Wednesday, 15 February 2012

DC Universe Presents #6: Challengers of the Unknown

Brought together for a reality TV show, a group of minor celebrities are on their way to the Himalayas when a weird face in the window of their jet presages a crash. They awaken in the land of Nanda Parbat, but not before Challengers producer June Robbins has a dream in which a horrific version of her boyfriend Ace, who'd been co-piloting the plane, stabs her through the heart.

In the waking world, Ace is absent. A man who introduces himself as the high priest of Rama Kushna tells June, 'He was not one of yours, therefore not here.' All the others - science writer Prof Haley, singer Red, athlete Rocky, production team member Clay, billionaire Ken, internet star Brenda and co-pilot Maverick - are fed and watered. Or rather, poisoned. Something the monks give them causes the visitors to pass out, just as they're warned of the challenge of 'what lies ahead'.

They awaken on the side of the mountain, by the wrecked plane, apparently weeks later. Their radio's wrecked but a working GPS brings hope of rescue. And a helicopter duly arrives. But so does a monster ...

As for what happens next, I say give the comic a try. Longtime DC fans, or indeed, anyone who read the last few issues of this tryout title, will have caught the Namba Parbat and Rama Kushna references. Yep, we're back in the mystical realm overseen by a distinctly dodgy goddess; Deadman's boss, Rama professes to be watching out for mankind but her haughty manner and offhand treatment of her agents make her less than trustworthy.

And now it seems the Challengers are to be her lackeys. Living on borrowed time, they're ready for some predestined mission, but will they have the courage and skills to fulfil it? Will their time run out? One of the cast is already culled by issue's end, while Ace remains missing and possibly a monster. I'm looking forward to the continuation next month.

The Challs have been around in one form or another since the dawn of the Silver Age. Originals Ace, Prof, Rocky and Red were soon joined by June and occasional substitute members. Here we have several new characters, but writer Dan DiDio gives everyone enough screen time for at least an inkling of their personalities to be gleaned.
I'm not immediately thrilled by the Nanda Parbat add-on to the team's traditional survivors-of-a-plane-crash origin, as I like series to stand on their own, but we'll see where it goes. If Deadman shows up, as he did in the team's Seventies series, I shan't complain.

I shall complain about the fact that only one member of the cast winds up stripped to their scanties. Dream June. And then she's stabbed in the chest, blood spurting towards her bra. I really can't see the need - in stories I've read, honorary Challenger June was always treated as a full partner, not the decoration to be threatened. This just feels exploitative.

On the upside, the reality show is a clever way to get the Challs together, and the expanded cast allows for a bit more diversity than just four white guys - Maverick is African-American, Ken Asian-American. I don't know if the new people will stick around awhile, but they're here for now.

Jerry Ordway is the perfect artist for this series, a proper craftsman with great storytelling instincts - I don't like June's dream, but there's no denying Ordway captures the horror of the sequence, with distorted perspective and close-ups of a manic Ace. And the opening page of this scene is one of the cleverest in the book, as script and art gel to great effect. With the aid of inking trio Ray McCarthy, Andy Lanning and Mario Alquiza, Ordway does a fine job of making the characters unlike one another, and does a nice line in Kirby-esque nasties. The colours of Tony Avina are well chosen for the various settings and moods, while the lettering of Travis Lanham works well with the art. And whoever designed that stylish logo, sitting over Ryan Sook's pulp throwback cover illustration, deserves a Hostess Twinkie.

While never massive stars, the Challs were the first DC heroes to break out of a tryout comic - they debuted in Showcase #6 back in 1957 - and given the quality here, there's a chance they could do the same thing in the New 52 era of 2012.

10 comments:

  1. Im going to give it a try, as an occasional follower of the Challs in most of their brief appearances in the past. The concept of a reality show bringing these people together is a timely one, tho I dont want the Nanda Parbat ref...Id soon have a 'mysterious prescence' that we can read much more into. This version of June here seems a bit stroppy, I hope she calms down as the story goes on. Who thinks shes the new leader? The art is quite simply superb and the colouring just lush and appropriate; it has a lovely textual quality that feels as if youre watching a movie not reading a comic.
    As for the origin itself...its all very Lost meets X-Factor [and I disliked Lost] with a touch of the old tv series The Champions thrown in [now that I liked] I think the references to these shows over-clutters the origin and frankly it dosent need it.
    Still, looking forward to the Challs Omnibus coming out in a few months...original Kirby, and the precursor to the FF. Bliss!

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    1. I didn't find June stroppy at all, merely an expert idiot-wrangler!

      Great call on The Champions ... I wonder if Dan DiDio ever saw that.

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  2. I like the reality show angle -- it's not far different than their original origin, to be honest. But I'm definitely not sold on the Nanda Parbat connection, and like you, felt that June's dream was pretty exploitative. I was also dismayed that Brenda had become, from what I can tell, some sort of YouTube bimbo. Previously, in the Stephen Grant version, she'd been a scientist, I believe. (Clay, Ken, and Maverick were the other members of that group, although Wikipedia tells me Maverick used to be called Marlon; I really enjoyed that series while it lasted, and hope those characters are treated with some respect as things progress.)

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    1. Ah Rob, I forgot all about that bunch! I followed the DC Weirdoverse Challs, but never liked them enough to recall them easily. Thank you!

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  3. I never read a single Challengers of the Unknown story in my life. I bought this comic because I mostly heard Dan DiDio has been doing good with writing recently, so I wanted to see if this was true or not.

    I wasn't really floored by this issue, but I am very interested in seeing where this goes. When I get the last part of this story, I'll probably sit down and read them all in one go to see how this whole story arc looks. The art is fine for me, but I tend to think this comic is a bit too wordy almost. Not a real problem for me, but it sort of makes this read slow for me just so I can get everything going on.

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    1. I shall try and keep you posted as to how good this book is ... meanwhile, if you can find a Challs Showcase or one of the other classic collections in the library, try a story or two, they're Silver Age fun.

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  4. Ryan Sook needs more work more often. I can't get enough of this guys art. He is my Adam Hughes.

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    1. I agree, I've not seen his strip work since The Spectre. Unless I'm forgetting ...

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  5. I liked the Namba Parbat and Rama Kushna stuff as I think it made for a decent segue from the Deadman storyline to this one.

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    1. Fair dos! So, how many Namba Parbat characters can you name?

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