Vol. 1 of Showcase Presents: Challengers of the Unknown collects the earliest appearances of the Challengers in Showcase #6 (Jan/Feb 1957), #7 (Mar/Apr 1957), #11 (Nov/Dec 1957), #12 (Jan/Feb 1957), and Challengers of the Unknown #1 (Apr/May 1958) through #17 (Dec 1960/Jan 1961).Four men--fearless jet pilot Ace Morgan, master skin diver Prof Haley, circus daredevil Red Ryan, and Olympic wrestling champion Rocky Davis--miraculously survive a plane crash. Realizing that they are "living on borrowed time" and that they no longer fear the unknown, they decide to band together to investigate strange events and battle deadly menaces from beyond the scope of normal human knowledge as the Challengers of the Unknown!
If that synopsis sounds interesting to you, then it's pretty much guaranteed that you'll enjoy this volume. Rampaging robots, giant monsters, alien invaders, super-powered villains--they're all here.
The Showcase issues each contain one story, written by Dave Wood and drawn by Jack Kirby, while the Challengers issues are drawn by Kirby (notably inked by Wally Wood for a few issues) and written or co-written by Kirby with Wood or Ed Herron, until Kirby's departure after issue #8. The writing duties then alternate between Herron and Arnold Drake for the remainder, with Bob Brown as artist.
As usual for the time, the characters don't get much in the way of personality. Ace is the leader, just because. Red sometimes comes across as less mature than the rest. Rocky is the muscle, although none of them shy away from the more violent jobs. And Prof is…Prof. Basically, they're all the same, just with different backgrounds. Even then, their areas of expertise rarely have any effect on the events of the story.
The Challengers are joined in about every other story by June Robbins (whose name changes to June Walker for a few issues before changing back) beginning with their second appearance in Showcase #7, where they name her an honorary member after she helps them defeat runaway robot Ultivac. She doesn't have much character either, although it's worth noting that she is just as useful a member of the team as any of the others (the time being what it was, they still tell her to stay behind sometimes, although of course she doesn't listen).
The stories tend to be pretty similar, with either the Challengers investigating a report of, or encountering themselves, a weird creature or phenomenon of some kind. Sometimes it'll be a criminal having gained some strange power or stolen something that could potentially be very dangerous. Often, there is more to things than there initially appears to be, like a monster turning out to be a missing scientist who took an experimental formula, or what seems to be a threatening character turning out to be a friendly one that helps against bad ones. One of the stories introduces Multi-Man, who would go on to fight the Justice League.
Almost all the stories stand entirely alone, and there aren't any that really stand out as particularly good or interesting. They did get a bit less exciting to me toward the end after the initial interest of the concept had worn off.
The art is a different story. I'm normally not the biggest Jack Kirby fan, but I always like it when he draws weird creatures, and there are a lot of those here. There was also one sequence he drew here that struck me as particularly effective:
I love the creepy shot of Ultivac looking in the window, and you can really feel the energy when his giant hand punches through the wall. One thing Kirby was really good at was creating a sense of scale, and these panels really showcase that. It's more than just drawing something big next to something small--there's the sense of perspective in the panel where it reaches in, and in the last panel there is a sense of movement that matches the difference in scale between the hand and the smaller figures. The hand feels like it's drawing back without any concern for the minuscule people trying to stop it while the guy on the left is putting all his strength into trying to pry it open. I also love the scientist flailing his arms in abject panic. It's great.
Here's another effective example of scale:
And a similar panel by Bob Brown that just doesn't have the same impact:
This is not to say that the Bob Brown issues are bad. He is nowhere near as dynamic as Kirby, but I didn't like his issues any less. In fact, here are some panels where he does pull off scale in an effective way:
While we're at it, and since I love monsters (if you've come this far, you probably do too), let's look at some of the other creatures that can be found in this volume.
From one of the Wally Wood-inked issues:
A Cthulhu-esque creature:
One of the weirdest things I've ever seen, could've walked in from Ultraman:
And finally, tentacle-limbed aliens riding bat-winged, spotted horses with Monoclonius heads:
Other than the creatures, there isn't much to talk about with the art unless you are a Jack Kirby or Wally Wood fan. Wood's inks look great here, and Jack Kirby is Jack Kirby.
There is one other thing to point out about the Challengers.
Anyone familiar with the Fantastic Four would immediately notice that Prof looks like Reed Richards and Rocky Davis looks like pre-Thing Ben Grimm. Red Ryan could even stand in for Johnny Storm. It seems that Kirby barely changed the designs when he co-created the Fantastic Four a few years later. Even their solid purple uniforms would essentially become the FF's blue uniforms, and the FF were originally more explorers into new frontiers of science than traditional superheroes--just like the Challengers. There was even an issue in this volume from after Kirby left where Red kept picking on Rocky (a suggestion of introducing more personality to the characters that didn't end up going anywhere). I wonder if Kirby saw that before he and Stan Lee established the Thing/Human Torch rivalry.
If you think a cross between early Fantastic Four and Jonny Quest sounds like fun or you just like weird creatures, check this one out.