Ultimate line of books. A place where their icons can go in different tangents without affecting the “main” universe.

DC doesn’t have an equivalent of that. I suppose the Earth One books could be called an ‘Ultimate’ line of sorts, but DC hasn’t gone full steam ahead with that yet.

Hey, I called it in post 2 ! :D
Isn’t that a great Ryan Sook cover?
And twice the number of Challs, too! I’m so looking forward to that.

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