DiDio Discusses "DC Universe Presents: Challengers Of The Unknown"

"DC Universe Presents" is DC Comics' anthology series where creators focus on the fringes of the DCU, bringing oddball and forgotten characters to the forefront through a rotating cast of writers and artists.

While the first arc of the series centered on ghostly hero Deadman in a tale written by Paul Jenkins with art by Bernard Chang, the current and second arc features a team of heroes created by comic book legend Jack Kirby, and is written by a writer best known for his day job as the Co-Publisher of DC Comics-- the Challengers Of The Unknown, as re-imagined by Dan DiDio.

Working with artist Jerry Ordway, DiDio's "DC Universe Presents: Challengers" issues have included new versions of nearly every character from the various incarnations of the group, from the original 1957 team to the iteration created in the 1990s. Led by television producer June Robbins, DiDio's take on the Challengers is part pulp adventure and part media-savvy reality show. In his first two issues, the Challengers are presented as a bunch of D-list celebrities brought together to be on the reality series "Challengers Of The Unknown." When their plane crashes into the remote mountain city Nanda Parbat, however, the group quickly learns there's something much larger -- and more mystical -- afoot as they receive a mysterious talisman that seems to attract monsters, mayhem and Ace, their undead pilot.

CBR spoke with DiDio about his "DC Universe Presents" story, the Co-Publisher diving into what he sees as the goal of the anthology book, the differences between his " O.M.A.C." and Challengers work and the comics that stir his passion for writing.

Ryan Sook's cover for "DC Universe Presents" #8 featuring the final chapter of DiDio and Jerry Ordway's Challengers story

CBR News: Good to talk to you Dan -- I know it must be pretty busy with C2E2 and convention season starting up!

Dan DiDio: It's a fun period of time, though. We've been to a couple of conventions so far, but we've been working on the New 52 actually for over a year. We have several issues under our belts now, so it's fun to hear what people have to say and what people are liking and not liking, because we also know what twists and turns we have planned for the year. It's interesting to hear whether or not we're picking the right course based upon what people are excited about!

Switching from Dan the Co-Publisher to Dan the writer, your Challengers of the Unknown story in "DC Universe Presents" is coming to an end, and the timing almost feels serendipitous as it's been coming out right as dissecting reality shows is on the forefront of everyone's minds, especially with "The Hunger Games" in theaters. What made you want to frame this new, modern version of Challengers in the context of reality TV and June being a producer?

If you look at the concept of reality TV and what's going on right now, almost anything is considered reality TV, and it's becoming more and more aggressive as it becomes more competitive. The positions that people are put in, the challenges they're put in and the danger and threat they're put in seems almost like fiction more than reality. So when I looked at the book and I looked at the characters and the original concept, it just seemed like a perfect marriage for what the Challengers would do. The fact they were globe-trotters and meeting things that were beyond the realm of understanding I thought would be a wonderful backdrop setting up as a TV show. You'll see in the third issue a look at what the show would look like if it were appearing on the air.

So readers will get to see the actual TV show in this issue?

Absolutely! As a matter of fact, we actually open with the TV show in the third issue and you get to see what an episode of it looks like. Of course, then we get a chance to examine exactly what compromises the team makes by actually being part of something where you see their lives -- and some of the characters losing their lives -- on camera.

I can imagine that would be quite a liability for the producers!

Yeah, it is! And there's that moral dilemma about what makes good TV, what's accessible and more importantly, I think, what's crossing a line. That's addressed a little bit, but then there's the underlying mystery of who the Challengers are, what they're actually faced with and ultimately, what is the true threat to the Challengers themselves.

Talking about the characters, in these three issues you've brought back almost every single one of the Challengers from their history to be a part of this, but you're really focusing on June.

June was always an interesting character to me, and each one of those characters on the various teams had little paradigms of what composed the Challengers team. When I first set out to do this, it was going to be a five-part story, but then we closed it down to three, so I got a little condensed in the earlier versions. We didn't spend the time to introduce all of the characters in the beginning, but I really wanted to put the focus on June because I really see her as the lead and the emotional hub of the entire series.

In the first issues, the Challengers also show up in Nanda Parbat where they're cared for by the monks. The previous "DC Universe Presents" arc was a Deadman story. Obviously there's a connection between those two with Nanda Parbat and Rama Kushna -- did you want readers who had been reading the Deadman story to see threads continue on and keep them going through Challengers?

It was more along the lines to show that this is all in the shared universe, and the fact that these arcs are just arcs, that these characters are all existing in this shared world and part of the new world that we're creating in the New 52. So while Nanda Parbat was inside Deadman, we also wanted to show that it wasn't just a story for him but could also affect other characters, like the Challengers. We thought that was a wonderful backdrop because we wanted to set a more mystical setting for the origin of the Challengers team and that seemed like the perfect location.

Do you feel this series is a place where you're not only reintroducing characters but potentially, if they prove popular, using it as a testing ground for spinning them off into other parts of the DCU or other series?

Absolutely! One of the things I've always loved as a comic reader, and even as a television viewer or anything, is I love anthologies. I love the idea that something's going to change within the course of a series and give us something new and a new direction every few months. That's one of the reasons why we brought this down to three issues, because we wanted to get a chance to move through series and try different ideas in the "DC Universe Presents" books. We have two anthologies now, with other anthologies -- look I'm turning into the publisher for a second! [Laughs]

DC Comics also publishes other anthologies, and I'm glad that we do. In this case, I was really happy to do Challengers in this format because I think its good to give a chance for people to sample these things, and if they like them, come back and do more. In the third issue we leave some threads hanging that would be the perfect building blocks for more stories; we feel, though, we gave you a complete story in the three parter, and then we also touched upon little bits and pieces and mentions of other aspects of the DC Universe to make it feel like it's part of the world that all the other characters are existing in.

I understand the artist on your arc, Jerry Ordway, had pitched doing something with the Challengers before "DCU Presents." Was that shared passion for this Kirby creation one of the reasons you two came together to work on these three issues?

No! Actually, I didn't know Jerry had a pitch for Challengers, to be perfectly honest! I wanted to work with Jerry because first of all, I like working with guys who are storytellers in their own right, writers and storytellers. That's the wonderful thing about working with Jerry -- you have a wonderful collaborator working in that fashion. That's how I worked with Keith [Giffen] on "O.M.A.C.," and I felt comfortable working with Jerry in the same way.

The other thing is, one aspect of this book that I really wanted to do was capture the big monster feel, that there was a monster in every issue. That's something else I like to do. In the first issue we had a giant toad, in the second one we had rock creatures come alive and in the third issue we have giant fire ants attacking the Challengers. Jerry always gave a strength of body and weight to the characters and also to the world he created. Even though this was a reality series, the basis for the types of adventures I wanted to put them on are the ones set in the 1950s giant monster sci-fi movies, and he captured that spirit completely.

While there are some similarities between this and what you did in "O.M.A.C." with both being big, action-adventure stories, Challengers has obviously much more of a monster and fantasy-oriented drive. Did you feel after "O.M.A.C." Challengers was really a chance to stretch your legs tonally as a writer?

I wanted to do something different; like I said, if "O.M.A.C." was really the smash-and-grab type of action I was going for, Challengers was a little bit more of the '50s style monster feel. It was interesting because I like to force myself to work harder on some books.Iit was a challenge with Challengers at the very start because the cast was really big. I probably didn't start feeling comfortable until we got to a point in the third issue, and then we were done! [Laughs] When you're working with a limited time and a limited number of issues with a limited space, the challenge is finding ways to have each one of the characters have enough development and personality so that if something does happen to them, even in the very short period of time, you're interested in what happened. You care about the fact that something has happened to them. In the second issue, we spent time with Kenn Kawa and on Prof in particular because we wanted to make the moment when they were attacked a point where you wanted to root for them to be all right.

Between "O.M.A.C." and Challengers, you've been on a real Kirby kick! Coming down the pipeline do you feel like you'd want to take on other Kirby creations or do another short writing project for DC?

Again this is the silly part -- I didn't realize I was working with Kirby stuff! I was just gravitating towards the things I've always loved! There're certain characters that I've always really enjoyed, and I've been pretty much on the record that I've always enjoyed the eclectic nature of the DC Universe and its various corners. I think that's the fun part of what we do. It's one thing to be doing Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, Justice League, but you also get a chance to work on these characters that move in different ways than the rest of them. I think there's more challenges to writing them, but also more reward in the types of stories you can tell. The next thing for me is not a Kirby creation, but it's definitely something that fits all those creative parameters.

So, as both a writer and comic book fan, and even as DC's Co-Publisher, what are the types of comic books that you are interested in reading -- and writing -- the most?

Oh, gosh. It's crazy because again, for DC in particular, I grabbed and loved every single one of the horror and mystery anthologies that came out in the '70s and '80s, into the '90s. I loved all that stuff, the science fiction corners of the DC Universe and all the things that were just off-center. I mean, I remember way back, just picking up all those strange ideas and concepts and just latching onto them.

The thing that I would love the most is being able to build a "Strange Sports Stories" comic, just because it's just so damn crazy that you should find a way to make it work again! [Laughs] But we probably won't be doing that anytime soon. The next one is strange, but it ain't sports!

"DC Universe Presents" #8 hits shelves April 18.

Tags: dc comics, jack kirby, dan didio, challengers of the unknown, ryan sook, jerry ordway, dc universe presents

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