DC Comics History: Challengers of the Unknown (1960 - 1964: the Silver Age)
By Deejay Dayton
Jun 10, 2017 - 12:48
During the period 1960 – 1964: the Silver Age the Challengers of the Unknown would get a new headquarters, Challengers Mountain, and gain some new recurring villains, Multi-Man and Volcano Man. They would also acquire a space pet, Cosmo, because why not?
Challengers of the Unknown 31 features a full length story that delves into the origin of the team, something barely touched on during their book's run so far. The team gets approached by an oil tycoon who claims to have saved all of their lives after the plane crash that brought the team together. This leads to each of the four men recalling how they wound up being chosen to appear on the Heroes tv series, which fills the reader in on more background than had been yet given about the four teammates. Rocky Davis overcome being blinded in the ring by the mob as they tried to get revenge against him, and still defeated his opponent. Professor Haley, we learn, was, despite his degree, a wealthy wastrel, and messed up a diver's attempt to raise a statue.
Feeling guilty, he decided to help the man, but the task proved more dangerous than expected, and the original diver wound up losing the use of his legs. Haley is considered a hero, but feels that this is the first worthwhile thing he has done. Red Ryan gets a good background story, helping to construct a radio tower in a Central American country, until he finds he is being used by a would-be tyrant, and then helps bring the guy down. Ace Morgan delivered a payload of dynamite, risking his life, which got him not only onto the Heroes program, but also assigned to pilot the other men there. The plane goes down, and the tycoon insists he was on the scene right away, doused the fire and made sure the four were safe before heading off for help. By the time he returned, the men had all left.
He shows the team a piece of the plane, with the logo "Lucky Ace," to prove he was there. The man then asks the team to help him put together a recently discovered giant Aztec statue, and they agree. But the guy has been lying about everything, and the statue is really a deadly robot the man had built. The scientist who created the robot realized his boss was evil and tried to re-program it. That's why the guy enlisted the Challengers. But Ace figured out that the guy was lying, that the piece of the plane was a fake, and uses the robot to destroy itself.
Challengers Mountain makes its debut in issue 12, although not too much is made of it in that tale. June Robbins gets to play victim again, getting kidnapped by a man who sends the Challengers out to retrieve three objects for him. We briefly get to see Challenger Mountain, which has a passage in the side of it to allow the jet in and out. Considering that it gets bolded in print when mentioned, you'd expect a more extensive view of it in this story. But nope.
Instead we follow a formulaic tale that sees the Challengers split up to retrieve the objects. Two of things they get seem recently placed there, which arouses the team's suspicions. Sure enough, it is only the third item, a gemstone, that was the real target. The bad guy put the other two in place just to divert attention. Ace figures this out, and is the one to take the guy down.
June Robbins gets a huge role in Challengers of the Unknown 15. Get it? Oh, man am I ever witty. June is working on an experiment that blows up in her face, literally. It winds up turning her into a giant. June goes on a bit of a rampage, trashing the lab in Challenger Mountain. When Rocky Davis, Red Ryan, Ace Morgan and Professor Haley return they discover giant June, but also another giant beastie, which has appeared out of nowhere.
June proves more useful than the rest of the team in taking on the giant monster. In the end, it's simple water that causes both of them to shrink back to normal size. June, sane again in her normal body, explains that the giant beast was really a microbe, made huge by the same formula that altered her size.
Challengers of the Unknown 30 introduces millionaire F. Gaylord Clayburn III, a potential new recruit for the team. Clayburn has invited the other members of the team to his mansion, but it's June Robbins who makes the introductions. She explains to the rest of the team how Clayburn is also "living on borrowed time" after a near fatal car crash, and they all watch as he risks his life to save a young man from falling to his death.
Clayburn is assigned to prove he is capable of the same specialities that the other members of the team excel it, which is a sort of weird challenge. He doesn't do too well, but the whole test gets interrupted by a giant robotic bird that captures the team. Clayburn does his best to defeat the villain behind the bird, but gets caught as well, and needs to be rescued by June.
Though the other guys on the team end the case by agreeing that Clayburn has shown he is worthy to be a member, Clayburn himself no longer thinks he can cut it, and bows out. Clayburn does return, but not for a long time, showing up in the late 70s revival of the comic. There, he and the rest of the team have a totally different dynamic, almost hostile.
Haven't you been feeling that the Challengers stories would have been so much better if they had an alien pet? If you have been feeling that, you will be very happy with Challengers of the Unknown 18, but you have no taste and should stop reading comics. A mysterious spaceship crashes into the ocean, and Ace Morgan, Professor Haley, Rocky Davis and Red Ryan happen to be flying right by, on their way to an island June Robbins inherited. They find a smaller escape pod containing an alien. It might well be the pilot of the craft, but the team doesn't ever seem to think that.
They instantly assume it is an alien animal shot into space, and take it in to look after, calling it Cosmo, the space pet. The team heads to the island, only to find it overrun with murderous thieves, who have laid traps for anyone who comes after them. The Challengers do a really poor job of avoiding the perils, and have to rely on Cosmo. Fortunately, Cosmo not only has razor sharp teeth and claws, but also destructive eye beams. Seems like this would be a really dangerous creature to be around. But that doesn't bother the team. They fear the government might want to take the alien away from them, but the local police want nothing to do with the thing, and are content to let the Challengers take care of Cosmo. But I guess they just toss him into a cage for a few months, as we don't see Cosmo again for a few issues.
Cosmo, the Challengers space pet, returns in Challengers of the Unknown 21. We discover that the Challengers have been trying to train Cosmo, which is presumably why he has not been seen for a few issues. Cosmo has either developed, or just manifested, a new power, a force field he can project. When the Challengers hear about objects mysteriously moving around, a like a barn that takes to the air, terrifying an old farming couple, they bring Cosmo along. The bad guy in the story has a helmet powered by a meteorite, and with it he can levitate objects, and later even create them and control their movements.
Although Professor Haley, Rocky Davis, Ace Morgan and Red Ryan do their best against the bad guy, it's Cosmo that the man is actually frightened of. To be fair, I probably would be as well. The team takes advantage of this, using a mirror reflection of Cosmo to distract the villain while they guys just sneak up behind him, grab his helmet and defeat him. Cosmo takes a break again after this, returning the following year.
Cosmo is back in Challengers of the Unknown 25. An alien comes to Earth, raiding locations for their chlorine. Red Ryan, Rocky Davis, Professor Haley and Ace Morgan do their best to stop him, but he has a machine that keeps putting the Challengers into an unbreakable bubble. Or at least, unbreakable by them. Cosmo is able to emit destructive blasts that can crack it open. The alien, who also winds up kidnapping June Robbins, is gathering chlorine to power his killer robot. But the device he has to create bubbles relies on being programmed specifically towards a given planet. Because Cosmo is not from Earth, the same settings will not work on him.
By keeping the robot away from the chlorine, the team is able to wait until it simply runs out of power. Then, with Cosmo immune to the alien's weapon, they capture him, and send the pair back into space.
Cosmo's master comes looking for him in issue 32. Turns out Cosmo really was a pet all along. The alien winds up running into a criminal, Mastermind, who convinces the being that the Challengers are the bad guys, and they are acting to capture them. Mastermind uses one of the alien's weapons to alter the forms of the four men.
The Challengers are overwhelmed by the powers in the new bodies, and wind up bringing down the entire building, and crushing Cosmo. Cosmo's owner pops back in at this point, and uses a mental blast to restore the animal. He also learns from Cosmo's mind that the Challengers are his buddies. The alien restores the Challengers to their proper forms.
The Challengers take down Mastermind and his crew, and though the story ends with Cosmo appearing to have chosen his human friends to stay with, the fact that we never again see the alien pet implies that Cosmo was really just saying goodbye, not choosing them, and he left to go back to his owner's planet.
The major foe for the team gets introduced in Challengers of the Unknown 14. Duncan Pramble is one of those thieving assistants who always seem to be working for scientists in this comic book. Pramble finds the alchemical serum of immortality that the scientist is hunting for. It also endows Pramble with new powers for each "life" that he has.
In this tale, all the Challengers need to do is douse Pramble with the antidote, and that removes the latest power he has. Presumably, this also kills him, so that he returns in a new life, with new powers, although the story kind of waffles a bit on this point, presumably to not make the Challengers look like killers.
As Multi-Man, the villain gets a bit of time in each of the land, sea and air bodies that he winds up in, but the Challengers still find a way to strip him of his powers and take him off to jail. Not for long, though.
Multi-Man returns in the very next issue, escaping from prison at the top of the story. A man named Gurk smuggled explosives in to Multi-Man, which he used to blow himself up, gaining a new life and new powers. Gurk made a deal with Multi-Man, that in exchange with providing him his way out of prison, Multi-Man would find and steal a couple of objects needed by Gurk to complete a Golden Turtle. Yeah, don't ask about that part of the story. After some splitting up, some power changes by Multi-Man, by the climax of the tale the Challengers have used up all the antidote they had left over from the previous issue, and are no longer able to remove Multi-Man's powers.
As for Pramble, his final change gives him a tiny body and massive head, part of giving him a super brain. The Challengers take both men into custody, but Multi-Man assures them that, with his new brain, he will be able to escape.
It takes until Challengers of the Unknown 20 for him to make good on his word. Multi-Man uses his increased intelligence to devise a way out of his jail cell, just as he had vowed to do at the end of his last appearance. He sets about inventing things that will duplicate the powers he once had from the immortality serum. Multi-Man does not seem to be quite as smart as he claims.
To construct a machine that allows him to travel underwater indefinitely he needs to steal an oxygen remover that is being developed. He does invent an indestructible metal, which he uses as a shield against the Challengers, until they just lift it up with a big magnet.
Multi-Man finally makes the cover as he goes up against the Challengers of the Unknown for the fourth time, in issue 24. Multi-Man uses his big brain to re-examine the formula that gave him powers in the first place. He isolates the factor that created the new powers, and by doing so develops a new serum, which he can use to make himself into a flame being, or a creature of pure energy.
Ace Morgan and Rocky Davis wind up getting captured by Multi-Man and his crew, but Red Ryan and June Robbins come to their aid. Professor Haley spends much of the story working on creating a new antidote for the new serum. Multi-Man is hoping to synthesize all the different powers into one body, and then take over the world. But Prof figures out the antidote in time, and uses it on Multi-Man while the villain is flying. Multi-Man crashes to the ground, and though he survives, he has no memory of who he is, or any of his powers.
Picking up on Multi-Man's last appearance, Challengers of the Unknown 30 has the Challengers come to check on Multi-Man in the hospital where he is being held. He still has amnesia, and as the first thing he recalls is being rescued by the Challengers, he believes that Red Ryan, Rocky Davis, Ace Morgan and Professor Haley are his friends. He has been inventing all manner of helpful devices, and wants to join the team. They figure this is the best way to keep an eye on Multi-Man, and agree.
Things go well until Multi-Man suffers a massive electric shock, which restores his memory. There are a couple of pages as he cons the Challengers into thinking he is still good, but by the end is back to his evil tricks. He kidnaps Prof to try to prevent him from creating the antidote again, but Haley uses smoke signals to communicate the formula to the rest of the team, and they strip Multi-Man of his powers.
Multi-Man builds himself a partner in Challengers of the Unknown 34, a giant female robot. He also develops a serum to give him a giant sized, and muscular, body, before bringing her to life. Multi-Man has been busy, as he has also found time to construct a device that destroys all iron and hook it to a rocket, blackmailing the Earth with it. Rocky Davis, Red Ryan, Professor Haley and Ace Morgan head out to stop him, but wind up having to deal with Multi-Woman.
Multi-Man has designed Multi-Woman to also be able to change her body, and we see both air and water bodies, as well as a creepy worm body with tentacles that can grab the Challengers. But things go wrong after the Challengers douse Multi-Man with another antidote, and he returns to his normal body. Multi-Woman is repulsed, and wants to kill him.
So Multi-Man has to work with the Challengers to stop Multi-Woman. Together, he and Red Ryan lay a trap for her with a giant fake diamond. Multi-Woman gets destroyed, and Multi-Man flees during the explosion.
Challengers of the Unknown 27 introduces Volcano Man, who will become another recurring villain for the team. The "real" Volcano Man does not appear until close to the end of the story. For the bulk of the tale, Rocky Davis, Ace Morgan, Professor Haley and Red Ryan are dealing with a couple of artificial Volcano Men, created by a rogue scientist, who had heard legends of such a creature, and moved into his own volcano in order to create some. The Volcano Men are, essentially, living lava, and deadly destructive to anything they encounter.
The bad guy wants to use them to rule the world, of course, but winds up fighting for his own life when a real Volcano Man, not under his control, emerges. The Challengers are able to take over the scientist's controls, and send the smaller Volcano Men after the real one. The battle sends all three falling back into the volcano. This would seem to be the end of Volcano Man, but it wasn’t.
Volcano Man is back in Challengers of the Unknown 32. I have to admit that Volcano Man is my favourite of the team’s villains, purely in terms of visuals. He really looks like a living lava man. Rocky Davis, Professor Haley, Ace Morgan and Red Ryan monitor increased seismic activity at the island where they had fought the Volcano Men before, and head out there. The team disagrees on what to use to "put out" the Volcano Man, but as two manifest, they split into two teams to attack them.
Neither is successful on their own. The Volcano Men merge into one big one, and the group gets back together. There is a really painful moment when they realize that teamwork is important. Really. After 32 issues together. Anyway, it does work. Combining the liquid oxygen and CO2 turns the Volcano Man into ash.
Challengers of the Unknown 35 examines a future version of the team. The Challengers are performing stunts at a charity circus, and decide to drop in on a fortune teller. Through her crystal ball, Madame Zaddum shows the team their future, when they are all married, with children. Three boys, but Rocky is the father of a tomboy daughter, Roxy. The kids like playing Challengers, to their parents’ dismay.
The kids are determined to prove to their parents that they are able to equal their deeds, so they just completely ignore them and pursue the Fishmen, who appear to be some sort of alien raiders. Roxy makes herself a costume to match the boys, but they still leave her behind. The boys do not fare so well, getting captured by the Fishmen, and taken to their underwater base. Although it looks very sci fi, it is a film set, and the Fishmen are normal criminals who are wearing costumes. Roxy shows up, bringing the older Challengers along.
She had deduced, from what they were stealing, that the Fishmen were humans, and also where they were likely to be hiding out. It's a fun change of pace. The story ends by asking the reader if they want to see more of the Challenger kids, and response must have been positive, as they return later in the year. June Robbins gets a cameo at the end of this story. June's appearances have become less and less frequent during this period.
Challengers of the Unknown continues in the next period, 1964 – 1967: the New Look.
Challengers of the Unknown: Challengers of the Unknown 12 – 37 (Feb/Mar 60 – April/May 64)
Next up – Space Ranger!
DC Comics History: Challengers of the Unknown (1960 - 1964: the Silver Age)
DC Comics History: Challengers of the Unknown
Challengers Of The Unknown #3