BHOC: CHALLENGERS OF THE UNKNOWN #81

This is another comic that I got from my friend Donald Sims, with whom I would often trade books. There’s no way of tracking precisely when each book that I got in trade with him came into my possession, so I’m estimating as best I can. We were in each others’ orbits for two school years before Junior High saw us take different paths, so the arrival of these books could have happened almost anywhere scattered throughout 1978 and 1979. I have no idea what became of Sims–I haven’t seen him in forty years, and the name is generic enough that there are far too many different paths to follow up to try to track him down online. But he was the first person my age that I encountered who cared about comics in a similar manner to the way that I did, and so he was a key figure in allowing me to release all of the pent-up excitement that I had concerning the characters and the medium.

I had seen the Challengers of the Unknown once before, in an issue of SUPER-TEAM FAMILY, but they didn’t make all that much of an impression on me. Partly this was because, as non-powered adventurers they weren’t as colorful as the super heroes whose stories I preferred, but partly it was because they were four white men whose personalities weren’t drawn so sharply as those of the Marvel characters, and so their dialogue and interactions tended to run together a little bit. It often felt that whatever one Challenger was saying could have been said by any of them–their manner of speech was largely interchangeable. Still, somebody liked the Challengers enough to get them promoted back into their own series–which picked up the dropped numbering of their earlier run.

One thing this issue of CHALLENGERS had going for it was much more modern-seeming and exciting artwork than was the norm at DC in 1978. the book was drawn by Mike Nasser, a disciple of Neal Adams who channeled elements of Neal’s style and made them his own. In this outing, he was adeptly inked by newcomer Bob Wiacek, a very fine inker. Some of Nasser’s page compositions could get confusing (but then, so could some of Neal’s) but what he sacrificed in clarity he gained in energy and excitement. The Challengers were just four ordinary men, but Nasser made them interesting to look at in action.

They were also up against an old enemy of theirs who qualified as a bona-fide super-villain: Multi-Man. Thanks to imbibing an alchemical potion called Liquid Light, Multi-Man gained a series of fabulous powers–and every time he was killed, he came back to life with a new set of abilities. In this story, he could alter his size and density at will. As the story opens, picking up immediately on events from the Challs’ final appearance in SUPER-TEAM FAMILY, Multi-Man was attempting to blackmail the world with a nuclear holocaust, and he had captured honorary Challenger June Robins to use as a pawn. The Challengers, though, are able to backtrack the signal which Multi-Man used to break into the broadcast networks back to his hidden undersea lair. But attempting to penetrate it, Prof Haley was laid low by its defenses and also taken prisoner.

From there, the remaining Challengers regroup, traveling to a hidden nuclear reactor the military has been using set just outside of Los Angeles, and which Multi-Man intends to melt down, causing a nuclear catastrophe. Red Ryan is able to get past the base’s defenses and make his way inside, but he appears to be outmatched by his much larger, stronger foe. Fortunately, he’s armed with a Neutron Gun that he and Prof had invented, and which causes Multi-Man to teleport away from the facility before his objective can be achieved. But it’s small consolation, as Multi-Man is still at large, and there are several other reactors worldwide that he can choose to target.

Multi-Man’s next target is in Denver, Colorado and that’s where he’s teleported. The challengers race after him in their jet, making it across the States in jig time since Multi-Man doesn’t seem to have even entered the Denver nuclear plant by the time they arrive. Rocky parachutes out of their plane in order to go toe-to-toe with Multi-Man, but even his pugilistic skills are no match for the giant. Fortunately for our heroes, back at Multi-Man’s base, Prof has short-circuited the dome which was keeping himself and June penned up–and its power source was also what was augmenting Multi-Man’s abilities. So Multi-Man abruptly shrinks, and he’s knocked off a cliffside to his death by the Challengers’ plane. Because he’s Multi-Man, he resurrects–but this time without any apparent superhuman abilities. So the Challengers have come out on top.

But not without a cost. Because Prof has secretly been dying for weeks, a subplot that ran through the SUPER-TEAM FAMILY stories–and before he and June could get back to Challengers Mountain, Prof collapsed, burning up with fever. Clayburne, a would-be Challenger applicant snuck a peek at Prof’s medical records and learned of his distressed condition, and he informs the rest of the team that there’s only one person who might be able to halt Prof’s worsening condition: Doctor Heathcliff Monroe. So seeking out Dr. Monroe will be next issue’s mission for the Challengers, as this is where this issue ends. It was a decent read, but it didn’t make me a regular follower of the group or anything–and even today, I feel as though Challengers of the Unknown was a great concept that somehow never quite found that one great creative run to really make it all sing (though the original Jack Kirby issues are solid, particularly the ones inked by Wally Wood.)

2 thoughts on “BHOC: CHALLENGERS OF THE UNKNOWN #81

  1. Gotta love panel 3 of page 9.

    “That’s — that’s horrible! How can we ever hope to defeat him?”

    “I don’t know, Large Breast…but I promise you this…I’m sure going to try!”

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  2. “I feel as though Challengers of the Unknown was a great concept that somehow never quite found that one great creative run to really make it all sing”

    Could not agree more.

    In about 1984 Paris Cullens was stumping to draw a Challengers book/mini/whatever— and his design work was excellent and spot-on for the characters. And a little later John Byrne came close to doing the team as part of a split-book for DC (He was only going to do layouts— Superman was filling up the majority of his time— and he offered me the chance to do the finishes! It would have been my DREAM job— except it would have meant walking away from inking Superman, and I just couldn’t do that. Either of those creators could have possibly produced great runs.

    And, of course, I always hoped to get a crack at the characters myself. Which I did, in a back-door sort of way. But never in their own book.

    Your point about the 4 Challengers having pretty much interchangeable personalities/speech patterns is something I also noticed as a reader. As a creator, however, it meant the team was a blank slate you could do almost anything with. (Back in the late 80s you could still find characters who hadn’t been updated— Hawk and Dove, for instance— even though at the time I felt like the choices were narrowing very, very quickly. New talent getting into the field today can’t plant a flag anywhere that hasn’t been walked over dozens of times already.)

    This particular run is also what made me a Challengers fan, and Nasser’s art had a lot to do with that. Giffen came in a few issues later, which I liked even more. (Giffen has always had an ability to see to the core of a character, and natural sense of pacing and dramatics that can’t be beat.)

    KK

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