Challengers of the Unknown #55, "Taps for Red!"

CHALLENGERS OF THE UNKNOWN #55; May 1967; DC Comics (National Periodical Publications); Murray Boltinoff, editor; featuring "Taps for Red!"  The cover doesn't leave much doubt about what the big event of the issue is.  Ace, Rocky and Prof, all grief-stricken,  stand around a gravestone marked "'Red' Ryan- Died 1967- He Was the Best There Ever Was".  A ghostly figure of Red looms over them, warning, "Okay, so I'm dead!  But you  guys have to carry on-- or the Challs are finished!"  (But the issue doesn't really live up to the cover blurb, at least for me.  The blurb reads, "Read It Now-- Remember It Forever-- TAPS FOR RED!"  But all I remembered about the story without pulling it out to reread was the fact of Red's (apparent) death-- no details.)

Review by Bill Henley.  I wasn't really planning to do any more Challengers reviews soon after the Challengers/Doom Patrol two-parter recently, but since I have most of the Challs issues involving Red's death and return, and some time on my hands, I'll see if I can answer Bob Buethe's question in some more detail.

The opening caption has a scene of a military bugler literally blowing taps (though I'm ot sure if it was ever established that Red Ryan was a military veteran entitled to such a ceremony) and a warning/boast; "This is the story that they thought comics could never handle!  They said 'The kids aren't ready for raw meat like that!'  They said no comic mag could survive that kind of yarn!  Well, they underestimated you, our readers-- and the survival factor of the Challengers of the Unknown!"  (But of course, this story wasn't unprecedented in having a team member killed off.  ADVENTURE COMICS #353, dated just a couple of months earlier, featured the death of the Legion's Ferro Lad.  Several years earlier, over at Marvel, Howling Commando Junior Juniper had died in SGT. FURY #4, and the death of Captain America's sidekick Bucky was depicted in AVENGERS.  Way back during the Golden Age. one of the members of the original Daredevil's "Little Wise Guys" kid gang-- Meatball, I think-- was killed off.  And all of those guys, except much later for Bucky, stayed dead, unlike Red.)

As the story begins, the Challengers are pursuing a flying saucer in their "Gallopin' Gizmo" jet-craft.  When the UFO emits a thick smoke-screen to foil pursuit, Ace orders the Challengers to split the "Gizmo" craft into four separate vehicles, in a similar manner to the Fantastic Four's Fantasticar.  The four aircraft surround the saucer and force it to land. The saucer opens up like a clam-shell and a robot emerges, but Rocky is overcome with laughter as the robot is an absurdly scrunched-up automaton which Rocky dubs "Mr. Five-By-Five".  Ace warns him not to take the threat too lightly, and is proven right as the robot unfolds itself, in accordion style, to giant size!  Rocky punches the robot, Red swings on a vine to drop-kick it, and Prof and Ace use a log as a battering ram, but none of this is effective.  But then when Rocky refers to the robot as "Collapse-O", this gives Ace an idea.  The Challs climb a bluff and leap downward to the top of the robot, and their combined 700-pound weight causes it to fold up into its stubby and helpless form.  But then Prof hears a suspicious ticking and Ace warns, "CHALLS! HIT DIRT!"  Red: "My favorite food under the circumstances!'"  But instead of a big explosion, there is a slight "poof" and a flag saying "Bang!" pops out of the robot.  The whole thing has been a scheme to make fools out of the Challengers, and the prime suspect is "VILLO-- king of the kookie crooks-- the wickedest-- and wackiest-- creep in the world!"  

And Villo is indeed getting a big belly-laugh out of the situation, watching on a remote camera setup, though his giant computer aide Brainex, the real brains of his outfit, reminds him that IT really conceived and created the flying-saucer prank.  (Villo was introduced in CHALLS #50.  He wears a red costume with "V" belt emblem and horned helmet, and bills himself as "THE MOST EVIL MAN THE WORLD HAS EVER KNOWN".  Sorry about that, Adolf.)  But what should Villo do next to really finish off his arch-foes rather than just humiliate them?  Brainex suggests that he should join forces with a group which shares the same goal-- the Challenger-Haters!  Villo likes the idea, except that he proposes to take over the group, not just join it.  Brainex locates the Challenger-Haters' secret Arctic hideout (hang a left at the Fortress of Solitude and you can't miss it...) and Villo sets out, advised by Brainex to take along some special surprises-- "deadly apples for the teacher"-- in case the Haters take exception to the newbie wanting to be the new boss.  And at their hideout, the Challenger-Haters are contemplating a brilliant new plan to destroy their arch-foes.  There's just one minor problem; "It would kill US, too!"  (  DOOM PATROL #102 showed the Challenger-Haters being defeated but didn't show them being imprisoned.  They don't seem to have appeared again between that issue and this one.  Did they escape from prison off-panel, or did our heroes in DP #102 just not bother to round them up?) 

Upon sighting an unknown aircraft approaching their hideout, the Chall-Haters fire laser beams and ultrasonic vibrations at it.  But the craft repels the laser beams and nullifies the vibrations with "anti-sonic" weapons, thanks to the preparations urged on Villo by Brainex.  Thinking that the Chall-Haters are defeated and humbled, Villo greets them:  "This is the luckiest day of our lives!  I, Villo, the craftiest, cleverest, most evil villain  on Earth, have agreed to become your leader!  What do you say?"  Their response is not in words but in bellows of laughter from all the Haters, even the robotic Kra and Multi-Woman. 

We pause for a "Let's Chat With the Challs" lettercol containing a letter from the ubiquitous Irene Vartanoff and a poetic "Ode to the Challengers" by Gary Skinner; a "Direct Currents" column promoting other DC titles; and a house ad for an 80 PAGE GIANT FLASH issue featuring "the Scarlet Speedster's Most Treacherous Traps and Deadly Dooms" as served up by villains the Top, Abra Kadabra, Mirror Master and Gorilla Grodd.  (Personally, I figure any of the Flash's rogues could wipe the floor with the vainglorious Villo... and never mind Lex Luthor or the Joker.)

Multi-Man tells Villo that the Chall-Haters have no use for Villo himself, but they might find a place for him if he turned over to them control of the super-computer Brainex.  Villo angrily stomps off, dismissing the Haters as "second-rate losers", and goes back to tell Brainex that he turned down the chance to lead the haters out of loyalty to his computer comrade.  "Touching, old shoe!  I never thought you had that much comradeship in you!"

Meanwhile, the Challengers themselves are exploring a new undersea lair, full of mysterious scientific devices, which an alien calling himself "Scientist X" bequeathed to them in issue #53.  Prof demonstrates a couple of the devices which he has so far figured out how to operate, including an anti-grav device which lowers him gently to the floor from a height-- apparently the replacement for elevators on "X's world"-- and a Star-Trek-transporter-like teleportation machine.  But the other Challs are distraught because the teleporter seemingly reduces Prof to a skeleton before reassembling him elsewhere. 

Back at Chall-Hater HQ, Multi-Man ruminates that he would be able and willing to blow up the entire Earth in order to destroy the Challengers-- except that he and the other Haters would perish with them!  The alien robot Kra-- who never has been all that enthused about the prospect of conquering the backwater planet Earth-- points out that "there are 20,000 inhabited planets that I know of!  Many of them  populated with nice, dumb, friendly people who'd be glad to let you be Mr. #1!  Who needs Earth? They don't appreciate you anyway!  They just want to give medals to the Challengers and slap you behind bars!"  The thought of being king on "a simpler, friendlier world" appeals to Multi-Man, and he begins laying his plans to destroy the Earth-- a plan scheduled to reach fruitiion in just 30 days!

A month later, the Challengers are summoned to a special conclave of scientists at United Nations headquarters.  Multi-Man has announced his plan to destroy Earth within 48 hours, and the UN authorities hope the Challengers' familiarity with Multi-Man will enable them to deduce the villain's method and stop it.  (Personally, I think that if I heard a threat like that and took it seriously, no matter how much respect I might have for the Challengers, I'd be calling in Superman and the rest of the Justice League, and every other hero I could think of right down to Dial H for Hero.)   Ace and Prof of the Challs dismiss the thought that Multi-Man might be planning to use any conventional weapon of mass destruction such as A-bombs, gas or germ warfare -- "Too old hat!  Not his style!"  And indeed, elsewhere, Multi-Man is starting to carry out a unique plan.  He uses his "liquid light" formula, which enhances his shape-changing abilities, to transform into an ice being existing at "almost Absolute Zero!  This will be indispensable to the final stages of Operation Eternity!" (Though we actually don't find out exactly how.)  The other starring role in his scheme belongs to that walking lava-pile, the Volcano Man.  Using his abilities to pinpoint "the nerve center of the earth's volcanic system," Multi-Man will cause every volcano on Earth to erupt simultaneously and "shake the Earth apart!  After nearly driving himself crazy tryig to outthink Multi-Man, Prof deduces that his plan involves Earth's volcanoes.  But can the Challengers stop the plan?

As the deadline approaches, the UN scientists telecast worldwide an offer to surrender to Multi-Man if he will cancel his plan to destroy Earth.  Ordinary people argue whether to surrender or keep fighting, but Multi-Man disabuses them that they have a choice; "I offer no deals!  This world is through-- finished!  In this way I prove that I am greater than Villo, that I am the greatest villain in the world!"  (Heck, at this point, if Superman and the JLA are unavailable for some reason, I'd be making Lex Luthor an offer to prove that HE is the greatest villain by foiling Multi-Man's plan. But yeah, by proposing to destroy the entire Earth to get revenge on four guys, Multi-Man-- not Villo-- might actually earn that coveted "most evil man ever" title.) 

As Multi-Man and Volcano Man go down a deep shaft to set off the volcanic explosions, the Challengers parachute onto the scene and try to halt Earth's doom by taking on the Chall-Haters with bare fists and a few gadgets.  Surprisingly, our heroes actually manage to get the upper hand over Multi-Woman, Kra, the frozen Multi-Man and Volcano Man (I don't feel like going over the far-fetched fight scene in detail) only to see the Chall-Haters vanish away!  They appear in the "mobile hideout" of Villo, determined to prove that the Haters need him and Brainex after all.  Multi-Man reveals that despite the Challengers' seeming victory, he has triggerred Earth's doom by sending the signal to start the chain of volcano eruptions!  He generously offers to allow Villo and Brainex to ride along on the Chall-Haters' rocket ride to safety.

Ace and Prof go down the shaft to determine the three locations on Earth where the volcanic force will be directed.  Theyare saved from the initial blast only when Rocky adds his strength to the elevator mechanism pulling them back up to ground level.  But now the only chance to save Earth is to use the teleportation device Prof discovered to send one Challenger to each crucial point on Earth's surface and set off counter-charges to divert the volcanic energy!

Rocky is first to arrive, at the target site in Italy, and he succeeds in settig off the explosive charge that splits up and weakens the volcanic shock wave.  "I better stop callig Prof 'Dr. Useless!'"  In the Aleutian Islands, Ace is likewise successful.  "But somewhere in Turkey, Red's luck has RUN OUT!"  The timer on his explosive charge is off and the charge fails to go off in time to break up the volcanic shock wave!  Red realizes that even iif Rocky and Ace succeeded in neutralizing the threat elsewhere, millions of people may die if even one of the shock waves sets off a chain of volcanoes!  "Only one thing left to do-- set (the charge) off by hand just as the shock wave hits!  It's the only way!" As he pushes the fatal button, Red muses, "Man, this is a lonely way to go!  Didn't even get a chance to write my memoirs-- or give Rocky one last boot!"  Well, that's the way the cookie crumbles!"  The cookie, and the landscape, crumble in a huge explosion in which Red's form is lost!  Caption: "Alone, without another hand or voice to comfort him, the brave Challenger meets his final challenge!  May we all go as well when our time comes!" 

And back at the Challengers' new undersea HQ, Ace and Prof realize that, since the teleport beam has not returned him, Red must be dead!  (Well, "comic-book dead," anyway.  It's not clear from this story whether the editor and writer's intention was always to bring Red back within a few issues.  But the fact that we don't see a body at least suggests that they wanted to keep their options open.)  Rocky briefly goes berserk, but calms down somewhat when he is reminded that the remaining Challs still have a mission; to find and capture the Challenger-Haters and avenge their teammate!  This turns out to be easier than expected, since the Haters' flying saucer spacecraft is still sittig on the launch pad, despite their plans to blast off into space!  It seems that trying to load the giant computer Brainex onto the ship took longer than the 60-second countdown to escape.  Multi-Man and Villo bicker over who is at fault, but when the three surviving Challengers charge at them, despite their vast powers, the whole gang surrenders meekly, instead of fighting back or fleeing!  Once again we don't see specifically what is done with the Chall-Haters, but one would hope that they were put away somewhere secure this time.  Maybe so, since I don't think they appeared again after this.  The next day, the three Challengers, along with throngs of others, attend a military-style funeral service for Red.

"But at that moment across town, a strange new fiber has been woven into the lives of the Challs..."   A teen singing idol named Tino Manarry gives a performance.  As they struggle to keep Tino's crazed female fans from reaching him. the security guards on the scene take note that Tino has other talents besides music--  "They say this kid-- at 17-- has patented 147 engines he invented!  Worth millions!"  But right now, Tino Manarry's mind is not on either his star status or his inventions to benefit humanity.  Alone in his dressing room, Tino looks grimly at a picture of the faces of the four Challengers, with Red's face crossed out, and vows, "I won't rest until the last Challenger is dead!"  Caption: "And if there is one of you readers who can ignore that kind of teaser, we want to meet him-- the FINK!"

Maybe I'm a fink, but I have to say that this just wasn't a very good story.  If a Challenger was going to die, he deserved a better sendoff than this.  "Camp" was running rampant, the yarn was unbelievable even for a superhero comic, and the absurd byplay of Villo and the Challenger-Haters detracted from any emotional impact the death of a major character might have had.  Also, a story involving the death of a Challenger should have included some kind of reference back to the original premise of the series-- the idea that the Challengers, having survived a plane crash that should have been fatal, are living "on borrowed time."  Something like, "Well, we know it's coming for all of us sooner or later!  Red was just the first!"  There's a reason why, despite the cover blurb, the other "death" stories I mentioned (Ferro Lad, Junior Juniper, Bucky, and even Meatball) are better remembered than this.