Welcome to Recall Reviews, the column that features yesteryear’s classic series!
CHALLENGERS OF THE UNKOWN MUST DIE!
Written by Jeph Loeb; Art by Tim Sale; Letters by Bob Pinaha; Colors by Lovern Kindzierski; Covers by various
Going into this, I already know I’m going to be writing this article as part “review of Challengers of the Unknown” and part “fanboying-out for Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale”. So I’ll start off by saying, it might be a little biased, but I love this book.
Though I didn’t used to.
The first graphic novel I read when I started collecting comics just over 7 years ago was Loeb/Sale’s Batman: The Long Halloween. I didn’t have any idea who the creators were, or even who a handful of characters in the book were, but I immediately fell in love with it. To this day, it’s still my favorite Batman story. I didn’t know where to continue reading after that, so I just looked for more Loeb/Sale, which led to Dark Victory and Haunted Knight. Later, I came upon Hulk: Grey and Superman for All Seasons, a book some would argue is one of the greatest Superman stories ever written. It wasn’t until a few years later I finally learned what my favorite creative team’s first collaboration was, Challengers of The Unknown. I had heard very little of the “Challs”, and had read even less. What better way to learn about characters new to you than through creators you already know you like?
Whether it’s Batman, Superman, or The Hulk, it’s been my experience that Jeph Loeb can write near-perfect introductions to characters, even if they’re characters you’ve already known. Maybe it’s his background in movies and television that gave him this ability, or that he writes by the Stan Lee code, “every comic is someone’s first.” If you ever are curious about a character you’ve never read before, find out if Loeb has written them first, then go for that book. For me, it was the ‘Challs’.
I could stare at Tim Sale’s art for days, especially his Batman work, and even though I had read several Sale books before, Challengers of The Unknown was a whole new experience. I appreciate a good splash page, and I would argue that Sale is one of the best, but there are a few in this series that I now find incomparable to other works of his or many others. The flow from panel-to-panel can occasionally be confusing, but once you see the method to his madness, it all becomes almost seamless.
With all that in mind, the first time I read this story I was not blown away like I had been by previous Loeb/Sale efforts. I didn’t dislike it, but it didn’t quite grab me either. I found the writing unorganized and the art distracting rather than flowing with the words. I didn’t care for the characters and I thought the climax was kind of a cop-out. So I tucked it into my shelf and let it be just another book I had read before. A couple years pass and Marvel announces that Captain America: White will finally continue after a 7 year break! After my initial excitement, my second thought was “I should read ‘Challs’ again” and here we are.
We start off with a tabloid reporter flying to Challengerville to report the goings on of the now-retired heroes. They’re more of a third-rate tourist attraction these days than a super team anymore, though Prof still conducts his scientific experiments in Challenger Mountain. But when disaster strikes and key members of the team are killed, it’s up to the remaining members to deal with the aftermath. After a time, the former Challengers go their separate ways to begin new lives; some go on philosophical journeys of enlightenment, others simply tour Europe with their girlfriend. But something left Challengerville with them, and it will lead then to reunite again as the heroes they always were. Along the way, we see the Challengers interact with several DC characters in very original ways, including Commissioner Gordon, Dr. Fate, Lois Lane, and the Big Blue Boy Scout himself, Superman.
After a second reading, I can’t help but think this was the perfect time to reintroduce myself to these characters, and especially this iteration. Brian Michael Bendis wrote in the introduction to the trade paperback that this series is like the Dark Knight Returns for the Challengers franchise, meaning it was an impressive fresh approach to a series gone stale. In fact, I’d say it’s impressive the series even happened, as the Challengers hadn’t had a book of their own in about 14 years! By this time, only long-time comic readers even knew who they were, though probably still didn’t have much interest in a new story. But Loeb/Sale made it their own, and in my opinion it should be a staple in any deep-cut comic collection.
I recommend this to anyone looking for an entertaining and thought-provoking story with eye-catching and mind-bending art, whether you’re familiar with The Challengers of The Unkown or not. Like I said, I’ve read many Tim Sale comics before, but this series is on a whole new level of creativity and storytelling for him. Even Loeb’s writing style is different from some of his later work, with a little more dry humor and referential humor worked in for any comic fan.
Want more stories about this series and Loeb/Sale’s many team-ups, or just want to hear a great interview? Check out Kevin Smith’s podcast Fatman on Batman episodes #32-33 featuring Jeph Loeb. He has many great stories about his life, in and out of the comics industry.
Looking for more Loeb/Sale collaborations? Here’s a list of series I recommend checking out:
- Batman: The Long Halloween
- Batman: Dark Victory (Long Halloween Sequel)
- Catwoman: When In Rome (Dark Victory Tie-In)
- Batman: Haunted Knight
- Superman For All Seasons
- Superman Confidential: Kryptonite
- Daredevil: Yellow
- Spiderman: Blue
- Hulk: Grey
That’s it for this week! Happy reading, and I’ll see you next time.
Tags: DC Comics, Recall Reviews