From the Archives: Deck Log Entry # 43 The Short Death of Red Ryan (Part One)

What’s out there?  Places we cannot see!  Things we fear to touch!  Sounds that do not belong to this world!  Riddles of the ages lurking beyond the bridge without a name!  Only men living on borrowed time would dare cross that bridge!  Here are such men . . . .”

  

That blurb on the splash page of Showcase # 6 (Jan.-Feb., 1957) introduced comics fans to DC Comics' newest effort.  National Periodical Publications---as DC was known in those days---needed material to fill the issues of its new series.  Showcase, as the title implied, was meant to highlight new concepts.  DC was searching for the next big trend in comics, and Showcase threw its best ideas at the readers, hoping to find the one that would stick. In the first few issues, DC had tried stories about detectives, fire-fighters, Navy divers, wild animals, and a revisioning of a Golden-Age hero, the Flash.  Firemen and frogmen hadn’t seemed to impress anyone, and it was too soon for the sales figures on the issue featuring the Flash to come in.  Super-heroes were kind of a long shot, anyway.  So Jack Schiff, then-editor of Showcase, was looking for something---anything---to fill the next issue.

  

Taking his cue, Jack Kirby walked through the door with a proposal:  the adventures of four men, leaders in their respective fields, whom, after surviving a disaster which should have killed them, tackled strange and fantastic dangers.  It was new; it was different; and most important, it had a hell of a thematic “hook”. 

 

Even the title that Kirby had come up with inveigled the reader with promises of edge-of-their-seat excitement and suspense.

 

Rocky Davis, “Olympic wrestling champion”.  Prof Haley, “master skin diver”.  Ace Morgan, “war hero and fearless jet pilot”.  Red Ryan, “circus daredevil”.  On their way to appear on a radio tribute to their individual heroism, their plane crashes and explodes in a fiery inferno.  Miraculously, all four men crawl away from the burning wreckage, uninjured and alive.

  

“We should be dead---but we’re not!” said Red Ryan.  “My watch should be smashed---yet, it’s unharmed, keeping time!”

 

Borrowed time, Red!” replied Ace Morgan.  “We’re living on borrowed time!”

 

And with that bit of imagery, the concept was launched.  (Some retellings of the Challengers’ origin, by writers who apparently did not understand the symbolism involved, would insist that even Red’s watch was smashed in the accident; this undercut the allegory that they were living on time that was not theirs.)  It was a perfect blend; the daring Challengers cut a notch above such pedestrian heroes as cops and firemen, yet they fell short of the fantasy of super-heroes.  Their hard-earned knowledge and skills were within human capability.

 

After three more appearances in Showcase, the Challengers graduated to their own title, which Jack Kirby plotted and pencilled.  Readers thrilled to Kirby’s imaginative flights of science fiction and mysticism.  Sorcery, time-travel, outer space, technology gone wild---Jack threw everything at the death-cheating “Challs”.  Characterisation was non-existent.  There wasn’t room for it.  The action began with page one and hurled headlong to page twenty-six, propelled by Kirby’s dynamism and sense of grandeur.

 

The series barrelled along at this fevered pitch for the first eight issues.  Then, following a dispute with Jack Schiff, Kirby left the Challengers and DC.  Drafted to take over the art chores was Bob Brown.  If you couldn’t have Kirby drawing the Challengers, Brown was as good a replacement for the series as there was.  Brown’s art had an architectural flavour which provided attractive panoramic backgrounds.  The same sense of structure also applied to his figures---even and precise musculatures.  The trick was Brown knew how to use perspective to make his figures move on the page.

 

Brown also took pains to distinguish each man by body type.  While none of the Challs lacked muscle, Brown’s Rocky was significantly taller and larger than the rest of the group.  And, appropriate to a circus acrobat, Red was drawn smaller and slightly leaner than the others.

 

As for the scripts, Jack Schiff turned to a number of writers---France Herron, Arnold Drake, Bill Finger, and Dave Wood.  For the first half of the 1960’s, no writer emerged predominant on Challengers of the Unknown---there seemed to be an almost regular rotation---though Herron probably wrote a few more than any of the others during this period.

  

The main detriment to the plots resulting from Kirby’s departure was the loss of an “epic sweep”.  Ace, Prof, and the others no longer seemed to plunge into an adventure and get carried along by their own momentum.  Most of the time, Herron, Drake, Finger, and Wood managed to provide some varied and creative “unknowns” for Our Heroes to challenge.  But gone was the Challs’ boyish sense of enthusiasm; they were stodgy professionals, now.

  

The first signs of repetition crept in, as well, when a few menaces, such as Multi-Man and Volcano Man, began to make a few encore performances.

 

The slower pace also forced them to pay attention to details that Kirby’s “all ahead full” scripting let him gloss over.  The Challengers were given a headquarters (Challenger Mountain) and equipment (various super-weapons) and an explanation for how they were able to pay for all of it (Prof’s multi-million-dollar inheritance from his Uncle Cyrus).

 

The four death-cheaters received upgrades, as well.  Rocky was now a master of not just wrestling, but of all forms of pugilism.  Prof’s expertise expanded from oceanography to a wide range of scientific disciplines.  Red, who'd already had “champion mountain climber” added to his repertoire, was given a boost in brainpower, as well; he was now an expert in electronics.  And Ace was established as the team’s leader. 

 

 

 

By 1965, a marked staleness had settled into the series, and Murray Boltinoff, who had replaced Schiff as editor, was determined to turn it around.

  

The first change was visual, as the Challengers traded their drab utilitarian jumpsuits for new gold-and-crimson uniforms boasting an hour-glass sigil on the left breast, reflecting the motif of borrowed time.  Their new duds came courtesy of some mutated researchers who felt that the Challs should have a snazzier look before being stuffed and mounted as their personal exhibit on “The Haunted Island”, from Challs # 43 (Apr.-May, 1965). 

  

This was followed by some shifts in setting, after Challenger Mountain was destroyed in Challs # 50 (Jun.-Jul., 1966).   The team was forced to operate out of makeshift lodgings until issue # 53 (Dec., 1966-Jan., 1967), when they received a startling mental summons, pre-recorded by the mysterious “Scientist X”.   To the Challengers’ surprise, they learnt that Scientist X was an inventor from another world who, for privacy, had taken refuge on Earth.  The alien realised that the inventions he had created were too dangerous to be left untended.  So before returning to his own planet, he bequeathed his underwater stronghold and the fantastic devices stored there to the Challengers, safe in the hands of “four men who survived a thousand strange adventures.”

 

The team adopted the undersea base as its new headquarters, and the storehouse of incredible inventions would come in handy in subsequent adventures. 

 

The team even got its own signature transportation---a modular aircraft dubbed the Gallopin’ Gizmo, which could separate three pods from its main body, giving each member of the team his individual airship.

Boltinoff also did some housecleaning.  The Challs’ alien pet, Cosmo, had already been sent back into space, and honorary member June Robbins made her swan song in issue # 46 (Oct.-Nov., 1965), never to be seen again in the Silver Age.

 

The new costumes, the undersea HQ, and the Gallopin’ Gizmo all remained part of the series’ mythos for a few years.  One innovation that died on the vine, however, was the Challenger Corps---a group of airline passengers who had escaped death when the Challs saved their jet from destruction in a previous adventure.  They were intended to serve a support function for the heroes, but the idea didn’t find favour with the fans and the Challenger Corps faded away after a second appearance.

 

Herron and Finger and Drake pretty much shared in implementing these changes.  But Murray Boltinoff had one last development in mind and the responsibility for executing it would be Arnold Drake’s, and Drake’s alone.

 

 

 

 

Even in the days when DC did not credit the talent that produced a particular issue, it was easy to pick out the Challengers stories that Arnold Drake had written.  Back in Kirby’s day, each Challenger sounded and acted alike.  Under Herron and Finger, Rocky was given a slightly coarser attitude, but Ace and Prof and Red were all pretty much interchangeable.  But in a Drake story, you could tell each Challenger apart by the speech balloons alone.

  

Perhaps better than any other writer in DC’s stable, Drake had an ear for dialogue that would make characters distinctive without going overboard.  He was able to insert, by subtle differences in speech, distinct personalities into Ace, Prof, Rocky, and Red.  There was none of the heavy-handedness that accompanied other writers’ attempts at characterisation, such as with Denny O’Neil’s later efforts to personalise the Justice League.  Drake used slight differences in how the Challengers spoke to point the reader in the direction of the kind of personality that each man had, rather than hit him over the head with contrivances, as the Green Arrow-Hawkman “feud” would prove to be during the Bronze Age.

 

A circumstance of timing also showcased Drake’s skill at characterisation.  By 1966, Marvel Comics was taking an unpleasantly big chunk out of DC’s annual sales, and the suits at DC were forced to acknowledge the fact that plan “A”---ignore Marvel until it went away---wasn’t working.  Plan “B”, though, wasn’t much better.  DC editors instructed their writers to copy Stan Lee’s glad-handing writing “voice” as much as possible.  What DC didn’t grasp was, for Lee, that style---the florid drama, the emotional register, the wisecracks---was natural.  In trying to imitate it, the dialogue and captions in nearly every DC magazine read as painfully stilted and amateurish.

  

Except for the scripts produced by Drake.  He didn’t have to copy Stan Lee; he was already comfortable with using dialogue to breathe personalities into his characters.  During this brief period when DC tried to out-Marvel Marvel, Challengers of the Unknown was the only title to actually see its characterisation improve.

 

It was this keen ability to convey personality and emotion through simple dialogue that made Arnold Drake the writer whom Murray Boltinoff selected to carry out his remaining idea, and it was a huge one, something that would shake up the Challengers permanently.  Moreover, what the editor had in mind was not going to be a one-time shocker of a tale and then have the heroes move on, as if nothing had happened.  Boltinoff wanted the change to have an emotional resonance that carried over into the following issues.

 

For one of the Challengers, his borrowed time was going to run out.

 

When Challs # 55 (Apr.-May, 1967) hit the stands, there was no mystery to it.  The title of the story, plastered across the cover, said it all:  “Taps for Red”.

Views: 394

Reply to This

Replies to This Discussion

I'm glad to see this series again. I wish I had more to say, but I only have one of the Bob Brown Challengers stories ("The Lady Giant and the Beast!" from #15). I've always liked the Doom Patrol part the Challengers/Doom Patrol crossover. DC was obviously imitating the Fantasticar with the Gallopin' Gizmo.

"Challengers" was the second feature from Showcase to get a title, the month after "Lois Lane". The first issue came out three months after their final Showcase appearance. I find the lack of differentiation of the Challengers in the Jack Kirby stories bewildering, particularly as Prof. and Rocky have such distinct appearances and they're all supposed to have distinct skills.

I remember that during the 70s revival, there was the attempt to turn Red into Johnny Storm, personality-wise. Did this start during this period?


Philip Portelli said:

I remember that during the 70s revival, there was the attempt to turn Red into Johnny Storm, personality-wise. Did this start during this period?

If you're talking about the way that Red, in the '70's revival, would constantly deride Rocky, in the fashion of the way the Human Torch incessantly razzed the Thing, then the answer's kind of yes-and-no.

Occasionally, Red would do that sort of thing during the Silver Age run of the series, but not constantly.  A reader could go four or five issues and never see it happen, and when it did, it was usually in a story scripted by France Herron.  As the Challengers' individual characterisations began to flesh out in the mid-'60's, Prof became more of an egghead (though not nearly to Reed Richards' degree), Rocky got more rough-hewn and Ben Grimm-like, and Ace was the no-nonsense honcho. But Red was just kind of there, with no specific personality.  He wasn't a hothead or a gadfly.  He was pretty much the way he was 'way back in Showcase # 6.

In the '70's revival, that occasional scene of Red giving Rocky the business was turned into the basic descriptor of his personality.  I imagine writer Steve Skeates was creating a Red-Rocky feud in an homage imitation of the Green Arrow-Hawkman feud over in JLA.  Which is, of course, the lazy way of announcing, "Look!  I'm putting in characterisation here!"

Few attempts at characterisation, to me, are as phoney as the "He constantly insults me and plays practical jokes on me, but he's really my friend and I'd do anything for him," trope.  What a crock!  If a teammate gave me as much grief as Red did Rocky in the '70's revival (or the Torch did the Thing at just about any time in the Fantastic Four series), then, one of us would be leaving the team---and I wouldn't care which.

Well Commander, you know I would have to make a comment on this column. This past Christmas I received Showcase Presents Challengers of the Unknown Volume 2 and it has been a tough slog reading those pre-Boltinoff stories. Except for a few credits to Arnold Drake and France Herron most of the writer credits are listed as "unknown" - probably best for the writer's reputation to remain so. I have a feeling this second Showcase edition, without the attraction of Kirby art, did not sell well which means no Volume 3. Too bad since a third book would cover the stories you are reviewing here - the peak of the Challengers series. This was also the peak for Bob Brown's artwork which you so rightly credit. Unfortunately as sales fell off in the late Sixties Brown was limited to pencils only and his assigned inkers who did him no favors. Brown was one of those artists whose work looked best when he was allowed to produce full art himself. During his remaining time at DC and then over at Marvel he never again to my knowledge handled full art chores.

Late in the run of their original title a new female member joined called Corinna Stark. In the story I have from that period - from #72 - Rocky is portrayed as in love with Corinna while Red is hostile to her, and this causes conflict between Rocky and Red.


Luke Blanchard said:

Late in the run of their original title a new female member joined called Corinna Stark. In the story I have from that period - from #72 - Rocky is portrayed as in love with Corinna while Red is hostile to her, and this causes conflict between Rocky and Red.

I addressed that circumstance in a previous Deck Log Entry from a couple of years ago.

http://captaincomics.ning.com/profiles/blogs/deck-log-entry-131-so-...

The short form is this:

The Challengers of the Unknown title after issue # 63---yecch!

The Corinna Stark issues (# 69-75)---double yecch!

I'm with you doc photo, the peak of the Dhalls came after Vol. 2 (though even there, Drake showed his touch). I have a lot of those old issues, but it'd be nice to fill in the gaps cheaply.

Drake's Doom Patrol remains my favorite Silver Age book. The only one I made the effort to get all the originals for (this was back before Archive and Showcase editions were in vogue).

Ben and Johnny are probably based on the similar feuding of Monk and Ham in Doc Savage, which sometimes got really out of hand. In one story Monk insults Ham, who responds by hitting him in the head with a monkey wrench, knocking him out. As Philip Jose Farmer pointed out this would probably have put Monk in the hospital, but Lester Dent played it for laughs. 
 
Commander Benson said:


Philip Portelli said:

I remember that during the 70s revival, there was the attempt to turn Red into Johnny Storm, personality-wise. Did this start during this period?

If you're talking about the way that Red, in the '70's revival, would constantly deride Rocky, in the fashion of the way the Human Torch incessantly razzed the Thing, then the answer's kind of yes-and-no.

Occasionally, Red would do that sort of thing during the Silver Age run of the series, but not constantly.  A reader could go four or five issues and never see it happen, and when it did, it was usually in a story scripted by France Herron.  As the Challengers' individual characterisations began to flesh out in the mid-'60's, Prof became more of an egghead (though not nearly to Reed Richards' degree), Rocky got more rough-hewn and Ben Grimm-like, and Ace was the no-nonsense honcho. But Red was just kind of there, with no specific personality.  He wasn't a hothead or a gadfly.  He was pretty much the way he was 'way back in Showcase # 6.

In the '70's revival, that occasional scene of Red giving Rocky the business was turned into the basic descriptor of his personality.  I imagine writer Steve Skeates was creating a Red-Rocky feud in an homage imitation of the Green Arrow-Hawkman feud over in JLA.  Which is, of course, the lazy way of announcing, "Look!  I'm putting in characterisation here!"

Few attempts at characterisation, to me, are as phoney as the "He constantly insults me and plays practical jokes on me, but he's really my friend and I'd do anything for him," trope.  What a crock!  If a teammate gave me as much grief as Red did Rocky in the '70's revival (or the Torch did the Thing at just about any time in the Fantastic Four series), then, one of us would be leaving the team---and I wouldn't care which.

Speaking of the Marvel approach, I think the Legion of Super-Heroes had some of that quality even before Jim Shooter wrote it (and consciously "marvel-ized" it). Simply because they had a large cast that except for Superboy and Supergirl wasn't committed elsewhere they could have deaths, Star Boy's trial and romances without having to worry about derailing the series. And then Shooter took all that and turned it up to the max.

Reply to Discussion

RSS

Welcome!

No flame wars. No trolls. But a lot of really smart people.The Captain Comics Round Table tries to be the friendliest and most accurate comics website on the Internet.

SOME ESSENTIALS:

RULES OF THE ROUND TABLE

MODERATORS

SMILIES FOLDER

TIPS ON USING THE BOARD

FOLLOW US:

OUR COLUMNISTS:

Groups

© 2018   Captain Comics, board content ©2013 Andrew Smith   Powered by

Badges  |  Report an Issue  |  Terms of Service