Comics You Should Own flashback – Challengers of the Unknown #1-8
Here’s the comic that I thought might convince T. that Jeph Loeb wasn’t always terrible. Alas, it was not to be! But maybe I can convince some other people!
DC, 8 issues (#1-8), cover dated March – October 1991.
Minor SPOILERS, I suppose. It’s not like the ending of this book is surprising – the good guys win! And click most of the scans to make them bigger. Sale’s art is worth it!
Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale. They have become celebrities in the comic book world for their collaborations, including three Batman Halloween specials, two long Batman murder mystery mini-series, a Superman mini-series, a Catwoman mini-series, and three mini-series for Marvel. Loeb is also the writer on Superman/Batman, which is often DC’s biggest-selling book [Edit: Obviously, I wrote this a while ago. I'm not in the mood to go over Loeb's CV since Superman/Batman]. Loeb, especially, has polarized comics fans – obviously he has a lot of fans, but he also has a lot of detractors. I’m not the biggest Loeb fan, I must admit – The Long Halloween and Dark Victory are overrated as stories and as murder mysteries; Spider-Man: Blue, Daredevil: Yellow, and Hulk: Gray are self-indulgent fannish stories; and Catwoman: When In Rome was just plain bad. With this in mind, I recognize that he can write a good story. How do I know? I give you Challengers Of The Unknown, his first collaboration with Sale, and his first comics work, period.
Sale was a relative unknown at this time; he had done Amazon and Grendel and Thieves’ World, but nothing for the big guys. Challengers Of The Unknown launched him into the stratosphere. Sale’s style hasn’t changed much over the years, and the nice thing about him is that he’s also a polarizing figure. His art is unlike almost anything else you will find in comics, and that makes it either beautiful or annoying, depending on your tastes. I think we need more unique stylists in comics rather than more clones, so I enjoy Sale’s work. His people don’t all look the same; his women aren’t all big-breasted, hourglass-waisted beauties (ignore the woman to the right of this phrase); his men aren’t all tall with mighty pectorals; and he has wonderful attention to details. His work on Challengers shows the kind of thing he is capable of. When Challengers Mountain explodes in issue #1, Sale shows the panels fracturing with the violence of the eruption, then draws a double-paged spread of Challengerville spiraling into chaos. The spread is against a white background and the fracturing of the page before continues – Sale draws shards exploding across the page from the upper left into a spiral down to the lower right, and each shard shows either parts of Challengerville or glimpses of what’s to come in the series. It’s a nice way to show the destruction of the Challengers and how they are broken apart. In the last issue he does an inverse spread of this, showing the Challengers coming back together. Sale does interesting things throughout the series, from double-paged spreads that pack information into each corner to pages with sixteen panels and twelve panels that drive home Loeb’s points with verve. He is equally good at small expressions on his characters’ faces and portraying the immense majesty and loneliness of the Amazon rain forest. Loeb asks him to veer wildly between space-spanning adventures and quiet moments, often on the same page, and he’s up to the task.
Loeb came to the comic industry from the movies, where he penned such classics as Teen Wolf and Commando (I wonder if he came up with such great lines as: “Remember when I said I’d kill you last? I lied.” and, “I let him go”?). Challengers is certainly cinematic, but what is nice about this series, in contrast to Loeb’s more recent work, is that he doesn’t overwrite it. Alan Moore, maybe, can get away with overwriting, but as comics is a visual medium, writers have to allow the artist to express things when, in non-graphic fiction, words must do the job. Loeb’s background in movies may have helped with this, because very often in Challengers, he allows Sale to express his ideas without feeling the need to pour words onto the page. In some of his later works, he’s become a bit verbose, and it’s a drag on the flow of the narrative. That’s not to say Loeb isn’t occasionally verbose in this series – he certainly can be – but when he does indulge his love of narrative, it doesn’t overwhelm us, it simply provides necessary information. But in numerous instances, he allows the pictures to tell the story, and as Rod Stewart explained once, that’s not a bad way to go.
The series is nothing complicated – the mountain in which the Challengers live is blown up, the Professor and June are killed, and the three remaining Challengers have to discover who they are when they aren’t defined by a group. Eventually they reunite to face the menace that blew up the mountain originally. The showdown with the unspeakable evil from deep space (N’zrath, he’s called, and I can’t help notice the similarity to Nazareth, but that’s somewhere I’m not going), is supposed to be the climax of the book, but it comes off as … well, anti-climactic. We know the Challengers are going to win, we have a good idea how they’re going to win, and that’s not the point of the book anyway. Because this is a noble (Grail?) quest, the Challengers need an enemy to vanquish, and they do so with a minimum of fuss. The grand narrative of how N’zrath is unleashing all sorts of bad vibes on an unsuspecting world, causing people to act worse to each other so that he can break through whatever dimensional wall is keeping him out and take over, is standard-issue superhero fare, unfortunately. It certainly doesn’t hurt the story, but it doesn’t help it, either.
So why is this series amongst Comics You Should Own? Well, the art certainly helps. But it’s what Loeb does with the Challengers between the mountain exploding and the final confrontation with N’zrath that makes this a fascinating and ultimately excellent book. Loeb knows that the Challengers are a somewhat anachronistic group in the more sensible world of comic bookdom we now inhabit. Four men, with no powers, hanging out in a mountain together and doing God knows what? Only one of them has a girlfriend, after all, and he’s the oldest one! Loeb wants to figure out what makes these guys tick, and if he can poke fun at some of the comics conventions in the process, all the better. So he puts the Challengers through the wringer, and we get a great story.
The deconstruction of heroes has been done, you say? Can’t they just have adventures and be done with it? Well, of course they could, and yes, writers have turned the deconstruction of heroes into a cliché, but Loeb doesn’t deconstruct why they are heroes as much as he examines what makes them men. He doesn’t necessarily care why they do heroic things. He wants to understand why they don’t do evil things. Therefore, in the first issue, he shows them rescuing people who have been injured when the mountain explodes, but by the second issue, they’re on trial for murder. Loeb makes it perfectly clear that the Challengers are just people, not larger-than-life characters, and their exploits should be admired even more because of this. They’re acquitted, naturally, especially when Superman shows up as a character witness, but the team has been fractured and they go their separate ways. Loeb wants to ask, Were they heroes because they were in a team, or did they form a team because they were heroes?
Well, because it’s a mainstream DC book, they’re heroes, naturally. However, they don’t arrive at that point without truly examining themselves and trying to overcome the hardships everyone faces. They were comfortable as Challengers, and now that the Challengers don’t exist anymore, they are uncomfortable and unable to simply have an adventure and make everything better. Loeb also forces the remaining Challengers to come up with identities for themselves, because as Rocky, Red, and Ace, they were simply creations of the group and, as Loeb makes clear during the series, the media (I’ll get back to that). As Leslie Davis (Rocky), Matthew Ryan (Red), and Kyle Morgan (Ace), they are individuals who don’t know what their places in the world, or their roles in life are. So they go their separate ways and “find” themselves.
The paths they take could easily be stereotypical. They ARE stereotypical, to a certain degree, but it’s what Loeb wants to do so that he can do other things that I’ll look at later. Kyle studies magic and becomes a Doctor Strange pastiche. In one of the funnier pages of the title, he rents a Greenwich Village loft that looks suspiciously like one from a Marvel comic we all know, and says that the landlord was a “strange” man (“Wong” even has a cameo in the book). He dabbles in magic, incurs the wrath of Doctor Fate (the cool female one), goes to the Amazon rain forest and hooks up with some natives, and gains total consciousness. So he’s got that going for him. His voyage is the mystical one of the series, obviously. Every superteam needs a magician, after all, and Ace fills that role. Loeb, however, is examining man’s connection to nature and the forces beyond our control. Kyle has to learn how to master his own passions and desires and overcome his addictions, like we all do, and gain a connection to the bigger world around him. Only that way can he grow and change and become a man.
Matthew Ryan, meanwhile follows a different path. He’s the action junkie of the group, and he decides to become a vigilante in Gotham City. Yeah, not the smartest idea, especially because he kills people instead of just crippling them like Batman (who’s so much more humane). Loeb uses Batman nicely, actually – only his hands appear, to give Ryan a plane ticket out of town. This is the more non-psychopathic Batman who is always refreshing to see – he is willing to forgive Ryan’s murders because of his past, as long as he leaves town. So Ryan becomes a mercenary in some South American country, but ends up on the losing side and is thrown in prison. While he is there he learns to appreciate the life he has, through the philosophy of a fellow prisoner, but when that prisoner is killed, he despairs and attempts suicide. He doesn’t succeed, of course, because Kyle shows up and saves him. Loeb is writing him as the ultimate alpha male, but shows that this kind of life is ultimately unfulfilling. Matthew wants to wallow in blood because that’s what he thinks a “real man” does, and although there’s a role for him in the group dynamic of the Challengers, he has to come to grips with the hole in his life that killing cannot fill. Fighting and sacrificing yourself for a cause, like his fellow prisoner does, is noble, but killing indiscriminately is shallow. Matthew spirals into depression because he feels that he cannot change and become someone better than he is, but Kyle and the Challengers’ climactic battle against N’zrath shows him that his aggression does have an outlet, and a positive one at that.
Leslie Davis (Rocky), meanwhile, follows another stereotypical route that allows Loeb to shatter some of them and examine them more closely. Davis goes into the movies as an action star, befitting his role as the rather dull muscle of the Challengers. He makes a lot of money and then has a torrid affair with Corinna Stark, someone I don’t know but who apparently has some history with the Challengers. He goes on a whirlwind world tour with Corinna, but, not surprisingly, loses all his money and Corinna herself, who’s only sleeping with him because he’s rich. Davis also spirals downward, into alcoholism instead of killing, but his story is perhaps the most interesting, since most people can relate to it. He doesn’t want to admit he has a problem, even after he has lost everything, because, as he points out, he was a Challenger of the Unknown – a hero. He can’t understand how a hero can have such a pedestrian problem as alcoholism. Only by confronting that particular demon can Leslie begin the climb back. His is a poignant problem, because Kyle only seeks greater consciousness, while Matthew simply has to overcome his bloodlust. These are worthy pursuits, but Leslie is fighting for his soul, more so than even Matthew, languishing in prison. Leslie believes that he is not worthy of anything, not his hero status, his money, and his woman. He believes this because if he shows weakness in any way, then he is unworthy. Only when he accepts that a person can show weakness but still be a hero is he ready to move on. All of these men have to go through these transitions in order to confront N’zrath, when their new knowledge of internal demons helps them defeat the external demon.
Loeb doesn’t limit himself to the journeys that these men make, either. The narrative, of course, is always present, as N’zrath unleashes anger and destruction on the world. However, there’s another story winding its way through the series, and this is the story of the media and how it shapes public perception. In recent years, it has become more common to show how superheroes would be perceived by the media of the country – think X-Force/X-Statix and The Authority – but Loeb did it, and did it well, years ago, before it became a staple. The Challengers are celebrities at the beginning of the series, with their own media liaison – Harold Moffet, a writer for the tabloid Tattletale. Moffet becomes the Everyman in the story, trying to decipher what has happened to the Challengers after their trial and why the world is acting a little askew. He’s a jerk and an opportunist, but he also has a story arc to follow, as he begins to realize that a reporter sometimes has to get involved in the action instead of simply reporting it. His part in the story allows us to see the media obsession with the Challengers – in the first issue, we see Challengerville, which has grown up around Challenger Mountain and is wholly dependent on the Challengers for its livelihood. This is interesting, because Loeb leaves us to wonder, as we see the townspeople testify at the Challengers’ murder trial, whether they truly see the Challengers as heroes or whether they just see them as cash cows. In today’s America, Loeb is telling us, the concept of a “selfless” hero is outdated – it’s all about how you can make money, either by selling your story itself or by selling tchotskes with the Challenger name emblazoned all over them (we see action figures – naturally – and lunch boxes and Challenger soda, among other things). Loeb sets out to skewer that notion, but it’s never completely resolved, even after the Challengers have made their voyages of discovery and grown up a little. Moffet remains a jerk, for the most part, but he also realizes that as a journalist, he has a unique perspective on events and can use his contacts and knowledge to decipher them. He is able to piece together the disparate stories about disasters all over the world into a coherent narrative, one that points to an even greater disaster to come – N’zrath. He is also able to discover who blew up Challenger Mountain and what his role in the grand scheme of it all is. Moffet is necessary to ground the remaining Challengers and provide them with a focus after they return from their varied voyages of discovery, and he also becomes a crucial part of the finale. Tied into the media’s obsession with the Challengers is the desire for fame. Moffet is famous, to a degree, but he wants more fame, and gets angry when he can’t sell his story to any of the top newspapers. The trial issue, #2, shows this theme most clearly, as the Federal Prosecutor thinks to herself how the trial could get her noticed for a Supreme Court nomination, while Moffet lords over Clark Kent because he’s going to be on television and poor Clark is just a print reporter. The witnesses at the trial all owe their lives and livelihoods to the Challengers, and they enjoy the small amount of fame that comes from living and working in Challengerville. No one can escape this, and even some of the disasters that occur when N’zrath begins his plot to conquer the world reek of a desire to be, at least for a few short minutes, famous. The Challengers themselves are not immune to this – Leslie becomes an actor, after all, and they all were “heroes” at one point, even though they had no powers. By sending them on their respective journeys of discovery, Loeb makes them move beyond that craving for fame and understand the true importance to life.
Challengers Of The Unknown works on a simple level as an adventure story. It’s not the greatest adventure story, but it’s a solid one. What elevates this is that Loeb isn’t interested in just writing an adventure story. When you read the series, it becomes a satire of a great deal we hold near and dear as Americans, and questions whether those things are really that important. The Challengers appeared to have everything, but when their raison d’etre was destroyed, they realized they were living in a fantasy and were not really fully-realized people at all. Coming-of-age stories, done well, always resonate, and this one is so much more fascinating because the people coming of age are men who should have done it years before. By subtly comparing the Challengers to people who read and write comic books, Loeb is setting himself up for derision, but there’s nothing wrong with pointing out the inherent silliness in the medium, as long as it’s done well. Challengers Of The Unknown is a comic book about the people who inhabit a comic-book world, both in print and in the real world. That the Challengers return to their heroic ideal shows that Loeb does hold them, and us, in some esteem, but he makes it perfectly clear that although it’s okay to read comic books, we should also be careful that they don’t become our whole worlds and blind us to the rest of creation. It’s a tough line to walk, but Loeb pulls it off. All of this subtext makes Challengers Of The Unknown a fun read and – dare I say it? – a challenging one.
The series has been collected in trade paperback, so if you’re looking for it, it shouldn’t be too hard to find. If you don’t like Jeph Loeb, this might change your mind. If you do like Jeph Loeb, you may have missed this. Either way, you should track this series down.
And so I link once again to the archives. Give them a whirl!