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.
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.
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.