The Challengers of the Unknown were one of DC Comics' most popular 'second-tier' hero teams (along with The Doom Patrol, the Blackhawks and the Metal Men). The Challengers were four men: Rocky Davis, heavyweight prize-fighter; Prof Haley, noted oceanographer; Ace Morgan, jet pilot; and Red Ryan, acrobat and mountain climber. The four were on a flight together when the plane they were in crashed, but all of them managed to survive. Thinking that they were now living on borrowed time, they became the Challengers of the Unknown, vowing to use their remaining days to help others and dare to do what other men wouldn't.
The Challengers have gone through a number of changes over the years, but the essense of the team has always been the four men (and later, Dr. June Robbins, who would join them on adventures and eventually became considered by all the men as the fifth Challenger) battling strange menaces. Their original stories in Showcase had the good fortune to be illustrated by the team of Jack Kirby and Wally Wood, so they started out damn fine. The adventure reviewed below takes place during the last two years of their book, and during the time when they switched from their classic purple jumpsuits to their yellow costumes with the scalloped shoulders (which I never really cared for, but that's just my opinion).
Challengers of the Unknown #48
"Twilight of the Challengers"
Script by Arnold Drake
Art by W.R. (Bob) Brown
Cover by Bob Brown
SYNOPSIS: The Doom Patrol entered Challengers Mountain in response to an urgent message from Ace Morgan of the Challengers of the Unknown. The four outcast heroes discovered all four Challengers in a state close to death. Negative Man and Robotman quickly took the four to Doom Patrol Headquarters, where the Chief placed them in his "Life Cabinet", which put the Challengers in a state of near-suspended animation to slow down whatever was killing them. The Chief then used a low-level rasdio energy device to communicate with Ace, who detailed what had happened to the four men who lived on borrowed time.
The team had been keeping their arch-enemies, the Challenger-Haters, in specially-adapted prison cells on a special stone island. The robot Kra was immobilized by a continuous stream of water, Volcano Man was rendered helpless by a thermal control belt, Drabny was separated from the device that gave his thoughts physical powers, and Multi-Man was stripped of his chemical ability to change into any living form. Rocky had found a cute bunny on the beach when they landed that day, and had brought it inside the prison complex, only to discover that the cuddly creature would not let go of his arm, causing it to turn blue as it stopped the circulation. Red even shot it several times, to no effect. Multi-Man told them that the creature wasn't actually alive, and was one of his "chemo-zooids", created in a crude lab he had fashioned from the supplies they had brought the prisoners. He wanted freedom for the Challenger-Haters in return for saving Rocky, who was in danger of dying of gangrene from the rabbit's clutch. Once free, Multi Man did use a chemical to dissolve the rabbit, but also opened a door releasing an entire population of the unliving creatures, which attacked the Challengers as the Challenger-Haters also moved in for the kill. The four men held their own quite admirably until the chemo-zooids did their work and they all fell to the ground, turning blue. The Challenger-Haters left them to die, taking the Challs' own plane.
Luckily, Prof managed to crawl to Multi-Man's former cell, where he found the solvent that the villain had used to dissolve the first rabbit, and used it to save himself and his friend. Then Ace had the bright idea of releasing a story saying that the Challengers had indeed died, to put the Challenger-Haters off their guard. The plan worked, as Multi-Man began rebuilding his giant robotic Multi-Woman, and started his scheme "Operation World", in which he and the Challenger-Haters planned to rule to world by control the oceans.
The Challengers began searching for their enemies, as well as investigating the rash of missing ships that began occurring. The quartet even saw an Australian freighter get dragged beneath the waves in a giant whirlpool. Heading underwater, the team followed the ship as it passed through a giant pneumatic tube that lead to a huge underwater city. Leaving their sub to approach the city, the Challengers were attacked by Kra, who had been given a temporary immunity to water so he could act as guard. Rocky managed to trap the robot in an underwater rock formation. Volcano Man attacked the team next, but was pushed upward towards the surface by the buoyant force of the steam his lava body was producing from contact with the sea water. Multi-Man appeared as a giant octopus that the Challengers almost captured, and changed into a giant jellyfish and stung the four men. The quick-acting poison of his stings hit the Challengers almost immediately, but the group managed to get back to their ship and Ace flew them back to Challengers Mountain, calling the Doom Patrol for help before he finally faded into unconsciousness.
The Chief had a plan to save the Challengers, but it required Robotman to "fill a prescription" as it were. Negative Man flew Cliff to the site of the Challenger-Haters' undersea city, where he was immediately confronted by Kra. Cliff used a special acid bomb the Chief had made to burn through the special coating that allowed the evil robot to operate in the water. Cliff quickly put on a wet suit and attacked Multi-Man, who changed into a giant sea anemone. He caught Cliff and sucked him inside his body, but the Doom Patrol'er was able to burst free, which prompted Multi-Man to change into a jellyfish again, and struck Cliff repeatedly with his poison stinger. Cliff revealed who he was to the villain, which shocked Multi-Man enough that Cliff was able to break off a piece of his stinger as well. Cliff returned to the DP Headquarters with the stinger and his wet suit, which was coated with Multi-Man's jellyfish poison, and the Chief was able to make an anti-venom to save the Challengers' lives. After the Challengers were revived (and after a brief spat between Rocky and Cliff), the two teams decided to work together to destroy the Challenger-Haters' undersea empire.
Multi-Man had booby-trapped the underwater city so that the Challengers or the Doom Patrol couldn't get into the base without destroying themselves. Multi-Man, Multi-Woman, Kra and Volcano Man broke the water's surface to find the Challengers' plane hot on their trail. Unfortunately Drabny, who had been searching outside the city for the Challengers, returned to the base and fell victim to Multi-Man's trap, destroying the city and apparently himself at the same time. The evil group landed on a nearby island where they had more equipment, and had planned to hide out there, but their cave was discovered by the Challengers and the Doom Patrol. The good guys were winning (with Elasti-Girl literally tying Multi-Woman in a knot) until Multi-Man threatened the Chief with a gun, which allowed the Challenger-Haters to escape.
COMMENTS: This was one of those rare Silver Age birds ... an actual continued story that crossed over between two different comics. And it wasn't all that contrived as these stories go, either. In fact, the first part of this tale was pretty good, keeping the spirit of both teams wonderfully. The interchanges between Rocky and Cliff were great, definitely reflecting the gruff personalities of both characters, but I would've like to have seen interaction between Larry and Ace on the same level, being that they both shared the same original profession (pilots). I've always thought that Ace, Larry and Hal Jordan probably all knew each other at some point (and the events of JLA: Year One show that at least Larry and Hal were acquaintances before they gained their super-powers).
The late Bob Brown did a great job, as always, on this story. I've always liked his version of the Doom Patrol, particularly Robotman. His details aren't quite as delicately drawn as Bruno Premiani's are, but he is definitely one of my favorite artists of all time.
This story was continued in Doom Patrol #102.
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