Tuesday, May 20, 2014
I have read most if not all of these Challengers of the Unknown stories before at some point in time, once if not multiple times, but never before have I made it a point to sit down and read all of Jack Kirby's Challengers stories in order all the way through. It took a few days, but now that I've done it, I can see that even at twelve issues, the ideas were beginning to dwindle a bit for Kirby and his co-creators on this epic.
The Challenger magic is laid out in all its glory in the debut story "The Secrets of the Sorcerer's Box" which has the men who are living on borrowed time take on the highly imaginative threat of a dangerous "Pandora's Box" filled with danger. Different menaces emerge and the Challs have to find a way to corral that which they have unleashed. Each man's special nature seems called upon. That's a great premise and more or less it powered a series that ran well over a decade. But it didn't do it without some repetition and without some concession. Some of the stories that hit this balance best are "The Wizard of Time", "The Riddle of the Star-Stone", and "Secret of the Sorceror's Mirror".
Some of the later stories, despite their visual appeal are just too far out for the Challengers. "Captives if the Space Circus" is particularly guilty of this. A great wild yarn, but it doesn't have that verisimilitude that a Challs story needs. The fantasy is too broad. "Prisoners of the Robot Planet" is somewhat better, but still a bit too far out. Likewise the fascinating but off-note "The Human Pets". These read more like one-off yarns better suited to House of Mystery than as a Challs story.
On the other side of the coin, I didn't much care for stories which had the Challs functioning like crime fighters. Though admittedly most of the time that's just a ploy to get them involved in a broader story. The Challengers aren't cops, and they aren't spacemen. They are human men who have only their unblinking bravery to shield them from the dangers they encounter here on Earth. Whether the menace is mystical or scientific it matters little, but it must force them to make bold choices and to span the globe. When they wander into space they lose their footing a bit.
Don't get me wrong. All of these stories are humdingers. Full of vigor and outstanding storytelling. Some of the pages with Wally Wood inking Jack Kirby are arguably some of the finest ever produced in the genre, but not all of these stories are equal by any means and it showed me that if Kirby had stayed on the feature, either the nature of the Challs would've have had to change or we'd have seen a dangerous repetitive quality in the series.
I did learn that it was the success of these Challenger stories which convinced Jack Schiff to market the Kirby-Wood team for the comic strip Sky Masters of the Space Force. But alas it was also friction over the proceeds of that venture which caused a schism which drove Kirby to Marvel exclusively for over a decade and in the end spelled the end of DC's hegemony of the comic book landscape. It's neat to imagine what it might've been like if Kirby had stayed on the Challs, but based on the sample we have, it might actually have been a good think he moved when he did before the effort became even more repetitive.