Lee & Kirby: When Challengers of the Unknown Presaged Fantastic Four

When we talk about the forces that came into play in the creation of the original Marvel super heroes, in particular the Fantastic Four and attempt to apportion credit (or blame) between the two men who worked on those early strips, one earlier feature that is inevitably invoked is Jack Kirby’s series for DC, CHALLENGERS OF THE UNKNOWN. The feature was apparently originated in the last days of the Joe Simon & Jack Kirby studio, with Kirby bringing the idea with him to DC, where it was test-flighted in four issues of SHOWCASE, DC’s tryout magazine. In recent months, it’s become something of a minor cause celebre to attempt to credit CHALLENGERS as being the spark that set off the Silver Age of Comics rather than the revamp of the Flash, a claim that I find a bit dubious for all that CHALLENGERS was a very successful strip in its time. But it’s clear that there was a definite connection between it and the eventual FANTASTIC FOUR–and nowhere is that connection drawn more definitively than in this third issue.

For those who are unaware, a brief precis on the Challengers: They were a team of four men, each a decorated specialist in his own field, who were flying to a personal appearance (either on the radio, as in the first story, or on television, as in later retellings.) But their plane ran into trouble and crashed. Somehow, all four of the men survived the experience, one that by all rights should have put them in the grave. Deciding that they were all “living on borrowed time” anyway, the four form the Challengers of the Unknown, and set out to investigate or get involved with anything wild or bizarre or seemingly supernatural. Early on, they’re joined by June Robbins (who is mistakenly called June Walker in this story) who is similarly attracted to danger despite being only a woman and therefore not eligible for actual membership in the Challengers. This structure of a four-person team that would specialize in some adventurous field was a format that DC began to use over and over once CHALLENGERS proved to be a hit–in RIP HUNTER, TIME MASTER, in SUICIDE SQUAD and in CAVE CARSON among others.

While the story that we’re looking at today was written by Dave Wood, Kirby was likely the driving force on these adventures. Often, Challengers stories would be book-length epics, something that was largely unheard of in the late 1950s where almost every comic was an anthology of some sort. (As a sop to this style, those long Challengers epics were broken up into chapters.) Almost all of them were science fiction adventures, with Kirby evidencing the sort of futuristic technology and wild out-there concepts that he’d later bring to his Marvel work. Visually, Challengers was a much better looking strip than Kirby’s early Marvel efforts–he was making more money per page at DC and so could afford to spend more time per page on those stories. Kirby was also inked by good people on the series, in particular Wally Wood, whose style synthesized with that of Kirby to create a beautiful package. The inker on this particular story is uncertain. Those who have studied it suspect that it may have been the work of Marvin Stein, who was doing a bunch of inking work for DC at the time, including over Kirby elsewhere. The hang-up is that Stein indicated that he’d never inked a Challengers story in his life.

So what does this have to do with the Fantastic Four? Well, whenever he was questioned about the origins of that series, Kirby always stated that it was an outgrowth of Challengers of the Unknown, but with the characters plussed up with super-powers so that they can meet the unknown on its own terms. This similarity would seem to give Kirby more claim to the creation of the Fantastic Four than Lee, at least in terms of how the series was executed. And in that, this story is something of a Rosetta stone, in that its plot resembles the origin of the Fantastic Four in several ways.

In it, the Challengers are summoned to a research laboratory where scientists are trying to unravel the properties of a strange liquid that fell to Earth from space. Tests reveal that it may have been used by alien life forms as a sort of safeguard when they voyaged in airless space, as the chemical compound causes changes in the body, allowing it to adapt to conditions around it. The scientists need a test subject, and that’s where the Challengers come in. After drawing lots, Rocky, the ex-wrestler, is given the opportunity to ingest the chemical and then make a flight into space, to see if it transforms him so that he can survive. But as the mission is carried out, the scientists realize that there are side-effects of the compound, and they worry what the experience will do to Rocky.

And indeed, Rocky emerges from the crash of his space capsule alive, but with no memory of who he is. What’s more, he evidences a wide range of super-powers, including the ability to expand to giant size, to generate flames and lightning bolts, to become invisible, and a variety of others. Escaping from the other Challengers who want to take him back to the lab to make sure that he will be all right, Rocky falls under the sway of some criminals who dream of using his newfound powers for crime. But before this can play itself out, the band is located by June and the others, who are able to mop up on the crooks with a little bit of assistance from the confused Rocky. In the end, Rocky’s powers fade, his memory returns, and the rest of teh chemical is locked away as being too dangerous to mess around it. But the central idea: an astronaut gaining super-powers after a space flight remains parallel to the accident in which the Fantastic Four were so empowered. It’s not an exact match, but it is very, very close.

So what’s different? Well, for one thing, the copy is a bit dry and straightforward, with none of the personality that Lee would later give to the FF characters. Apart from June, the Challs all seem relatively similar, with not a whole lot of difference between what one or another of them has to say. Part of that is the period, in which DC’s heroes were almost all straightforward Jack Webb-style get-the-job-done-with-a-minimum-of-fuss sorts. The real secret of Stan’s contribution to the Fantastic Four, however much he contributed to the initial concept as opposed to Kirby, was in making the characters lively in the manner of the teen humor series he had been writing. More than anything, it was that combination of exhilarating adventure and humorous personality that made the initial Marvel characters take flight. For all that it’s a watershed strip, one that’s recalled fondly by those who read it at the time, there’s a reason why nobody has tried to make a CHALLENGERS OF THE UNKNOWN movie. The characters are ill-defined archetypes, ciphers who are there to move the plot along and to provide a human face for the drama, but who aren’t especially interesting in and of themselves. That wasn’t what anybody in 1958 was focused on, including Kirby.

23 thoughts on “Lee & Kirby: When Challengers of the Unknown Presaged Fantastic Four

  1. I’d note in response to this that while it’s accurate to credit Lee with the varied speech patterns in the dialogue, that’s not all there is to the personalities of the FF. Their attitudes, squabbles and interplay are very much of the plot and visuals as well.

    And while that’s “lively in the manner of the teen humor series” Lee had been scripting, it’s also lively in the manner of the kid gang series Kirby was known for and melodramatic in the manner of the romance comics Kirby co-pioneered.

    1958 DC wasn’t interested in such things in their adventure lines, but I could point to a lot of 1958 books with a core cast of varied personalities who play off of each other in attitudinal ways, from ARCHIE and DONALD DUCK to BOB HOPE, BUGS BUNNY, THE FOX & THE CROW and more.

    I’d say what Lee and Kirby did that revolutionized comics was bring that sense of wit and melodrama to the superheroes, but both men had a strong history of that. And of course they weren’t strictly importing it from other comics, but from the radio drama & comedy Lee clearly loved, and the crime, romance and SF movies Kirby did.

    Whoever’s idea it was to give the FF more personality than the standard hero series of the time, both men had a deep well of both experience and influence to bring to it.

    I also remain curious (and never to know for sure) how much of the personality-driven aspects of FF grew out of the combination of the hero-genre stuff with the body-horror approach that runs through all of the early FF and was apparently initially intended to be central to all four heroes (though it was abandoned for all but the Thing by the time the book reached its final form).

    Oh, and because my knee can’t resist jerking, I’ll also note that it’s “cause celebre” (or, well, “célèbre”), not “celeb.” Curse that knee!

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    1. The Lee/Kirby flair for melodrama is a wonderful thing. For me it reaches its peak around 1965-66, though that’s personal taste.
      The idea of “guy goes into space, comes back changed” was a common one in the era before we finally put men into space. It goes back to the first Quatermass story in the UK and happens in multiple later Challenger stories.
      I’ve wondered if the Challengers influenced Kanigher’s Suicide Squad, which also has a four person team of survivors (though their determining moments take place before they met) dedicated to making the most of their borrowed time. Then again, that’s not far off the Sea Devils, who also had four individual motives for becoming skin divers.


  2. I think it’s more enlightening to stress a perspective that’s based in evolution of trends of the time. For example, the way early Fantastic Four was still very much a “monster” book like Marvel had been doing for years, and the FF#1 cover looks like a standard monster cover. Scientific adventurers were also much more prominent in that era. Thus, I don’t really see the direct connection between the Challengers and the Fantastic Four that’s being argued. Certainly there are some very vague similarities, and the same guy (Kirby) being a major creator involved with both of them. But I don’t see the FF as Challs + superpowers. If one believes the “FF synopsis” is real (as I do), the early concept for the FF was very unChallenger-like. And it’s still very unChallenger-ish with it being a (dysfunctional!) family.

    This story doesn’t strike me as all that close. It’s a deliberate experiment, the superpowers are a one-off menace plot gimmick, there’s no concept of using them for heroism (typical cop-out of too dangerous to try to refine the effect). Yes, it involves going into space, but that was a pretty common element at the time. In fact, I’d contend this is overall much closer to all the Jimmy Olsen stories where something would transform him into a monster which had to be stopped. You could replace Rocky with Jimmy going to interview the scientists, and have a standard story “The Invincible Reporter”.

    Basically, there’s big difference between the ideas that there’s some commonality due to genre, versus direct inspiration. It’s clearly right to say that overall in Fantastic Four, one aspect was Kirby doing a team adventurers with superpowers, where he earlier had a team of adventurers without superpowers. But that’s far from the FF being a reworked Challengers.

    The problem with a Challengers Of The Unknown movie is that the human team adventurers genre is dead now. If someone thought there was money it in, giving the characters personalities would not be an obstacle.


  3. What is it about four-person teams that makes them the ideal set-up? It’s no wonder Cave Carson never really hit the big time – he only had two sidekicks for his first batch of stories. They didn’t acquire a fourth (and a monkey, and some inter-character friction) until later in the sixties, and by then if was too late to be cool…


    1. Superhero teams seem to work well with 5-7 characters, but they tend to be more visually distinctive. If you’re dealing with ordinary humans, 4 seems like a sweet spot between enough to feel like a whole group and not so much that the artist will get sick of drawing them over and over.

      That said, the Boy Commandos were four kids and a leader, the Newsboy Legion were four kids and a Guardian, the Kid Cowboys of Boys’ Ranch were three kid cowboys, a kid Indian and a leader…so maybe the Challs were Kirby & Simon trimming the usual cast down, and then others following in that lead.

      There are also lots of pulp SF stories where the core heroic cast is a scientist, a military man and a young woman (often but not always the scientist’s daughter), and the FF could be a version of that but with a kid thrown in for youth appeal — and I think there were examples of that pre-FF too.


      1. Boys’ Ranch is one that’s passed me by, somehow, though I see there was a nice hardcover collection that I’ll have to find! Thanks! 🙂

        And those kid gangs follow on from the Young Allies – four kids and Bucky as a leader, with Toro awkwardly thrown into the mix too. That probably wasn’t Simon and Kirby’s idea, but it turned out to work very nicely!


      2. I figure all those kid gangs, including the Young Allies, followed on from the Dead End Kids, the East Side Kids, the Little Tough Guys and the other kid-gang movies of the time. Although the Boy Commandos were kind of a mix between a Dead End Kids type group and the Blackhawks.

        I don’t know if there was a movie or radio show that the Blackhawk/Boy Commandos type series was inspired by, with a team gathered from different countries. But I think those kid gangs begat, among others, the X-Men (alongside pulp SF about mutants-as-oppressed-minority) and the Blackhawk types partially informed the All-New All-Different X-Men (along with the never-really-realized desire to tailor the team to Marvel’s international-licensing markets). Which is quite a legacy, in its way.


  4. Carl Burgos is never noted as a contributor to the Fantastic Four, but a straight redo of his character as a teen-ager is 1/4 of the group. Was that Kirby’s idea, or did Lee or more likely Goodman suggest it? The FF is a little bit of this and a little bit of that plus stuff we never saw before. I’d say Ben Grimm is the stand out… there was never a super-hero who was made monstrous and disfigured before him?


    1. There was the Heap, dating back to 1942.

      I would figure (without any actual proof) that Goodman would have been the one to ask for them to use the Torch. Kirby simply wasn’t the kind of creator who’d make the choice on his own to use someone else’s character, and it doesn’t seem like a Stan move either.

      I could easily see Goodman asking for them to use one or more of Timely’s previous hit trio, and Lee and Kirby compromising by using the name and powers but making it a new character. Heck, Goodman could have asked for a new version because the new Flash and GL were working for DC, but if so, you’d think he would have asked for new versions of Namor and Cap, too, rather than straight revivals.

      I would guess (and again, speculation) that the Torch was the first character they decided on, which would be likely if it was Goodman’s suggestion, and they built the others around that, starting with fire and coming up with the rest of the characters inspired by earth, water and air.

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      1. I always think associating Mr Fantastic with water is a bit of a stretch (if you’ll pardon the pun), to retroactively make the FF match the four elements. I’m pretty sure nobody during the planning process said “Let’s make a guy who’s like water,” as opposed to “Let’s do Plastic Man.”

        But the classical idea of the four elements/humours/temperaments making up the universe probably feeds into all those fictional groups of four, and it seems to reach the perfect balance with the FF!


      2. >> I’m pretty sure nobody during the planning process said “Let’s make a guy who’s like water,” as opposed to “Let’s do Plastic Man.”>>

        I don’t know how any of us could be sure of that, but based on what I know of the people involved I’d think the former would be far more likely. As Plastic Man imitations go, Mr. Fantastic is pretty blah — even if Kirby was the kind of creator who’d want to simply re-do someone else’s character, I don’t think he’d be motivated to do, “Hey, we could do Plastic Man but less imaginative!” But I could easily imagine him thinking, “Okay, air. You can see through it, that works. Water. Guy made out of water? Or just something fluid? Hey, he can stretch in fluid shapes? Earth. Big lumpy pile of stuff. Okay, let’s roll.”

        We’ll never know for sure. I just don’t think Jack Kirby ever needed to go digging through other people’s comics for character concepts. Which is why I think the Torch was a Goodman requirement.

        But ehh, we can’t nail any of it down for sure.


      3. Sorry, I didn’t mean to sound like I’m claiming to have some kind of certain expert knowledge on the subject 🙂 But I just feel like the genesis of the FF was Goodman wanting a bunch of pre-existing heroes “together for the first time in one mighty magazine”, and it ended up with Torch, Plas, Heap and Invisible Scarlet O’Neil before Lee and Kirby turned them into actual characters.

        Although the problem with that theory is that if the first thought was “Human Torch”, the immediate second would have been “Sub-Mariner”, and Scarlet would have been about five hundred entries further down the list. So I guess the idea really doesn’t hold water… 😀


      4. I wonder if the thinking leading to stretching power wasn’t motivated by Plastic Man, or elements/water, but the aforementioned body horror aspect. If you consider what powers are both visually interesting and also potentially fairly horrifying to a body, turning into a formless blob if you lose concentration comes to mind. And blob-monsters are common. This aspect would of course soon disappear for everyone except the Thing. But just as a conjecture, it seems to me a potential path which reasonably fits the history.


      5. >> I wonder if the thinking leading to stretching power wasn’t motivated by Plastic Man, or elements/water, but the aforementioned body horror aspect.>>

        I tend to think it was both together — start from the four elements and create body-horror characters out of it.

        Over in DOOM PATROL, they stuck with the body-horror theme, but I don’t think Haney and crew had another underlying principle other than to make them like the FF without making them too much like the FF.


      6. >> I just feel like the genesis of the FF was Goodman wanting a bunch of pre-existing heroes “together for the first time in one mighty magazine”, and it ended up with Torch, Plas, Heap and Invisible Scarlet O’Neil before Lee and Kirby turned them into actual characters.>>

        I gotta say, don’t think that’s remotely likely.

        Goodman didn’t seem to get involved with the creative stuff on that kind of level. He had a whole publishing empire to run that made a lot more money than the comics, after all. He was known for flooding the market with lots of similar books in whatever genre was selling well at the moment, but not for making up characters or tailoring the stories of those books beyond “We need more cowboy books, Stan, in a hurry.”

        He did pay a lot of attention to the covers, and he’d give directives like “JLA is selling, give me a hero team,” or “Daredevil was a strong name, and Gleason went out of business. Let’s pick up that guy or make up another with the same name,” or “We can get the rights to the Captain Marvel name; make up a guy.” But I think that asking for a version of one of the old hit characters to be in the new team series was about as far as he’d bother to go. He wouldn’t put in the time to cook up a team of four and hand that to Lee and Kirby to develop, and no one connected with Marvel at the time has ever suggested otherwise. Making that stuff up was what he paid them for.

        He was a numbers guy, not a creative guy.

        And I think Goodman would know that a team of imitations would not be perceived as pre-exiting heroes banded together. And he had no reason to think that the predominantly-young comics audience of the day remembered Plas (who’d been off the stands for 5 years), the Heap (8 years), or Scarlet O’Neil (7 years). Even the Human Torch was 7 years gone at this point, so the main difference there was that Goodman (a) owned him and (b) had made a lot of money off that name and visual in the past.

        >> Although the problem with that theory is that if the first thought was “Human Torch”, the immediate second would have been “Sub-Mariner” >>

        Yeah. I think that if Goodman hadn’t revived his big three Golden Age hits in the mid-50s, he’d have wanted to do so in response to JLA. But since he had and they’d failed pretty quickly, he wanted to try something else, and he wound up reintroducing those three characters (or in Johnny’s case, a version of him) one by one, always in other features before giving them a solo feature again.


    2. I always figured the early Silver Age DCU and MCU superheroes grew directly out of what those companies were publishing at the time: SF tales at DC, monster comics at Marvel; hence the first two Marvel titles featuring the Thing and the Hulk, and a re-tooled Hank Pym being lifted directly from a story in those comics. Not deviating too far visually at first from what the buying public knew you for, in other words. I don’t think it’s an accident that the cover of FF #1 is dominated by a large monster and that the FF don’t get costumes until #3.


      1. As super heroes go… Plastic man lived in his own funny reality. I could see Lee and Kirby being interested in doing a version of those powers played straight and grounded… imagine the tonal shift in the FF if Reed did Plastic Man stuff like turning into scissors and cars. They might not have been thinking Plastic Man from the get go, but once Reed was down on paper both Lee and Kirby had to recognize the similarities…. and also they were well aware that Plas no longer had a newsstand presence. I think if the FF were based on the 4 elements they would been portrayed as more literal versions of Earth, Air, Fire, and Water instead of what we got… but who knows?


      2. >> imagine the tonal shift in the FF if Reed did Plastic Man stuff like turning into scissors and cars. >>

        That’s one of the reasons I don’t think they were inspired by Plastic Man. I don’t think either Lee to Kirby ever thought, “Hey, let’s do that but…less.”

        In general, I think it’s far more often a fan assumption that comics creators are extremely influenced by previous comics characters over and above general creative principles and the world around them.

        Even if you’re going to be influenced by previous characters, it comes up over and over that Lee and Kirby must have been thinking of Invisible Scarlet O’Neill, a fairly minor comic strip, as if it’s impossible for them to have independently had the thought of a woman with the powers of the Invisible Man (a character who had multiple successful movies during Lee’s and Kirby’s youth, including one about an invisible women). It’s like the arguments I see over whether Rex the Wonder Dog inspired Krypto and Ace, without considering the huge popularity of Lassie and Ron Tin Tin.

        >> They might not have been thinking Plastic Man from the get go, but once Reed was down on paper both Lee and Kirby had to recognize the similarities >>

        Sure, but Plastic Man wasn’t unique at the time. Even if neither Kirby nor Lee had been aware of Timely’s at-that-time one-shot character The Thin Man, the Elongated Man had recently appeared as well. Ironically, neither of those guys were primarily inspired by Plas either (the Thin Man predates him), but both by the Dashiell Hammett novel (the Thin Man borrowing the name, the Elongated Man riffing on the name and borrowing/inverting the Nick & Nora relationship).

        Being aware that there used to be something out there that was similar doesn’t need to mean anything more than that. “Yeah, there’s a guy out there like that. Is that a problem? No? Okay, we’ll just keep going.”


  5. Not to pick a nit with you, Tom, but there being no CHALLENGERS movie has nothing to do with them lacking clear personalities. Hollywood has NO PROBLEM giving comic characters new, more lively personalities. Trendsetting case-in-point: IRON MAN.

    I’ve often wondered why there wasn’t a CHALLENGERS movie (or TV series) myself. It seems a simple sell: take the four top action stars of the moment, put them together on the same team, facing overwhelming odds against against a fantastic foe— and you got it!

    I asked Mark Verheiden about this once, and he said (if I remember correctly; I unfortunately deleted the emails) that the problem was what I have always considered to be one of the CHALLENGERS greatest strengths: that they can be involved in any sort of adventure. Aliens, Monsters, Lost Civilizations, Time Travel, even a locked room Murder Mystery (or, say, volunteering to drink an unknown chemical concoction)— ANY of these could be a viable CHALLENGERS story. But it’s that broad definition of “Unknown” that stops Hollywood in its tracks. It easier for Hollywood to explain and sell a movie about a team who bust ghosts (GHOSTBUSTERS— the best CHALLENGERS movie that will probably ever be made) or aliens (MEN IN BLACK) than to explain and sell a team who does both (and more besides).

    Still, it’s hard for me to believe that Hollywood would say “No” to any movie that co-starred, say, Idris Elba, Dwayne Johnson, Ryan Reynolds and Chris Evans. Throw in Emily Blunt for good measure. (LOTS of other names you could choose from, obviously.) But what do I know?


    Liked by 1 person

  6. Although I have seen most all the reprinted Challengers stories somewhere, this one had escaped me. Has it been reprinted on paper anywhere? Say, in the 70s or someplace? If not, was it skipped over to avoid comparison with the FF over at Marvel? Just curious.


      1. Also it the less-expensive and more-readily findable CHALLENGERS OF THE UNKNOWN BY JACK KIRBY, which Amazon currently has in hardcover and TPB for around $20.


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