Monday, March 1, 2010

No wonder nobody Challenges the Unknown much: it's the same crap over and over

Challengers of the Unknown is a comic about a series of four interchangeable men, all armed with their own separate hair color, who all come together to take risks because they survived a plane crash and came to believe they're all living on borrowed time. This leads to the most interesting and distinctive element of the series, that frankly makes it impossible to dislike: they have such an entertainingly matter-of-fact attitude to their own deaths, and a fate-tempting recklessness, that they come off as a little insane. The Challengers are adrenaline junkies that specialize in suicide missions, gleefully playing Russian Roulette with God.

Unlike other comics, this one has an anxious edge that borders on horror. Anyone with superpowers is a villain, and they use their powers in frightening ways. The stories have a background of subtle dread that really speaks my language.

The comic's first two issues are among the best comics I've read from that period - head and shoulders above most of the comics of the time. But by the third issue, you can pick out a formula that starts to emerge. The Challengers basically experience the same story over and over: like Scooby-Doo they split up, they find some weird unexplained phenomenon, usually a monster of some kind, and then, while being blackmailed into doing the bidding of a villain who wants an object that will give him superpowers, they experience four different stories where they experience four different monsters or locales. At the end, the villain acquires powers, and the Challengers trick him in some way where he loses those abilities. In the archetypal Challs story, there are usually "four magic jars" (or something to that effect) that we're left wondering what's in them. (SPOILER: Usually a monster, or maybe an evil mirror.)

This is a very basic example of how to tell a story. "Hey, it's a box. What's inside?"

As soon as the formula clicks in, Challengers becomes unreadable, because there's never a new kind of story, only plugging different numbers into the formula above. The scripter/plotter job on Challengers has to be the easiest gig in the entire world: it's less an act of creation and more like filling out a big Mad Lib. I guess that's the real reason that few people "challenge the unknown" much. Because it's the same thing over and over.

Worse, none of the four characters really have personalities of their own. They are absolutely and totally interchangeable. At least with Doc Savage's aides they had separate skills: Monk was a chemist, Ham was a lawyer, etc. But even that bare bones, primitive level of one-dimensional characterization is absent: the only place one knows that Red Ryan was a circus daredevil was the title page. He never showed any acrobatic ability. When did Rocky, "champion wrestler," ever wrestle anything? You'd think Professor Haley would have scientific skills that he uses, but he's generally no smarter than any of the others.

This is why I find it hard to believe that Challengers is in any way an antecedent to Fantastic Four. Anyone that says that doesn't understand what actually makes FF great: how interesting and distinctive the four lead characters were.

After the descent into a repetitive formula, Challengers isn't readable. I've often been told by people that like traditional Westerns that I "need to acquire an appreciation for formula." Personally, I think the sole function of formula is to prepare you to accept more formula, the same way that the only function of bad movies or books is to prepare you to accept more bad movies or books.

That said, Challengers starts off really, really strong, with two great stories - the second of which, the Ultivac story, has in my opinion, the best art of Jack Kirby's career. Ultivac is a giant robot capable of reading minds. But in a twist, he's actually a sympathetic creature that is trying to protect his own existence. The real enemy is revealed to be the greed of people that want to exploit a human robot for their own purposes.

To quote the Garbage Pail Kids movie: "Ugliness? Meanness of spirit and greed, these are real ugliness. To be blessed with...unusual an adventure."

It's actually pretty shocking, because for the most part, traditional adventure comics of the 1950s are suspicious and distrustful of outsiders of any kind, who are usually malevolent instead of sympathetic. Take for instance the LSH hero Lightning Lord: the only singleton on a planet of twins, if he was in an Andre Norton sf novel (which always feature disabled outsiders as the main characters), or in the outsider-sympathetic Marvel comics, he would be a hero and protagonist instead of a villain. Being an outsider and standing out made him, in the 1950s, twisted instead of likeable.

One of the great additions the Ultivac story was that of June Robbins. Here's an interesting historical footnote about the story: computer operation and programming in the beginning decades was a mostly female, "pink collar" profession, like secretary work. In fact, I like to tell people as a joke that my Grandmother was a computer - and by computer I mean the original definition, a woman with good math skills that double-checks the calculations of engineers. Many of the major figures in the early days of Computer Science are female, like Grace Hopper. It's often hard to believe today, where Computer Science majors are 90% male (I am not making this statistic up, by the way, though this should be obvious to anyone that has ever been around a computer science or IT department - maybe they should stick Twilight posters on the walls of the classes or something).

In fact, I'm getting my masters in Information Science, which includes the technical aspects of information organization work...metadata, electronic database management, etc. I've often heard an extremely sexist (but funny) comment that this line of work is just library science for men. I've also heard of Masters IS students referred to as "guybrarians."

The first Challenger story was likewise really strong, and it forms the Challenger formula: they find a magical box, which they open each section, each of which contains some bizarre creature from the elder world. One really effective scene has them draw straws - and the winners are thrilled when it's their turn. And Kirby deserves credit for creating monsters and menaces that are really fearsome. The strength of the first Challenger story is based on individual images: things like a giant hand that emerges from the sea and crushes a ship underneath.

Like Roger Zelazny, who only wrote two books that I really like yet I count myself a fan of his because of how great those two are (Lord of Light and Amber), I can consider myself a Challengers fan despite the fact that they have an astonishing ratio of bad stories to good ones.

Here's my advice if you find Challengers of the Unknown in Showcase form: check it out from the library, read the first four stories, and give the book back the next day.


David said...

But...but...if you stop after the first four stories, you won't get to the ones Wally Wood inked! For my money, the pairing of Kirby and Wood is one of the greatest in the history of the medium.

I would bail before the Bob Brown-drawn issues, though. Not only are they dull to look at, but by then they've given up on even trying to be original or interesting. I actually read the second half of the Showcase first, so I could savor the front end with Wally and Jack.

This is why I find it hard to believe that Challengers is in any way an antecedent to Fantastic Four. Anyone that says that doesn't understand what actually makes FF great: how interesting and distinctive the four lead characters were.

That's because you're looking at it from the point of view of characterization. On a superficial level, they're very similar: four people crash down from the sky to find their lives changed and dedicate themselves to adventure. It's the same, you see, like "Battlestar Galactica" is the same as "Star Wars" or The Monkees are like the Beatles.

It is curious, though, that the brainy one isn't made the leader (if anything, Ace the jet pilot seems to fit that bill. And I suppose the name "Ace" just reinforces what a cypher he is...of course the pilot would be named "Ace"). In fact, Prof's expertise seems to be scuba work, so we should be grateful he's not called "Flippa Dippa." How dorky is that, BTW, to be the "Aquaman" in a group of non-powered Super-Friends?

I've often been told by people that like traditional Westerns that I "need to acquire an appreciation for formula." Personally, I think the sole function of formula is to prepare you to accept more formula, the same way that the only function of bad movies or books is to prepare you to accept more bad movies or books.

Yes, but there have always been people who take comfort in the repetition of stories with only slight modifications. This goes back to the earliest days of spoken language and continues healthily in the Bond films, and elsewhere. But I agree it's like any other taste; either you're into it or you aren't.

To quote the Garbage Pail Kids movie...

Bless you, Julian. This is why I keep coming back here. I never dreamed there was such a thing as a Garbage Pail Kids movie, but of course if there were, you'd be the one to quote it. Awesome.

David said...

Oh, forgot to mention that's a very insightful observation about outsiders being "bad" in the DC universe and "good" at Marvel. Luthor loses his hair and turns evil. Harvey Dent, a swell guy and District Attorney goes to the dark side because his face is messed up. In tons of stories, being ostracized, rejected and shunned is presented as a fate worse than death. How many Silver Age covers of Superman, Batman, et al had the hero being run out of town as citizens tossed tin cans and rotten veggies at them? How many times did Superman have a near-breakdown because a new "champion" took his place in Metropolis (instead of saying, "Welcome aboard, glad to have the help")? Silver Age DC was all about fitting in and having friends.

The one exception of course is the Doom Patrol, all weirdos and outsiders. But even then, they really would have preferred to be normal and accepted over being gifted and having cool adventures.

Julian Perez said...

About outsiders being generally evil at DC...

There was a very specific reason I used the example of Lightning Lord there. I can kind of understand why Harvey Dent would turn evil: after all, he believes his disfigurement reveals a secret, previously hidden evil aspect to his nature and drives him criminally insane.

Lightning Lord, though...I just don't follow their thinking with him. I mean, he's an outsider on a planet of twins. Okay. How does that make him evil? I can understand if they were trying to make him a sympathetic enemy like Magneto or something, because that is kind of sad. But the very fact he's an outsider in and of itself makes him malevolent. He's the purest example of what it is I'm talking about here: he's evil cause he's a misanthrope that didn't fit perfectly into society.

By the way, I find it interesting that Gorilla Grodd is a criminal outcast/deviant from his society and culture instead of an authority figure in it. When we first meet Maximus, he's king of the Inhumans. The Mole Man and Tyrannus are kings of their subterranean races, and Namor is ruler of Atlantis. Doctor Doom is a monarch from Latveria, not a criminal refugee.

In the book "Comic Book Nation," one thing that Wright points out is that all the superheroes introduced during the 1950s were either in some way authority figures, status quo guys: police officers or scientists.

It's interesting that the one villain that's cast out from society and is villainous and twisted for that reason, the Mole Man, was introduced all the way back in FF #1, at the very beginning of Marvel. Even then, there was this one story in later FF where they felt the need to explain why he was a villain because by this point I think they were aware that just being a reject wasn't cutting it, especially when you've got a hero like Ben Grimm. So you have the Mole Man piteously whine about how nothing's ever his fault.

Johnny Storm's response? "So you had a gripe! Nobody exiled you to Subterranea! You went there on your own cause you couldn't face up to your problems. Ben Grimm had a lot bigger problem than yours, and he faced it like a man! Alicia, a gal not as lucky as you cause she's totally blind, managed to take on the world and come up a winner!"

I find it very interesting that they felt the need to tell a story like this, to fit the Mole Man better into what Marvel ultimately became. Just being a person that didn't fit in, in and of itself wasn't enough to make you evil after FF #1.

David said...

re: Lightning Lord...I suppose you could make the case that residents of his world need a twin to be "all there" mentally; that twins are somehow psychically bound together in a way that maintains emotional equilibrium and even sanity. Without a twin, Mekt would then be mentally unbalanced, and ultimately criminally insane.