by The Masked Bookwyrm

Miscellaneous (non-Superhero) - "C" Page 2

cover by SaleChallengers of the Unknown Must Die!  2004 (SC TPB) 228 pgs.

Written by Jeph Loeb. Illustrated by Tim Sale.
Colours: Lovern Kindzierski. Letters: Bob Pinaha. Editors: Elliot S! Maggin, Katie Main.

Reprinting: The Challengers of the Unknown #1-8 (1991 mini-series) plus an unpublished 12 page short.

Additional notes: intro by Brian Michael Bendis; afterward by Jeph Loeb; cover gallery;

Rating: * * 1/2 (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Published by DC Comics

The Challengers of the Unknown were created in the 1950s by Jack Kirby and is seen as a prototype Fantastic Four, except without super powers (and, mayhap, were inspired a bit by the soldier-of-fortune heroes of the radio series "I Love a Mystery"). Four guys of different expertise band together in matching uniforms to investigate strange phenomenon and battle evil (quickly becoming five with the addition of a female Challenger). The series enjoyed varying success over the next couple of decades, enduring an occasional cancelation and subsequent revival. But eventually it fell into more-or-less obscurity.

Then in the mid-1980s, DC Comics overhauled its entire line with its Crisis on Infinite Earths -- providing the opportunity to re-boot and re-invent its old properties. And with the success of the Dark Knight Returns, it coincided with a movement toward edgier, more "adult" takes on old comic book characters (or, at least, what DC's editorial staff took for "adult"). So in addition to unleashing a slew of re-takes on its key properties (Superman, Green Lantern, etc.) there also came a flood of projects dusting off old, half-forgotten characters, often with a gritty, edgy spin that would've shocked readers of old -- some such revivals proved temporarily successful (Grant Morrison's Animal Man) some didn't (Richard Bruning's Adam Strange). Into this mix came Jeph Loeb -- a Hollywood scriptwriter. Although Hollywood screenwriters working in comics are all the rage today, Loeb was among the first to make the leap and in a medium desperately self-conscious of a perceived inferiority, Loeb's Hollywood credentials made him something of a golden boy. The fact that his credits included "Teen Wolf" and a co-story credit on an Arnold Schwarzenegger film -- things not likely to get him a table at the Oscars -- didn't matter to comics folks: He. Was. A. Real. Writer.

And his first comics work, paired with the equally green artist Tim Sale, was a mini-series revival of the Challengers of the Unknown.

Jump ahead a few years and Loeb and Sale become a critical and commercial hit factory in comics, producing much praised works like Batman: The Long Halloween, Superman for All Seasons and more. Still later, Loeb has become an interesting illustration of the capricious nature of comics fame -- perhaps moreso than fame in novels or movies. Not too long ago, just a hint of Loeb's name associated with a property would stun a fan into reverential silence...nowadays, glancing at some internet reviews, Loeb has become a polarizing figure, with some reviewers seeing Loeb's by-line on a comic as an automatic "buyer beware" label. So has Loeb's work really changed (declined) over the years? Or has fandom just turned on him, eager to tear down what it once built up? Or was he never as good as the early accolades assumed? Well...everyone will have their own answer to that.

It's ironic that this TPB collection features an introduction by Brian Michael Bendis who, I'd argue, is in a similar position to Loeb. A guy who has received almost universal praise and success, heralded for his smart, sophisticated, edgy comics work...but more recently some reviewers seem as quick to invoke his name when describing what's wrong in comics as other reviewers are when saying what's right. The attitude of those detractors being, not so much that Loeb and Bendis are the Emperor Who Has No much as the Emperor Who is Dressed Only in a G-string and Flip-Flops.

So let's get back to the Challengers mini-series -- first published in 1991, and Loeb and Sale's first major work, it's an odd creation. Like a lot of DC's then revivals of second and third tier properties, it seems to suffer from a curious split personality. On one hand, it completely shakes up the franchise, knocks it about and slaps it around, all with a bit of a "mature readers" air, in a way liable to alienate a lot of fans of the old series...even as it is clearly meant to draw upon the Challengers mythos in a way that'll resonate with existing fans more than those unfamiliar with them. I'll admit, I was never a big fan of Loeb's work -- even his critically acclaimed stuff. Oh, I've liked some of it, don't misunderstand. But I was never a devout member of the Loeb-Sale congregation.

But it's probably not much of a stretch to say their Challengers project remains their most audacious, ambitious work. You kind of get the feeling they went into this almost as if they thought this might be their one and only comics work and really wanted to make it count, and as if Loeb was fully unleashing his creative id after years working in the stifling conformity of the Hollywood sausage factory. It's a mad melange of comedy and drama, of character introspection and pop references, ranging from court room trials to South American jungles, rambling off on weird tangents that only vaguely -- if at all -- really hang together. Loeb was pushing at the conventions in ways his later comics works wouldn't.

Before getting too far into the story, I'll just comment on the art. Despite this being among Sale's first comics work, his style is pretty much established here. Cartoony and caricaturish, but fairly compelling and expressive. His style may have become a little more cartoony in later years, particularly when he draws super heroes in tights. But since there are few heroes in tights here, it's hard to compare directly. If you've liked Sale's later work, nothing here will disappoint you. What perhaps does contrast with his later collaborations with Loeb is that the script is much denser and more complex, so Sale doesn't get to indulge in quite as many big panels and splash pages (though he does some), instead often breaking the pages down into smaller, tighter panels. Which actually gives Sale a chance to show off his storytelling better than the indulgent "big panels" of those later works. There's some nice composition and story boarding. Sale also tries some more quirky -- and self-referential -- tricks, like a page done to look like flipping comic book pages, or where panels literally shatter, or another page framed as a monopoly board. Of course, such things sometimes impress...and sometimes just seem gimmicky.

The premise here is that the Challengers are approaching middle age, and have become their own pop phenomenon. The town next to their Challenger Mountain headquarters has become an entire tourist trap devoted to the Challengers' mystique. And then one day...Challenger Mountain blows up, wiping out half the town, and killing two of the Challengers -- Prof. Haley, and girlfriend June. The remaining Challengers -- Ace, Red and Rocky -- go their separate ways, after first enduring a trial attempting to blame them for the disaster. Kyle ("Ace") goes on a Carlos Castaneda-style spiritual odyssey, delving into mysticism, Ryan ("Red") becomes a vicious Punisher-style vigilante/mercenary, while Les ("Rocky") tries the good life of being a celebrity and movie star, but gets dragged down by booze. Also thrown into the mix is a new character: hedonistic reporter Harold Moffet who used to make a living writing about the Challengers before they disbanded. Eventually the four come together -- after following their various individual paths -- to combat a requisite looming, ancient evil.

You can see why I suggest some of this might not sit well with old time fans. I mean -- killing off two of the stars, and with the remaining ones deconstructed and portrayed in ways that only vaguely -- if at all -- resemble their traditional versions? Though one might argue that Loeb was trying to give them more distinct personalities than they'd had...but they tend to be a bit too one note caricatures (save Les/"Rocky"). And for what was, after all, once an adventure comic...there's very little action, or adventure. In many respects, Loeb and Sale's Challengers is actually more a comedy, or at least a satire -- of media, celebrity, and comics themselves. And one that is layered with in-joke references. I had noted in some of Loeb's later works that he can be rather derivative, often peppering his scripts with scenes and dialogue that seem borrowed from others. Whether those are clever homages...crass rip-offs...or just tired cliches will depend on in what esteem you hold Loeb and his work. But here, Loeb's penchant for references is at full tilt. From chapter titles playing off the titles of TV soap operas to a climax borrowed from "Lord of the Rings" to an unending stream of comic book allusions -- many jokes based, curiously, on DC's rival Marvel Comics, like Kyle renting a room from Dr. Strange (unnamed for copyright reasons) or a woman in a doorway saying "Face it, Tiger..." (echoing Mary Jane Watson's famous first appearance). A lot of people will love those sort of things, and no doubt Loeb ad Sale were showing off their love -- and knowledge -- of comics. In fact, one wonders if they had dreams of fans pooring over it, exchanging meticulously compiled lists of the pop references as had been done for The Watchmen (Reid Fleming, issue #5, page 19, panel 5).

But I'll admit, it mainly kind of left me going...uh, what's the point?

And that's kind of the problem with this story. It's the sort of thing you either groove to with its eccentricities...or you don't, and find just kind of unfocused. It's frustrating because reading it, I found myself thinking I really should be liking this, for its scope, for its unusualness, for its quirkiness. But it mainly left me...cold.

I think Loeb does sort of intend aspects of it to be serious -- particularly relating to Les ("Rocky") who emerges as the most sympathetic personality. But the inherent comedic nature of the telling, from the one-liners to the in-jokes to the out-and-out silliness (Kyle, becoming a true sorcerer, but uttering goofy phrases as his incantations) tends to undermine any dramatic foundation. While I just didn't actually find it that funny.

And it's not just the comedy that undermines the human drama, but Loeb's own cavalier approach to logic and character and morality. I mean, he recreates "Red" Ryan as a gun totting mercenary type, either as a nod to hyper-violent characters like the Punisher who were enjoying a spike in popularity then or to Loeb's own background plotting Arnold Schwarzenegger films. So there's a brief interlude where Ryan is in Gotham City, brutally gunning down crooks and junkies. And Batman -- in an oblique, unseen cameo -- basically warns Ryan out of town by buying him a plane ticket. Um, Ryan was shooting people in the back -- and Batman just tells him to get out of town? Does that mean he should be giving the Joker a severe talking to? Is Loeb saying this psychotic killer is a hero...or is it part of the joke and we're just supposed to see him as an homage to a comic book archetype?

In a way, you could argue Loeb and Sale's Challengers was part of yet another movement, one begat by Alan Moore's The Watchmen, where comic book characters became metaphors for...comic book characters, where self-refection and fan boy references were perceived as being more artistic than telling a human drama about people who happened to wear funny costumes and fight super villains.

It should be noted that though this is set in the regular DC Universe, with Superman even appearing on a couple of pages (in an atypical, non-super role), this still doesn't really feel like a "super hero" comic, hence why I've put this in my "non-Superhero" section. The Challengers are more adventure heroes than super heroes (though occasionally referred to as super heroes).

Despite this being among the most complex and experimental of Loeb's work that I've read, like a lot of his later works, I didn't really feel the plotting actually held up to much scrutiny. The reporter, Moffet, becomes suspicious of a series of tragedies and killings, suspecting they are part of some larger puzzle...but with no reason he should think that -- other than because it serves the story. While a character makes a crucial sacrifice in the end...and the other characters admit they have no idea why he did it. And a whole sequence with Kyle and some South American Indians is oblique.

Rounding out this collection is a never-before-published 12 page short Loeb and Sale did for the comic Justice League Quarterly...which was cancelled before their story could be printed. Though relating to the Challengers story, it doesn't really feature the Challengers, utilizing Guy Gardner and a few other Justice Leaguers instead. It's actually a fun, funny little piece...though perhaps further emphasizes the fact that the main Challengers story is more a satire than an adventure/drama.

I've sometimes said that the success of a comic book is not just how much you enjoy it for itself, but how much it fires your interest in the property as a whole. There is something kind of captivating about the hook of the Challengers -- guys who walked away from certain death once and, so seeing their lives henceforth as being "borrowed time", decide to dedicate themselves to something greater -- challenging the unknown, with their logo looking like an hour glass signifying their borrowed time (and just maybe supposed to look like an "X" signifying the "unknown"). Reading Darwyn Cooke's DC: The New Frontier, in which he incorporated the traditional Challengers into his narrative, it kind of filled me with an interest in, and nostalgic affection for, these characters of whom I've read very little. Loeb and Sale's mini-series, unfortunately, didn't have the same affect.

How well Loeb and Sale's Challengers series did I don't know. It was only collected as this TPB more than a decade after the mini-series was published, and then with DC heavily hyping the Loeb-Sale pedigree by featuring ads for their later works on the back cover. This had been part of the push at DC to revamp, overhaul, and resuscitate fading franchises. The whole series comes across as a rather lengthy effort to re-design and reposition the Challengers for the 1990s by altering the team dynamics, giving them some new abilities (Kyle now a sorcerer), personalities, and looks, all buffed and ready for a "new" Challengers of the Unknown series -- apparently even with claims Loeb and Sale were going to do a follow up. But it never happened. The next Challengers revival featured completely new characters and a new tone (modelled after TV's "The X-Files"). In fact I think the only times Rocky and the others have appeared in recent in flashback appearances to their traditional incarnation, largely ignoring this series.

Cover price: $__ CDN./$19.95 USA

cover by Ian MillerThe City  1994 (SC GN) 64 pgs.

Written by James Herbert. Illustrated and coloured by Ian Miller.

Additional notes: oversized tabloid format; I'm not sure this was ever released in a North American edition. The copy I came across only had the price listed in British Pounds.

Rating: * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Published by Pan Books

This proclaimed "James Herbert" in big, bold letters on the cover, but reading it one gets the feeling that artist Ian Miller is the main force behind this piece. At least in the sense that the visuals are the main point, with horror novelist Herbert not really delivering a story or characterization. I don't mean he's delivered a bad story or implausible characterization -- I mean, there isn't any, good, bad, or indifferent.

The "story" is simply a masked, unspeaking, heavily armed stranger wandering with his armoured dogs through the streets of a surrealistically decayed London, populated by insane people, crazed mutants, and homicidal rats (both giant and regular sized). In various combinations they try to kill him, and he shoots them. Eventually a purpose emerges to his wanderings, and some emotional reactions (he finally removes his mask which had rendered him little more than a prop for most of the story), but all that comes within the last few pages, hardly enough to justify the 50 or so pages that led up to it. Even the background is unclear -- what is supposed to have led up to these circumstances (particularly as the imagery is so weird and surrealistic, you can't just assume this is simply a post-Apocalyptic future). It's sub-titled "The Rats Saga Continues...", and Herbert has written a series of novels about rats over running London, so maybe if your a Herbert fan it's familiar stuff. But if you're not, it makes little sense on its own.

The story can't even be taken as a progression into nightmare because it's all rather formulaic, with each sequence pretty much the same as the previous; there's almost no dialogue and even the captions are simple sentences stretched over more than one panel.

Miller's art is kind of fascinating in a grotesque, repulsive way, and there's some atmosphere evoked, but he's better at the warped buildings and designing the horrific figures than the actual movement/action of the characters. And there were spots that were hard to figure out what was going on.

Hardcore horror fans might go for it better, some horrorphiles seeming horror as a purely visceral experience, but The City doesn't really scare, or horrify, because it needs to evoke some sort of emotional reaction. It needs to draw the reader in and to accomplish that it needs a plot, or characterization, or a sense of the thing progressing in some way or another. It's a book that just makes you go..."huh?"

Cover price: 

Codename: Knockout: The Devil You Say  2010 (SC TPB) 160 pages

Written by Robert Rodi. Illustrated by Louis Small, Jr., with Yanick Paquette, Amanda Connor. Inks by various.
Colours/letters: various.

Reprinting: Codename: Knockout 0-6 (2001)

Rating: N/R (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Suggested for Mature Readers

Reviewed: Aug. 2015

Published by DC / Vertigo

A TPB like this is kind of hard to review -- because, honestly, pretty early into it I realized it wasn't for me. So on one hand one might say at that point I should walk away and leave reviewing it to people who are more in sync with its intentions. But in a sense, the point of writing a review is to put forward my personal opinion. What you, dear reader, do with that opinion -- whether you decide your tastes are similar to mine or not -- is up to you.

After all, I'm not saying I would be incapable of liking what it was trying to be. If that were the case I wouldn't have picked it up to begin with. But it just didn't work for me.

The series ran a couple of years, which can either be seen as proof it did connect with an audience (since readers must have kept buying it for two dozen issues) or an indication it didn't do that well since a successful comic often runs years, even generations. And the fact that it only resulted in this one TPB, and that was published a few years after the series came to an end, equally is open to interpretation (either fans were clamouring for a collection...or a reprint editor was convinced there was an untapped market, but sales didn't justify further TPB collections).

So anyway, Codename: Knockout is set within the milieu of spies and counter spies and secret organizations -- except it's a comedic spoof of that milieu (even as it's still meant to have action and adventure and plots that -- nominally -- unfold). And it's also deliberately meant to be racy and raunchy and R-rated -- more on that anon.

The central character is Angela, a blonde bombshell with tan skin (her mom is black, her dad white), who though living the carefree life of a dilettante keeps getting dragged into the kill-or-be-killed world of international intrigue thanks to the fact that her mom is the director of the spy agency G.O.O.D. and, as she learns within an issue or two, her hitherto unknown dad is actually the director of the criminal organization known as E.V.I.L. (yeah -- subtle comedy it ain't). Angela's best friend is the flamboyantly gay Go-Go, and he's also good in a fight (and quick with a sexual innuendo).

Part of the initial premise is Angela wants nothing to do with her mom (or her dad) but finds herself reluctantly drawn into essentially the family business. After resisting the call for the first few issues, she eventually agrees to work for G.O.O.D., leading then to her first real assignment as an agent (inbetween is a flashback issue showing how her mom and her dad ended up becoming romantically involved despite their opposite allegiances).

Now I tend not to be too keen on funny comic books. Specifically comics that are meant to be tongue-in-cheek riffs on the conventional action/sci-fi that dominates the medium. I don't know if it's just my sense of humour (or lack thereof) -- I'm not really big on "camp" in movies or TV either -- or just that comics, a medium of still panels and the written word, is not ideal for that kind of comedy which is often based on nuance and delivery (a line that lies flat on the page can be hilarious when uttered by the right actor). It isn't that I can't find comics a funny medium -- nor that I can't laugh out loud at wisecracks and wacky ideas in old Spider-Man or Fantastic Four comics. I do and I have. But I am aware that a lot of even well-regarded "funny" or "quirky" super hero or adventure comics over the years can leave me flat.

Or maybe the problem is I simply didn't care. The characters themselves just not really interesting, or engaging, or even especially likeable, so that not only am I not finding them that funny...but I'm not really liking them, either. Nor are we really meant to take them as "real" characters even within the silly stuff. Angela herself seems to just kind of be whiny and flaky in her complaints about her parents, and the fact that she sees joining G.O.O.D. or E.V.I.L. as being equal career options kind of suggests we aren't really supposed to attribute much depth to the scenario (I mean, her dad's organization is a criminal group called E.V.I.L. -- for most real people joining it wouldn't even be an option kept on the table).

The other funny thing about the comic is the raunchiness and sexploitation. Nor is this all tease and no delivery -- it's a "mature readers" comic with occasional nudity from the leads, and drawn by artists who mostly know how to draw glamorous people. Yet that too is part of the joke. Which, in a way, is kind of weird. So the comic deliberately courts a kind of sexist, exploitive vibe (the very title "Codename: Knockout") with actual gratuitous nudity (though not perhaps as much as one might expect) -- yet presumably by presenting it as a joke, as a spoof of sexploitation, critics are supposed to wink and nod and pretend it's somehow different than what it's spoofing.

In other words, if they had done a serious spy comic featuring a glamorous heroine who occasionally doffed her togs, it would be dismissed as juvenile and exploitive and no doubt pilloried by critics. But you throw in a few tongue in cheek gags and suddenly we're supposed to pretend it's making fun of sexploitation. Riiighhht.

Funnily enough, maybe if it was more serious, and the characters given more depth, we could actually pretend we were attracted to Angela by more than just her measurements.

Though a funny side point is that, as mentioned, her sidekick Go-Go is gay, and written as one of those "outrageous" style homosexuals who's always quick with a sexual innuendo and leering at all the boys. And Go-Go, too, is sometimes shown in the buff, just to provide equal opportunity beefcake. But I was initially going to say that it said something about the presumed comic book readership that the naked women are presumably there to appeal to male readers...but even the naked men are assuming a male gaze. But then I read that scripter Rodi is, himself, gay, so maybe it's less about who he's writing for and more just about him writing what he wants.

Plot-wise the strongest part of the collection is the final two-parter in which Angela and Go-Go are finally sent on a proper mission and it really does turn into an actual story with a beginning and end and twists inbetween. But it still didn't fully engage me, largely for my earlier points about not really finding it that funny, nor really caring about the characters. The plot has them getting embroiled with an African dictator and, well, I'm not sure it's something you want to examine too closely. It can be read as both racist and anti-racist, sexist and anti-sexist in almost equal measures.

The art for the issues is generally impressive, albeit mixed. Louis Small Jr delivers most of the issues and has a hyper realist style that certainly suits a comic that is, "spoof" or not, selling its cheesecake and beefcake. Although it is a slightly stiff style, like maybe he's relying too much on posed models at times. Yanick Paquette helps out on a couple of issues, notably the flashback to Angela's mother (who actually spends almost as many panels naked in just that one issue as Angela does in the rest of this collection). He, too, is well suited to drawing the beautiful and glamorous stuff, with perhaps more of a feel for comic book storytelling. The final issue sees Amanda Connor take over as artist. Connor' style is more deliberately cartoony, at once muting some of the sexiness, but perhaps better bringing out the series' underlining comedy and camp, with her better able to indulge in more comically exaggerated expressions and pratfalls.

So as I say -- it didn't really work for me. Occasional nudity aside, it had a kind of comedy I didn't find that funny (finding it more grating, actually), while neither the plots nor the characters really held up outside of the humour.

Cover price: __ USA

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