Review by Win Wiacek
Jack Kirby was – and still is – the most important single influence in the history of American comics, with quite rightly millions of words written about what the man has done and meant.
When the comic industry suffered a collapse in the mid 1950s, Kirby returned briefly to DC where he worked on mystery tales and Green Arrow while preparing the newspaper strip Sky Masters of the Space Force. He also created the first super-team of the era.
The Challengers of the Unknown were four ordinary mortals; heroic adventurers and explorers who walked away unscathed from a terrible plane crash. Pilot Ace Morgan, oceanographer Prof Haley, wrestler Rocky Davis and acrobat Red Ryan were already obviously what we’d now call adrenaline junkies. They decide that since they are all living on borrowed time, they will dedicate what remains of their lives to testing themselves and fate. They will risk their lives for knowledge and naturally, justice.
The series launched with ‘The Secrets of the Sorcerer’s Box!’ in which Kirby and scripter Dave Wood craft a spectacular epic as the doom-chasers are hired by the duplicitous magician Morelian to open an ancient container holding otherworldly secrets and powers. The story roars along with all the tension and wonder of the b-movie thrillers it emulates and Kirby’s awesome drawing resonates with power and dynamism, which doesn’t let up for the sequel. This is a science fiction drama caused when an alliance of Nazi technologies and American criminality unleashes a terrible robotic monster. ‘Ultivac is Loose!’ introduced the beautiful and capable boffin Dr June Robbins, who became the fifth Challenger at a time when most comic females had returned to a subsidiary status in that so-conservative era.
Both adventures appeared in a showcase anthology, and it was almost a year before the team reappeared in the alien invasion adventure ‘The Day the Earth Blew Up’, with the superb Bruno Premiani inking a taut doomsday chiller that will keep readers on the edge of their seats even today. By the time of their final tryout in early 1958 they had secured their own title. The mystic threat posed by ‘The Menace of the Ancient Vials’ was defused by the usual blend of daredevil heroics and ingenuity. The wonderful inking of George Klein adds subtle clarity to the tale of an international criminal who steals an ancient weapons cache that threatens the entire world if misused.
An even bigger buzz arrives with the first issue of their own comic, written and drawn by Kirby, and presenting two complete stories plus an iconic introductory page that would become almost a signature icon for the team. ‘The Man Who Tampered with Infinity’ pitted the heroes against a renegade scientist whose cavalier dabblings loosed dreadful monsters from the beyond onto our defenceless planet, while the team were actually abducted by aliens in ‘The Human Pets’.
The same creators were responsible for the two stories that conclude this volume. ‘The Traitorous Challenger’ is a monster mystery, with June returning only to sabotage a mission in the Australian outback, whilst ‘The Monster Maker’ finds the team seemingly helpless against a criminal who can conjure solid and animate objects from his thoughts.
In an era bowdlerised by draconian censorship Kirby creates tension, fear, and thunderous excitement with his fantastic creativity. This glorious and lavish book is a worthy tribute to his matchless abilities and one of his most fascinating and enjoyable concepts. The stories are also available combined with Vol. 2 as Challengers of the Unknown by Jack Kirby, or in black and white as Showcase Presents the Challengers of the Unknown.