Spotlight Sunday 7.22.18

Spotlight Sundays

A desire to write about something new combined with an overwhelming sense of nostalgia means that there are spoilers ahead for…

New Challengers #3
Writer: Aaron Gillespie, Scott Snyder
Artist: Andy Kubert, V Ken Marion
Cover: Andy Kubert
Rated T

“I don’t give half a crap if you kids listen or not.”

I keep – and will likely continue to do so – talking about how my access to comics was rather erratic when I was a kid. It was difficult, even nigh-impossible, to buy any one comic with regularity, and I didn’t always have control over what I got.

Sometimes my mom would just semi-randomly grab a stack of comics for me, and I’d get a lot of comics that were bundled together in a sort of bag o’ mystery. Those bags of illegally-sold “damaged” comics were a big contributor to my collection, and, given that they were frequently not especially current, a big source of my knowledge of old stories and characters.

Digest-size comics also played a significant role in that latter point, as they generally contained a mix of new stories – the kind that might appear as back-ups in regular monthly comics, or in some of the anthology-style books of the day – and reprints of classic stories.

I got a lot of digests, because they were a bargain, costing just a bit more than two comics, but generally containing much more than two comics’ worth of content. DC had a rotating schedule of digests, generally clustered around a theme, such as holiday stories, or “Superman and Luthor’s greatest battles,” or “Funny Stuff,” which reprinted some of DC’s old “funny animal” comics.

They also moved the Adventure Comics title from standard monthly “floppy” into a digest, which is what today’s comic brings to mind, as it was those Adventure Comics digests that first introduced me to the Challengers of the Unknown, a group of men “living on borrowed time.”

The Challengers, or “Challs,” as they referred to themselves, were four men from very different backgrounds, each of whom was prominent in his chosen field, brought together as if by fate. After surviving a plane crash that by all rights should have killed them, they decided to band together to seek out adventure and the unknown, living out whatever “borrowed” time they had remaining to the fullest, all while wearing purple jumpsuits.

(Like you do.)

The Challs didn’t borrow much time for the relaunch that ran in Adventure – the Challs had first appeared back in the ‘50s in the pages of Showcase before getting their own title that ran until 1970 – but they’ve popped up every so often over the decades, and they remain just one of those beloved, though not exactly popular, pieces of intellectual property that DC likes to bust out every so often.

And now here they are again, in a new incarnation, as part of the “New Age of Heroes” that has spun out of the pages of the “Metal” crossover event.

It was my nostalgia for those old stories of the Challs that led me to select this as one of the “New Age of Heroes” titles that I would check out, though so far, of those books, only The Terrifics has managed to stand out as one that I particularly enjoy.

New Challengers ups the ante on the concept of “borrowed time,” as the new Challs are people who were grabbed at the moment of their deaths and brought to live a kind of half life inside Challenger Mountain, only able to exist outside of their HQ for a short period of time – the hourglass symbols they are marked with serve to keep track of how much time they have – before their time runs out for good and they’re reduced to unliving protoplasm.

Each new Chall was yoinked away from death by someone who appears to be Prof, one of the original Challs, and he’s recruited the latest team – the latest in a long line of New Challengers, apparently – to go out into the world and retrieve various artifacts before some mysterious opponent and his forces can do so.

The last issue ended with the New Challs returning to Challengers Mountain after the successful completion of one such mission, only to see Prof shot dead by…the original Challs?

So far each issue has been told from the POV of one of the members of the new team, showing flashbacks to their early lives and the circumstances that led to their untimely demises. This issue is from the POV of Krunch, an apparently metahuman mountain of a man who had been part of a gang that helped keep the peace on the mean streets of Suicide Slum in Metropolis.

Krunch and his crew ran afoul of Intergang after Krunch stole a piece of Apokolitan weaponry in order to keep it off the streets, and while he was doing a stint on Stryker’s Island, Intergang wiped out Krunch’s “family.” The hotheaded Krunch’s demise was the result of busting up another exchange between Apokolips and Intergang using that stolen weapon.

In the present day, we learn that after the New Chall had a run in with Aquaman, the King of the Seven Seas, recognizing the Challenges’ symbol, but not recognizing them, sent a priority message to Challengers Mountain, which woke the original Challs from the stasis that they, apparently, have been keeping themselves in. The New Challs don’t take kindly to the old Challs murdering their boss, and everyone is confused by the fact that there appear to be two Profs: the one lying dead on the floor, and the one standing with the originals.

After Krunch pops Rocky, of the original Challs, in the face, Mumbles, from the New Challs, pulls out a gun and tries to get everyone to calm down while they get everything sorted out.

It turns out that “new” Prof wasn’t as dead as he seemed, and, once again ambulatory, he explains that he isn’t Prof, but that he also is. He’s some kind of entity created by the energies of the Dark Mutliverse that has the form, knowledge, and memories of Prof.

He’s been assembling teams of New Challengers for years – thanks to some spacetime fuckery – to gather missing pieces of a skeleton he found in Challengers Mountain shortly after retroactively coming into existence in the past. The missing pieces keep entering spacetime in different locations, and the skeleton is that of a Promethean Giant, shaken loose when the Source Wall was shattered. New Prof’s mysterious opponent is trying to get his hands on the skeleton because it has the power to alter reality and change history, and New Prof wants to prevent that. As Krunch reflects on his past, he seems to focus on the idea of changing history…

A new piece of the skeleton has appeared in Skartaris, but while the Challs are still skeptical about this New Prof, they don’t prevent him from sending the New Challs to retrieve it. The Challs themselves stay behind, in part to keep an eye on New Prof, but mostly because they seem to also be confined to living in Challenger Mountain for the time being, as indicated by their depleted hourglasses.

In Skartaris, the New Challs are confronted by a team sent by their adversary, who appear to use a chunk of Promethean Giant bone to raise a couple of dinosaur-riding undead warriors, one of whom bears a resemblance to Travis Morgan, AKA The Warlord, about whom more in a bit.

For his part, Krunch is pleased, as he’s spoiling for a fight, and, unlike Rocky, these guys look like they’ll hit back…

Back at Challengers Mountain, New Prof is dodging the Challs, and has turned the mountain’s defenses against them. They have a bigger problem than that, though, in the form of the mysterious adversary who has breached the defenses and shoots the Challs down. Said adversary looks rather suspiciously like a distorted version of Prof.

Three issues in, I’m really not feeling this. I think the biggest problem is that it’s just too convoluted. The appeal of the original Challengers of the Unknown was that it was a simple concept: We shouldn’t be alive, but we are, so let’s make the most of it.

There’s definitely a “We shouldn’t be alive” component here, but…it’s too convoluted. The whole thing seems like some kind of mash-up of The Challengers of the Unknown with Task Force X and that movie Freejack. It’s just…too much.

Also, so far I haven’t found the backstories for the New Challs and how they died particularly compelling.

I liked the simplicity of the original Challs, as they followed a pretty basic template, with a team of people from disparate backgrounds, each one slotted into a different role: pilot, daredevil, brawler, and egghead. The complexity and convolutions came from the adventures, not the characters. What made it compelling was the Unknown part more than the Challengers part. Of course, that didn’t prevent the Challengers part from being compelling, and having the characters pigeonholed presented opportunities for taking them out of their pigeonholes and forcing them to take on different roles to, one might say, challenge them with what to them was unknown.

There is some of that with the New Challs – they definitely each fit a certain archetype – but so far I’m not hooked, and I think a lot of that is just that too-convoluted setup at the core of the series.

However, they are in Skartaris, so I’ll probably pick up the next issue just to see how that plays out.

Skartaris, for those who don’t know, is a world inside of the Earth, a land of eternal sunlight and filled with creatures from bygone ages and ancient magic and science.

It follows the contours of the Earth in reverse; its sun is the Earth’s core, and people live at an angle 180 degrees opposite of us.

Of course, the Earth isn’t actually hollow; Skartaris exists in another dimension, and it simply appears as though it’s a world existing inside of our own.

Skartaris is the stomping grounds of Lt. Col. Travis Morgan, who crash-landed there after being shot down by a Russian MiG while performing a reconnaissance mission in his SR-71 back in 1969.

A warrior to his very core, Morgan fit in quite well in that harsh and barbarous place where the only rule is to always expect the unexpected, and he went on to become the legendary hero known as The Warlord.

I was a huge Warlord fan back in the day, in large part because series creator Mike Grell lived nearby – he was interviewed on an episode of a local newsmagazine show when I was a kid – but mostly because I was a huge fan of Grell’s artwork, and I was always captivated by the credit listing in every issue: Created, Written & Illustrated by Mike Grell.

(Well, every issue other than the ones that he didn’t write or illustrate, of course.)

“I’m going to have a credit like that someday!” thought young, stupid Jon, wistfully. (I mean, yeah, young Jon was stupid, but…well, I did achieve that dream eventually. Kind of.)

Fittingly enough, while I read The Warlord on as regular a basis as I could, by the time I was reading it, the book had been around for several years, and I managed to get caught up on what came before thanks to – you guessed it – a DC Digest reprinting his earliest adventures.

Like the Challs, The Warlord is a beloved, yet ultimately unsustainable piece of intellectual property that DC likes to trot out every now and again. It’s kind of funny that having a story set in Skartaris is enough to keep me reading for another month, given that I dropped Trinity just as that book was starting an arc set in Skartaris. Perhaps if, at the time, I’d known that’s what they were doing, I would have held on to that book a little longer.

The art on this is from Andy Kubert, who appears to be the Kubert brother whose style is most reminiscent of their late father, the legendary Joe Kubert. I thought it was a nice touch that in the opening flashback sequence we see a young Krunch playing with a Sgt. Rock action figure, given that the Rock of Easy Co. is so closely associated with Joe. It was a nice little nod.

Like I said, I’ll see where this is going, but things aren’t looking too hopeful, and it’s a shame that “The New Age of Heroes” hasn’t managed to make a bigger splash than it has, or at least make a larger impression on me.

I suppose that I might be more excited if I ever got around to reading “Metal,” which I suppose I should one of these days. After all, it’s not often that a comic book crossover has its own soundtrack.

Recommended Reading:

Challengers! There’s even some Kirby in there!

That does it for the Spotlight for this week. Be sure to come back on Saturday for the Showcase.

As always, special thanks go out to Comic Logic Books & Artworkmy Local Comic Shop. Remember to support your LCS (find one here, if you don’t already have one).

Challenge the Unknown! Find out what will happen if people (like you!) support OpenDoor Comics on Patreon and/or PayPal! You don’t even have to wear a purple jumpsuit to do it! (I mean, you can, if you want. I won’t judge.)  Don’t make me keep living on borrowed time!

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