Showcase Presents: Challengers of the Unknown Vol. 1

Written by Ed Herron, Jack Kirby, Dave Wood, and others
Penciled by Bob Brown and Jack Kirby
Inked by Bob Brown, Jack Kirby, Roz Kirby, Bruno Premiani, Marvin Stein, Wally Wood, and others
544 pages, black and white
Published by DC Comics

Despite knowing who they were, I’d never actually read any of the original Challengers of the Unknown comics before, but they sure sounded like fun. Four adventurers living on "borrowed time" (after all surviving a certainly-fatal plane crash) going up against strange creatures, artifacts, and lands? What’s not to love? As it turns out, when reading Showcase Presents: Challengers of the Unknown, it’s good to remember that a little can go a long way.

Looking at the first page of Showcase Presents: Challengers of the Unknown Vol. 1, the four main cast members are named and explained. Rocky Davis is an Olympic wrestling champion, Prof Haley a master skin diver, Red Ryan a circus daredevil, and Ace Morgan a jet pilot and war hero. With that in mind, here’s the sad thing—generally speaking, I can’t tell the four characters apart when reading any of the stories in this book. Their personalities are all the same (and that personality could best be summed up as macho), just four interchangeable guys with slightly different hair. And honestly, that was a real surprise for me at first. I kept trying to keep the four of them separate in my head, and it took a little while until I finally gave up. (Frequent guest star June Robbins stands out a bit, but I suspect that’s a combination of her being a girl, and her role either being to save the day or to mess things up for the others Challengers.) I can’t help but think that my problem was that I was trying to look for something that writers themselves hadn’t bothered with—but that’s because the characters were never intended to be the focus of the book. Instead, it’s what they come up against that is the real attraction for readers.

Once I figured that out, Showcase Presents: Challengers of the Unknown became a bit more enjoyable. I stopped worrying about the characters (because really, there seems to only be four of them so that they can split up and tackle different obstacles simultaneously) and instead just got a chuckle or two out of the foes of the month. It’s crazy pseudo-science at its best, from aliens accidentally teleported in from other planets, to genies that rob banks, and of course mad scientists trying to take over the world. It’s an immensely silly and entertaining book on that level, and all three credited writers (Ed Herron, Jack Kirby, Dave Wood, although there are other stories for which there are no records as to who wrote them) certainly understand exactly what they’re doing on that level. This is a book of slightly forgettable stories, but you’ll have fun as you read them in the moment.

Both Kirby and Bob Brown use a clean, open art style to draw the adventures of the Challengers, and it says a lot that when you strip all the color out of their art (in order to get a $16.99 price point for over 500 pages) that everything is still as clear and easy to follow as ever. One of the things that I appreciated about both Kirby and Brown the most is that the Challengers are hardly fashion plates. (Well, maybe June.) Instead they’ve got craggy, rough-hewn faces, hardly the look that you’d see in most comics of this nature in this day and age. In some way it almost confirms my feeling that the cast isn’t supposed to be the focal point of the stories; the particularly beautiful or eye-catching drawings here are really of aliens and monsters, letting Kirby and Brown’s creativity run wild all over the page. All sorts of strangeness is on display here, and Kirby and Brown both keep it fun.

I will warn you that the one thing I did find very hard about Showcase Presents: Challengers of the Unknown Vol. 1 is that after a couple of stories in a row, my mind would start to wander. Even though the foes often change, the basic thrust of each story doesn’t deviate too far off of the norm. This is definitely the kind of book you’ll just want to dip into on occasion, not read all in one sitting. They’re fun, don’t get me wrong, but it certainly wasn’t meant to be read with multiple issues back to back. Reading two stories back-to-back (as they were originally presented in their own series) seems to be the best method of attack, and if you follow that regimen you’ll have a perfectly good time. I don’t think I’ll race out and pick up Showcase Presents: Challengers of the Unknown Vol. 2 any time in the immediate future, but it was certainly fun enough that eventually it will end up in my possession.

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