The Challengers of the Unknown, created by Dave Wood and Jack Kirby, made quite an explosive entry into the DC Comics universe during the period 1955 – 1959: Dawn of the Silver Age. This team of non-powered adventurers would be such a hit that they would spawn a huge number of four person teams, such as appeared in Cave Carson, Rip Hunter, Time Master, and Sea Devils, as well as being, essentially, the forerunners of Kirby's later creation, The Fantastic Four.
Debuting in Showcase 6, the Challengers of the Unknown consists of four men brought together to appear on a television show. Rocky Davis, an Olympic wrestling champion, noted scientist and deep sea diver Professor Haley, daredevil Red Ryan and crack jet pilot Ace Morgan. The plane flying them to the studio winds up crashing, but the four men survive. Bonding to an unnatural degree by this experience, they decide to form a team to challenge death, and the unknown, and begin to hunt out wild adventures. The actual origin sequence is also not terribly different than that of the Fantastic Four, except they don't gain powers.
A wizard named Morelian offers the group a million dollars if they can safely open the legendary Sorceror's Box, and the team accept, flying it out to a remote island. The team members wind up releasing three deadly creations from the box, a giant monster, a freezing sun, and a whirling web spinner. But individually, or together, they also manage to defeat or neutralize each thing they have released. While they are doing this, Morelian opens the last part of the box, and gets a ring.
He shows the team an inscription on the box which he interprets as meaning the ring will bestow immortality. But as Morelian flies away his plane crashes, and he dies. The Challengers realize that the inscription meant that immortality was within the box itself. It's Kirby's art that really makes this work, the story is nothing special.
The Challengers of the Unknown moved into their own book after four Showcase tryout issues. The first page of the book re-introduces the team, to a degree. No mention is made of their origin, surviving the plane crash, and although Ace Morgan, Professor Haley, Red Ryan and Rocky Davis all get named headshots, the panels that would seem to indicate their specialties is quite misleading. Haley's underwater skills and Ryan's mountain climbing are correct, but Morgan is a pilot, not an astronaut, and Davis is a boxer, not a leopard wrestler. Not that any of them really get much of a chance to come off as individuals with specialties anyway, in either of these stories. The Challengers do work well as a team, and Kirby's art carries these tales, but there is little to distinguish them from each other.
The Challengers are sent after a criminal mastermind, the Roc, in the second issue of their own book, only to wind up having to deal with a machine that turns thoughts into reality. The Challengers trail Roc to a tropical island that was serving as a lab for Dr. Hascomb as he worked on his mental/matter machine. The Roc came and took control of it, and now creates anything he can imagine to fight the Challengers.
The inventor hooks Ace up to the machine, so that he gains the same abilities as the Roc. In this sequence, we see Ace's dream jet. Looks pretty bulky. The climax of the story has Ace and the Roc in a battle that goes wild with the mentally created objects. This one really is more fun than any of the previous Challengers tales.
The cover story in Challenger of the Unknown 3 hints towards the creation of the Fantastic Four, still to come. The Challengers of the Unknown are, in many ways, the forerunners of the Fantastic Four, just without powers. In this tale, Rocky is randomly selected to be the team member to test out a new serum designed to help astronauts. Rocky takes the serum, heads into space in a capsule, and when he crash lands, emerges with powers. Rocky can shoot fire from his hands, like the Human Torch, and is also able to grow to giant size.
His brain is muddled, and some crooks convince him to work with them until the Challengers track Rocky down. A stray bullet, fired by one of the goons at the good guys, grazes Rocky's head and restores his mind, but his powers disappear by the end of the tale.
A fifth member to the team, more or less, was introduced in the Challengers of the Unknown story in Showcase 7. If you doubted the influence of this series on the Fantastic Four, just take a look at that cover. Kirby has a very firm hand on this issue, and begins by re-introducing Ace Morgan, Rocky Davis, Red Ryan an Professor Haley. The story takes place right after their debut tale, and the Challengers make mention of their encounter with Morelian.
A scientist comes to see them in a desperate panic. He explains how he was creating a super-computer, which wound up coming to life, Ultivac. No sooner has he explained this all than Ultivac bursts through the walls of the Challengers meeting room. Ultivac grabs his creator and flies off. Needing more information, the team consult with the best computer scientist they can find, June Robbins. June's computer indicates that one of the Challengers will die if they pursue Ultivac. Sadly, June's role then becomes Fay Wray, as Ultivac captures her and carries her around.
The Challengers each get to shine in one of the chapters as they chase after Ultivac, but it's June who finally convinces the computer to become a force for good. Ultivac presents himself for a public hearing. The creator of the machine is furious that the government is going to take Ultivac away from him, and tries to kill it by shooting it.
Even though the Challengers should know by now that this will have no effect, Rocky dives and takes the bullet, dying briefly. In the couple panels in which he is dead, June makes a move to replace him on the team. But before the rest can respond that she is really picking a bad time to do this, Rocky gets brought back to life.
In Challengers of the Unknown 1 the team goes after Olan Tagorian, an inventor who has created a teleportation beam, and uses it to kidnap June Walker. This woman is referred to as an honourary Challenger, and despite not looking quite the same, or having the same last name, she must be the same person as June Robbins, from their Ultivac story in Showcase.
The villain teleports nasty creatures in to fight the heroes, and there are a lot of good, dynamic visuals. The most interesting feature, though, is the villain's base inside a mountain. This is likely the inspiration for the team's later base, Challenger Mountain.
June Walker returns in Challengers of the Unknown 2, wearing some very odd head gear as she sabotages the team's mission. Ace Morgan, Professor Haley, Red Ryan and Rocky Davis are in Africa, hunting for a strange new creature that has been spotted, and is terrifying people. June shows up to try to get the men to leave, making up a mission in Washington.
She then blows up the entrance to the cave the creature was seen in, and destroys their weapons, before finally revealing to them that her computer forecast that the whole team would die fighting this creature. Although the Challengers laugh this off, in the end they discover that, had June not delayed them, the atomically powered beast would have defeated them. It was only vulnerable at night, and even then only when lured far from the volcanic cave it had spawned in.
June is back in Challengers of the Unknown 5. The Challengers face another thieving relic hunter in this story, a man named Vreedl, who is gathering gems to place in a Star-Stone, which endows him with powers. At the top of the story he has already gained the ability to generate fire. June has been working with an archaeologist, and Vreedl was the man's assistant, before he stole the gems and went power mad. While June has appeared in most of the stories so far, she rarely gets an opportunity to do anything. This leads to a globe hopping chase, with a lot of excellent Kirby art along the way.
The unusual flying garb that Vreedl wears when he gains the power of flight is very distinctly Kirby. To give the different Challengers a chance to show their stuff, the story veers from land to sea to air. Ultimately, Vreedl is only defeated by tricking him. Ace convinces Vreedl that he could use the gems in the Star-Stone to gain the same powers Vreedl has. This prompts the man to destroy the Star-Stone, which then cancels out all his powers.
Challengers of the Unknown 6 has a great Kirby cover, and features June Robbins, whose plane gets forced down in a remote valley. The Challengers head out to rescue her. June falls under the spell of a magical lamp, which gives her magic powers, but blurs here mind.
A criminal, who comes to the valley to hide out, discovers that he can control June, and use her magic for his own benefit. June manages to capture two of her quasi-teammates (she is only an honourary Challenger, after all), but doing so uses so much power that she breaks free of the spell, and is able to free her friends and escape from the valley, with the felon in tow.
The cover story from Challengers of the Unknown 7 gives June Robbins a good role, although the guys still keep reminding her she is just an honourary Challenger. The Challengers are on the trail of a thief with a weapon that allows him to walk through walls. They allows June to come with them on the pursuit, but insist that she just be an observer. Because of this, June is not with the rest of the team when the thief, who has stolen a number of inventions from a recently dead scientist, uses a shrink ray on the men.
So it's June who gets to save the day, sneaking into the lab to release the Challengers. The thief activates what he expects will be his major weapon, but it functions to shut down all the other inventions, and the thief is easy pickings for the team.
Challengers of the Unknown 4 was the first issue to have a full length story. That's kind of odd, because all of the Challengers issues of Showcase had contained full length tales. The tale also pits the team against a villain who would return more than thirty years later. Kirby and Wood pit Rocky Davis, Ace Morgan, Professor Haley and Red Ryan against a scientist, Darius Tiko, who has been working on a time machine. They learn about the man after an ancient Greek is captured wandering the streets. The man leads them to Tiko, who had brought him to this era. Tiko explains happily how he has sent modern technology into the past, and then takes off into his machine.
The team splits up to retrieve the tech that Tiko has sent into the past. Rocky and Ace head to ancient Greece to retrieve and airplane, and become the basis for the myth of Phaeton. Professor Haley and Red Ryan are forced to help build the pyramids until they display their modern devices, and learn of the telescope that Tiko sent to the past. They manage to destroy it before returning to the present. They figure out that Tiko went to visit Nostradamus to learn how to make his machine reach into the future, and then follow Tiko to the year 3000. The ending is a bit weak, considering how fast and fun the story had been. Both the Challengers and Tiko are stopped by the police of the future, and sent back to the present.
The last few panels of the story have the team and Tiko return to the present, and Tiko die as the time machine explodes. An issue of Adventures of Superman from the 90s would take place between panels of this final page, with Tiko and the Challengers emerging in Metropolis, and having to deal with Superman.
Challengers of the Unknown 8 is the final issue by Kirby and Wood. The book would last for another decade, but after this, it's just kind of awful, in a variety of differing ways over the remaining years. The first story involves a friend of June's who has inherited a castle. In the castle are reputed to be three boxes containing weapons constructed by an alchemist. Rocky Davis, Red Ryan, Professor Haley and Ace Morgan head to the castle, but by the time they get there the boxes have already been found by a man named Drabny. The first box contains a youth formula. Ace and Rocky get sprayed with it, and turned into children.
The second box contains a helmet that turns thoughts into reality. Using it, Drabny takes over the small European country. Haley and Ryan try to attack Drabny directly, but wind up in his dungeon. June pretends to be the mother of the two youthened Challengers, and they sneak in with a tour group. The final box contains goggles that see into the future, but they don't alert Drabny to the Challengers' plan. They spray him with the youth serum, and as his body shrinks to child size the powerful helmet no longer fits, or works. Without that, they defeat him. The youth formula wears off on everyone, but it still takes Drabny over five years to return.
The second story, the final one by Kirby and Wood, introduces Kra, the leader of a group of robots who have taken over their homeworld. The people of that planet send a representative to Earth to recruit the Challengers to defeat the robots. The robots are powered by a form of radiation that is fatal to the inhabitants of that world, but not to humans. Seems a dumb thing to power their robots with. No wonder they wound up taking over. The robots, lead by Kra, have destroyed the homes of the people of that world, leaving them to freeze and starve.
Professor Haley develops an "antidote" to the radiation, which will depower the robots. He uses it on Kra first, and then takes over Kra's body. Using this, he orders all the other robots into the big main square, where they can all be sprayed and defeated. As with Drabny, it's just over five years until Kra returns.
Challengers of the Unknown continues in the next period, 1960 – 1964: the Silver Age.
Challengers of the Unknown: Showcase 6 – 7, 11 – 12 (Jan/Feb – March/April 57, Nov/Dec 57 – Jan/Feb 58)
Challengers of the Unknown 1 – 11 (April/May 58 – Dec/Jan 59/60)