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Everybody’s Somebody’s Baby – Day Twelve

Here’s the next run that did not make the Top 158 Comic Book Runs list, but was still beloved by SOMEone!

Enjoy!

Steven Grant’s Challengers of the Unknown

Challengers of the Unknown #1-18

This late 1990s revamp featured a brand new group of Challengers, made up of truly disparate personalities, such as a games designer, a NASCAR driver, a physicist and a pilot.

Eventually, they worked in the original Challengers, as well.

The book was X-Files-esque, and initially had amazing artwork from John Paul Leon and Tommy Lee Edwards, but also featured during the run the first mainstream artwork from Ryan Sook!!

It also featured perhaps the oddest crossover issue ever, as this down-to-Earth group somehow managed to cross over with the Superman titles in the Millennium Giants crossover!

The book ended after eighteen solid issues.

Here is reader Bill on why this run is so great…

Steven Grant’s Challengers of the Unknown (co-written early on with Len Kaminski) was, for me, one of the highlights of the DC Universe in the late 90s: a light so high, in fact, I rated it one of my top ten favourite runs ever. The stories were intelligent and inventive. The characters well-drawn, interesting and likeable. The run, alas, was all too short.

Incidental SPOILERS

The text piece in the back of #1 spells it out, giving the background to these “four elements of our new chapter of a great legend”. If one didn’t pick up on the half a dozen clues in this introductory editorial that the Challs were to be seen as representatives for the four classical elements, the stories themselves make it clear.

From mining stock, Clay “always finds the bedrock”; “How’d that guy breeze past us?” they ask about pilot Marlon; Kenn, always seen wearing blue, repeatedly advises people to “go with the flow” and enjoys musing on the mystery of water as they fly through a cloud; red-haired Brenda finds the same situation “smothering”, but has a “burning yen” to find things out.

Since I came to this book with no real knowledge of the original Challengers, I can speak from experience when I say you don’t need any to enjoy this series immensely.

Alien abductions, time/space/gravity anomalies, walking dead, ghosts and possession are just some of the unknowns that get challenged. The stories recognisably take place in the context of the DC Universe, but are usually placed on the edge of it – in most issues, superheroes are at most mentioned in passing. Over 18 issues, we get guest appearances from the original Challs and the Dynamic Duo, and cameos from Superman, Hellblazer and a half-dozen name journalists from different cities. (The handling of Batman, in particular, is pitch perfect.)

The late 90s was crossover-crazy, but the installments here in the couple of crossovers the book was involved with stand up well on their own, as well as furthering the development of the book’s own stories.

I found the series consistently surprising and entertaining. Some issues were genuinely disturbing, and several had killer endings (see #5 for an example of both). You never knew exactly what to expect month to month – horror, science fiction, mystery, and dashes of humour and philosophy – except that it would be great. The interaction between the Challengers themselves was always engaging – they were very different people with different styles, beliefs and personalities, yet worked together brilliantly, and believably so.

In his farewell text piece at the end of the last issue, Steven Grant said that sales aside, he was very proud of this book – and indeed he (and Len Kaminski, and all involved) should be. I can’t recommend this highly enough!

Thanks, Bill!!

I got one more essay, so we’ll have at least one more day of this feature! If you want to see more, send in an essay!!

13 Comments

Tom Fitzpatrick

June 5, 2008 at 5:14 am

Still have a soft spot for the Loeb-Sale’s run on the Challenger of the Unknown # 1-8.

“Always leave the party while it’s still roaring, …
That way you leave with only the good memories.”
Ryan (after a visit from the Batman)

Grant? Kaminski? Leon!? Edwards!!? Sook? Martinbrough!!!!!!!

I must find this comic.

This Steve Grant person – Has he done anything of significance?

Annoyed Grunt

June 5, 2008 at 8:50 am

Can I write an essay for a book that I voted for but didn’t make it to my #1?

It´s the Kaminski love week!

Bring him back to The Creeper!

“Can I write an essay for a book that I voted for but didn’t make it to my #1?”

I’m sure you can, having done so twice myself! :)

FunkyGreenJerusalem

June 5, 2008 at 6:44 pm

I only found out about this after it had been canceled, but it’s pretty damn good, and darn cheap in back issue bins to boot.
Almost the perfect back issue bin series – most stories were self contained, so it didn’t matter if you couldn’t find one (well, not too much).

Wow, thanks for all the unexpected love. Someone pointed me at the earlier today, and I’m touched.

A little trivia…

I could’ve gone either way with the “four elements” thing, and tried to hint at it more than show it. It was a holdover from the Jack Kirby version (or, apparently, the Simon-Kirby version, as Joe Simon recently said the idea originated in their shop when he and Jack were working together, and Jack got it in “the divorce”… if Joe’s correct, of course…) and was of course reused in Fantastic Four, but DC originally wanted them to have full-blown superpowers, which I felt went against the grain of the concept. I finally beat them down to the notion that they weren’t powers exactly, but more “affinities” for those elements, and generally downplayed it all as much as I could. Might not have been the best idea sales-wise, but it was a hostile environment for anything new back then.

The characters were not only connected to the four classical elements, but the meanings of their names, first and last, were connected to their elements. Thank you, baby name books.

The series originated as a TV pitch they hired me to write for a show Jenette Kahn was trying to pitch. (I later heard from a screenwriter friend who’d also pitched it that the head of Warners Development liked the idea but thought the title sounded too much like a reality show, and declined it.) That’s the reason the group was multi-gender multi-ethnic, because you couldn’t possibly sell a Hollywood show with a team composed only of four white men. Not that I had anything against it or that left to my own devices I probably wouldn’t have come up with something similar.

The old/new Challengers “teamup” arc… You might recall late in the ’90s, Mark Waid and Grant Morrison, along with Karl Kesel and I think Tom Peyer, were promoting the Hypertime idea, which was supposed to be a breakthrough for DC superhero books. Karl pushed the idea in the Superboy comic he wrote at the time, and in one of the letter pages he revealed that the first “hypertime” story had already been published, in a book where absolutely no one would expect it, generating fifteen seconds of speculation from fandom. Some time later, he mentioned in an interview what the book was: Challengers Of The Unknown 7-9, that team up. It was news to me.

The Superman and Batman pieces were DC’s orders, though the stories were left up to me. On the Superman one, they told me I had to tie in with the Millennium Giants crossover but wouldn’t tell me anything about it, to preserve secrecy. I had to get the info from one of the Superman writers who I ran into at a convention, and even he barely knew anything about it, since he wasn’t the writer orchestrating that crossover. I finally pried out enough to work out the ley lines thing and set up a nice bit for them, just to be a nice guy – and then they didn’t even bother to acknowledge anywhere in the connected Superman books that the Challengers existed. Ticked me off. And sales dropped precipitously on that issue; COTU fans clearly did not want to be bothered by crossover series.

And the Bat offices hated my Challengers/Batman interaction, which I’d originally planned to be harsher and funnier, and I had to tone it down. I still managed to get away with more than I expected. I surprised at how much I got away with overall, like the sexual content in #13. All in all, it was fun, and John Paul Leon (and, later, Mike Zeck) turned out some of the best art I’ve ever had the pleasure to work with. John’s was especially gorgeous. (He was nice enough to send me the cover to #5, my favorite issue and my favorite cover.) I’ve been wanting to work on something else with him ever since. But I don’t want to slight anyone; I don’t think there was a bad art job on that whole run, which is something of a bloody miracle.

Loads of fun, and thanks for the attention. Nice to know it’s not entirely forgotten, even if it seems to have been hypertimed out of existence as far as DC’s concerned.

– Grant

Pedro Bouça

June 6, 2008 at 7:48 am

That the same Joe Simon that says that he created Captain America alone and even Spider-Man?!?

I’m not sure I believe that…

Best,
Hunter (Pedro Bouça)

The most recent album by The New Pornographers is called “Challengers”, and in the song by the same name, the lyric goes “We were the challengers of the unknown”… It could be a reference to this.

@ Grant: If you’re touched, I’m positively RAVISHED. This is my third BABY this WEEK, and I just don’t know HOW I’m going to feed all those new mouths…

@ all: Really, not so much my baby as a short-term foster child,. Steven did all the heavy lifting, then brought me on board when beset by various schedule complications. I like to think I contributed my share for the short time I was able to stick around, but the ugly truth is mostly I just pestered the crap out of Steven to up the volume on that “affinities” business (his usual reply, “what part of NO POWERS did you NOT understand?”, remains as unfathomably zen-riddle like to me even now).

Besides, I don’t think they would’ve qualified so much as “powers” if they were more like “intrinsic or at least frequently immanent qualities associated with them, but which they can’t AIM…” Sadly, at the time I neither the vocabulary or skill at spurious rhetoric necessary to phrase such an argument. I just wanted to have more cool special effects n’ stuff.

In the end, Steven finally came to his senses, drowned me in warm Clorox and buried the remains under a shallow pile of the suppressed issue of the US 1 “Secret Wars II” crossover, thus simultaneously hiding the body and providing an obvious (if incorrect) explanation for the stench of decomposition…

Wait…

No, it was the neighbor’s dog who insisted I quit the series, actually…

Um… or was it… huh.

I seem to be missing the several hours of time during which I recluctantly left the book. Whatever the reason was, tho’, it must’ve been severely important, as I enjoyed the hell out of working on it.

Your Special Friend,
Len

@ Ralph: I’d be happy if they plain just brought back THE CREEPER.

’cause I dunno WHO that was Niles was writing in the recent mini, but it weren’t HIM.

Len

Learn more about Steven Grant’s Challs and the originals at
http://www.challengersoftheunknown.com.

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