From the Archives: Deck Log Entry # 44 The Short Death of Red Ryan (Part Two)

Murray Boltinoff was going to kill off one of the Challengers of the Unknown.  And Red Ryan was the Chall who had drawn the short straw.

 

As Boltinoff would discuss in subsequent letter columns, killing off one of the Challengers had been discussed for months.  It was a logical development.  The key selling point of the series was the premise of four supremely skilled, but normal men, tackling fantastic dangers.  It was inevitable that, eventually, the bill would come due on one of the heroes’ borrowed time.  And when the talk shifted from “Do we do it?” to “Who do we do it to?”, Red was the obvious choice.

 

The other three Challengers---Rocky and Prof and Ace---fit neatly into the archetypes set down by convention for hero teams.  Rocky was the muscleman; Prof was the big brain; and Ace was the pragmatic leader.  Red, on the other hand, did not fill a traditional slot. 

 

Under Arnold Drake’s subtle handling, the Challengers had begun to evince distinctive personalities.  Ace became the stern, no-nonsense honcho; Prof, a wily out-of-the-box thinker; Rocky, an overaged hipster; and Red---well, to be honest, Red pretty much stayed the same.  With no necessary rôle to fill on the team and no marked personality, Red was the most expendable Challenger.

 

When Challengers of the Unknown # 55 (Apr.-May., 1967) hit the stands, the cover made no secret of the fact that Red was going to die in that issue.  At first blush, it seems peculiar that Boltinoff and Drake would undercut the shock value of the story by broadcasting it right there on the cover.  But a quick check of the title’s last few Statements of Ownership disclosed that there had been a steady hæmorrhaging of readers in the last couple of years.  So most probably, Boltinoff opted to sacrifice surprise for a cover which was likely to attract even non-followers of the title.

 

Starting with this tale of tales, Arnold Drake became the exclusive writer of the title.  And the first thing a loyal reader noticed was a more colourful approach to the dialogue.  In fact, a DC fan would have noted the same thing in all of the company’s output during this period.  As I pointed out last month, this was the period when National Periodical stopped ignoring the very real threat posed by Marvel Comics and tried to outdo Stan Lee at his own game.  Across the board, DC writers were instructed to imitate the informal, jocular style of dialogue that Marvel used for its characters.

 

The difference was Arnold Drake was good at it.  Other DC writers just couldn’t seem to get the hang of it.  The dialogue coming out of their heroes’ mouths was just plain awful.  That alone was bad enough, but it was especially disturbing to see DC’s stalwart good-guys sounding like a bunch of third-rate Vegas comedians.  (For an idea of what it was like at its worst, take a gander at the dialogue spouted by the Man of Steel in Superman # 184 [Feb., 1966] and try not to cringe.)

The dialogue supplied to the Challengers by Drake, however, got sharper.  There was an occasional flat note, to be sure, but overall, he came the closest any DC scribe ever did to matching Stan Lee’s colloquial style.  Moreover, the Challengers became wittier.  Wry humour is a difficult thing to accomplish in comics---it greatly depends on the reader’s mind “hearing” the inflexions intended by the writer’s printed words---but Drake pulled it off quite well.  The interplay between the four Challs was dotted with clever commentary and some genuine laugh-out-loud exchanges.  It contributed greatly to the feeling that Ace, Prof, Rocky, and Red were veteran professionals, with confidence in themselves and in each other.

 

 

 

The threat presented in “Taps for Red” was high stakes, indeed.  The League of Challenger-Haters---consisting of long-time foes Kra, Volcano Man, Multi-Man, and his robot creation, Multi-Woman---comes up with the ultimate sure-fire scheme to kill the famed Death-Cheaters: destroy the world!  The obvious drawback in such a scheme is allayed when the living robot Kra proposes that the villains flee the Earth in his spaceship just before the big bang.

 

The Challenger-Haters make the necessary preparations, and once their plan is in place, they announce to a horrified public that the Earth will be destroyed in forty-eight hours.

 

Drawing on their experience with the villains, the Challs deduce how the evil cabal will accomplish such a massive destruction.  The key is Volcano Man’s knowledge of the Earth’s volcanic structure.  By triggering massive explosions, the Challenger-Haters intend to send three shock waves across the globe, aimed to converge at the precise centre of the Earth’s volcanic system.  The result would blow every volcano on the planet simultaneously.

 

Our Heroes arrive to do battle with their old foes at the site from which the three deadly shock waves will be launched.  But they are unable to prevent the launching, and the villains escape.  As the trio of shock waves rumble through the Earth, only sixty minutes remain before they meet and unleash a holocaust.

 

Prof devises a plan.  By means of a teleporter---one of the fantastic devices left to them by Scientist X---Ace and Rocky and Red are dispatched to three points, each in the path of one of the shock waves.  There, they will place explosive devices in front of the approaching waves and detonate them by radio signal. This will dissipate the force of the tremours before they can converge. 

 

In Italy and the Aleutian Islands, Rocky and Ace trigger their explosive charges from long range and succeed in blunting two of the shock waves.  But, in Turkey, Red isn’t so lucky.  His remote-control detonator is defective and the charge explodes too late to stop the final wave.  He realises that even that one shock wave will ignite enough volcanos on its own to kill millions.

 

Red has a spare explosive charge, but there is only one way to guarantee it will go off at the right time.  It has to be set off by hand! 

 

Without hesitation, he does so.

 

 

 

As memorable as Red Ryan’s death was, even more so was the deft way with which Arnold Drake handled the aftermath.

 

Once the initial moment of shock and rage passes, the surviving Challengers respond professionally by capturing Volcano Man and the rest of the Chall-Haters before they can depart Earth in Kra’s spaceship.

 

But it was the following issue which really told the tale.  In lesser hands, Ace and Rocky and Prof would have undergone endless bouts of hand-wringing angst and guilty recrimination.  That’s the way modern writers would have played it.

 

No, Drake handled it in his typical fashion---subtly.  Challs # 56 (Jun.-Jul., 1967) began by showing the Challengers withdrawing to themselves, finding their own ways of coping with the loss of Red.  No grief-ridden diatribes.  No emotional declarations.  Just three men going about their business, but more subdued than usual.  When the next mission comes their way, they leap into it professionally, and gradually, their adventurous spirits and humour return.  By careful underplaying, Drake showed the Challengers going through the stages of dealing with the death of someone close:  denial, anger, depression, and finally, acceptance.  Without drawing attention to it, Drake had raised the maturity of the comic story a notch.

 

As Murray Boltinoff intended, the impact of Red’s death would continue beyond the issue of his death.  And not just in the emotional fallout on the three remaining Challs. 

 

The final panels of Challs # 55 introduced Tino Manarry, teen-age rock-and-roll star.  Tino takes the word “overachiever” to a whole new level.  When he isn’t dodging hordes of screaming adolescent females, he's designing an all-terrain vehicle to develop farmlands in starving third-world nations.  That is, when he can squeeze it in between appearing on a Frank Sinatra special and doing a guest spot on The Man from U.N.C.L.E.  With a genius I.Q. of 179, Manarry, at the age of seventeen, holds 147 patents on his inventions.

 

Oh, and he intends to kill the Challengers.

 

Over the next couple of issues, he takes some pretty good stabs at it, too.  His efforts to destroy the Challs are unsuccessful, but they seriously hinder the team’s missions.  The Challengers recognise him as Tino Manarry (one of the drawbacks of world-wide fame), but they are perplexed as to why a teen rock-and-roller would have it in for them.  It’s not a mystery to the readers for very long, though.  At the end of Challs # 56, we learn that Tino Manarry is actually Martin Ryan, Red Ryan’s kid brother, and he holds the three remaining Challengers responsible for his brother’s death.

 

Despite cranking up his murderous efforts, Tino is thwarted at every turn by Our Heroes.  Finally, at the climax of Challs # 57 (Aug.-Sep., 1967), Manarry gets the drop on the team and reveals who he really is.  The teen-ager then discovers how wrong-headed he was to blame the other Challs for his brother’s death when he witnesses Red's sacrifice, from images recorded by the teleporter.  Having seen the light, Tino joins forces with the Challengers to defeat that issue’s menace.

 

As a bonus, I get to throw in one of my “But I Always Thought . . . . “ myth-busters here.  After Tino and the Challengers are all warm and fuzzy, they offer the teen genius a place on the team.  Tino turns it down flat.  As he puts it:  “Me a Challenger?  Thanks, men!  And I know you offered it mostly for Red!  But it’s not for me!  Those corny uniforms---and the Boy Scout schedules!”  So, no, folks, Tino Manarry was never a Challenger, honorary or otherwise.

 

He was, though, a pain---both within the fictional conceit of the series and to the readers.  Even though he didn’t join the team, Tino managed to get involved in their subsequent adventures, and his “smart-ass teen” personality definitely rubbed the Challs the wrong way.  Especially Rocky, who always seemed a hair’s-breadth away from punching the youngster into next week.

 

At the same time---and this was a nice touch by Drake---as the Challs were adjusting to the loss of Red, Tino’s presence kept reminding them of their dead teammate.  That meant, try as they might, the Challengers were unable to put Red’s death completely behind them.

 

The character of Tino Manarry grated with the fans, too.  Despite Arnold Drake’s ear for dialogue, he couldn’t quite get Tino to sound like an authentic teen-ager.  The best thing you could say was that he didn’t sound as bad as Snapper Carr.  Whatever Tino brought to the table in terms of plot-value, it didn’t offset the fact that, as a character, he was terribly contrived.

 

 

  

Setting that aside, though, as a rare Drake misstep, Challs # 55-7 was the high point of the entire series.  Certainly, the death of a major character made an impact on the fans.

 

It wasn’t the first death of a regular character in the Silver Age.  Earlier in the decade, DC fans saw Lightning Lad and Alfred the butler killed off, only to find out later that they weren’t quite as dead as everybody thought.  Tower Comics’ Menthor was the first lasting death of a Silver-Age regular, but the erratic handling of the character had made it difficult to invest any emotion in him.  And Ferro Lad, of the Legion of Super-Heroes, had fallen in action only a month before.  But he was one of twenty-three Legionnaires and had appeared in only five stories, at that.

 

Red, though, had been there at the beginning, an equal participant in the Challengers’ adventures since ‘way back in 1957.   This was the first time that such a significant character had met his final end.      

 

The demise of Red Ryan added a texture of reality to the series, much in the same way that the death of Junior Juniper, over at Marvel, sobered up the romp that was Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos.  Moreover, Red’s death informed Challengers fans that there were no guarantees; the rug might be pulled out from under any of the remaining characters next.

 

It was a gutsy move, but worthwhile.

 

That is, until Boltinoff’s feet got cold.  We’ll talk about that next time.

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What was the readers' reactions to Red's death? Or was he not dead long enough to make an impact?


Philip Portelli said:

What was the readers' reactions to Red's death? Or was he not dead long enough to make an impact?

The readers' reactions take up a good chunk of part three, my friend.

Challs #55 sports one of my all time favorite covers - even if it did telegraph the ending. Wasn't there also a hint in the previous issue of something like this happening?

Kudos once again to Bob Brown, not just for the great covers from this period but also for the interior art. Maybe the improved scripts Brown was getting from Drake upped the ante with his artwork.


doc photo said:

Challs #55 sports one of my all time favorite covers - even if it did telegraph the ending. Wasn't there also a hint in the previous issue of something like this happening?

In the "Let's Chat with the Challs" lettercol from issue # 54 (Feb.-Mar., 1967), Bill Markow, of Atlantic City, New Jersey, asked when the League of Challenger-Haters would appear, again.  Murray Boltinoff responded that the Chall-Haters would appear in the very next issue---"with a cool climax that's sure to shake up every fan."

That's as far as they were going to open the lid on what awaited in issue # 55.

I'll second doc on the #55 cover. 

Red's death might be compared to the deaths of the title characters in the last issue of Doom Patrol, from the same editor and writer. Its cover used the same grave motif, but the Challs one has more impact.

By the sounds of it, the Challenger-Haters would have gotten all the Challs if they had not broadcast their plans beforehand.

Arnold Drake was one of my favorite writers, which is why Doom Patrol was one of my favorite books.

The introduction of Tino Manarry reminds me of his earlier introduction of Beast Boy into the Doom Patrol. The book was never really the same after that.

Richard Willis said:

The introduction of Tino Manarry reminds me of his earlier introduction of Beast Boy into the Doom Patrol. The book was never really the same after that.

Agreed.   The Doom Patrol jumped the shark with the introduction of Beast Boy.  I didn't care much for Steve (Mento) Dayton---who came on stage at the same time---either, but at least I could see some workable plot developments with him.  Beast Boy, like Tino later, was largely an annoyance.

Challengers of the Unknown took on a dose of maturity when Red Ryan was killed off, only to see it undone within a year (as we will see in the third, and last, part).  What should have happened, what would have happened if I had been the editor, was Tino would have disappeared after his destroy-the-Challs arc in issues # 56-7 and Red would have stayed really most sincerely dead. 

Nor would I have been in a rush to add a new fourth Challenger.  The Challs was one of those groups, like the Fantastic Four, that had a shared origin---i.e., a single significant event turns the members into heroes and creates the team.  Groups like that tend to be insular.  New members, if not added carefully, continue to seem like "guests", even after they have been with the group for some time.

But then, DC didn't ask me.

Hmm. Had it been June Robbins, how would you have felt?

Nor would I have been in a rush to add a new fourth Challenger.  The Challs was one of those groups, like the Fantastic Four, that had a shared origin---i.e., a single significant event turns the members into heroes and creates the team.  Groups like that tend to be insular.  New members, if not added carefully, continue to seem like "guests", even after they have been with the group for some time.

Randy Jackson said:

Hmm. Had it been June Robbins, how would you have felt?

June Robbins was a prime example of my point that a new member added to an insular group feels like a perpetual guest, at best.  And an interloper, at worst.  June Robbins' presence in a script was, primarily, to kick start the adventure.  Seldom did she actually contribute to the Challs' victory.  (Although, to be fair, there was at least one time when she did come through like a champ.) 

She always struck me as a hanger-on and not a real part of the team, and that wouldn't have changed, if Red had remained dead.

Although the three surviving Challs only shared an adventure or two, I thought the trio concept worked quite well. You had a nice dynamic with the brainy Prof, the muscular Rocky and Ace providing leadership. Unfortunately, sales on the book were on a downward slide requiring further tinkering from editor Boltinoff. We might have had some very good stories from Drake had he been able to continue on with the adventures and interactions of just three Challs

I have to disagree with you on both Mento and Beast Boy. I enjoyed Mento, who, I think was written intentionally to fit the role you're mentioning here--someone dealing himself in on the team's adventures even though he was outside their tight little bond (but was, as they established in one story, a freak of some sort). And his wealth was used more effectively than Bruce Wayne's was.

Beast Boy was just ... fun. Easily my favorite teen character of the era because of his general refusal to be the good teen sidekick, and Drake's snappy patter (he never struck me as being written "hip", which helped)

Possibly part of the reason they worked for me was that their involvement with the team was personal, not just fighting crime. Steve was in love with Rita, and Gar quickly gravitated to her as a mother-figure.

Changing the subject slightly, why did nobody think to write a crossover where Super-Hip and Tino squared off in a battle of the bands? Lost opportunities ...

I have to agree about Mento & Beast Boy--one of my favorite Doom Patrol storylines was the custody battle for Gar Logan, if only because of the way the Brotherhood of Evil battled Steve Dayton financially--back then, the idea of super-villains who owned banks instead of robbed them was amazing!   Plus, Monsieur Mallah's alter-ego as Abu Hallam, international banker was way more interesting (if bizarre) than the usual beret wearing, gun toting "gorilla" fighter he was subsequently cast as.

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