Storytelling Engines: Challengers of the Unknown
(or "The Dry Run")
It's interesting to read 'Challengers of the Unknown', some fifty years since its initial debut (in fact, the anniversary of the series came at the beginning of the year) and look at the early work of one Jack "King" Kirby. This was some six years prior to his fruitful collaboration with writer Stan Lee, and their subsequent fame as chroniclers of the Fantastic Four (and the X-Men, Captain America, Iron Man, Thor, et cetera, et cetera et cetera.) The Challengers were co-written by Dave Wood, and it's worth recapping their origin, if for no other reason than it doesn't take very long.
Four men, "Ace" Morgan (fearless jetpilot), "Prof" Haley (master skindiver), "Red" Ryan (circus daredevil) and "Rocky" Davis (olympic wrestling champion), all board a plane together. The plane crashes, but they're all miraculously unharmed--Red's watch didn't even stop. The four men decide that as, in a sense, they're all living on borrowed time, they should use their individual abilities as a team to help mankind by exploring and seeking out dangerous adventures.
So we have a central concept...but you can almost sense, as the series went on, that Kirby and Wood were thinking of ways to improve the engine. The four Challengers didn't have much personality or a team dynamic, but over time, Rocky and Red developed a bantering mock-abuse friendship with Rocky as the gruff-but-loveable tough guy and Red as the impetuous-but-brave hothead. They added a female member, June Robbins, who served as a technical boffin and advisor (a rarity in the early Silver Age.) They tinkered with the team dynamic, with the details great and small...
One has to wonder exactly when Jack Kirby decided to add in "super powers". The series' similarity to the Fantastic Four is so undeniable that during the 'Amalgam' crossover of the mid-90s, the two teams were combined into a single entity with nary a hiccup (the Challengers of the Fantastic, natch.) The rocket ship survival, the pledge to form a team of adventurers, even the personalities--although Ace and Prof were combined to form Reed Richards, Rocky and Red are practically indistinguishable from Ben and Johnny. It's certainly worth wondering just how much of the creation of the FF was Kirby bringing his old ideas to a new collaborator and how much was Stan Lee showing admiration for his partner's older work.
This isn't just a column about how 'Challengers of the Unknown' can be seen as a prototype for the Fantastic Four, though. It's an example of how external events can influence the creation of these engines. It'd be difficult to argue that the Challengers have worked as well as the FF--certainly, this Friday doesn't see the release of a second big-budget Challengers movie, and sadly, there's never been an animated series featuring Rocky, Prof and Ace (with Red being replaced by a cute robot, of course.) Kirby and Wood might even have been aware that turning the four adventurers into four super-heroes might have made the series more exciting and dynamic. But at the time, super-heroes didn't sell. The Flash had only re-debuted a few months earlier. The Silver Age wasn't quite under way, and the Challengers retained far more of the old pulp influence than their successors. It took six years for the comic-book reading audience to be ready for a larger-than-life group of adventuring daredevils. And, as we'll see next time, a very different collaborator to bring them to larger-than-life...