From the Archives: Deck Log Entry # 45 The Short Death of Red Ryan (Part Three)

Red Ryan, loyal buddy of a million adventures, is dead!  Sacrificed for a world that will not long remember him!

 

 

Challengers of the Unknown editor Murray Boltinoff and writer Arnold Drake had delivered a stunning blow to their readers.  They killed off not just a regular character, but a star of the book.  In issue # 55, Challenger Red Ryan had unhesitatingly blown himself to smithereens in order to save millions of innocent lives.  His death was noble, dramatic, and had repercussions on his teammates.  That issue and the two following formed an arc which examined the remaining Challengers coming to terms with the loss.

 

After a brief bout with depression, Ace and Prof and Rocky realised that crying in their beers was no way to honour Red’s memory and they kicked themselves back into action.  They also discovered that Red had a kid brother, Martin, better known as rock-and-roll sensation Tino Manarry.  Tino had blamed the surviving Challs for Red’s death and came very close to killing them before learning how his brother had sacrificed himself. 

"He did it!" choked the anguished youngster, upon discovering the truth.  "He blew himself up to save half-a-country full of people he never knew!"

 

With Tino and the Challengers finally accepting the loss, it was time to move on.  And that’s just what they did in Challs # 58 (Oct.-Nov., 1967).

 

The story in that issue, “Live Till Tomorrow”, is a straight-up adventure pitting the Challengers against Neutro, a super-villain with the ability to transmute elements.  As they have on countless previous adventures, the Challs overcome a fantastically powered threat with nothing more than human skill and courage.  Tino Manarry makes another appearance, but it’s marginal.  The Challengers do the heavy lifting and put an end to the villain’s nuclear threat. 

 

In the meantime, the first wave of reader responses had arrived on Murray Boltinoff’s desk.  The previous issue’s “Let’s Chat with the Challs” letter column led off with this missive, followed by commentary by Boltinoff.

 

The subsequent comments in print supported Boltinoff’s statement that the majority of fans approved of the story, and while they may not have been happy over the demise of one of the Challs, they acknowledged it was a realistic development.  Some readers went further than that, entreating Boltinoff and Drake to avoid the typical comic book out-of-the-hat resurrection and keep Red Ryan’s dirt nap permanent.

 

 

 

  

In Challs # 59 (Dec., 1967-Jan., 1968), the Death-Cheaters are drawn into international intrigue when Prof is unable to raise his chess-by-radio buddy, King Taluga, ruler of the Polynesian island of Vaniki.  Flying to Vaniki Island, the Challs discover that Taluga has been overthrown.  His formerly peaceful subjects have been turned into a cultist army, held under the thrall of the ancient god, Seekeenakee.  According to island legend, Seekeenakee was a stone god who ruled their land a thousand years ago.  Ace and Rocky and Prof are certain that the real agency behind the revolt is a normal human taking advantage of the Seekeenakee myth---until they meet the stone god in person and nearly lose their heads to him.

 

The Challs go underground and uncover Seekeenakee’s scheme.  Using Vaniki Island as his base, the stone-hewn demagogue plans to spread his rule first to near-by island nations and then throughout the Pacific rim.  His “Holy Four”---a nuclear physicist, an international banker, a Hollywood actress, and a professional hit man, each seeing an opportunity for power---have begun to infiltrate those neighbouring islands and sabotage their governments from within.

 

The Challengers launch a pitched resistance but find themselves stymied at every turn, as their foe shows an inexplicable familiarity with the team’s own tricks and is able to stay one step ahead of them.  Fortunately, a fallback ploy arranged by Prof puts Seekeenakee directly under a bomb dropped from the Challengers’ aircraft.  Once the so-called god is buried under tons of rubble, the Challs make short work of the leaderless disciples.

 

It is not the end, though.  The adventure concludes with the discovery that, once the rubble has been cleared away, there is no trace of Seekeenakee.

 

 

 

 

The sequel follows in the next issue, as the Challengers, accompanied by Tino Manarry, return to Vaniki Island to search for Seekeenakee.  Instead of finding the remains of the stone idol, the team uncovers a none-too-friendly giant lizard-man.  They manage to set the thing ablaze with some incendiary bombs, only to see it transform into a huge bird and fly to freedom.

 

Putting 1 + 1 + 1 together, Ace deduces that Seekeenakee, the giant lizard-man, and the raptor were all the same being, someone who changes his form at will, and the Challs know just the guy who can do that---Multi-Man!  Flying to the cavern prison where they keep the Challenger-Haters locked away, the team is surprised to find that Multi-Man is still in his cell.  The gloating villain informs them that he has taught someone else the formula for “liquid light”---the elixir which gives him the power to transform.

 

Meanwhile, strange attacks are made on certain factories around the world, plants which manufacture frozen nitrox, a vital component of the liquid-light formula.  In each case, a bizarre creature invades the factory and steals the nitrox stores.  The Challengers rush to the only remaining unattacked nitrox plant, in Italy, and arrive in time to intervene in the changeling’s assault.  Following a heated battle, the Challengers are able to drench their shape-shifting opponent with gallons of antidote.  As his power wanes, the villain makes his final transformation, back to his normal form.  The form of a man . . . . 

 

Red Ryan!

 

The liquid light, it seemed, had scrambled Red’s brains to the point where he had become the power-mad Seekeenakee.  Even though he had believed himself to be the living stone god, his sub-conscious mind had retained enough memory of his life as a Challenger to enable him to anticipate his old partners’ usual tactics.  Now, freed of the effects of the liquid light, his mind returns to normal.

 

The story didn’t address all the questions.  How did Red survive the explosion in Turkey?  Why didn’t he contact his teammates?  Where did he encounter Multi-Man and learn the secret of liquid light?  Those answers would come later.  Right now, the Challengers and Tino were too busy being overjoyed at having Red back.

 

Also overjoyed were the fans, or at least those whose comments saw print in the Challs letter column . . . .

 

“My heartfelt gratitude for having brought back Red,” said Steven Archer, of Troy, New York.

 

Even more impassioned was Gary Skinner, of Columbus, Ohio, who wrote:  “All I can do now is give out a cry of happiness and a sigh of relief.  Red is home!”

 

There were a few who objected to Red’s resurrection.  The lettercol identifed two---Gordon Flagg, Jr., of Atlanta, Georgia,and Donald D. Markstein, of New Orleans, Louisiana.  Yes, the same Donald D. Markstein whose earlier letter of praise had been the first comment printed about Red’s death.

 

After stunning the comics world with the dramatic move of killing off a series star and then masterfully plumbing its emotional aftermath, why did Murray Boltinoff backpedal so quickly?  He provided his mea culpa in issue # 60 (Feb.-Mar., 1968):

 

 

 

 

Still unanswered was how Red avoided being blown to bits in Turkey and how he came upon the secret of liquid light.

The next pair of issues carried a two-part back-up tale, explaining how Red stumbled across the liquid-light formula and wound up as a native stone idol.  However, the biggest question---how did he survive blowing himself up?---was given the shortest shrift one could imagine.  The explanation was reduced to one ridiculous line of dialogue:  “Maybe it was because I was at the very eye of the explosion that I wasn’t destroyed---just blown sky-high!”

 

Speaking as someone who's had an uncomfortable acquaintance with things that go boom . . . .

 

B***s***!

 

People caught at ground zero don’t survive.  They vapourise.  It was such an insult to logic that it gutted any seriousness from rest of the story.  Arnold Drake might as well have written that mischievous elves turned Red Ryan into the stone god Seekeenakee.

 

It’s tough to blame Drake, though.  His boss told him to kill off Red Ryan and make it stick.  It wasn’t Drake’s fault that, a mere five issues later, Boltinoff changed his mind and told him to “unstick” it.  There was no remotely plausible way to pull that off.

 

 

 

 

Oh, I believe Boltinoff’s insistence that he intended for Red’s demise to be permanent.  The death scene that Drake devised left no wiggle room, and Boltinoff wouldn’t have painted himself into such a corner had he planned otherwise.  And he certainly wouldn’t have signed off on such a ridiculous explanation for Red’s survival, if it had been plotted in advance.

 

Unfortunately, Boltinoff’s decision to relent to the fans’ protests yanked the rug out from under the most dramatic storyline the title had ever seen.  Arnold Drake had not only given Red a true hero’s death, but he had realistically depicted its fall-out.  It was a remarkably mature effort.  Never had the Challengers seemed more human, more genuine, even among the usual comic-book trappings of costumed foes and fantastic menaces.

 

But death has the impact it does because it is permanent---at least in the real world.  Having Red pop up alive skewered the gravitas that Drake had inserted into the series.  Especially since Red’s escape from doom was given such a slap-dash and impossible explanation. 

 

It might not have mattered, anyway.  The end of the Silver Age was drawing near and, as with so many other DC titles, Challengers of the Unknown was about to experience a shake-up in tone and talent.  Beginning with issue # 62 (Jun.-Jul., 1968), the series underwent a thematic shift.  Super-villains and the occasional threat from outer space were out; witches, ghosts, and goblins were in.  The Challengers would now face threats heavily laced in the supernatural.  The first story in the new format put the Challs up against a cabal of mystic evil in the form of a vampire, an ancient Druid, a tribal medicine man, an Egyptian vizier, and a witch, known collectively as the Legion of the Weird.

 

Actually, this first foray into the occult wasn’t too bad a story, thanks to Bob Brown’s familiar art and Arnold Drake’s expert handling of the Challs.  Unfortunately, both Brown and Drake would be gone after issue # 63.  Brown’s solid, architectural drafting was replaced by the scratchy, murky art of Jack Sparling, a trade down by anybody’s yardstick.  And the writing chores were passed around among Robert Kanigher, Mike Friedrich, and Denny O’Neil, none of whom had the same feel for the individual Challengers’ personalities or sense of high adventure that Drake did.

 

To a savvy DC fan of the day, such changes signaled that the series was in trouble.  It would limp along for another year before turning to reprints for its last six issues.

 

Given the paradigm shift that was looming a mere two issues away, Boltinoff’s resurrection of Red Ryan seems even more pointless.  For many Challenger fans, including myself, the series ended when Drake and Brown left.  It’s a pity that they couldn’t have departed on the high note they had achieved when Red Ryan’s borrowed time ran out.

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Philip Portelli said:

It may have been fallout from the BATMAN TV show. It may have gave the perception that comics were silly, corny and juvenile. Many of the movie and TV genres evolved into more mature fare like westerns and science fiction (The Magnificent Seven, The Wild Bunch, Planet of the Apes, 2001:A Space Odyssey). The Brady Bunch's last season was the same as All in the Family's first.

It would take a few more years for comics to catch up but they would carry the "Camp" stigma for decades. In some ways, they still do.

I think kids concerned with being cool weren't reading comics into their teens. I stopped for about a year when I was fourteen but soon went back. I wasn't concerned about being cool because no one would have considered me cool anyway. I didn't advertise the fact that I was reading comics, reading them at home.

If the sales suddenly began to drop in 1967 there may be other reasons. When Marvel began attracting college students it was before the Vietnam war began using regular ground troops. I think 1967 was when college students changed their focus to either protesting or maintaining high grades to avoid being drafted. It was also when the hippy movement and the drug culture kicked in.

Ron M. said:

Westerns would get pushed off the air in the 70s as sponsors realized they could sell more products to people in cities and told the networks to cater shows to people in urban areas.

I don't think it was that people in cities didn't like westerns. For awhile, when we only had three networks, something close to half of the "prime time" TV shows were westerns. Another time the same saturation occurred with private detective shows. Recently we've had high saturation of police procedurals followed by anti-terrorism shows. We will soon be approaching saturation with superhero shows.

When TV executives see a trend they beat it to death. The public gets sick of them and stops watching. If no one's watching the shows die. Then another trend starts.

It wasn't that people in cities didn't like westerns, it was that the sponsors thought only rural people liked them and there weren't enough of those to buy their products.

What happens when the movie market gets tired of superheroes? If the next big thing is, say, horror, will Marvel have the sense to put out Tales of the Zombie or Tomb of Dracula? Or will they keep making flops until Disney cuts off any future Marvel films? Marvel has plans for superhero movies up to 2028. I think we can assume by then that trend will be pretty well played out.

I've read (but more like rumor than authoritative fact) that when Warner Brothers bought DC at the height of the Bat-craze, they were unprepared when the bubble burst and so we got a mass extinction event as they hacked away everything that didn't seem profitable. Of course, but today's standards even a low selling book in '69 is a superstar.

Richard, Ron's pretty much right. CBS had a network lineup heavily geared to rural settings and rural humor at the end of the 1960s (Beverly Hillbillies, Petticoat Junction, Green Acres). The ratings were good but improved demographic studies in the early 1970s showed the audience was indeed heavily rural and relatively low-income. The network dumped much of its slate in favor of shows that appealed to yuppies (though the term didn't exist back then), which made advertisers much happier.

That said, I don't know if Westerns were affected by that.

Possibly part of what was happening was Superman was losing sales to other superhero titles, especially Marvel's, because the readership was aging. My feeling is the Weisinger titles also declined badly in the later 60s.

I did a post on the dates of DC's titles about intrepid adventure teams hereChallengers outlasted the others. One might also compare Tomahawk in the period where it featured the Rip-Roaring Rangers, since they often had fantastic adventures.

(edited)

Funny, I see very few of those stories these days.

Ron M. said:

Westerns would get pushed off the air in the 70s as sponsors realized they could sell more products to people in cities and told the networks to cater shows to people in urban areas.

Except for movie reviews the only news stories I ever see on comics are "Bang! Pow! Guess how much those comics you used to read are worth now!" They never mention those valuable comics are over 30 years old. My cousin was furious that The Death of Superman was worthless. I tried to explain why but his eyes glazed over after a minute and he changed the subject.

I know the general assumption at DC (certainly at Weisinger's editorial office) was that comic book readers were primarily kids, and most of the readership would turn over every three or four years. So maybe the issue isn't teens not reading them, as that was par for the course, but that a new generation decided not to, for whatever reason?

I see very few of those these days but nothing otherwise, except for ME-TV's commercials. "Why are they yelling about a bird and a plane? They're pretty common!"

I believe it was every five years. Roughly from when you could read them to junior high.

Based on the figures that Luke linked to above, sales of Challengers of the Unknown saw a boost with the introduction of the yellow uniforms in February 1965. Also at that point more of the stories involved recurring super villain types as opposed to the alien of the month.

As an 11 year old in 1967 I found myself drawn more and more to Marvel with its more complex story lines and dramatic artwork. Marvel wisely avoided going the camp route which served them well in the ensuing years as DC scrambled to revive their fortunes. Challengers was one of the few DC titles that held my interest during that time but the Red Ryan fiasco soured me on the title.

Ron M. said:

Except for movie reviews the only news stories I ever see on comics are "Bang! Pow! Guess how much those comics you used to read are worth now!" They never mention those valuable comics are over 30 years old. My cousin was furious that The Death of Superman was worthless. I tried to explain why but his eyes glazed over after a minute and he changed the subject.

I tell people that comic books aren't worth a lot of money unless they're older than you are.

Unfortunately, who knew back then those things would be valuable someday? What can I get for a coverless Silver Surfer#1? Or Incredible Hulk#181 with some wrinkles on the cover like a spider's web?

Yeah, my comics from that era are clearly well-read.

Ron M. said:

Unfortunately, who knew back then those things would be valuable someday? What can I get for a coverless Silver Surfer#1? Or Incredible Hulk#181 with some wrinkles on the cover like a spider's web?

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