There were only two qualifications.
1. Be an acknowledged leading expert in an adventurous field.
2. Walk away from a certain-death disaster.
That’s how the original Challengers did it, ‘way back in Showcase # 6 (Jan.-Feb., 1957). “The Secrets of the Sorcerer’s Box” began with the conclusion of the radio programme, Heroes, announcing the upcoming appearance of four men who had earned the title.
Rocky Davis, “Olympic wrestling champion.” Prof Haley, “master skin diver.” Red Ryan, “circus daredevil.” Ace Morgan, “fearless jet pilot.”
Morgan himself was flying the other three to their scheduled appearance when the ship’s controls jammed while heading through a terrible storm. The plane spun in and ploughed through a forest, the trees ripping the craft to shreds. It should have meant sure death for them. It would have been remarkable if any of the men on board had survived. But, miraculously, all four crawled out of the wreckage with nothing more than torn clothing and some cuts and bruises to show for their experience.
“We should be dead---but we’re not!” said Ryan. “My watch should be smashed---yet, it’s unharmed---keeping time!”
Morgan was the first to grasp the metaphor.
“Borrowed time, Red! We’re living on borrowed time!”
That was the way they all saw it. Since they were already ahead of the game, so to speak, the four men decided to continue taking deadly risks as a group. They called themselves the Challengers of the Unknown.
A single-panel montage displayed their first forays into cheating death, thus, establishing their reputation when the story proper began on page four, with a million-dollar offer to open an ancient box of sorcery.
That’s the way it began. After three more Showcase try-outs, the group graduated to its own title, with Challengers of the Unknown # 1 (Apr.-May, 1958).
As with all series, there were some growing pains, as the format settled into place. Some of them had their talents expanded. Rocky added boxing and weightlifting to his strongman exploits. Prof moved from simply being a master diver to an oceanographer, and then to being a leading scientific mind in general. Red Ryan probably made the biggest shift in professional skills; he was touted as being an expert mountain climber, in addition to having performed as a circus acrobat. And, later---as the writers would have it---he found time to add a study of electronics to his résumé.
Initially, there wasn’t much, outside of their hair colour, to distinguish the four of them, but eventually individual personalities blossomed. Ace turned into a no-nonsense, all business kind of guy, while Prof started to sound like an egghead from time to time. Rocky’s dialogue and character became as rough-hewn as his nickname.
And there were some cosmetic adjustments, too. They changed uniforms a couple of times. They operated out of three different home bases over the years. And, for awhile, they zoomed around in a stylised modular aircraft they called the Gallopin’ Gizmo.
But with all that, the basic premise remained in place: four supremely skilled, but normal men who, believing they were living on borrowed time, sought out great dangers. (The business of their million-dollar fees fell by the wayside, though, when it was established that the team was financed by the wealth Prof had inherited from his father and his Uncle Cyrus.)
The nature of the Unknown faced by the Challs varied over time, too. Originally, they were adventurers, taking on anything the writers could think of. Ancient death-devices, giant creatures, alien invasions, travelers from future eras, renegade scientists and their fantastic inventions. Then, with the dawn of the 1960’s, the team assumed more of a status as crime-fighters, tackling super-villains with gusto. Finally, as the decade drew to a close, they found themselves embroiled in occult menaces, complete with witches and voodoo and stuff out of Lovecraft.
It was that very versatility that kept the title going for a healthy run Silver-Age run. The series finally closed up shop in 1970, with its last original issue, # 75 (Aug.-Sep., 1970). And it was an original issue on a technicality---only the first page was new; the rest of the mag contained a reprint.
Now, you’d think that joining a team that specialised in facing death just for the fun of it wouldn’t be high on anybody’s to-do list. But, there were a few folks who had obviously been kicked in the head just enough times to actually want to become a member of “the champ Challs”. And there was one who wasn’t looking for a place on the team and had sense enough to turn it down when it was offered.
The Challengers got their first groupie almost right out of the chute. In their second adventure, “Ultivac is Loose!”, from Showcase # 7 (Mar.-Apr., 1957), the team goes up against a giant, sentient, mobile robot. They seek help in tracking the thing down from a top-secret government laboratory, where they meet its director of operations, Doctor June Robbins. (The series never stated outright that June had a Ph.D., but it stands to reason that “the greatest authority on robots and calculating machines” would have one, so I’m giving it to her.)
June’s technical expertise enables the Challs to locate and ultimately capture Ultivac. However, in a last-ditch attack, Rocky is shot and dies on the operating table. Even as they’re pulling the sheet over Rocky’s face, June offers to take his place on the team. In this moment of shock and grief, the reaction of the other Challengers is “Sure, why not?” But before they can teach June the secret handshake, the doors of the operating room burst open and the surgeon announces that Rocky is alive, resuscitated by heart massage. He’s going to make it.
There are only two panels left in the tale, and they drop the matter of Dr. Robbins’ membership. Later, the character herself seems to be forgotten; she doesn’t appear in the last two Challengers Showcase issues. And then she returns, in the second story in Challengers of the Unknown # 1, with the status of the team’s honorary member.
It seems to be the old “the group needs a female” attitude at work here, but to be fair, in the Ultivac adventure, June did a great deal more than just push buttons and stare at the Challs admiringly. She threw herself into the thick of the action and helped bring Ultivac down. One of the more intriguing aspects of this tale is that the robot’s defeat didn’t come at the end, but only three-quarters of the way through.
The last chapter shows June gaining Ultivac’s trust and persuading it to work with humanity, rather than against it. In a surprisingly mature sub-plot, the scientist-creators of Ultivac argue that the robot is their property, and they insist that they be paid for whatever services it renders man. In a dramatic scene set on the Capitol floor, June takes the lead in arguing that Ultivac should be considered a sentient being, working in government service. Ultivac’s creators don’t see it that way, and that’s what screws everything up and gets Rocky shot.
When the Challengers’ series was revived in late 1976, the attitude of “We have to have a female on the team! Harrumph! Harrumph!” was evident. In the new books, June was put in a Challenger uniform and was right there, going on missions and acting like a full-fledged member. Apparently, writer Steve Skeates, and later, Gerry Conway, never bothered to actually read any old issues of Challengers first.
June Robbins didn’t do any of that stuff in the Silver-Age series. Well, almost never. She never wore a Challengers outfit and she didn’t routinely go on missions as a member of the team. But, she was certainly present quite a bit in the early days. She appeared in at least one story, usually the back-up tale, in almost every issue of Challengers through # 30 (Feb.-Mar., 1963).
June’s rôle in the team’s cases tended to be that of a catalyst. She either brought a problem to Our Heroes’ attention, or they got involved because she encountered some sort of menace while working at her job, whatever it was that month. [See sidebar.] And sometimes, she was just hanging out with the boys and there wasn’t any chance to get her out of the way before things started hitting the fan.
That’s not to say she was always inactive. When the situation put her in the middle of trouble, she did alright for herself, and on a couple of occasions, even bailed the Challs out of their predicament.
Mid-1961 to the beginning of 1963 marked the salad days for June’s involvement with the team. The ten or so Challengers issues published during that time marked her high point in the series. This was the period when she was most prominent and participated most like an unofficial “fifth” member.
And then, just like a cast member of a television series who develops “creative differences” with the producer, June abruptly got shoved into the back row. After a nearly perfect attendance record through issue # 30, after that, she showed up in only three more stories, and two of them barely counted.
In issue # 33’s “The Challengers Meet Their Master”, June was seen in only five panels and had only one line of dialogue. She didn’t do much better in “Sons of the Challengers”, from issue # 35. That was a semi-imaginary tale about the Challs’ offspring and June’s only purpose was to set up the telling of the story.
Then, almost two years went by before we saw Dr. June Robbins, again. “The Best Challenger Wins”, from Challengers of the Unknown # 46 (Oct.-Nov., 1965), was her Silver-Age swan song, but at least she went out making one last significant contribution to the team.
Up to this point, the Challengers had never picked an official leader. Though there had been an occasional squabble on the best way to proceed on a case, for the most part the foursome had worked together well enough to not need a formal guy-in-charge. The opening pages of “The Best Challenger Wins” showed that informality had its drawbacks.
The tale was, actually, a continuation of the issue’s first story, in which the Challs had come up against a costumed criminal called the Gargoyle. Though they thwarted the Gargoyle’s nefarious scheme, the villain himself had escaped. The good news was Our Heroes did manage to learn the location of his secret hideout.
June Robbins, with her new bob cut, makes her first appearance in two years, when she drops by Challenger Mountain and finds the boys deadlocked in argument over the best way to invade the Gargoyle’s fortress retreat and capture him. Exasperated, June cuts off their bickering and forces them to compromise. Each Challenger, it is decided, will assault the Gargoyle’s stronghold separately, according to his own specialty.
Before they depart, June hands each of the Death-Cheaters a small everyday item to take with him on the mission.
Later, in their individual attacks on the villain’s hideout, each Chall is ensnared a deadly trap and in every instance, by using his gift from June resourcefully, manages to free himself. Ace is the only Challenger, however, to go on to nab the Gargoyle. Prof and Red and Rocky still find themselves knee-deep in peril---until Morgan arrives to bail them out.
In the wrap-up back at their headquarters, the fellows demand to know how June was able to predict just what each of them would need to escape their traps.
She didn’t, she says, but she figured that they would be ingenious enough to find a use for their objects, if they ran into trouble. As to why she did it, June tells them:
“You guys squabbled so much about who should give orders, it seemed to me whoever had the know-how to use his gift best should automatically be declared the leader.”
The others agree, and Ace Morgan is officially declared the head man of the Challengers.
Next time out, we’ll take a look at the other Challenger wanna-bes, and one didn’t-wanna-be.
I'm surprised you wrote that much about the early Challs without mentioning Kirby. The early stories often were five-chapter tales, unlike any other comic series you can mention... except the early Fantastic Four.
One thing I found interesting about the origin tale is that it lacked a villain. Although Morelian is clearly something of a strange duck, there's none of the usual "Bwahahaha, you fools, you have given me the key to eternal life! Now I shall kill you!"
I found the revised origin in Challs #31 a bit odd. For example, we are told that Prof was something of a rich delinquent. Then how did he gain the nickname "Prof"? Incidentally, there is another origin tale in the terrific 2003 series, The New Frontier.
Count me among those that found June an unnecessary addition. The Challs worked as a four piece unit, any addition seemed forced.
I find Rocky's dialogue in the panel from the debut story rather amusing. " Great Scott! We walked away from that!". Typical 1950's comic book dialogue but it certainly does not sound like the Rocky I knew from later in the Silver Age. In fact, the Challs may have been one of the few Kirby creations that was actually improved on by others. France Herron, Bill Finger and later Arnold Drake along with artist Bob Brown deserve credit for making the series as entertaining as it was.
"Wasn't there a story where we saw how the Challs cheated death the first time which was why they were on Heroes to begin with?"
Not exactly, Philip. You're mixing a few different stories together. But it's understandable; there have been so many tellings of event that happened to the four "pre-Challengers" that things can get blurry.
Of the three retellings of the Challs origins with which I am familiar, here's how it works:
Challengers of the Unknown # 31 (Apr.-May, 1963) gives us the first real background on the Challengers before their fateful flight. Over the course of this tale, we learn what feat each of the fellows performed which led to their invitations to the programme Heroes. Now, each of these individual deeds involved risk to their lives and limbs, but weren't really "cheating death"---not in the sense that it was something which 99.999% of the time would be fatal and instead, the near-victim walks away virtually unharmed or to a complete recovery.
Many years later, during the period when Adventure Comics was digest sized, it included a new tale of the Challengers' origin, running in four chapters. This was in issues 493-7, from late 1982 and early 1983.
The story itself depicts Ace, Prof, Rocky, and Red just after their plane crash, and their investigation into the crash after Ace discovers proof that their plane was sabotaged. Details from the chapter published in Adventure Comics # 495 (Jan., 1983) specifically reference the same individual actions performed by the fellows, as described in Challs # 31, which led to their scheduled appearance on Heroes.
As an aside, I never cared for the notion that the cause of their fateful plane crash was sabotage. To me, it is a "purer" dynamic, and more in keeping with the fact that the four of them are living on borrowed time, if the crash were purely by chance or oversight, and not deliberate. I prefer the idea that it was a random confluence of circumstances which led to the formation of the Challengers.
And then we have the next retelling of the Challs' origin which appeared in Secret Origins # 12 (Mar., 1987), and this is probably the source of the confusion. In this account, each of Our Heroes relates to June Robbins an incident in his pre-Challenger days that truly was an instance of cheating death. But, these weren't the actions of heroism which led to their invitations to appear on Heroes; nor were they meant or implied to be.
So what you have is this: Ace, Prof, Rocky, and Red all cheated death once before their plane crash, but it was subsequent feats of heroism on their parts which led to their scheduled appearance on the radio show.
Hope this helps.
". . . it always struck me that the stories without June just weren't as interesting as those that included her."
Interestingly, Randy, with me, it was just the opposite. I usually didn't warm to the adventures that involved June.
Don't misunderstand. I had no problem with the way her character was limned. She was all the things you stated. And I particularly liked her introduction in Showcase # 7. Yes, it was straight out of a 1950's B-movie. You know the ones, where good-guy hero scientist, usually played by Richard Denning or John Agar, is introduced to a colleague, the "leading expert in the field", and he's stunned to find that she's a girl! (In fact, when you think about it, the story itself, "Ultivac is Loose!", plays like a '50's B-movie.)
And I love that panel I included above, in which June is standing proudly, while the fellows look on admiringly. Even if I hadn't had a natural reason to include it, I would have stuck it in, anyway.
But I found that the tales which included June Robbins in some ways wearisome, after a while. The problem was, because she wasn't a true member of the team, she couldn't just show up with the fellows whenever somebody called for the Challengers' help. Therefore, the writers kept having to come up with reasons to include her---and that rapidly became a plot device, a way of getting the Challs involved in the situation.
It was constantly stuff like June would bring someone to the Challs' doorstep, saying "This is Doctor Bunsenburner, and he's got a problem . . . ." Or June would be assisting Doctor Hogbristle on an archælogical dig and accidentally release some long buried monster or menace, requiring her to radio Our Heroes for help. Or the menace would kidnap June just as the fellows happened to be coming by to visit her.
Sometimes, the writers even got tired of those contrivances and just had June visiting the boys when something broke, requiring the Challs' intervention. Even that seemed forced.
It wouldn't have been so bad if June hadn't been used so frequently, in almost thirty stories, in the early years. And not just because her presence came across as gratuitious. The overuse of her character made two other things stand out to me.
1. As capable as June was, her presence was superfluous. There wasn't anything singular that she contributed to the team. Anything she could do, one of the Challengers could do better. She was pretty much a fifth wheel, contributing only as a plot device. And that obliquely stems from the second thing I realised . . . .
2. The Challengers of the Unknown is one of those rare groups which began because a single shared incident resulted in the folks involved becoming costumed heroes/adventurers. That sort of origin is infrequent. In fact, the only other similarly formed group I can think of, off the top of my head, is the Fantastic Four.
Groups like that tend to be insular, with regard to their memberships---because of the mutual experience which caused them to become heroes and form the team. Anybody else joining seems like an outsider. At least, that's the feeling I got with June and the few others---the characters I'll be talking about in my next Deck Log entry---who ever worked with, or as a member of, the Challengers. To me, they never really meshed as a real part of the team.
Regarding June's name change, when I got the Challs SP I noticed that while Prof is identified as Professor Haley in their first appearance, in Showcase 7 and 11 in their respective intro pages (actually the same page, just reprinted) he is named Professor Harrison. He returns to Haley in the next appearance and stays there. I guess they figured we were just a bunch of kids and wouldn't notice. Probably they were right.
In reading the two Showcase Volumes for the Challengers, it always struck me that the stories without June just weren't as interesting as those that included her. Not to mention that for the time, she was an extremely progressive character, especially for DC. Imagine a woman who wasn't constantly trying to marry one of the male leads or even show any romantic interest in them at all, as well as one capable of holding her own against any member of the team in an adventure as well. She didn't pose and point, she didn't hang around waiting to be rescued, she was smart and competent and brooked no nonsense.
Oh, and she also never whined about not being an official member of the team, at least not that I can recall.
Challengers of the Unknown was a very good premise even with the terribly far-fetched origin (what, no radiation?). I know DC had other teams of non-powered humans during the same period of time, and it's interesting that the Challengers resonated so well that their book did last 74 issues.
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