In hindsight, everyone agrees that Jack Kirby’s 1956 creation of the Challengers of the Unknown was a dry run for what he and Stan Lee perfected five years later when they introduced the Fantastic Four. The purpose of this column is to look at what was going at DC, and maybe Marvel, between those two endpoints.
Debuting in Showcase #6, Kirby’s Challengers were the first of several non-super teams of adventurers DC would introduce over the next few years. As all y’all probably know, Ace Morgan (pilot), Prof. Haley (skindiver), Red Ryan (mountain climber) and Rocky Davis (wrestler) met when they were flown to a TV show celebrating their recent heroic achievements. When the plane crashed, they should have died, but they weren’t scratched; their watches didn’t miss a tick. Feeling they were living on borrowed time, the quartet devoted it to helping humanity, from becoming guinea pigs for experimental drugs to yes, challenging the unknown. Their name is their mission statement.
DC’s next new team appeared in Brave and the Bold #25 three years later (DC imported the Blackhawks from Quality Comics in 1957, but as they’d been established for years, they’re not relevant here). Like the Challengers, Robert Kanigher and Ross Andru’s Suicide Squad were a quartet living on borrowed time, though they didn’t use the phrase. Rick Flagg, nurse Karin Grace and scientists Jess Bright and Hugh Evans joined the team as sole survivors of previous missions of one sort or another (technically Bright and Evans survived the same one). All of them felt compelled to carry on for the ones who didn’t make it, and they’d dare any risk in the service of their country. Having set this up, Kanigher forgot about it after a couple of issues, but it was there in the origin.
Come 1959 and we get the next adventure series, Rip Hunter… Time Master in Showcase #20 by Jack Miller and Ruben Moreira. Unlike the Challs and the Suicide Squad, Rip has no driving reason to travel in time, but he’s invented a time machine so what else is he going to do? This series gave us what some people think was the default setting for these teams: leader (Rip), muscleman (Jeff), pretty woman (Bonnie Baxter), woman’s kid brother (Corky). In reality, Rip’s crew and the Sea Devils were the only teams to fit this formula, so I don’t think it counts as a formula at all.
Then in 1960 we get two teams debuting within a month of each (as I realized when my reread of the Silver Age reached that point), the Sea Devils and Cave Carson’s spelunkers. Kanigher’s origin for the Sea Devils reminds me a lot of his Suicide Squad in that every member of the seagoing team is driven by a personal motive. Dane Dorrance wants to measure up to his father, a WW II frogman. Biff is a hulking klutz on dry land but in the ocean he can be graceful. Judy initially wanted publicity to boost her acting career, then realized that down below she could be respected for her skills, not just her looks (she gets more action than Bonnie or Karin — under the sea, she really does have to pull her weight). Her kid brother Nicky similarly wants to be treated as an equal, not just a kid. Unlike any of the other teams, the Sea Devils had an added motive: they set up as a business, offering their skills for a fee (though helping out for no fee a lot of time, being heroes and all that).So was that a conscious decision by Kanigher to reuse the individual backstory approach he used with the Suicide Squad? Neither Jack Miller writing Rip’s origin or Frances E. Herron on Cave Carson’s felt the need to provide any sort of motivation beyond “let’s have adventures!”
Though lacking any driving urge Cave’s team, like the Sea Devils, did have professional skills for the job. Bulldozer Smith was a former sandhog; Christie Madison was a geologist (Johnny Blake, who showed up later as Christie’s boyfriend, was Cave’s main rival). But what really struck me rereading their debut was the opening hook for the adventure: a mysterious force dragging a train and a radio tower into the earth. That’s awfully close to the hook for the Fantastic Four’s first adventure a year later, which involved the Mole Man sucking atomic power plants down into Subterranea.
And the Fantastic Four, of course, had the same leader/strong guy/pretty woman/kid brother structure as Rip’s team and the Sea Devils.
If Lee and Kirby did rework the Challengers into the Fantastic Four, did they also borrow the team dynamic from the Sea Devils and the opening from Cave Carson? Fantastic Four #1 came out only a year later so if Stan or Jack looked at the competition at all, the stories might have been fresh in their mind. Though obviously whatever inspirations the Lee/Kirby team had, they surpassed them. There’s a reason the FF are comic book legends while Cave Carson is known mostly for his cybernetic eye.
Am I imagining all this? Or are there genuine patterns here?
#SFWApro. Images top to bottom by Kirby, Andru, Russ Heath and (for the cover in the ad Bruno Premiani)