With Further Ado #003: Challenging Reboots

Back in 1985 fellow Pop Culture Squad-er, Mike Gold, was one of the guys starting and running First Comics. In one of his editorial columns, he talked about reboots. He mused about how some characters would only be written or illustrated by their creators, while others, like Batman, actually blossomed once more talented folks took over. His insights still seem fresh and this column is worth a read.

You see this push-pull all the time.  I’m not sure how fantastic the original Domino Lady stories were, but I think there’s a lot of fine writers at Airship27 who are really having fun writing the character. Tarpe Mills’ Miss Fury was a perfectly lovely newspaper strip. But after talking to Billy Tucci at San Diego Comic-Con, I can’t wait for his new comic adventures of Miss Fury in the upcoming Dynamite series.

And it seems that there’s a whole section of modern day Sherlock Holmes who carry on the Consutling Detective’s tradition.

Sometimes we do get stuck on one creator’s vision of a character. I’ve been having trouble getting into the comics of my old favorite, Daredevil, after Mark Waid’s spectacular run.  And I have always loved Robert B. Parker’s Spenser books. However, I’ve been procrastinating on picking up recent entries by Ace Atkins, who took over after Parker’s death.  My fellow reader-fans, and a couple of authors, tell me ‘to get over’ myself because the new ones are great. I will, I will …I promise. 


The Challenge

DC’s Challengers of the Unknown is an interesting property.  These characters were created by Jack Kirby, and maybe Don Wood. And maybe by Joe Simon too.   But the one thing everyone agrees on is that The Challengers of the Unknown really hit their stride when Wallace Wood joined the party and inked several early issues.  (They had previously collaborated on the Sky Masters of the Space Force strip, which has been enjoying two recent reprintings.)

These issues of Challengers of the Unknown, (#4 through #8) are gorgeous comics. To today’s reader, they have a quaint, proto-Fantastic Four feel.  As TwoMorrows publisher John Morrow said in his Archives forward, “His delicate strokes added a sheen that on one else has ever been able to match, and it was the perfect complement to the high-tech look of both series.”

But soon Wood and Kirby were gone and the air was out of the balloon. It was all over too quickly.

You’ve Lost that Loving Feeling

Editors were always trying to capture that lighting-in-a-bottle feeling with the Challengers.  This series went through so many rapid-fire changes: new costumes, new members, the death of a major character, cool 60s Neal Adams covers, girls invading the boys club…  you name it.

I’ve recently stumbled across a couple issues of the Challengers from the mid-sixties. As a kid, I never had anything to do with this series, so it’s all new to me. But reading them now, my head just about explodes. Is it because they were billed as “The World’s Greatest Fear-Fighters?” Was it because these four big guys wore either purple or yellow togs? (The gym Planet Fitness has adopted their color scheme.) I’m not sure, but I do know that the villains were especially kooky.

Here’s a few bad guys that I just read about:

  • The Iron Dictator – an alternate dimension’s version of Adolph Hitler
  • Dimension Man – a treacherous despot who wears two big purple D’s on his head
  • Tino – the Terrible Teen (aren’t they all, really?)
  • The Kilowatt Killer – a big blue bad guy who’s called Power Man in the story

But even after all those nutty villains and goofy changes, it wasn’t enough torture for the Challs (as they were often called, foretelling today’s abbreviated slang).  Next came a myriad of reboots. I’m not going to list them all, but in thinking about just a few. I recall a Challengers prose paperback, by Ron Goulart, and the Swamp Thing crossovers in the late 70s. I remember when Bob Rozakis and the legendary Alex Toth updated the team in ’83. Joseph Loeb and Tim Sale took a crack at them in the early 90s. Steven Grant and John Paul Leon had their turn. In the Elseworlds series, Conjurers, Chuck Dixon and Eduardo Barreto twisted the Challengers a bit more. The Challs were Chaykinized when Howard Chaykin took a crack at them.  Dan Didio and Jerry Ordway dragged these heroes into the “New 52” universe. To the readers, it always seemed as if the publisher was telling us how great these characters are and that this time you should really believe it.

COTU

At San Diego Comic-Con, I had one of those eerie convention moments. I was one of the panelists on J.C. Vaughn’s Licensing in Comics panel. I had just told a story about writer Steven Grant to the audience. Then Andy Mangels nudged me and whispered “You said ‘Steven Grant’ three times and he appeared.” We could see him through the open doorway outside the room!  I motioned for him to come in and the coincidence was amazing to us all.

Steven Grant is like that. And he always has something fascinating to say. After the convention, I explained that I always had a thing for the female lead, Brenda, from his Challengers of the Unknown, (often called COTU) series, and he had a quite a bit to reveal about that particular reboot. Here’s Steven Grant:

Editor Dan Thorsland called me one day to develop a pitch for a Challengers Of The Unknown TV series. Jenette Kahn had decided it was time to start pushing DC properties for media development, & that was one of the ones she picked, largely, I suspect, on the then success of X-Files though that was never directly specified, but she needed something to take around to show. The all-white all-male original version was a no-starter out of the gate for Hollywood by then, so I was asked to come up with an all new team. This was just for TV.

Dan & I talked about it some. We decided – this may have been DC’s idea – to stick with the basics of Challengers: a team united by surviving a plane crash, who know they should be dead, are unsure why they’ve survived, & have a sense of living on borrowed time. We obviously wanted them exploring unexplained phenomena of all sorts, but not for a government agency; I think it was Dan who came up with them being backed by a mysterious billionaire with unknown motives.

The Internet was just getting started then, and I wanted them taking advantage of that, letting people contact them through it with “cases” to investigate, so we weren’t always randomly stumbling into things. They had a working class ethic. I also nicked the “elemental” aspect of the Dick Wood/Jack Kirby original, aligning each member to earth, water, fire & air. DC was pushing for them to have superpowers, which I thought too obvious, & somehow I convinced them to go with the members of the group having “affinities” for their respective elements instead, & keep things a bit more mysterious & ambiguous. I took a Baby Name book – every writer should have a Baby Name book, the most complete you can find – & found names that correlated to the various elements: “Clay” & “Brody,” for instance, both mean “Earth.” “Kenn” & “Kawa” relate to water, “Brenda” & “Ruskin” to fire, & “Marlon” & “Corbet” to air. Their various professions also tied in with the themes, & various other characteristics & personality quirks. The way affinities worked were the elements would “help” them in little ways, but it wasn’t like any of the Challengers intended that or willed it. Marlon, for instance, couldn’t fly, but in times of danger could safely drop from greater heights than would normally be safe, that sort of thing. But he couldn’t, say, jump off the top of a building & fly through the air. They were all basically meant to remain much more human than superhuman.

The mystery behind the group involves a mysterious light that appears from time to time, which causes their plane to crash & bestows their “affinities” on them. That was the cohering element to the series – it’s eventually revealed both the original Challengers & the latter day version’s billionaire backer encountered it, & unraveling the mystery of the light is what their backer ultimately wants them to do – but we wanted that to be a loose thread weaving through the series, not the focus. Little advances accruing in the background, for those who cared to notice.

I wrote up the pitch for them, then thought little of it after that for a couple months. Then Dan called me back; Jenette was getting some interest, but everyone wanted to see the comic instead of just a pitch, & there wasn’t a comic. Dan, meanwhile, was trying to start his own little corner of the DC Universe called The Weirdverse, so the decision was made to include COTU (I started calling it COTU to for ease & to distinguish it from the originals) in that group. At the time I was buried under with other work, & I wasn’t sure I wanted to take on another book or do another monthly, so I asked if I could write it with Len Kaminski… originally, the idea was that we’d alternate issues but put both our names on all the issues. A few different things happened to change that:

Dan signed John Paul Leon to draw the series. I wasn’t all that familiar with John Paul’s work at that point but when I saw what he did on the book I thought I’d died & gone to heaven. I wanted to work with him BAD. One of my favorite art jobs ever.

Len was also doing a book solo in the Weirdverse, Scare Tactics, & he wanted to devote his time to that.

A couple other assignments got canceled on me – that was during the Big Crash of the ’90s – & my time freed up.

Finally, while I didn’t think I’d much enjoy writing such a book, after writing the first issue I found I loved writing it. I really dug the characters & the gimmick, as well as the art. I had a great run of artists on that book: John Paul, Tommy Lee Edwards, Jill Thompson, Ryan Sook, Chris Schenck, Mike Zeck & George Freeman.

Len & I talked it over, he turned his attention to Scare Tactics, & I went solo with COTU.

The only real problem I had with the series is the goddamn DC Universe. Setting a series like COTU in it was a pain, an endless flood of fans bitching how stupid the Challengers were for disbelieving events were the product of magic. They weren’t wrong; the DCU is a place where magic is a now virtually universally experienced fact of daily life. Why wouldn’t they look at something that could only seemingly be explained by magic & just say, oh, yeah, magic? But they didn’t, because that wasn’t the series. They did encounter the true supernatural from time to time. It really should’ve been a standalone book, in its own little world that wasn’t expected to play by the “rules” (or lack of them) of the DCU.

I wasn’t pleased to have to include Batman in a couple issues, but the company wanted to boost the book’s profile with a Batman appearance. Unfortunately, that was also at a time of guest-appearance overload; by then, having a character like Batman or Wolverine guest-star in a comic was a signal to the audience a book was failing, whether that was the case or not (for COTU it probably was; it was never a bit seller). I never got the slightest indication the appearance did us any good, but I had some fun with it, to the annoyance of the Bat-office. It might’ve been the first place John Paul ever drew Batman, &, man, had I been the editor I’d’ve offered him a Batman book instantly.

The Superman crossover in #15 was a really fascinating experience. As was their wont in those days, the Superman office was doing this big Millennial Giants event arc, running through all the Superman titles for a month or two, & we were pretty much told the book had to tie into the arc for an issue. Thing was, by then DC’d been burned by “big revelations” escaping into the fan press ahead of time so extra paranoid secrecy was in effect & nobody would tell me what the damn arc was about, where it would go or how COTU was supposed to fit into it. (I’ve always subscribed to the idea that if a comic crosses over with a Big Event, it ought to in some small way have an effect on that event, not just have some very tenuously connected story so the book can be marketed with the arc name; that’s just cheating the fans. Companies tend not to agree with me on that, though.) At a convention I ran into Dan Jurgens, who was writing the main Superman book at the time, promised I wouldn’t tell anyone but could he PLEASE tell me what the story was about so I could write my story. But the then-four Superman books rotated being the anchor books for their Big Event arcs & it wasn’t the main book’s turn, & it turned out they hadn’t told HIM yet. He told me what couple facts he could. The bit that tied in best with COTU was that these things were following ley lines, so I went with that & had the Challengers reason it out, then send the information on to the Justice League. Not a word of acknowledgement of this anywhere else in the arc. Really pissed me off. I doubt anyone in the Superman office even looked at it. There was absolutely no reason for us to have done the issue, but as far as I know it was the only “crossover” of the arc that actually had anything to do with the arc.

And it did have some lovely art by Ryan Sook, which I learned just recently was Ryan’s first pro job ever. I’m proud to have helped facilitate that, at least.

Overall, though, just a wonderful experience working on the book. Around #17 I was told it was winding down & they were giving us to #25, so I worked out a storyline, but just as I was about to hand in the first of the final six issues Dan called to say they’d decided #18 would be the final one instead. Not the one I’d’ve chosen, despite gorgeous Mike Zeck-Denis Rodier art; the Challengers weren’t even in it. It would’ve been nice to have a couple more issues, just for a little punctuation, but that was that. The series has never been referred to anywhere in DC canon that I’m aware of, though I was impressed to learn via a Karl Kesel in a Superboy lettercol that I’d written the very first Hypertime story, in COTU #7-9, guest starring the original Challengers. Who knew?

Jenette never did sell that TV series. The head of TV production for Warner Bros said Challengers Of The Unknown sounded too much like a reality show.

The Latest and Greatest

Andy Kubert’s dynamic art lured me into the latest reboot. The title is now simply New Challengers.  It’s written by Scott Snyder and Aaron Gillespie. This new series spins out of the recent Metal miniseries. Good news: Metal is not required prerequisite reading for New Challengers. 

The thing that is especially impressive about this reboot is that is it crammed full of SO many innovative ideas.  And they come one after another. It’s like trying to get a drink of water from a firehose. But a lot more fun.

Issue #3 had a hiccup as the later part of the book had a fill-in artist.  It seemed to be both a speed bump and the pinprick that burst the bubble, for me at least. But I think I’m going to stay on board for the next few issues.  It’s a rocket ride, and it makes me feel like a kid of about 11 again, not knowing what to expect but grinning ear-to-ear all the way.

One thought on “With Further Ado #003: Challenging Reboots

  1. Really liked the interview with Steven Grant. I wonder if he notices any similarity between his pitch for the never materialized Challengers tv show and the new NBC tv show, Manifest, set to premier this fall? Grant’s pitch didn’t include a plane full of people but the rest sounds similar as both groups struggle with their purpose and ultimately, the greater mystery behind their current circumstances. Still perplexed as to why Warner Brothers passed on the project – I would have watched it. I am awed by the COTU and New Challangers artwork. Bringing words to life through drawings is an enviable ability as I am relegated to the art of stick figure drawing.

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