Comics / DC Comics History

DC Comics History: Challengers of the Unknown (1964 - 1967: The New Look)


By Deejay Dayton
January 11, 2020 - 10:28

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The Challengers of the Unknown went through some changes during the period 1964 – 1967: the New Look, gaining new costumes, and seeing their major foes band together to form the League of Challenger Haters. Before the era was done, one member of the team would be killed off. The period also saw team-ups with the Doom Patrol and Sea Devils, as well as another story dealing with the children of the Challengers in the future. On the whole, Challengers of the Unknown is a series that went into a slow decline after Jack Kirby left it, and by this point the book was close to scraping bottom. But, like Blackhawk, it kept finding new depths to plunge to.

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The Challenger kids made their second and final appearance in Challengers of the Unknown 39. Red Ryan, Ace Morgan, Rocky Davis and Professor Haley return to the circus to visit Madame Zaddum in the lead story, and hear about another adventure with their children. Unfortunately, the story is not quite as good, though it tries.  The villain in the tale is a thief who the Challengers had just captured and put away, but he looks no older when facing the children. That's because the guy figured out a youth serum, and took it in the future, so he returns to the same age he was when caught, and then escapes from prison.  Part of the reason this story doesn't work quite so well is that the parents accompany the kids, and Roxy is a full member of the group, so much of the entertaining conflict from the original story is gone. The youth serum wears off just as the man gets caught and returned to prison. 

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In Challengers of the Unknown 40 their main foe, Multi-Man, disguises himself and takes on the identity of Dr. Voodoo, in order to have the Challengers of the Unknown pursue him.  He takes advantage of this to plant a bug on the Challengers ship, which then goes around and takes pictures of the Challengers cave base. Overall, this is a wise move for Multi-Man to make, although the remainder of the story involves a scheme which the plans to Challenger Mountain have no bearing on at all.  But at least the reader gets to see a really basic diagram of the base. Still pretending to be Dr. Voodoo, Multi-Man lures the Challengers, but then turns himself into a giant insect before they arrive. Multi-Man and a horde of robotic bees then attack the Challengers.  Professor Haley, Rocky Davis, Ace Morgan and Red Ryan win simply by duping Multi-Man, scaring him with an ordinary housefly, which they claim is a tse-tse fly.  Without Multi-Man's control, the robotic bees take each other down, and the Challengers grab their old foe.

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Challengers of the Unknown 42 brings together a number of the team's old enemies to form the League of Challenger Haters. It's a pretty terrible name for a team, but it was thought up by a robot.  The line up consists of the obvious choice, Multi-Man, along with the other recent recurring villain, Volcano Man.  Kra constructs a couple of devices that allow Volcano Man to communicate to a degree, and control his heat enough to be able to join the others at a table.  Kra and Drabney round out the group, both making their second appearances, not having been seen in this book for five years.

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The villains squabble over who will get to be the leader, but as Kra was the one to put the team together and free the members from imprisonment, he gets the title. In issue 41 some of the Challengers gained specialized suits.  Professor Haley has a diving suit, and Red Ryan gets one for high oxygen climbs.  Ace Morgan gets his own jet pack suit. Only Rocky Davis stays dressed in the purple jumpsuit.  They use the added bonuses of these outfits in their battle. Because there are two stories in this book, the fight is over pretty quickly.  It makes for a disappointing ending, with too much of the story being the build-up. 

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The Challengers of the Unknown don new outfits in issue 43. Red Ryan, Ace Morgan, Rocky Davis and Professor Haley follow a strange birdman to a previously unknown island.  They find it stocked with all manner of creature that are supposed to be extinct, but aren't. The Challengers get knocked out by a Frankenstein-type monster, then stripped and re-clothed by five scientists, mutated by atomic radiation.  They have gone insane, and want to collect the Challengers, who survived the plane crash that caused them to form the group.  Thus, to the crazy scientists, they too have outlived "extinction." Professor Haley allows himself to be turned into pure energy by the scientists, knowing that, in this form, he can destroy the machine they are using.  But it affects his mind, and he forgets what he intended to do.  Ace changes Haley back, but the professor has already done enough damage to cause the entire island to explode. As the Challengers fly away they decide being stripped and re-clothed wasn't so bad in and of itself, and opt to continue wearing the new costumes they were given.  In actuality, they don't.  The costumes they wear, starting with the next issue, are very much like these ones, but without the big hourglasses on them.

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Gotta admit, I do love stories with flying eyeballs, like the one in Challengers of the Unknown 44. The story is set in Italy, and the detonation of an unexploded bomb from World War 2 winds up releasing a floating eye, which emits deadly blasts. Professor Haley finds a book in the castle located near the eye, and reads to Red Ryan, Rocky Davis and Ace Morgan about how an alchemist created the eye to kill the lord of the castle, Count Dragio. The alchemist died before he could release his weapon. Now, the eye is trying to find the current count, and kill him. The Challengers "borrow" an experimental jet with a laser weapon, and by aiming the laser into the eye, blind and kill it.

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Count Dragio returns in issue 49, organizing of the Challenger Corps, a group of people who had been aided by the Challengers in the past, who now operate as scouts, effectively, alerting Rocky Davis, Red Ryan, Ace Morgan and Professor Haley to threats. The Corps takes itself very seriously.  Members are given invisible tattoos, which show up only when viewed with a special light.  This is meant to ensure that no evil doers plant false information. The Challenger Corps alert the main team to a mysterious whirlpool.  Checking it out, the team gets drawn to a remote island, ruled by a crazed tyrant, Korba. 

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Korba is re-creating some of the monuments of the world, and puts the Challengers to work building a pyramid. The Challengers are none too keen on this, and happen to have brought along their special suits.  Donning them, they fight against the various robotic guards that Korba has on his island, defeating them, and then Korba himself. This is the one and only appearance of the Challenger Corps.

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Up until now the team had operated as a collective, more of less, but with Challengers of the Unknown 46 a team leader gets chosen. There are two linked stories in the issue, which use the same villain, the Gargoyle. Needless to say, this Gargoyle has no connection to any of the other ones who fought other DC heroes.  This guy is an ugly thief, with a lot of agility.  He begins a romance with a blind girl in the story, who treats him well because she cannot see him.  It's a tired old story. Ace Morgan does wear a jetpack in this story, a relic from the special costumes.  But we do not see the others use any part of them. The girl regains her vision at the end of the story, and when she sees the Gargoyle no longer wants him, of course.  The Gargoyle gets away by throwing the girl at the Challengers. The second story in the issue continues the first one, in a way, as the team hunts for the Gargoyle. But it has a completely different element as well. June Robbins show up, the first time she has been seen in almost two years.  She insists the team pick a leader, and gives Professor Haley, Red Ryan, Ace Morgan and Rocky Davis odd items that they are to use.  Somehow, this will determine who the leader is to be.

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Each of the Challengers does use their item in an unusual way on their different adventures. In the end, because Ace saved the other Challengers in this case, he gets awarded leadership.  And a crown, apparently. Now this is also the last time June Robbins appears until the Challengers revival in Super-Team Family over a decade down the road.  I think we can interpret the crown and choice by June as indicating that she and Ace begin a relationship in this story, a relationship foretold in the Challenger kids tales.  And because of the sexism of the day, because June became officially a girlfriend, she could no longer go on missions, it would now have been too risky.

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Sponge Man makes his debut in Challengers of the Unknown 47, a villain much better than his name would imply. The story opens as a diver, Miklos, cuts himself on an unusual human shaped sponge while diving.  The cut infects Miklos, and turns him into a giant sponge man.  Miklos turns to Professor Haley, Red Ryan, Rocky Davis and Ace Morgan for help, but his sleazy neighbour overhears the situation, and plots to use Sponge Man for his own purposes. Sponge Man is able to absorb water, of course, but it turns out he can also absorb colour, and even sound.  As he drains everything he passes, he also leaves the pale people with no energy.  Sponge Man is able to release what he has absorbed as a power blast, and though everything regains its colour, it stays lethargic. The neighbour tricks Sponge Man into thinking he knows of a doctor who can cure him, but at great cost, then goads Sponge Man into committing crimes, which the neighbour then profits from. Once Miklos realizes that he is being used, he turns on his neighbour.  He also demonstrates a heroic side, using his sponge powers to put out a forest fire.  But in the end, with no cure in sight, Sponge Man heads off into the sea, to live there alone. It's a sad ending, and a much better tale than this book usually sees. 

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The Sea Devils make a guest appearance in Challengers of the Unknown 51, which also brings back the Sponge Man. Sponge Man begins the tale as he was last seen, living alone on the sea floor.  He seems much happier, though, having apparently made friends with the fish.  This all ends when the army blows the area up as they construct an underwater base.  The Sponge Man attacks back, seeking vengeance for his fish friends. The Sea Devils wind up being called in to deal with the Sponge Man, but Dane Dorrance, Biff Bailey, Judy and Nick Walton are easily taken down by him.  Learning that Sponge Man had battled the Challengers of the Unknown before, the Sea Devils turn to them. There is a really awful subplot in which Judy decides to make Dane jealous by flirting with Ace Morgan.  But overall the story once again makes good use of Sponge Man. 

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He goes back into his mode of stealing all sound and colour, but the two teams manage to communicate by using sign language. Judy's flirting is not the only thing causing friction between the two teams.  An old friend of the Sponge Man shows up, seeming to help but actually a member of an international criminal organization, Scorpio, who want to manipulate the Sponge Man into working for them. So the story does get to be a bit crowded with all this going on.  Towards the end, Sponge Man's transformation finally starts to wear off.  But Scorpio is about to launch some poison gas, and he dives into it, using the last of his power to absorb the poison.

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Multi-Woman returns, joining the League of Challenger Haters, in Challengers of the Unknown 45. This time it's a full length story, which gives time for the four heroes and five villains to be able to strut their stuff.  The tale begins with Ace Morgan, Red Ryan, Professor Haley and Rocky Davis tending to their prisoners, Multi-Man, Kra, Drabny and Volcano Man, in their volcanic island prison.  While three of the caged villains are angry and cranky, Multi-Man is quite cheerful.  We find out why.  He has built a new Multi-Woman, and she arrives on the island to free them all. The other villains try to put the moves on Multi-Woman, but this incarnation is devoted to Multi-Man.  We do not see her demonstrate the wide range of body changes, though.  In the creepiest possible detail, Multi-Man has the controls for Multi-Woman located inside her giant breasts. We do find out in this story that the smaller hourglass emblems on the Challengers new costumes functions as a radio.

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President Lyndon Johnson appears in the story, making a public request to the Challengers to work alongside the Challenger Haters after some cosmic force begins freezing the Earth.  Multi-Man claims to know where the creatures causing this are, and lead both teams to a cave. The Challenger Haters lead the way, and fall one by one to the monsters.  Finally, only Multi-Man is left.  The Challengers volunteer to seal themselves and the monsters in with an explosion, and Multi-Man takes off.  Only then do the Challengers realize the monsters were faked, and the whole thing was a scam by Multi-Man to trap them.  The Challengers turn the fake monsters into big shovels, dig their way out, and recapture the Challenger Haters.

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The Challengers of the Unknown and the Doom Patrol work together in Challengers of the Unknown 48. The story takes place between issues 101 and 102 of Doom Patrol.  101 concluded with the Challengers arriving by plane at the Doom Patrol headquarters, all on the verge of death.  The Chief puts Rocky Davis, Ace Morgan, Professor Haley and Red Ryan into a freezing chamber to maintain their lives, and learns from them what caused this situation. The League of Challenger Haters turn out to be responsible.  As the Challengers went to check on their prisoners, Multi-Man, Multi-Woman, Kra, Drabny and Volcano Man, Rocky came across a little rabbit.  But the rabbit was actually a chemical creation by Multi-Man, and it latched onto Rocky, turning him blue. Multi-Man makes the deal that he will get the rabbit to release Rocky, as long as the Challengers release him and his partners.  While Multi-Man does, technically, keep his word, he has a bunch of other chemical rabbits that he sics on the team.  The Challengers briefly fight the Challenger Haters, but get overwhelmed by the chemical rabbits. But the Challengers were not done for yet!  The League escapes, and constructs an underwater base.  Somehow, salt water does not seem as debilitating to Kra as fresh water is.  The Challengers follow and attack, but get poisoned by Multi-Man, in the body of a stinging fish.

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To get the cure for the poison, the Chief needs a sample of it.  Robotman disguises himself in diving gear and heads down to the underwater base, getting into a fight with Multi-Man, and holding out until Multi-Man adopts the stinging fish body again.  Robotman slices off part of the stinger, and brings it back to the Chief, who analyzes the poison and cures the Challengers. Then it's time for some team up action with both the Doom Patrol and Challengers taking on the Challenger Haters.  The fight between Elasti-Girl and Multi-Woman is visually dynamic.  Only Negative Man really gets shorted on the action.  Drabny dies in an explosion, but no one, from any of the teams, really seems to care.  One of the best panels from the entire story has Multi-Man sneaking away while the other people fight. The story feels like it comes to a conclusion, but really it continues in the next issue of Doom Patrol.

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The Challengers of the Unknown get a new opponent, Villo, for issue 50. The Challengers of the Unknown get lured to a theme park run by gangsters.  They have hired Villo, who proudly proclaims himself the most evil person there is, to eliminate them.  But Villo has a slightly different plan, manipulating the Challengers into killing each other. Villo has Professor Haley, Red Ryan and Ace Morgan captured and imprisoned, and makes sure that Rocky Davis overhears his apparent scheme.  Villo leaves a key for Rocky to steal.  The idea is that, by using the key to open their cells, Rocky will set off a bomb that kills the rest of the team.  This doesn't happen, though.  Instead, Ace, who is the first one freed, winds up turning into a monster. Villo captures Ace and brings him to his base. 

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There we meet Brainex, a super computer and Villo's secret partner.  Both Brainex and Villo think that they are the greatest thing ever, and the banter between the two is actually kind of fun.  They try to brainwash monster Ace and use him against the other members of the team, but Professor Haley figures out how to turn Ace back into himself.  Oh, but I should mention, before Ace gets turned back, he destroys Challenger Mountain.  The mountain will re-appear many years down the road, so it's unlikely that he actually blew the entire thing up.  More likely that he severely damaged their headquarters, but that the mountain itself is still intact. Villo and Brainex flee at the end of the story, but are back for issue 52.

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That story opens with the team battling a group of gigantic Mongols, who Villo had transformed.  Villo and Brainex are still doing their comedic villain shtick, and it does really provide the bulk of the entertainment value in the story. The tale is a really weird one.  Villo and Brainex go after the Challengers by using a time ray to learn more about them.  Villo then use some giant duplicates of the team to attack them, killing Ace Morgan. Things take an even stranger turn when Villo drives Rocky insane, and in a mad rampage he kills Red Ryan.  Professor Haley is the one to really save the day, using the time ray to send everyone back to the very start, so no one died after all.  It's also a really easy out.

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Challengers of the Unknown 54 brings back Villo and Brainex, whose shtick is already getting tiresome.  It adds a group of big green blobby subhumans, as well as Bubble Master, a villain who hero worships Villo, and desires nothing more than to be his assistant. Bubble Master turns out to be far more effective in battle against the Challengers than Villo anticipated, and he proves how vile he is by throwing Bubble Master out of their ship after the Challengers get caught. Bubble Master doesn't mind, and comes back for more.  In the midst of all this unfunny silliness, Professor Haley, Red Ryan, Rocky Davis and Ace Morgan act as if everything is deadly serious and dangerous. Professor Haley is the big hero, destroying the Sunhumans. 

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Arnold Drake and Bob Brown do manage to pull off a surprising death, despite the cover, in Challengers of the Unknown 55.  Simply because Villo is in the tale, and there had recently been “undone” deaths of the Challengers in a Villo story, the cover looks like a tease for something that won't really occur. Villo decides to join the League of Challenger Haters in this story, but when he demands that he be put in charge of the group, Multi-Man, Multi-Woman, Volcano Man and Kra decide they don't want him around. The Challenger Haters then go forward with their own plans to destroy the world, which centres on Volcano Man.  He will use his powers to ignite volcanos in key points around the world, which will rip the planet apart.  The Challengers figure out what is going on, and Professor Haley, Ace Morgan, Red Ryan and Rocky Davis split up to prevent the world's destruction, and round up the villains.

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The League of Challenger Haters are forced to come begging to Villo for help. My favourite scene has Multi-Woman's arm getting ripped off after they knock her down.  Rocky grabs it and uses it as a club on Kra. Though the villains all do get captured in the end, Red Ryan winds up having to sacrifice his life to detonate a bomb to counteract the effects of Volcano Man.  A brief funeral is held for him, with military honours, it appears.  A shame that June Robbins wasn't given a cameo at it. The story ends with an intriguing tease, introducing a young rock star, Tino Manarry, who hates the Challengers for some mysterious reason, and wants them dead. This issue marks the final appearances of Villo, Brainex and Multi-Woman.

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The Challengers of the Unknown head out on a three person mission in Challengers of the Unknown 56. While Rocky Davis, Professor Haley and Ace Morgan mourn their dead friend, they also decide to carry on, and head off to Mexico to help a scientist hunt for a rare plant, a medicinal cure.  But Tino Manarry is also trailing the Challengers.  We find out that, aside from being a rock star, Tino is an inventor who works for the United Nations. We also learn that his real name is Martin Ryan, and he is Red's younger brother. Tino blames the Challengers for his brother's death, so he is out to see they all get killed.  The Challengers wind up encountering a lost Aztec tribe. Tino also gets onto the track of the tribe, meeting the daughter of the chieftan. The Aztecs drug the Challengers with a hallucinogen, which makes them think they are fighting giant spiders, when really they are fighting each other. Tino rescues the team from this, but only so that he will have the pleasure of killing them himself.  After explaining this, he sets off a smoke bomb and takes off.  The Challengers are left with no idea who this kid is, or why he wants them dead.  But they do at least find the plant they were looking for.

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Tino joins forces with Power Man to take out the men he blames for his brother's death in Challengers of the Unknown 57. Power Man is the main villain for the story, and a pretty good one at that.  A rogue scientist who developed electrical powers after a cyclotron went out of control, the Challengers have a very hard time trying to stop him. Tino Manarry sees footage of this, and decides that teaming up with Power Man would be the best way to kill off the Challengers.  The plan comes together well, and Tino winds up with Rocky Davis, Professor Haley and Ace Morgan at his mercy. Only then does Tino reveal to the three that he is really Red Ryan's brother.  He accuses them of causing his brother's death, but the guys just happen to have a tape of Red exploding.  The panels showing this are pretty much identical to the ones in which he died, which means that Red must have set the camera up in order to film himself blowing up.  That's really morbid and grisly.  But it does convince Tino that he has been mistaken. Feeling bad for all the trouble he has caused the team, Tino switches sides and takes down Power Man all on his own, thanks to his brilliance and scientific skills.  The Challengers offer Tino his brother's place on the team, but Tino refuses. That doesn't really matter much though, as he just keeps appearing anyway.

Challengers of the Unknown continues in the next era, 1967 – 1970: It’s a Happening!

Challengers of the Unknown: Challengers of the Unknown 38 – 57 (June/July 1964 – July/Aug 1967)

Next up – Space Ranger!

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Last Updated: January 11, 2020 - 10:47

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