Challengers of the Unknown #48, "Twilight of the Challengers!"

CHALLENGERS OF THE UNKNOWN #48, Feb.-Mar. 1966; DC Comics (National Periodical Publications); Murray Boltinoff, editor; featuring the Challengers with guest stars the Doom Patrol in "Twilight of the Challengers!", written by Arnold Drake and drawn by W.R. (Bob) Brown (the credit for the artist normally known just as Bob Brown was so given on the splash page).  On the cover of CHALLENGERS #48, the three ambulatory members of the Doom Patrol carry the apparently dead bodies of the Challengers of the Unknown!  A blurb atop the title promises, "A FANTASTIC FIRST!  The Challs meet the Doom Patrol!" but it may be a short-lived and one-sided acquaintance, for "UNBELIEVABLE!  The DOOM Patrol becomes a grim burial squad in 'Twilight of the Challengers!'  The situation is so fraught with sorrow that tears can be seen leaking from the mechanical eyes of Robotman!

Review by Bill Henley

A while back I was looking at another DC comic from this period and the house ad for this issue caught my eye.  I didn't remember much about the story but the cover looked interesting, and I thought to myself, "I should pull out that issue and review it".  But when I located my hit-and-miss collection of Challengers from that period, I found I did not own the issue.  Which would explain why I didn't remember the story.  But the GCD entry for the issue indicated that it was reprinted in DOOM PATROL ARCHIVES Vol. 3 (due to being a DP crossover) and though I didn't own that Archive either, I had access to it from the public library.  So here's a review, written as I read the story for probably the first time.

As the story begins, The Doom Patrol-- Robotman, Negative Man.Elasti-Girl and wheelchair-bound leader The Chief-- arrive at the secret headquarters of the Challengers of the Unknown and find the four Challengers sprawled motionless and seemingly lifeless on and around the team jet on its airfield.  Contrary to the funereal atmosphere of the cover, not even this grim situation can silence the constant bickering of the Doom Patrol.  "Four great guys lying there like the dead, and all you can say is, 'Uh-oh!'  You SHMO-BOT!"  Chief: "Quiet-- both of you!  This is an emergency call-- not a gag writers convention!"  (In my humble opinion, Drake in his superhero writing during this "camp" period sometimes lost track that HE wasn't writing a "gag writers' convention.")  Under the Chief's direction, Robotman uses his "electronic ears" as a stethoscope to check the Challengers' heart action-- if any!  He finds "something-- It's about as faint as a feather dropping on a Persian carpet-- but it's there!"  The Chief directs that the Challengers be taken to DP headquarters where he can try to revive them.  And so, Robotman and Neg Man pick up the Challs and carry them to the DP helicopter, still bickering all the while.  (And the cover is shown to be a cheat right off the bat, as the Challengers are never actually taken for dead by the DP.)  Back at DP HQ, the Chief has the Challs placed in a sub-zero suspended animation "life cabinet" to keep their almost extinct life processes going.  (I remember such a device being used in a previous DP story to keep Larry Trainor alive when he was involuntarily separated from Negative Man.)  But without any clue what, exactly, happened to the Challengers, how can the Chief diagnose and treat their condition?  The Chief intends to ask the Challengers themselves, as he has devised a means of contacting their minds even in the midst of their comatose state.

Speaking into a microphone, the Chief attempts to contact the Challengers leader; "Ace Morgan-- can you 'hear' me?  This is Niles Caulder, Chief of the Doom Patrol!  Do you read me, Ace Morgan?"  And a faint answer comes back, "I--I-- hear you, Chief!  Where am I?  It is c-c-col and d-dark and-- am I D-DEAD?"  Robotman grabs the microphone and tells him, "Man, you're as close as you can get to it-- and the 'Digger Man' will be here soon, unless you can tell us what happened to you guys!" 

Ace begins telling his story; it all began when the Challengers delivered monthly supplies to "four incredible criminals called the CHALLENGER-HATERS!"  I recently reviewed a Tomahawk story in which a "League of Tomahawk Haters" repent and become "Tomahawk Brothers," but no such reformation is in sight for these guys.  They include Kra, an alien robot whose electronic powers are short-circuited by a continuous shower of water; the Volcano Man, a being of living lava held in check by a "thermal control belt"; Drabny, a human villain deprived of his telekinetic helmet that turns his thoughts into reality; and "the ultimate rat fink, Multi-Man, whom we stripped of his  chemical ability to change into any living form!"  Multi-Man is unfazed by his captivity; "Laugh today, CHUMP-engers, but tomorrow will be ours!"  As the Challengers prepare to leave, Prof, the scientist of the group, is startled to notice strongman Rocky holding a cute and cuddly looking rabbit!  (This was perhaps intended to bring to mind the Steinbeck classic "Of Mice and Men", in which the strong but retarded Lenny befriends rabbits, though I don't think Rocky was ever portrayed quite as dumb as Lenny.)  Prof and Ace point out to Rocky that no such life form should be found on the barren volcanic island where the Chall-Haters have been imprisoned, and order Rocky to get rid of the bunny.  But the wascally wabbit is not so easily disposed of!  It proves to have "a grip like a boa constrictor," and Rocky cannot remove it from his arm even with the aid of the other Challengers-- and his arm starts turning blue as blood circulation is cut off!  Red Ryan gets a gun and shoots the rabbit, but the bullets have no effect.  A sneering Multi-Man reveals, from his cell, that the rabbit is a "chemo-zooid," an artificial life form he and Kra created in "a crude lab built from the innocent supplies you brought!"  (Apparently, having received the unusual legal privilege of imprisoning their enemies themselves, the Challengers are just as careless as the wardens of most comic-book prisons about allowing scientific-genius prisoners the means to create escape devices.) 

Multi-Man demands that all four Challenger-Haters be freed, or Rocky will lose his arm to gangrene induced by the pseudo-rabbit.. Rocky demands that the other Challengers not make the deal and allow the rest of humanity to be endangered by the "mass killers."   Better to amputate his arm; "I've got more power in one arm than most guys have in two!  Besides, it's not my bowling hand!  Heh-heh!"  Ace ignores Rocky's protests and agrees to Multi-Man's terms, but insists that Rocky be freed before the Chall-Haters are.  Multi-Man has no doubt that Ace will keep his word and open the Haters' cells; "I know I can trust you, Ace Morgan!  A BOY SCOUT never goes back on his word!"  He then sprinkles some "magic" powder and delivers the incantation which disables the chemo-zooid menace on Rocky.  It is (I kid you not), "CHALLENGERS..; CHALLENGERS-BO-BALLENGERS... BANANA-BANA-BO-BALLENGERS...FEE-FI-FO-MALLENGERS CHALLENGERS!"   Over Red's protests, Ace carries out his promise to free the Challenger-Haters; "If we don't (free them), Red... we're no better than they are!"  (I think I might dispute that.)  In return, the CH show their own sense of obligation by unleashing an additional herd of chemo-zooid rabbits which attack all of the Challengers!  The Challs fight back and almost-- but not quite-- succeed in disabling the Chall-Haters before they themsels get "the blues" from the rabbits and fall helpless!  The Challenger-Haters march away, to board the Challengers' own jet and fly off to plague humanity once more.  (But, like so many other comic-book villains, even though they hate the Challengers they are not patient enough to wait around and make absolutely sure the Challs are most sincerely dead! If I were the Evil Overlord, I think I would not only make sure my arch-foes were completely deceased, but run their bodies through a meat-grinder to make sure.) 

Back at Doom Patrol HQ to open Part 2 of the story, the Chief protests that being squeezed to death by the evil bunnies wouldn't explain the condition in which the DP found the Challs.  Ace's mental voice explains that no, that came later, after Prof saved the team by crawling to Multi-Man's cell, with his antepenultimate breath, and identifying the "magic powder" which was actually a solvent intended to eliminate the chemo-zooids if they got out of hand.  Now the Challengers are alive and free again, but so are their arch-foes!  Ace has a brilliant idea about what the Challs should do about it-- they should stay dead!  That is, they arrange for the word to be put out to the world's media that the famed Challengers have been found dead in the volcanic island prison.  With their foes presumed deceased, perhaps the Challenger-Haters will come out from hiding and reveal their evil plans.  And evil plans they have in plenty; Multi-Man scurries around to complete one of them, which involves reactivating his giant robotic female counterpart, Multi-Woman.  The robot Kra is skeptical about Multi-Man's scheme; "There you go again!  You're still hipped about ruling this stupid planet!  Even if it were worth it, how could you swing it, M-M?"  MM annoys Kra by splashing a bucket of water on him, and points out that it is sea water; ""Who controls the seas-- controls the world!"

Meanwhile, for two weeks, the "dead" Challengers hole up in a Florida hotel room staying out of public sight and poring over newspapers (this was long before Google, remember) for some clue to what the "Hateniks" are planning.  It is Prof who finds the clue of a series of reports of ship disappearances-- ships carrying valuable supplies such as uranium, copper, construction steel, and lab equipment.  Enough loot "to build a small city"-- but where?  Perhaps right where the ships vanished-- in the middle of the Pacific!  "Men-- it's time we came back from the grave!"  They set sail aboard a sea cruiser previously used by Prof, a diver and oceanographer by profession, for his studies.  Upon spotting an Australian freighter suddenly sucked under the sea, the Challs pursue it in their "mini-sub" and discover a domed undersea city built by Multi-Man!  "That eggheaded dwarf has really topped himself this time!"  The Challengers emerge from their sub (in purple diving suits that oddly resemble their original uniforms rather than the gaudy yellow outfits they more recently adopted).  Upon discovering that reports of the Challengers' death were exaggerated, Kra the robot (who has been enabled by Multi-Man to function amidst his nemesis, water) shows a touching concern for the integrity of the news media; "Maybe your obituary was printed only a few days early!  I'll try to keep the papers from looking bad!"  But Prof, the undersea specialist, is able to lead the clumsy robot on a merry chase and ultimately get him jammed in a cleft between two underwater rocks.  The Challs are next attacked by Volcano Man, but ironically the lava creature is driven toward the surface and out of the Challs' way by the pressure of the steam and bubbles he creates in the deep ocean.  Next, Multi-Man himself takes a hand-- or, rather, a tentacle, or several of them-- using his shape-changing powers to become a giant octopus!  The Challs each seize a tentacle and try to pull him apart, but Multi-Man makes another sea change to a creature more dangerous than any of the Challs except Prof suspect-- a jellyfish!  Each of our heroes is struck by a deadly stinger which induces intense pain, to be followed by paralysis and, coma, and eventual death.  (Once again Multi-Man avoids bringing the Challs instant death.  Does he, like the Joker and some of Flash's rogues, harbor a secret reluctance to finish off his arch-foes once and for all?)  Despite the pain, the Challengers manage to reach their jet mounted on the sea cruiser, and Ace pilots it back to their mountain headquarters.  But with coma closing in, all he can do is to put out a radio distress call for medical help-- not to the local ER, but to the Doom Patrol!  And this is where we came in.

The DP guest-stars get their chance to show off in Part 3, "Battle of the Female Titans!"  Now that he knows what has happened to the Challengers, the Chief has a plan how to treat them-- but he needs the mighty Robotman to "fill a prescription" first!  Robotman declares, "The way you say that-- I don't think I'm going to like the 'drug store' you send me to!"  Negative Man whisks Robotman to the mid-Pacific site of the Chall-Haters' new undersea base.  Plunging into the sea, Robotman encounters the much bigger robot Kra, but is able to disable him quickly by using acid to dissolve the protective coating that Multi-Man applied to keep Kra from being disabled by water.  In order to trick Multi-Man himself, Robotman dons a diving suit to disguise his identity.  When MM forms a giant sea anemone and swallows the intruder whole, Robotman is able to burst free. Then Multi-Man once again takes his jellyfish form, but Robotman is unaffected by its stinger-- and, as the Chief planned, is able to slice off a piece of the stinger and escape. Back at DP HQ, the Chief identifies the poison affecting the Challengers as "clostridium tetani-- the bacillus that causes LOCKJAW!"  So the Chief administers anti-tetanus medication, and soon the Challengers are able to emerge from frozen suspended animation.  Seemingly, however, they still suffer from testosterone poisoning, as the first reaction of Rocky is to pick a fight with Robotman!  Elasti-Girl breaks up the bickering, and Rocky and Robotman agree to postpone their private fight until the Challenger-Haters-- who now are also Doom-Patrol-Haters-- are defeated! 

Meanwhile, the other Haters are puzzled when Multi-Man orders them to evacuate their laboriously built undersea base.  MM explains that they can always build another base, and that the old one will serve as a booby trap which may destroy all their enemies, the Challengers and the DP together!  But it doesn't work out that way.  Instead, the Challengers in their jet spot and pursue the Haters' flying ctraft.. and Drabny, who had been sent out on a detached assignment to seek out the Challengers, returns to HQ and, not having got the memo, is blown up in the booby-trapped base!  Kra declares, "That's the way the pizza crumbles!" (what does a robot know about pizza anyway?) but Multi-Man is a bit more respectful; "Dear friends (maybe it should have been "dear fiends"?) we've just lost a loyal comrade!  I ask a moment of silence for his evil soul!" 

The Challenger-Haters seemingly elude their foes and set up shop on a remote island (presumably not the same one they were imprisoned on in the first place), only to discover that the Challengers and the DP are already there waiting for them!  The heroes split into teams to take on the bad guys.  Robotman discovers that Volcano Man is hot enough to melt his metal fist, but nonetheless figures that he along with Red and Prof can keep the lava man busy.  Ace, Rocky, and Larry (Negative Man) Trainor take on Kra.  And Elasti-Girl expands herself to match the size of Multi-Woman, Multi-Man's giant robot inamorata.  "I could expand to three times your size, mechanical girl!  But  that wouldn't be as much fun as taking you on, inch for inch!  Let's go, Multi-Witch!"  Multi-Woman plays dirty by pulling at Rita's hair, so Elasti-Girl confuses Multi-Woman by shrinking to tiny size, and then expands only her fist to deliver a punch to the robot woman's chin (hey, shouldn't they have invited Platinum of the Metal Men to participate in this brawl?) and then grows back to full giant size to topple her foe with a judo toss.  "Happy landings, Miss Erector Set of 1965!"  As the female furies keep on fighting, Robotman puts Volcano Man out of action with fire-extinguisher foam, while Ace subdues the metallic Kra with a giant magnet conveniently provided in Multi-Man's island lab!

But just as the good guys appear on the verge of victory, they are interrupted by the voice of Multi-Man, who has reached the wheelchair-bound Chief and is threatening him with death unless the villains are allowed to escape!  Haven't we gone through all this before?  Like Rocky earlier on, the Chief wants to sacrifice himself if necessary to save humanity from the Just-About-Everybody-Haters, but once again Ace of the Challengers insists on accepting the deal rather than sacrificing the life of any of their members.  Rocky isn't so sure that saving the Chief is a good deal, but Robotman takes exception; "I wouldn't trade a boatload of guys like you for ONE of the Chief's whiskers!"  As the Challenger-Haters flee, the Chief apologizes for causing the combined team's defeat, but now Rocky shrugs it off, pointing out that at least the bad guys "never got their big underwater deal started", and that they should all have another chance soon to beat the bad guys.  The final caption promises that chance will come very soon, indeed-- in the concluding part of the crossover saga in DOOM PATROL #102, scheduled the next month.  (I'll probably do a follow-up review of that story.)

In his introduction to the DOOM PATROL ARCHIVE volume, Bill Schelly opines that the DP creators Arnold Drake and Bruno Premiano "hit their stride" and "were firing on all cylinders" during this mid 60's period, and that this DP/Challengers crossover in these two issues "reached a high point (and) is one of Arnold Drake's finest... Even the corny jokes have a special zing this time.  Everything clicked."  As I've mentioned in previous Doom Patrol reviews, I can't quite agree.  As far as the DP is concerned, I prefer the earlier pre-"camp" stories which were handled more seriously with fewer "corny jokes".  Still, I'm glad of the chance to read and review this story, which was at least goofy fun (actually, I'm surprised I never sought out and found this Challengers issue for the DP crossover, since I've always been more of a DP fan than a Challengers fan, especially where the post-Kirby Challengers are concerned.)