The Challengers Seven saga

Writer: Gerry Conway. Pencils: Mike Nasser, Keith Giffen. Inks: John Celardo, Joe Rubinstein.

Challengers of the Unknown #81-87 (1977-1978), plus Super-Team Family #10, and 8, 9

In my "honourable mentions" category of great story arcs that might warrant a TPB collection comes this 1970s revival of The Challengers of the Unknown (and it's not really a story "arc"...just a short-lived on going series). The Challs -- a team of non-super powered adventurers who investigated the mysterious and battled evil -- had been around, off and on, since the 1950s, but had been defunct for a while. A brief revival in the pages of Super-Team Family (written by Steve Skeates) seemed to spark interest, leading to a revival of their own series. Gerry Conway was the writer, with Mike Nasser as the penciller on the first two issues, followed by Keith Giffen (and inker John Celardo).

And the art is worth sticking with for a moment. Nasser was definitely playing in a Neal Adams sand box, with sinewy bodies, detailed faces, and some forced perspective (hands thrusting at the reader). And while Giffen's faces and figures were a little more straight forward (though certainly capable -- just not as stylish as he would become), like Nasser, he was playing around with composition, panel arrangement, and importing various illustrative techniques not as common among comics at the time. The result is that just from a visual sense, the revived series had an interesting and distinctive and highly atmospheric look. Heck, off hand I'm not sure how many feature length comics Nasser drew (around that time I can only think of back up and shorter tales he drew).

Despite being seen as a kind of prototype of The Fantastic Four (though by this point, the Challs were actually five, with a female team member, June) I'm not sure they ever really developed quite as sure or firm personalities, or interpersonal dynamics, as the FF. And though Conway tries a bit, with some bickering and in-fighting, and a bit of a jealous conflict over the affections of June, this run doesn't really turn them into brilliantly realized characters either (Rocky comes across best). But they're enough to hold your attention.

And it's in the plotting that Conway seems to go to town, and maybe it's the very lack of flamboyant super powers that means he's amping up the plotting and really channelling his inner pulp writer (even quirkily breaking the issues up into chapters -- something that otherwise was falling out of fashion in comics). Or maybe the art by Nasser and Giffen (and Giffen's penchant, inparticular, for cramming a lot of little panels onto a page) inspired him. But the stories feel delightfully convoluted and rapid fire, sometimes following parallel plots as the team has to spilt up to investigate various aspects of the case, elements ranging from quasi-super hero (battling a super powered villain), to eerie, even disturbing horror, and far flung sci-fi. These seven issues comprise some four stories (though with threads overlapping) climaxing in a three parter that takes them, almost literally, to the end of time. And though this wasn't a story arc, per se, despite on-going threads, the very limitedness of the run makes it suited to a collection. And, equally nice, though it wasn't intended to end with #87, Conway and the gang clearly saw the writing on the wall, so it avoids any unresolved cliff hangers, making for a relatively satisfying wrap up.

And if a series about, essentially, "normal" heroes battling strange menaces, in a medium dominated by super guys, might seem a bit odd, Conway decided to ratchet up the quirky casting by tossing in the Swamp Thing and Deadman, not just as guest stars, but essentially becoming members of the team and pushing the membership to seven. Padding out the group with a largely mute swamp creature and a ghostly spirit whose presence isn't even suspected by them (a team member none of the team knows they have!) might seem ill-conceived, or just a desperate use of guest stars (orphaned without their own series)...but it actually works, lending the series a further sense of oddness. Adding to the obscure guest stars, Conway even tosses Rip Hunter into the final story -- a character I'm not sure had been seen since the mid-1960s! (Actually, the presence of the Swamp Thing seems as though it was part of the trend in comics of trying to re-boot the status quo, as it involves Alec Holland once more mutating into the Swamp Thing. I guess previously Holland had been cured and the Swamp Thing more-or-less written out of continuity...which makes Alan Moore's famous retcon a few years later, when he had it "revealed" Swamp Thing wasn't really Holland, not quite gelling with continuity).

Anyway, the reason this just gets an honourable mention (as opposed to a less conditional endorsement) is because, sure, it's not "great" stuff. As I say, though there is some attention to character and emotion, I can't say Conway successfully made the characters into vivid people. And just as the stories are fun to follow because of their convolutions, their twists and turns, equally, I'm not sure they necessarily hold up to that much scrutiny.

But the key is: I had never read -- or heard of -- this era of stories before coming upon most of them in back issue boxes. I read a few issues as a sample...and immediately went back to buy the rest! And, now, recently re-reading them -- I still found them entertaining. Buoyed by the moody art, this run of issues succeeds in capturing your attention, and holding your interest, and with its eclectic story elements of horror and sci-fi -- and its even more eclectic supporting cast of swamp creatures and ghosts -- it makes for a decidely off-beat example of an era when DC was experimenting with...the off-beat.

(Additional note (revised): When I first posted this piece, I had only read COTU #82-87, and those issues certainly work as an arc. Prof. Haley is sick (established in previous issues) and there's a recurring foe later, but nonetheless #82 begins a new story arc. But as mentioned, the revival began in Super-Team Family #8-10, by a different creative team -- Steve Skeates and Jim Sherman. So here's the low down. STF #8 was, to my mind, a bit blandly Old School, presumably Skeates and Sherman just getting their feet wet (the team goes to a lost prehistoric island to rescue -- wait for it -- Henry Kissinger); however STF #9 is more entertaining, Sherman as adept at stylish composition as Nasser and Giffen, and the story a little more quirky and atmospheric. Both issues are self-contained plots, though #9 introduces the thread that Prof. Haley may be terminally ill. #10 begins a two-part tale that concludes in COTU #81, involving them battling an old foe, Multi-Man -- it boasts stylish art (from Sherman on STF and Nasser on COTU) and is fast-paced, but the storytelling isn't as off-beat as it would become. The story concludes, but Haley falls ill, leading into #82. Sooooo...for completists, STF #8-10, and COTU #81-87 would be the thing. But you can look at my above descriptions to decide which you might consider "essential.")

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