Monday, July 27, 2015

Challengers of the Unknown Must Die! | Quarter Bin Trash or Treasure


Challengers of the Unknown Must DieIf you’ve been around comics for a while you’ve probably read something from the awesome duo of Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale. These guys have been putting out some of the greatest superhero stories in the last 20 years, for example: Spider-Man Blue; A Superman for All Seasons and Batman: The Long Halloween being one of their best. But they had to start somewhere and that was with 1991’s eight-part mini-series Challengers of the Unknown Must Die!

I have a specific memory of this comic due to the fact it was declared “Worst Mini-Series of 1991″ by Bill Townsend of Electric City Comics in his first-ever Electric Currents Annual; which was kind of like the hardcopy equivalent of a blog. I had no frame of reference at the time, so I just took Bill’s word for it that it was bad. I didn’t think about it again until 12-15 years later when I found those annuals in the attic and re-read them and realized the comic he was talking about was by Loeb and Sale. Not long after that I was at a comic book convention and dug through a dealer’s discount bin and sure enough found all eight issues of the series and picked them up for $2. A part of me was hoping it was as bad as Bill had made it out to be. Sometimes you hear such bad things about a movie or restaurant, etc., that it actually makes you want to check it out to see if it lives up to the anti-hype. Mediocrity can be hilarious and entertaining, no?

Challengers-of-the-Unknown-Vol.-2-1-1991

Anyway, I read the comics and thought they were actually pretty good, but that was probably ten years ago and I haven’t read it or thought about it since. However, at the last comic con I attended, I saw the collected trade paperback at a dealer’s table for $5 so I absolutely had to buy it. I decided to give it another read and see how it would stand the test of time yet again.

First of all, I should point out that I’m not at all familiar with the Challengers of the Unknown. Even though they were created by Jack Kirby, they’ve always been kind of relegated to C-list characters. The “Challs” seemed to all but disappear from the DCU once the Modern Age rolled around, and I think that’s why Jeph Loeb wanted to write for them at the time. In fact, if you really want to know the story-behind-the-story, Loeb explained it all on an episode of Kevin Smith’s Fat Man on Batman podcast a few years ago. So, I went into this story with no frame of reference and it reads in such a way that you don’t have to be intimately familiar with the characters’ legacy and details of their continuity in order to follow the plot. That being said, it’s still not the easiest story to follow.

challengersoftheunknownvolume2_2

The basic premise is [SPOILERS] that some nutjob blows up Challenger Mountain via the easiest infiltration I’ve ever seen (you’d think the Challs would have some security devices in place). Though, at the exact moment this happens, Prof had just discovered what appeared to be some kind of mysterious unlimited energy force in space and was trying to harness it… somehow. Major tragedy ensues as the adjacent town of Challengerville (because comics) is leveled from an explosion. Somehow Ace, Red and Rocky managed to survive the catastrophe but Prof and June did not. They’re actually put on trial for murder! Not surprisingly, they’re acquitted, but their lives are ruined and each decides to go his own separate ways. The middle chapters deal with Rocky becoming a Hollywood star but also an alcoholic; Red snapping and turning into a murderous vigilante and commando a la Rorschach and The Comedian; and Ace becoming an all-out Black Magician. Meanwhile, there’s a hack tabloid reporter named Moffett (that’s with two F’s) trying to make a name for himself by documenting all this. Additionally, the world seems to have gone mad as all these normal people start committing heinous acts. It comes full circle when we find out that the mysterious energy force was actually a rather generic demon-like character who found a way to transubstantiate himself using Prof’s equipment… or something (it’s very poorly explained). We do get to see Prof and June briefly on “the other side.” The plot is resolved in a surprising way when an unexpected character commits an unexpected act of self-sacrifice.

05-11-2010+02;14;54AM


This was Loeb’s first job as a comic book writer, so it’s understandable that he hadn’t “found his voice” at the time. He can’t seem to decide if he’s playing it straight or if this is a satire of some sort (the same tone “The Sleeping” had, for comparison). It has elements of mainstream superhero action & adventure; realism, fantasy; sci-fi; and even comedy. For a debut work, this is actually pretty interesting and impressive in that it takes an “everything but the kitchen sink” approach without stumbling over itself. While this is not the most brilliant comic ever written, it flows pretty well considering how much Loeb and Sale are trying to do.


b79ddded6fd1f52ac879f99d08f95c9b

As you’ll see from Bill’s review below, the fact Loeb was a Hollywood screenwriter may have made the reader assume he was a total outsider who had no personal history or respect for comics. Listening to Loeb on Smith’s podcast, you’ll learn that the opposite is true; he’d been a fan since he was a kid and it shows as it contains many references to other comics. There are plenty of proverbial wink-at-the-camera moments such as this nod to The Dark Knight Returns:

Challengers of the Unknown Must Die2

Or this Spider-Man reference:

COTUspidey

Special mention absolutely must be made to Sale’s layouts and compositions (which Brian Michael Bendis does in the introduction of the TPB). They could’ve illustrated this as any normal comic with the usual layout of panels and such, but Sale takes an experimental approach using two-page spreads quite often. It’s not often the way panels are lain out that makes a comic book memorable, but in this case it absolutely does. It’s novel enough to be impressive, but not so wacky as to be incomprehensible.

tumblr_mczt52kFgR1rhjbado1_1280

Overall, Challengers of the Unknown Must Die! is far from a masterpiece, but it certainly is impressive for what it is. I’d love to see Loeb and Sale return to this story for a sequel or perhaps just do another Challs graphic novel from scratch. If you find these comics in a discount bin, I definitely recommend picking them up. Or get a used trade online for cheap.

Verdict: Treasure

The following is Bill Townend’s review from the 1991 Electric Currents Annual. I would love to know if he’s ever re-read Challengers of the Unknown Must Die! in the last 24 years and if his opinion has changed.

You think I’ve been nasty so far. Well, you ain’t seen nothing yet, because this series deeply, deeply offended me.

The first comic I ever remembered reading was Challengers of the Unknown #57, which came out in the summer of 1967*. On the cover there were the Challs Fighting the Dreadful Dimension Man (a green guy with a helmet on this head that looked like the letter D), and the Iron Dictator, a robot that looked like Hitler. Sure, it was dumb, but what does an eight year old know? I htoughtit was cool beyond belief. So the Challengers were the first series that I consciously collected. The stories got much better as the campy sixities ended, but the sales of the Challs didn’t improve, and they began reprinting stories.

The stories they reprinted were from the early appearance of the Challengers, and they were drawn by Jack Kirby, and some of them inked by Wally Wood. This was pre-Marvel Kirby at his best, and in fact you could see a little Fantastic Four in them.
Capture
When I heard they were being revived, I was glad to hear it. I was curious to see how they would be handled in the 1990s, and in fact I had a few ideas of my own. The Challengers were all remarkable men: a test pilot, a championship boxer, a circus daredevil, and an undersea explorer. Why couldn’t the series show that you didn’t need to be a superpowered goon for life to be an adventurer? The Challengers were adventurers who took risks because they felt they were living on borrowed time. By rights all of them  should be dead many times over, so why not push the boundaries of existence a little? The premise of the mini-series was an intriguing one: “The Challengers are living on Borrowed Time. Time’s Up.”

But when I heard how the series was going to be handled, my heart sank. The Challs were going to be treated like a joke. 

DC seems to be making a habit of trashing its heroes of yesterday. Adam Strange had been completely screwed up last year, and Chaykin made a complete mess out of DC space heroes in this series Twilight. Kid Eternity also got the treatment this year. But this…. this was an abomination.

Jeph Loeb is the name of the worm who wrote this series. He’s some sort of Hollywood scriptwriter person who wanted to write comics. How nice for him. One of this guy’s screenwriting credits was for the movie Teen Wolf Two, high art to be sure. Loeb wanted to write some comics, so DC gave him a list of properties that they weren’t doing anything with, and this nitwit picked the Challs. Apparently he liked the sound of the name. Prior to this he had never even HEARD of them.

I don’t really want to go on at great length about this, because plainly it doesn’t deserve it. But the writing was so cliched, so hackneyed, so stupid, that I could scarcely believe it. OK, let’s turn Rocky into an alcohol, how trendy, how nineties. Let’s turn Ace into a halfassed Doctor Strange… um, let’s turn Red into Sgt. Fury. And let’s kill Prof, nobody cares about him anyway.

It seems this Loeb guy had read a couple of Matt Wagner Grendels and never got over it, because the style is lifted directly from them. And he liberally puts in all sorts of nonsensical “homages” (definition: I am too lazy to think for myself, so I will rip off Ditko or Kirby or Neal Adams). There was the “Tiger, you hit the jackpot” from Amazing Spider-Man #42, innumerable Kirby Sgt. Fury rip-offs, and on and on. Didn’t it bother anybody at DC that these were all MARVEL references!?!?

*A Google search reveals the comic he’s referring to was actually issue #53 dated January 1967.

3 comments:

  1. I had heard of this comic before and always wondered why something like this (by loeb and sale no less) isn't discussed more. also was Townsend referring to the grant morrison kid eternity miniseries as "trash"

    ReplyDelete
  2. Morrison's Kid Eternity miniseries *was* trash. There are ways of legitimising silly old characters without getting all smugly nihilistic and turning them into sexually-abused agents of Satan.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I never read that series but I've never liked grant Morrison. Most overrated writer ever.

      Delete