Tuesday 16 December 2008

Showcase Presents: Challengers of the Unknown, Vol. 1, by Jack Kirby and friends

Showcase Presents: Challengers of the Unknown, Vol. 1The Challengers of the Unknown live in a world where anything can happen, and, best of all, there aren’t any superheroes flying around to grab all the fun. If something weird is going on in their world, they’re the people you call. It doesn’t matter that they’re just four better-than-average humans – or five, once June becomes a very welcome distaff member – they’re the best this world has to offer, and they always give it their best shot. You have to love the spirit of four guys whose go-to move, when confronted with giants of all varieties, is to run at them in a big gang shouting things like: "Let’s all hit him — together!"

The big problem with this book is that it can be very difficult to tell the Challengers apart in black-and-white. Usually their hair would help (red, blonde, brown and that strange hair colour only found in comics, the Superman blue-black), but in black-and-white, you’ve just got two blonde guys (one beefy, one slim), and two black-haired guys (one beefy, one slim), all in identical costumes. It got very frustrating, to the point that I began to think about getting my daughter to colour them in for me.

I never expected to say this about a comic, but it became much more readable once Jack Kirby stopped drawing it. What appalling heresy!

At the time, I thought it was down to the change of artist (to Bob Brown), but looking back through the book, I’m hard pressed to spot a really significant change in the way the Challengers are drawn. It’s more down to the (usually uncredited) writing.

In the early issues the Challengers are pretty interchangeable, apart from their specialised skills (pilot, diver/boffin, climber, wrestler). Then for a few issues after Kirby leaves the art, they suddenly develop personalities, ones that oddly enough aren’t a million miles away from those of the Fantastic Four (Kirby’s next book). The climber develops a bit of a Johnny Storm look and attitude, and starts poking and teasing the wrestler, who’s turned into a bit of a Ben Grimm. Towards the end of the book, unfortunately, they revert to being totally characterless, but by that point June’s role has become more prominent, which balances it out.

I’m a huge fan of the Essentials and Showcases. They’ve let me read and enjoy hundreds of comics that I would never have shelled out for in more prestigious and pocket-gouging formats like the Masterworks or the Archives. And as someone who grew up reading the black-and-white British comics of the seventies, I’ve never felt the lack of colour to be a huge problem. But in this case, it comes very close to spoiling the book.

What saves it is the Kirby streak that runs through all his comics: the feeling of freedom, of imagination left to follow its nose. If you want to find out what lies beyond the realms of possibility, he’s your man…

Showcase Presents: Challengers of the Unknown, Vol. 1, Jack Kirby et al, DC Comics, tpb, 544pp.

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