DC Histories: Challengers of the Unknown

Welcome back to another DC History. We’re well into the New 52 at this point, but there’s still much that can be gained by examining how we got here. Only by looking back at what came before can we understand where we’re going.

This week, we’re looking at the Challengers of the Unknown. There have been three separate groups claiming that name and we’re going to be looking at all of them. But let’s start at the beginning, shall we?

Showcase #6 (1957) Cover

In 1957, Jack Kirby was doing freelance work for DC Comics. He was doing very little superhero work, just the occasional six page Green Arrow story, with most of his work focusing on one-off stories in titles like House of Mystery and Adventure Comics. One year before he left DC to work for Atlas, where he would eventually help create the Marvel Universe, he co-created the Challengers of the Unknown in the pages of Showcase.

Showcase was the title that DC used to try out new concepts. Barry Allen had been created just two issues prior to the Challengers’ debut. Hal Jordan would debut a while later in Showcase #22. Issue 6 belonged to the Challs (as they would come to be called). In this issue, readers were introduced to four extraordinary men.

From Adventures of Superman #508 (1994)

Each man was a legend in his own field. Professor Haley was a deep-sea diver. Red Ryan was a master mountaineer and acrobat. Rocky Davis was an ex-wrestling champion. Ace Morgan was a test pilot without fear years before Hal Jordan existed. The four of them were invited to appear on a television program which was doing interviews with great men. To save on money, the program just had Ace fly the other three on a private jet straight to the studio. The plane hit bad weather, which forced them to crash land.

From Secret Origins (Vol. 3) #12 (1987)

Feeling as though they cheated death, the four men claimed that they were living on ‘borrowed time.’ They decided to buy matching jumpsuits and do the things that other people just couldn’t do. They would challenge the unknown.

Due to the similar origin story and matching jumpsuits, the original Challengers of the Unknown were very visually similar to the Fantastic Four only without the whole cosmic rays thing. It must have been an aesthetic that Jack Kirby enjoyed during these years.

In the Challs’ early adventures, the ‘unknown’ turned out to be a lot of giant creatures from beneath the earth, giant robots from other dimensions, and giant aliens from outer space. Also, giant primates.

From Challengers of the Unknown (Vol. 1) #20 (1961)

During all this commotion, the Challs took a home base in a location they called Challengers Mountain, which was a hollowed out mountain top. Also during this time they took on an honorary fifth member of the team named June Robbins. June was an archaeologist and knowledgeable about technology, but she hadn’t lived through the same plane crash as the men. She was just a sidekick.

The Challs’ ongoing series wrapped up in 1970, although a few sporadic attempts to get it going again failed to get things moving. During one such attempt, a novel was published featuring a brand new Challengers story. In it, our heroes traveled to South America to take on a local swamp monster and ran into some Nazis. It’s actually quite fun. Perhaps the strangest thing about it is the lack of ties to the comic anywhere on the book jacket. There’s not a DC logo to be found anywhere. If you didn’t know this was based on a comic book, the book didn’t seem to think you needed to.

Challengers of the Unknown (1977) Novel Cover

The Challengers hit a lull after around the time that this book came out. Their ongoing series survived one more push in 1978 but then it went away for good. The Challs still showed up here and there, guest starring in other titles but that was it.

In 1991, a new volume of Challengers of the Unknown was released. Best remembered as being the first collaboration between Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale, the new Challengers story dealt with an explosion that happened inside Challengers Mountain after our heroes hit middle age. A small community had sprung up around the Mountain during the years following the Challs’ first appearance and this explosion devastated the population. Rocky, Ace, and Red sprung into action to save as many lives as they could. The Professor and June were missing and presumed dead in the blast.

From Challengers of the Unknown (Vol. 2) #1 (1991)

After the three remaining Challs were acquitted of wrongdoing in the damage done to the town and for the lives lost, Ace, Rocky, and Red went their separate ways. Ace began to delve into the mystic arts. Red became a gun for hire. Rocky moved to Hollywood, made a few films, and lost himself to alcoholism. Eventually, the three aging heroes came back together to find out the secret behind the Mountain’s explosion. Along the way, they learned that the Professor and June may still be alive in an alternate dimension but had no way of getting back home.

From Challengers of the Unknown (Vol. 2) #7 (1991)

It seems fairly obvious that more was planned for these characters, though nothing came to fruition. Sales of the 8-issue miniseries weren’t enough for an ongoing to be launched from it and this version of the Challengers didn’t really show up again. The shame of it all is that this miniseries is quite good. Luckily, in 2004 this series was republished in a trade titled The Challengers of the Unknown Must Die! after Loeb and Sale became well known in comics circles. It’s not too hard to track this miniseries down.

Years later, a new group of Challengers showed up. This time, it was a bit of a diverse group who took the name.

From Challengers of the Unknown (Vol. 3) #1 (1997)

Known to early online fans as the X-Challs due to their thematic similarities to the X-Files, this group was a different bunch than their predecessors. These four were  a physicist named Brenda Ruskin, a computer game designer named Kenn Kawa, a race car driver named Clay Brody, and a commercial pilot named Marlon Corbet. During a regular flight in which Marlon was the co-pilot, a bright light flashed in the sky. The light damaged the plane, forcing it to crash just as the first Challs’ plane did. This time, 274 people died on that flight. The four that remained decided that they too were living on borrowed time. After getting the okay from Rocky Davis, the only Challenger they could still find, the four became the newly incorporated Challengers of the Unknown.

While the mystery behind the bright light was the main mystery of the series, these new Challs were just a phone call away from anyone who needed them. They had their own secretary and a mysterious donor funding their operation. Nearly all of the calls they went on were supernatural in nature. They dealt with zombies, otherworldly possession, ghosts, time travelers, and even an Irish banshee.

From Challengers of the Unknown (Vol. 3) #13 (1998)

In the all-too-brief issues of this volume of Challs stories, there was pretty great art. John Paul Leon did the pencils for most of the first year, which was gorgeous. The characters, written by Steven Grant, were compelling and the whole package was just wonderful. Sadly, this series only lasted 18 issues and the final issue was setting up the next major story arc that was never published. Still, this is easily my favorite version of the Challengers.

A few years after their last series ended, another new set of Challs showed up. This time written and drawn by Howard Chaykin, the Challs hit comic stands guns blazing. This new team was made up of five people from random walks of life who had been kidnapped and brainwashed by a sinister organization that was secretly controlling the world.

From Challengers of the Unknown (Vol. 4) #2 (2004)

Between the unsubtle parody of right-wing news that Chaykin crammed into nearly every page and the complete departure from past Challengers stories, this series was a big misstep. This team was made up of Manchurian Candidate-style assassins who tended to lead with their guns. After the sixth issue hit, these Challs were never heard from again.

Just a few years later, the original Challengers returned in a The Brave and the Bold revival. Mark Waid penned the first year of that series which saw the original Challs become the new owners of the Book of Destiny.

From The Brave and the Bold (Vol. 3) #6 (2007)

Just like that, the middle aged Challs of Jeph Loeb’s version, the investigators of Steven Grant’s version, and the assassins of Howard Chaykin’s version simply ceased to exist. It was a clean wipe back to the original Kirby creation.

The Challs kept the Book of Destiny and had a few adventures with it, but that was about it.

Now, in the New 52, the Challengers are returning in the pages of DC Universe Presents. Along with the Challengers’ return, it appears that we have yet another shake-up in their status quo.

DC Universe Presents #6 (2012) Cover

According to the previews for this title, there are eight Challs now. This new group is a mash-up of the original Challs and Steven Grant’s team. I am ridiculously excited to see all of these characters again. Here’s hoping DiDio and Ordway do right by them.

Jeff Reid knows that it wouldn’t last any longer than just a handful of issues, but he’d really like there to be another Challengers ongoing. A boy can dream, can’t he? Make his more realistic dreams come true by following him on Twitter.


  1. been wanting an updated Challengers of the Unknown (but maybe one set in the 60’s) since their appearance in New Frontier

  2. There was a really good Challengers story in #3 of DC Universe: Legacies (2010). Written by Len Wein with art by Dave Gibbons, it also featured the Sea Devils. Well worth a look.

    • Y’know, I bought the hardcover of that series a while ago but still haven’t read it yet. It’s on top of The Stack.

    • @JeffRReid When you read that hardcover, you should definitely do a review, given all your DC Histories experience. I enjoyed it but it didn’t leave much impression on me. I like the “ordinary citizen” perspective though.

  3. I remember that series that Tim Sale drew, I thought his art was horrible. Looking back, he was pretty bad but got a LOT better.

  4. I love the concept of Challengers, and that they are “living on borrowed time.” Even just the name Challengers of the Unknown, has always sounded cool to me. I’m looking forward to seeing how this turns out.

  5. That 3rd volume of the Challengers sounds pretty awesome and i think it’s in dire need of a reboot under Vertigo! Thanks Jeff, i may have to hunt that down now. I mean, how could i turn down Jean paul Leon art?!?!

  6. During “Countdown” the rag-tag group of Jason Todd, Donna Troy, and friends were being referred to as “The Challangers”. Probably best left forgotton though.

    I was pretty excited for this issue, but was a little underwhelmed after I read it. I’m gonna give iit another issue though, hopefully it picks up. Great cover though!

    • I try to think of Countdown as little as humanly possible. Seeing how many plot lines in the series were dropped after Countdown ended, I’m not the only one.