In Showcase # 6 (Jan.-Feb., 1957), four men---Ace Morgan, Prof Haley, Red Ryan, and Rocky Davis---survived what should have been a fatal air crash. Deciding they were living on borrowed time, they continued to cheat death, tackling the riskiest of dangers head-on, as the Challengers of the Unknown. It was a venture that would last thirteen years, spanning the length of the Silver Age.
Despite the hazards, there were a handful of others who sought a place on the team. In my last Deck Log Entry, we discussed June Robbins, who early in the Challs’ existence earned a spot as an honorary Challenger. June appeared constantly over the next five years, and then faded into limbo, when the writers ran out of things to do with her.
This time around, we’ll take a look at the other hardy souls who had the opportunity to join the champ Challs.
We meet Gaylord Clayburn in Challengers of the Unknown # 30 (Feb.-Mar., 1963), in a tale appropriately titled “The Fifth Challenger”.
The Challs meet him when they attend a swanky black-tie dinner party, as guests of June Robbins, in Clayburn’s opulent penthouse. For most of us, being filthy rich would be accomplishment enough, but “Clay” Clayburn is something of an over-achiever. He’s an Olympic-class sportsman, with a trophy case full of medals and loving cups for tennis, skiing, motor racing, and a dozen other competitive sports. His entry in the Social Register takes up two whole columns and he’s matinée-idol handsome, to boot.
The Challengers barely have time to shake his hand and order cocktails from the bar when a scream from the terrace announces trouble.
A partially demolished building sits across the street, and a girder has slipped, taking a young man with it. Now jutting out a dozen or so storeys above the pavement, he hangs on for dear life.
The Challs are about to rush to the boy’s rescue when June points out that Clayburn has gotten the jump on them. In classic Doc Savage style, Clay scales the outside of the ramshackle building, a coil of rope over his shoulder. With the surefootedness of a mountain goat, he clambers over the girders above the imperiled youth. Just as the fellow’s strength gives out, Clayburn lassos him in mid-air and hauls him to safety.
When Clayburn returns to the party, the Challs greet him with hearty slaps on the back for his feat. It’s a good time, figures the playboy, to tell them that he wants to join the Challengers. He has the skill set, and he meets the other criterion, too---he survived a crash-and-burn at LeMans, walking away without a scratch when he should have been burnt to a crisp.
The team is split over the idea of making Clayburn a member. Clay’s rescue of the man impressed Ace and Red favourably, but Rocky and Prof are against the idea. So the four decide to compromise and give the sportsman a try-out.
The next day, Clayburn further antagonises nay-voter Rocky by showing up for the trials wearing a custom-styled Challenger uniform. “I anticipated becoming a Challenger,” says the playboy, “so I had it tailored in advance!”
Our Heroes test Clay’s abilities at each of their own special talents. He comes through like a champ at flying, diving, and mountaineering. He’s about to square off against Rocky in a boxing bout when real life intrudes. The radio announces fantastic reports of a giant mechanical eagle menacing aircraft.
The Challengers, with Clayburn in tow, jet to the location where the giant bird was last spotted and arrive in time to save a commercial liner from its talons. As the team presses on with the case, they discover that the robotic eagle is the invention of a criminal scientist, bent on using the mammoth mechanism to commit air piracy.
As things progress, Clayburn is a fireball, full of guts and talent, but he keeps making tactical errors. The mistakes result in Ace, Prof, Red, and Rocky becoming prisoners of the scientist’s henchmen.
With the help of June Robbins, who had stowed away on the Challs’ jet, Clay redeems himself. He clobbers the crooks guarding the mechanical eagle, then takes over its controls from the inside. He manœuvres the huge bird over the scientist’s hide-out and uses its claws to rip open the vault in which the Challengers are imprisoned. Freed, Ace and the others make quick work mopping up the rest of the gang.
Even Rocky is won over, now. “You came through with flying colors,” he tells the playboy sportsman. “You got all our votes to join our team!”
The group is dumbstruck, then, when Clayburn turns the offer down. Still kicking himself over his earlier mistakes, he decides that he just hasn’t got what it takes to be a Challenger.
It wouldn’t be the last time someone rejected the chance to become one of the Death-Cheaters.
In 1967, Challs editor Murray Boltinoff made the dramatic decision to kill off one of the famed foursome, in a gripping tale which appeared in Challengers of the Unknown # 55 (Apr.-May, 1967). Its title---“Taps for Red”---didn’t leave much mystery about which Chall had drawn the short straw.
The circus acrobat-cum-mountain climber’s borrowed time finally ran out when he hand-detonated an explosive charge in order to save half-a-country-full of innocent people from a deadly shockwave. In a five-panel epilogue to the tragic conclusion of the story, teen singing sensation Tino Manarry is introduced.
In due time, we learn that young Tino has a record of accomplishments that makes Gaylord Clayburn look like an idle slacker. When he isn’t cranking out million-selling records, Manarry makes guest appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show and The Man from U.N.C.L.E. Not that he needs the money. The young genius---his I.Q. is 179---holds 147 engineering patents, earning him mega-bucks. In his spare time, he’s the United Nations representative to the Peace Corps.
Not too shabby for a kid not even old enough to vote.
His stage name, Tino Manarry, is actually an anagram of his birth name---Martin Ryan, as in the kid brother of dead Challenger Red Ryan. And he holds the remaining Challs responsible for his big brother’s death.
Over the next couple of issues, Tino tries his damndest to knock off the Challengers, laying traps for them during the course of their next mission. Thanks to their resilient talent for survival, Our Heroes thwart the teen’s deadly efforts, leaving them scratching their heads over the identity of their would-be assassin.
Things come to a head in issue # 57 (Aug.-Sep., 1967), when Tino joins forces with an electrically charged super-villain calling himself Power Man. In their initial effort to kill the Challengers, Ace and Prof and Rocky manage a hair’s-breadth escape, but not before discovering who Tino really is and his warped belief that they caused Red’s death. A second attack by Manarry and the monstrous Power Man leaves the Challs at their mercy. Instants away from being turned into piles of ashes, Prof shows Tino proof of Red’s gallant self-sacrifice.
Realising his terrible mistake, Tino turns on Power Man, and with his knowledge of physics, defeats the villain single-handedly, saving the Challs from flash-fried death.
In the wrap-up, the Challengers show there are no hard feelings by offering the youngster a place on their team. Tino turns it down flat. He knows they extended the invitation only out of sentimentality for Red, and he tells them that.
Nevertheless, the teen genius manages to insinuate himself into the next couple of Challenger adventures, much to the consternation of Rocky, who never took to interlopers. Only the fact that Tino was Red’s brother keeps the ol’ Rockhead from twisting the wiry little warbler into a pretzel, genius I.Q. or not.
Tino was also on hand for the dramatic revelation in issue # 60 (Feb.-Mar., 1968) that Red Ryan was alive!
Murray Boltinoff had gotten cold feet. In a “Let’s Chat with the Challs” letter column, the editor claimed to have received an avalanche of mail protesting Red’s death. In response, Boltinoff capitulated, forcing writer Arnold Drake to craft an awkward plot involving stone-idol gods, secret societies, shape-changers, and the team’s old foes, the Challenger-Haters. It was a real reach, but the fans didn’t care. They were overjoyed that Red was back with the Challs.
Tino wasn’t shunted off to limbo, though. The Challenger series was about to undergo a thematic shift, and a fateful development in the lives of Red and Marty Ryan would kick off that change---a change which would lead to, for the only time in the team’s history, a new Challenger.
1968 was a watershed year for most DC titles. Writers and artists were shifted around. Formats changed. Series headed off in new directions. It was a shake-up virtually across the board. No DC magazine was the same as it had been six months before.
For Challengers of the Unknown, the sea change came in the nature of its stories. Our Heroes would now face threats from the supernatural. Gone were the cheesy super-villains and conquering despots, to be replaced by ghouls and goblins, witches and witch doctors, and things that went bump in the night.
The first new Challenger menace under this new theme was the Legion of the Weird, consisting of a vampire, an ancient Druid, a medicine man, an Egyptian sorcerer, and a witch from old Salem. After failing in its initial attempt to put Ace under its spell, the Legion stops being subtle and dispatches the giant mummy, Tukamenon, to destroy the Challs outright. In the mêlée, Tino Manarry is blinded by a mystic ruby. Red donates one of his eyes for a successful transplant operation, and thanks to the gem’s residual magic, the brothers find that they can each see what the other one does, from their shared pair of eyes.
And the weirdness was just warming up. Subsequent issues pitted the Death-Cheaters against resurrected murderers, an alien Frankenstein’s monster, nightmares turned real, and a rematch against the Legion of the Weird. It was all rather unsettling, especially since long-time writer Arnold Drake and artist Bob Brown, who had been handling the art chores since 1959, were bumped off the title in favour of newer talent, in many cases, less capable but who were deemed to better fit the moodier nature of the series.
In Challs # 68 (Jun.-Jul., 1969), the team tackles a computer-spawned demon in the bowels of a U.S. nuclear detection facility. It ends with the demon secretly inhabiting Prof’s body. From then on, it takes possession of Prof’s mind from time to time, causing him to go nutty and try to kill his buddies on random occasions.
That sets the stage for . . . .
The next issue begins with the Challs investigating reports of a man-like monster murdering the residents of a hamlet nestled on Skull Mountain, in the Ozarks. Atop Skull Mountain, they stumble upon a castle and make the acquaintance of its master, Algernon Stark, and his beautiful daughter, Corinna. The mystery is uncovered when Corinna reveals that her father has been searching for the secret to immortality. In the process, he created the man-monster out of organic materials.
They find the brutish thing hiding in Stark’s laboratory and, after a titanic brawl, defeat it with that time-honoured technique used to vanquish all artificially alive monsters---by electrocuting it, when Rocky slams it against some high-voltage equipment. But Stark gets the drop on them with a sub-machine gun. As he squeezes the trigger, Prof hurls himself at Stark and takes the volley of slugs meant for them all.
Haley is seconds away from dying from his wounds, so his Challenger pals stuff him into a cryogenic unit that Stark happened to have on hand. The unit keeps Prof alive---barely.
Out of guilt for her father’s actions, Corinna offers to take Prof’s place as a Challenger. That is, despite apparently not possessing any skill or talent that qualifies her for the job. Still, there isn’t any time for Ace and Rocky and Red to argue the matter one way or the other for, as it turns out, their problems are starting to snowball.
Over the next couple of issues, the Challs discover that Algernon Stark was actually a servant of an alien being called Chu. Chu is something out of an H. P. Lovecraft novel, with a head like a cabbage and a pair of auxiliary tentacles which suck the life force out of humans. Half the local backwoodsmen are members of his cult, and they keep the Challengers bouncing from one deadly situation to another, like pinballs.
Meanwhile, Chu kills Algernon Stark, in a sort of motivational demonstration for his followers. Then he finds Prof and gives him an injection which sustains his life and kills the computer demon inhabiting his body. The downside is it turns Haley into one of Chu’s bedbug-loony slaves. As if things couldn’t get any worse, when the Challs attempt to rescue Prof, an explosion burns the sight out of Red’s remaining eye.
The big finish comes in issue # 71 (Dec., 1969-Jan., 1970), when the local townsfolk capture the Challengers and turn them over to Chu. That’s when the cavalry arrives, in the form of Tino---who has seen the whole thing in his shared sight with his brother---and his fan club, along with a healthy contingent of state lawmen. Several dozen rounds from a brace of police specials suck the life force out of Chu and most of his minions.
The loose ends are tied up in the last three or four panels. Red receives an eye transplant, giving him two working peepers, again. Prof survives too, mentally restored, but so shot up that he will need months of convalescence. Thus, by default, Corinna gets to stay on as a Challenger.
That makes things sort of sticky, though. Rocky’s as smitten over her as a love-struck Saint Bernard. He’s wrenched, though, when Corinna gives him the “let’s just be friends” speech. You see, she’s all ga-ga over Red. But Red regards her presence as threatening to break up the team and snarls at all of her overtures. The more Red rags on Corinna, the more Rocky gets in his face about it, with the two men often coming to blows. And with all these personality squabbles, Ace finds leading the Challs a whole lot tougher than it used to be.
To justify Corinna’s presence, it was established that she had some “small ability as a medium.” She would receive psychic emanations or sense ghostly presences whenever it was convenient to the plot.
Clearly, adding a female to the team was an attempt to insert some Marvel-type soap opera. Not surprisingly, the arc which brought Corinna Stark to the series was written by Denny O’Neil, who always seemed to approach such things heavy handedly. For veteran fans, it was dismaying to see the tight-knit, arm-in-arm Challs turned into a group of contentious bickerers.
That, more than the shift to a supernatural theme, killed the heady sense of adventure that had been the series’ strongest asset. That headlong drive, combined with the easy confidence and sense of humour exhibited by the Challengers, had made it DC’s longest running non-super-hero team magazine.
But not for much longer. Three insipid issues would follow before the Challengers’ last Silver-Age gasp---one page of new material setting up a retelling of Showcase # 7, in Challs # 75 (Aug.-Sep., 1970).
Red Ryan, it seemed, had been right. They should have kept the “No Girls Allowed” sign up on the clubhouse.