DC Comics is trying something new. In the wake of their Rebirth initiative, the publisher has rapidly expanded its content to include diverse new imprints such as Young Animal, Wildstorm, Black Label, Ink, and Zoom. As their lineup expands, it can be hard to figure out what to pick up each week. That’s what the Comics Beat managing editor Alex Lu, entertainment editor Kyle Pinion, and contributor Louie Hlad are here to help you with!
THIS WEEK: Louie celebrates the classic 50’s/60’s adventure team-up, Challengers of the Unknown, and takes a look at the new group of heroes who take up the mantle in NEW CHALLENGERS #1.
Note: the reviews below contain **spoilers**. If you want a quick, spoiler-free buy/pass recommendation on the comics in question, check out the bottom of the article for our final verdict.
New Challengers #1
Writers: Scott Snyder & Aaron Gillespie
Pencils: Andy Kubert
Inks: Klaus Janson
Colors: Brad Anderson
Letters: Deron Bennett
We can all agree that Jack Kirby is the king of comics and long may he reign, right? Without Kirby, we wouldn’t have mainstays like Captain America, the Fantastic Four, or the Incredible Hulk. His staggering list of contributions includes hundreds of characters like Kamandi, Nick Fury, Black Panther, and pretty much all of DC’s New Gods. In the 1950’s, the Jack Kirby creative blitz continued with the debut of the science fiction and occult mashup team known as the Challengers of the Unknown.
The original Challengers — Rocky, Red, Prof, and Ace — were men of “reckless courage” who actively sought out the mysteries of life and the universe. They each had a drive to push the limitations of their bodies and their knowledge, as well as an open mind to accept the bizarre truths they inevitably encountered. Each member of the team had a different frontier of interest. Ace Morgan was a war hero and jet pilot who tested the thresholds of Earth’s atmosphere and played on the fringes of space (notably written before humans had actually been to space). Prof Haley was a scientist who bravely explored the crushing depths of the oceans. Red Ryan was an acrobatic daredevil who climbed the peaks of the world’s deadliest mountains. And Rocky Davis was an Olympic athlete who pushed his body’s stamina and strength to the limits.
Kirby’s original story in Showcase #6 had these four accomplished men, barely acquaintances, survive a grisly plane crash and somehow walk away unscathed. The group decides that by all rights they should have died in the crash, and will forever feel they are “living on borrowed time”. This strange event gave birth to the Challengers of the Unknown, as the four men (and soon an unofficial fifth member, robotics expert June Robbins) pitted themselves against anything bizarre, dangerous, or mysterious. The less likely they were to survive, the more recklessly they threw themselves at a challenge. It’s not that they had a death wish, but rather that death had already foregone its claim and they could now explore life with impudence. And so they did.
Early issues had the Challengers confront everything from sorcerers to aliens, rogue robots, dinosaurs, and bizarre biological hazards. The daredevils typically drew straws to decide who would get the privilege of taking on the most dangerous tasks. In the course of their adventures, they traveled through time and got captured on alien worlds. They battled intelligent robots, a kraken from the depths of the sea, and a freezing sun that sucked the heat out of everything in its path. No mission was too dangerous or wild. Challengers of the Unknown was a fun adrenaline rush of a comic and you never knew what kind of exploits or imaginative worldscapes you would find inside its pages. The purple jumpsuited adventurers were up for anything and everything they could experience in their borrowed time.
DC has been paving the way for a refresh of Kirby’s classic concept for some time now. The Dark Nights: Metal crossover event featured the return of Challengers Mountain, the team’s hollowed-out headquarters in the Rockies. Metal also positioned Hawkman as a key player in the Challengers mythos, revealing that he recruited the reckless adventurers in his explorations of Nth metal and the dark multiverse.
The whereabouts of the original team is unclear in this debut issue of New Challengers. There are actually plenty of unknowns (pun intended) as we begin to explore the landscape of this new and mysterious story. Who is the shadowy figure that survives a plane crash inside a mountain bunker in the Himalayas? Why does he appear to have the same mystic relic as the ringleader of this new Challengers initiative — a man who coincidentally calls himself ‘Prof’? Who is supplying the technology and artifacts that power this operation? And to what end?
What we do know is that a new group of “volunteers” has been recruited to explore the edges of known reality. Each of these new members appears to have been ripped from the moment of certain death and offered an opportunity to serve on the team in lieu of the grave. The only significant backstory we get is of Trina Alvarez, a Gotham City herbalist turned local healer and protector. Her service to the overlooked community is cut short when the Justice League’s latest alien invasion visits her neighborhood. She appears at Challengers Mountain with the rest of the bewildered recruits: Robert, Moses, and a burly hothead who wants to be known simply as Krunch.
These New Challengers (along with the readers) receive a brief history lesson that serves to set up the status quo for the series. It appears there is more to The Challengers than just the four-man team up of the 1950’s, but rather a legacy of dozens of brave men and women who have probed the uncharted depths of the universe over the years. They quickly learn that there are limits to their newfound immortality and that the grip of death is never far away. Before the rookies have a chance to catch their breath, the team is whisked away on their first assignment — and quickly find themselves in the clutches of a Kirby-esque creature on the edge of the world. For a series that has always been about heart pumping action and fantastical dangers, this new version does not disappoint.
My hopes for the next issue are (1) that we dive into the recent backstory of another team member, (2) that we continue to learn about the mission and intent of the secretive organization behind the scenes, and (3) that a jilted sorcerer summons a giant sentient robot who catapults the team to a dangerous alien world. Or something like that.
Justice League: No Justice #2
Writers: Scott Snyder, James Tynion IV & Joshua Williamson
Artists: Francis Manapul & Marcus To
Letters: Andworld Design
We’re all into comics because we love the wild ride of unbridled imagination that only this medium can deliver. When we get entranced in the slog of the serial status quo, we desperately want to be caught off guard by something unexpected. My favorite comics are always the page-turners that make my eyes bulge like saucers. Hal Jordan destroying the central power battery and killing the Guardians and the Green Lantern Corps. Barry Allen running himself to death to save the multiverse. Ozymandias confessing, “I did it thirty-five minutes ago.” These are the gems that keep us coming back for more.
Formulaic, overly structured stories are no fun. I’ve always been leary of paint-by-numbers event stories, like the one where everyone gets a Thor hammer or that one where every Justice League member has an evil Batman version. You know what I mean: Sometimes it feels like a scaffolding was put in place first and the story was grafted on later, almost as an afterthought. These books can often end up feeling like shallow “what if” thought exercises that aren’t particularly groundbreaking in terms of character development or organic story progression. We just get everyone into formation around the necessary plot beats and then wrap it up with a nice bow at the end and move on.
I haven’t decided which type Justice League: No Justice is yet.
I’m a huge fan of the Justice League and I’m as excited about the upcoming new series (plural) as anyone. The team rosters are fresh and strange, ripe for some fun conflict and clashing personalities. My suspicion is that No Justice may be nothing more than a bridge story that was always doomed to come across as the literary plot device that it is. And really, there’s nothing wrong with that. I just have to remind myself that this is the appetizer before we get to the main course. The characters need to get from point A to point B.
The story so far is that there are four cosmic world eaters who each planted a seed on the planets of the DC universe, and now they’ve come to see which of the four trees grew up the strongest so they can decide who gets to eat each world. The heroes (and villains) have formed four teams to go check out the four trees and somehow balance the scales so the galactic devourers decide to dine elsewhere. Nice and neat. I can’t guess where the story is headed…unless the League is going to fail to save Colu from the baddies and then have to defend Earth in the exact same manner, ultimately deciding to stay in their team configurations for the foreseeable publishing future.
The series has moments of fun in it for sure. The Martian Manhunter and Starro team-up is going well, with the giant starfish providing comic relief to J’onn’s straight man routine. Kind of like a telepathic Laurel and Hardy. On the same squad we see that Starfire and Sinestro bristle at being forced to work together. Beast Boy practically addresses the reader when he complains about his assignment, “Seriously, how the hell did I get picked for this team?” And Lobo. The book has Lobo.
Ultimately, the scaffolding is difficult to ignore. Team entropy is trying to cause as much chaos as possible. Team wonder immediately makes plans to raise the dead. The eggheads on team wisdom stand around and act smart. Superman (team mystery) makes the case that releasing thousands of worlds from Brainiac’s bottles is the right thing to do because it would create “mystery”. It’s the kind of stuff that wouldn’t fly in a normal series, but is sort of allowable here if you understand where the publishing company is trying to go.
Like I said, this four issue miniseries is meant to be a bridge to the fun that awaits, so it’s not like it has to completely blow my mind. And who knows, maybe it will surprise me before it’s done. I’m still turning the pages, but my eyes aren’t saucers yet.
- I still can’t figure out how Damage connects to Dark Nights: Metal. I don’t know why I get so hung up on marketing, but I feel like if the crossover title appears on the cover of the (supposed) spin-off book there should be some kind of story connection. Books like The Terrifics and New Challengers are direct continuations of Metal, but this one…Did I just miss it?
- The Booster Gold story that concluded today in Batman #47 is kind of dark. And also kind of funny. But dark funny.
- Aquaman has been a dynamic story for such a long time, but it’s been sputtering lately. Arthur set off to depose the current King of Atlantis back in issue #33. He’s still working on it in this week’s issue #36 and according to DC’s solicitations it looks like the battle will take at least another two months. I sure hope we get Queen Mera at the end of all this fighting.
- But my, that Batwoman #15 cover is gorgeous!
Miss any of our earlier reviews? Check out our full archive!