“Are you Guardians simply improvising?” The DC Challenge

DC Challenge is the kind of series where creating an alternate timeline where the Nazis won WW II was meant to simplify the plot.

DC launched this 1985-6 twelve-issue limited series as a round robin: a different creative team on each chapter, making it up as they go along. It’s in the same tradition as the SF serial The Challenge From Beyond (which included Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard among the writers) and the mystery novel The Floating Admiral (including Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers and G.K. Chesterton) The rules for the Challenge were:

  • Each writer ends their chapter on a cliffhanger. They must have figured out a solution.
    Each writer gives the next creators a title.
    The next team must resolve the cliffhanger and write a story that justifies the title.

I suspect the DC Challenge titles gave the writers more trouble than the cliffhangers. At first they were simple (“Blinded by the Light!”) but then they get crazier and crazier (“Don’t Bogart That Grape .. Hand Me the Gas Pump” and “If This Is Love Why Do My Teeth Hurt?”). Though the creators sometimes dealt with them efficiently: for “Blinded by the Light,” the story has a scene where B’Wana Beast and Congorilla are battling a demon that — well, just look at the image.

The thing that for better or worse distinguished DC Challenge from previous round robins is that in a comic book universe it’s easier for the story to go off the rails. The Floating Admiral can’t simply throw in magic, the resurrection of the dead or the imminent collision of Earth and Rann; Challenge From Beyond tries to play it like a relatively sober SF story. The DC Challenge writers throw in everything but the kitchen sink. And then they throw in the sink.

In the first issue alone we have Humphrey Bogart and Groucho Marx, aliens on a secret floor of the Daily Planet, demon attacks, Superman ambushed on the moon, Adam Strange trying to contact Superman and for a cliffhanger Gotham City about to explode. Subsequent writers didn’t simply try to wrap up what they’d been given, they added more stuff, and then more.

And more characters. The Justice League, Dr. Fate, Jimmy Olsen, but also obscure or unused characters such as Plastic Man, Adam Strange*, Albert Einstein, the Son of Vulcan, the Viking Prince, Detective Chimp and the Blackhawks. B’Wana Beast appeared for the first time since his debut in Showcase.

(One idea in Challenge someone should have used in the real continuity was that once Adam became a regular visitor to Rann, Sardath began firing off Zeta Beams to Earth constantly. After four years (the length of time it takes the beams to reach Earth), the beams hit Earth so regularly, Adam is able to visit Rann any time he likes)

Which is how we get to that alt.Nazi timeline. Elliott S! Maggin thought by changing history so the Nazis won WW II, that would erase most of the previous issues’ events, thereby simplifying things. Except that Paul Kupperberg in the following issue treated it as more complicated: the Nazi timeline had branched off from Earth-One rather than replacing it. All the old menaces were unchanged, and the Nazis now added new one.

After the series was half over, the writers began trying to rein in the plot so it could actually finish. Repeated twists (look, the Joker’s the Big Bad) simply got overwritten by the following writer (no, the Joker’s just the front man for an alien!). Finally Roy Thomas stabilized things a little in #9: the Guardians explain much of what’s happening is their elaborate scheme to save the cosmos from the bad guys. Metron (making the quip in the post title) suggests they leave world-saving to the Green Lanterns, because they suck at it.

The series ended very awkwardly as the writers and artists all put their heads together to wrap everything up. It was forced, but that was probably inevitable. But up until that point, it was a gloriously entertaining chaotic mess. I have the original run but it’s a crying shame it’s not in TPB.

#SFWApro

13 Comments

  1. Wow, that Zeta Beam thing with Adam Strange WASN’T in regular continuity?

    I love this series so much. I got the whole thing for probably 50 cents an issue years ago now, and it’s just a lot of goofy fun.

    I am also surprised they haven’t collected this, particularly since the recent Kamandi Challenge seemed to be born of this same round robin notion.

    1. Goofy fun indeed. Metron snarking the Guardians is worth the price of admission alone.
      That would have been a logical route for the original Adam Strange series, but I suppose they wouldn’t want to give up the drama of Adam waiting on Earth for his next visit, even if they’d thought of it. After his series ended, a Hawkman story revealed Adam found a way to stay on Rann for good, but a lot of writers in the Bronze Age just ignored that to get back to the Silver Age status quo.

      1. Le Messor

        Travis, Fraser, the way I read this there’s a misunderstanding (I could be wrong).

        The Zeta Beam is in continuity, but it isn’t on all the time the way it (apparently) was in Challenge.

        Is Metron generally a good guy or a bad guy?

  2. M-Wolverine

    This is probably around when I first started collecting some DC titles, so an obscure one like this probably wasn’t on my list. But dang, this sounds like loads of fun. Stupid fun maybe, but fun is fun. I’m not too big on the trades, but this is one I would pick up. Probably better that format anyway. (Though waiting a month to figure out how they were going to “fix” the ending would have been wild).

    1. As a nice extra, the letter columns had the writer of each previous issue explain what he had in mind for wrapping up the cliffhanger and what he thought of the solution that appeared in print (why yes, there was a lot of mockery back and forth). They’d definitely need to include those in a TPB.

  3. Le Messor

    The first I heard of it was in the solicits and Bullpen Bulletins* page from a few Bronze Age DC comics I bought last year.
    It definitely grabbed my interest, but I had never ever heard anything else about it.

    * Bullpen Bulletins is the Marvel term, of course, but I can’t remember the DC one for the period.

    In the first issue alone we have Humphrey Bogart and Groucho Marx

    🙂 As a Marxist, I approve.

    unused characters such as Plastic Man, Adam Strange*, Albert Einstein, the Son of Vulcan,

    (Sorry… Putting an asterisk next to Adam Strange but no follow-up confused me. When I saw it, I immediately went looking for the footnote, and it wasn’t until I finished properly reading that paragraph that I knew what it related to.)

    ‘The Son Of Vulcan’? Spock’s in this too? Wow, it’s comprehensive. 🙂

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