Challengers of the Unknown

Created by Jack Kirby
Ace, Prof, Red, Rocky & June

» FIRST APPEARANCE: Showcase #6 (Jan./Feb. 1957)

History

The Original Challengers

Special Thanks for liberal use of material written by Clayton Emery and <Commander Steel>

Four men, traveling together to film an episode of TV's Incredible People: war hero test pilot Ace Morgan; master skin diver and oceanographer Professor Haley; circus acrobat and electronics expert Red Ryan; and ex-heavyweight boxing champ Rocky Davis. When their plane crashed in a freak storm, the men miraculously walked away unscathed. Reasoning that they now lived on "borrowed time," the crew set out to take more risks as the Challengers of the Unknown! (Showcase #6) They eventually constructed their own headquarters, Challengers Mountain.

On one mission, Red Ryan was killed (#55). But just as the surviving Challengers came to grips with the loss of their teammate, he returned (#60). Note: Editor Murray Boltinoff's commented that his death was indeed meant to be permanent, however, DC's conviction to keep Red dead, but that reader response to revive him was so overwhelming that DC relented.

With the dawn of heroes, the Challengers began lurking in the shadows. Their adversaries changed with the times, as well. Super-criminals and giant aliens, robots and monsters were soon supplanted by supernatural menaces: vampires, witches, zomibies, etc. (#62) Each developed a special skill in the war against darkness.

The original Challengers Mountain was destroyed in an explosion caused by Villo. (#50) They relocated to an ocean-bottom HQ, outfitted with super-scientific devices, bequeathed to them by the extra-terrestrial Scientist X. (#53) They worked out of this undersea base until switching to another HQ in an unnamed city (c. #62).

The series also featured guest appearances by the Doom Patrol (#48) and the Sea Devils (#51) and other DC heroes including Deadman, Swamp Thing and Rip Hunter. Among their longtime villains were: the League of Challenger-Haters (Multi-Man, Kra, Volcano Man, and Drabny), Villo (the self-styled "world's wickedest villain") and his sentient computer, Brainex.

They ultimately drifted apart: Ace discovered the mysteries of self, Rocky crawled into the bottle; Red became a mercenary; and the Professor and his partner June Robbins remained at Challengers Mountain to research quantum physics.

As the decades passed, their adventures became fewer and the Challengers went into semi-retirement. Their mountain hideout became a theme park and they admitted that most of their adventures were cooked-up shams. Still, Prof and June continued to experiment. They succeeded in opening a portal to another dimension — just as a saboteur launched a bomb. Challenger mountain blew up and leveled the theme park, killing hundreds, including Prof and June. Ace, Rocky and Red stand trial for the bombing. Though they're acquitted, they're ordered to disband forever. Rocky became a film star/drunk; Red, blazing mad, became a rampaging vigilante/mercenary. Ace turned to religion and pursued mysticism/other planes. They were brought together once more by an astral Prof, who bade them to defeat the menace of a dragon-god. (Challengers v.2)

Other Associates

June Robbins was the first of a number of "fifth Challengers" over the years. She debuted as a computer expert who assisted the Challengers against the threat of the giant sentient computer, Ultivac (see Forgotten Villains). For her help, the Challs named her an honorary Challenger. (Showcase #7) June appeared with regular frequency during the first five years of the original series. She did not wear a Challengers uniform, and her background changed as necessary, and was usually little more than a plot device. Once, however, she set up the conditions for a competition which ultimately resulted in Ace being named the official Challengers' leader. (Up to this point, the leadership was unofficial and usually vascillated between Ace and Prof.) (Challengers #46) When the series was revived in 1977, June took to wearing a Challengers uniform, but was never inducted as a full-fledged Challenger. NOTE: June first appeared as "June Walker" in Showcase #7; her name was inexplicably changed in Showcase #9.

Later, millionnaire sportsman Gaylord Clayburn III petitioned the group to become "The Fifth Challenger." Clayburn felt he too was living on borrowed time since surviving a racing-car crash which should have killed him. The group was cold to his idea until they saw him save the life of a falling child. Clayburn demonstrated courage and ability doing this, and the heroes agreed to make him a probationary member. (Challengers #30) On his first mission, Clayburn excelled; for this, the group offered him permanent membership. He refused, however, realizing that he would be constantly risking his life. NOTE: When the series was revived in 1977, writer Gerry Conway changed Clayburn into a shallow, antagonistic character.

Some mistake Red's brother, Tino Manarry (1st app. #55) for a member. Tino (née Martin Ryan) went on several missions with the Challs, but was never awarded any kind of membership. In fact, he refused an offer of membership (#58). At times, Red and Tino could "share" eyesight.

The last "fifth Challenger," Corinna Stark, did become an official Challenger (#69-70), replacing Prof., who had been near-fatally wounded by a machine-gun blast. She disappeared without ado, and has not been seen since. (#75) Corinna became part of a love triangle between her, Red and Rocky.

The little space pet, resembling an orange-coloured Earth raccoon was named Cosmo by the Challs after finding him stranded on Earth. (#18) He left Earth to rejoin his original owner in space. (after #32, as told in a 1967 letter column)

Uniforms

They started out in pedestrian yet servicable, maroon jumpsuits, but later adopted yellow short-sleeved shirts with hourglass insignias. (#43). Uniforms changed again to tight magenta-coloured bodysuits, with a yellow stripe down the side and fur collars (#70). They wore this uniform (minus the fur collar) through the end of the original series. With their In the 1977 revival, the Challs were given a fourth uniform--a purple skin-tight shirt with a yellow band down the left, enclosing a white hourglass symbol; and purple trousers bloused at the boots.

Continuity

Several things about the Challengers' history changed to suit the times:

  • The original Challengers were scheduled to appear on the radio programme. When the origin was re-told in 1965, that was changed to a television show.
  • Their original origin stated that the plane crash was so devastating that even Red's watch was shattered and had stopped. Various recountings over the years occasionally changed that to having Red's watch survive the crash intact.
  • Showcase #6 describes Ace as a heroic pilot during "the war"--which war was left unsaid. In Challengers #45, it was established that Ace was a US-AAF pilot during World War II. Later, in order to account for the passing of time without aging, his aviation heroics took place while he was a USAF jet pilot in the Korean War.
  • Prof started as a master skin diver; however, within a dozen issues, that evolved to where oceanography was only his principle field and he was a genius in a large number of scientific fields.
  • Red was initially presented as an expert mountain climber. Since, like Prof, that was a limiting field, it was established that he was also an electronics expert. Toward the end of the original series, to expand his talents even further, it was established that Red was raised in a circus and he had developed the all-around skills of a circus acrobat.

All-New Challangers

Years later, a young, media-savvy group took the name and began their own adventures. They were pilot Marlon Corbett, race car driver Clay Brody, theoretical physicist Brenda Ruskin and software engineer Kenn Kawa. This group also survived a tragedy, a plane crash and celestial "white light" that set them apart from humanity. This flight was co-piloted Corbett and there were only five survivors. Though questioned by paramedics, none of the survivors revealed that they witnessed the other 200+ souls ascend from their bodies. The fifth survivor was ?? Saxon (from v.3 #1). They secured funding from Edward Sands, and were assisted by Sarah Hargate. These Challengers were highly organized and also had an office, secretary, web site, and media relations. In their time, they stopped sacrificial wackos, drug-juiced zombies, vengeful ghosts, Amazon cults, Lovecraftian monsters, mass suicides, humming buildings, and other oddities.

In their first recorded mission, they investigated the disappearances in a small town of Harvest Wyoming. There they discovered that people believed that sacrificed townspeople to "god" would guarantee them prosperity. In truth, the town contained a gravitational anomaly wherein people were being sucked into space. They also managed to dodge the investigative reporting of sensationalist Nina Justis (who'd been abducted by aliens), and later helped Superman with the menace of the Millennium Giants.

The new team solicited advice from Rocky Davis, who was quite a bit older, grayer and alone. In one case, they investigated a spate of plane crashes and disappearances that resulted in two of their number disappearing. In their stead, returned two of the original Challengers — Prof and June! They eventually learned that Prof and June had been hurled into another dimension. Our heroes eventually discovered that the plane crashes were caused by experiments run by Dr. Carcosa, rogue scientist. In order to shut down his massive disruption, Ace, Red, Prof, and June entered a fierce white Tesla and vanished. The younger Challengers vowed to carry on in their memory. (Challengers v.3)

The lost, original Challengers were found drifting through Hypertime by Superboy. After shutting down the Tesla field, these four were hurled to an alternate Earth in the Hypertime continuum. Undaunted, they waged guerrilla warfare against the local despot, Black Zero. With Superboy's help, they defeated him and headed home. They accompanied him back to Earth, but not without consequence. They lost Red along the way, and somehow June was switched with a Hypertime counterpart (June Walker). They were reunited with Rocky and vowed to find Red at any cost. They re-entered Hypertime, "the greatest unknown", and have not been seen since. (Superboy v.3 #60-65)

Not All-New, Not All-Different

With no mention of their recent precedessors, another new band of Challengers burst on the scene. They were five troublemakers — hip hop artists, bloggers, ecoterrorists — who were mysteriously drawn to Long Beach, California just as a hijacked freighter blews up the city. The five miraculously survive. Even stranger, all five are in perfect mental synch, all super-soldiers. When similar soldiers come to retrieve them, the new Challengers fought back. They soon discover they are pawns of The Hegemony, a conglomerate of billionaires who secretly control the world, steering politics, pop culture, and human development. But the Long Beach explosion fried the Challengers' brain chips, and so they fought their creators. Only three survived to fight the Hegemony: (Challengers v.4)

  • Rydell Starr, a former felon who's a pop star, and jailhouse lawyer. He's an astonishing dual personality — someone who is comfortable on the streets and can work just as well in a boardroom.

  • Holden Crosse is a child of Soviet sleeper agents who were never activated who opted to stay in this country, and has become an Internet gadfly. He's somewhat of a centrist-left version of Matt Drudge.

  • Kendra Harte is a child of the counterculture who makes her living as an industrial saboteur.

Notes

Jack Kirby is commonly cited as having said that the Challengers were part of his inspiration for the Fantastic Four. Although Kirby created the Challs, credit for their success goes to Arnold Drake and Bob Brown who chronicled their adventures for nine years, from issue #9-63 (1959-68). The title was cancelled a couple of years after Drake and Brown left, after an undistinguished Kanigher run, a brief and not terrible stint by a young Deny O'neil, and a few reprint issues. After Kirby left the series, he went on to incorporate a lot of its elements into the Fantastic Four. Issues 76-80 featured only reprints of early Kirby Challenger stories. The series' success is also attributable to Bob Brown, who drew the series for nine years (#9-63). He gave the series an integrity that helped it survive even a clunker of a plot.

Jeph Loeb's 1991 mini-series was created in the wake of DC's "Dark Knight" grim-fest. Older fans were incenced but some new readers were drawn by the slick dialogue and art. Loeb planned a second miniseries to restore the Challengers to their former youth, but it never happened.

List of Members

Operative First Appearance Status & Notes
TEAM 1
Les "Rocky" Davis Showcase #6 Active in adventuring
Professor Walter Haley Showcase #6 Active in adventuring
Kyle "Ace" Morgan Showcase #6 Active in adventuring
Matthew "Red" Ryan Showcase #6 Lost, Superboy v.3 #??
Dr. June Walker Showcase #7 A Hypertime duplicate: Active in adventuring, seeking a way back to her own timeline
ADDITIONAL CHALLENGERS
Dr. June Robbins Showcase #9 An honorary member; lost, Challengers v.2 #??
Cosmo (a racoon-like alien) Challengers v.1 #18 (apps. in #21, 25, 32.) Mascot; left Earth to rejoin his original owner in space.
Gaylord Clayburn III Challengers v.1 #30 Probationary member; declined full membership; status unknown
Tino Manarry (née Martin Ryan) Challengers v.1 #55 Refused membership; status unknown.
Corinna Stark Challengers v.1 #69 Official member in Challengers #70; last appeared #75; status unknown.
TEAM 2
Clay Brody Challengers v.3 #1 Active in adventuring
Marlon Corbett Challengers v.3 #1 Active in adventuring
Kenn Kawa Challengers v.3 #1 Active in adventuring
Brenda Ruskin Challengers v.3 #1 Active in adventuring

Appearances + References

» FEATURED APPEARANCES:

  • Adventure Comics #493-497
  • Adventures of Superman #508
  • DC Comics Presents #??
  • Showcase #7, 11, 12
  • Superboy v.3 #62-65
  • Super DC Giant #S-25
  • Super Team Family #8-10

» SERIES:

  • Challengers of the Unknown v.1, 87 issues (1958-71, 1973, 1977-78)
  • Challengers of the Unknown v.2, 8-issue mini-series (1991)
  • Challengers of the Unknown v.3, 18 issues (1997)
  • Challengers of the Unknown v.4, 6-issue limited series (2004)