Tell me if you’ve heard this one before…
Four adventurers, scientists, daredevils, ace pilots all survive a crash that should have killed them and are forever changed by the experience. Banding together they confront the weird, the unexplained and evil forces that could destroy the world if not for them.
This intrepid group is a cross between superheroes and adventurers, often exploring the unexplained just for the sake of going where no one has (ahem) gone before.
AND they were created by the King of Comics, Jack Kirby
Who ARE these four amazing people???
Obviously I’ talking about The Fantastic Four right?
I'm actually talking about a quartet created by the great Kirby several years EARLIER…
The Challengers Of The Unknown!
Challengers made its debut in the Showcase # 6, cover dated January/February 1957. Due to the delay in getting circulation data back on the comics of the time DC comics decided to create a try out title that would allow them to give new concepts a chance to catch on in their own title. Characters such as The Flash, Green Lantern, The Atom and The Spectre all helped to usher in the Superhero revival of the Silver Age. In fact Showcase was so successful that a DC sister title, The Brave And Bold also began trying out new titles, notably Justice League of America and Hawkman.
Challengers fell somewhere between the adventure comics of the 1950’s and the growing trend to Superhero comics. None of the Challengers , Rocky Davis, Professor Haley, Red Ryan or Ace Morgan possessed superpowers, but all were extraordinary men. Each was an Olympic level athlete. The team had a daredevil, a scientist, a fearless daredevil and master skin diver. In so many ways the Challengers reads as a proof of concept for the Fantastic Four which would be so instrumental in launching the Marvel Age of Comics.
Obviously there are differences between the books. Not the least of which is the presence of Susan Storm in the latter title and the “fantastic” powers possessed by Reed Richards’ team.
Still three are as many similarities which can’t be ignored due to the simple fact that Kirby was instrumental in the creation of both titles in less than five years. Both groups are more adventurer than superhero. Both groups are banded together by a near death experience that changes them forever. And both groups are more like family than a group of like minded associates.
Visually both Challengers and Fantastic Four bear the unmistakable Kirby style. Kirby’s art is always in motion, the characters not just talking heads, panels easily broken. Kirby dynamism is evident in both titles.
Although Challengers never reached the height that the FF did (largely because Kirby migrated from DC to Marvel) the former title was a mainstay at DC for over twenty years and still makes occasional appearances today. They make a notable appearance in the Darwin Cooke created DC The New Frontier in both the comics and animated feature.
The Challengers have a solid place in the pantheon of Silver Age titles that revived the industry. For two decades the went boldly and fearlessly into the Unknown. They were the template for one of the most popular ongoing titles in comics history which had no small part in launching the Marvel Age.
Not a bad legacy!