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Challengers of the Unknown 8
"Prisoners of Robot Planet!"

COVER IMAGE NOT FOUND June-July 1959; DC Comics; Jack Schiff, editor; Murray Boltinoff and George Kashdan, associate editors; cover-featuring the Challengers as "Prisoners of Robot Planet!" On the cover, each of the Challengers have been trapped in pinkish bubbles created by a yellow-skinned alien's machine, and Rocky sums up the situation; "Ace is being shot off into outer space-- and it's OUR turn next!"

Before he helped create the Fantastic Four for what would become Marvel Comics, Jack Kirby did a late 50's stint at DC and, in addition to Green Arrow and assorted weird-mystery anthology stories, he created an earlier fighting foursome which was a modest hit for DC (the Challengers debuted in SHOWCASE after the Silver Age Flash but won their own title before he did). This, however, was the last CHALLENGERS issue Kirby would do before he left DC and left the Challs to the competent but more pedestrian hands of Bob Brown.

The lead story is "The Man Who Stole the Future!" pencilled by Jack Kirby and inked by Wally Wood; I don't know the scripter (Dave Wood? France Herron?) On the splash page a villain named Drabny driving an elaborate car threatens to disintegrate Rocky, Red and Prof with his "D-ray".... but Ace is climbing the huge star-shaped fender of the villainmobile to deliver a surprise counterattack. As our story opens, "idleness weighs heavy" on our four unoccupied heroes, and each passes the time in his own way; jet pilot Ace Morgan reads a book, mountain climber Red Ryan fiddles with some sort of futuristic TV set, scientist/deep-sea diver Prof Haley lounges in an easy chair and reads the newspaper, and wrestling champion Rocky Davis lifts barbells. But their down time ends abruptly when "honorary Challenger" June Robbins shows up at their door with a visitor, pretty brunette Marie, and a new case. It seems that Marie has inherited an "ancient castle in Mordania" and found a scroll revealing that the vaults beneath the castle hide "three mysterious gift boxes that contain strange powers!" June thinks the Challengers should investigate these boxes, and they're raring to go; "You see? Bait them with a defying mystery and they're hooked1" Flying to quaint, picturesque Mordania, the Challengers enter the tunnels, along with June and Marie (who actually get to wear modified purple Challenger jumpsuits). Ace and Rocky find one of the mystery boxes, incautiously open it, and are sprayed by an unknown liquid which affects their bodies; "Maybe -- at last-- our borrowed time has run out!" But actually, in a manner of speaking, the two Challengers gain the time of their lives rather than losing it, for they are transformed into boys of 12 or so. While the Challengers, June and Marie are distracted by the discovery that the first box contains a youth serum, an unknown caped figure sneaks in, steals all three boxes, and escapes through a secret door.

June identifies the thief as "a man named Drabny" who had been "snooping around the castle," and Red and Prof, in a rather sexist manner, direct June to "Take care of the kids!" while they pursue Drabny. But Rocky and Ace object; "We're not KIDS! Our mental faculties weren't changed by the youth solution! We're still CHALLENGERS!" Very well, Rocky replies, they can be Challengers after they find new clothes to replace the Challenger uniforms that are hanging off them, but in the meantime the grownups will chase Drabny. Their superior maturity does them little good, though, when they confront Drabny-- driving his big green car with the star=shaped attachment in back, and wearing a weird helmet on his head-- and fall into a chasm that suddenly opens up in the ground. As they pull themselves out and the kid Challengers and June catch up with them, Prof concludes that Drabny has acquired the power of "mind over matter!" to go along with the youth serum. "Golly!" Red exclaims. "As if those two powers weren't spectacular enough-- I wonder what's in the THIRD box?" Searching for Drabny in the nearly Mordanian village, the Challengers don't find him, but they do find soldiers putting up posters of a youthful Drabny dressed in royal robes. "He's used his powers to make himself younger and to take over Mordania!" Traveling to the capital where Drabny has entrenched himself in a closely guarded castle, Prof gains himself and Red access by swimming the moat ("I'm the swimming member of this outfit!") and cold-cocking a guard, and they try to attack Drabny from above by swinging on a chandelier, but a passign pigeon gives them away, and Drabny uses his mind-over-matter power to send the chandelier flying and deposit the Challengers into a cell. Now wearing strange glasses from the third mystic box, Drabny reveals that they give him glimpses of the future which he can use to create futuristic inventions. "With those powers, Prof, this character has the world right in the palm of his hand!" "And I don't know just WHAT Ace and Rocky can do to spring us out of here!"

But Ace and Rocky have a plan, and it involves infiltrating the castle dressed in schoolboy clothes. They pretend to be lost children and Ace drop-kicks one guard while Rocky slugs another; "Even as a kid I had a wallop!" Just as they locate and free their imprisoned comrades, the youth serum effect wears off and Ace and Rocky threaten to burst out of their kiddie clothes, much to Red's amusement; "Fellows, you're a riot!" "Save the haw-haws until later, chums!" sobersided Prof warns, as the castle guards attack, but the Challengers overwhelm them and reach Drabny's quarters, where they discover that the would-be dictator has left and taken the mind-over-matter helmet and "weirdy goggles" with him, leaving behind the youth serum. As more guards invade the chamber, the foursome hide on a narrow ledge outside the castle window and then escape. They soon learn that Mordanian government troops are preparing to confront Drabny and his army, but they don't stand a chance against Drabny's mand over matter powers and his super-weapons from the future. But Ace has a last-ditch plan, involving the last item Drabny left behind. A government armored unit is thrown into disarray by Drabny's mind over matter powers and his fleet of "star cars", but as Red, Rocky and Prof carry out a diversion, Ace carries out a "quarterback sneak" and reaches Drabny from behind. Before Drabny can destroy the other Challengers with his "D-ray", Ace showers Drabny with the remaining youth serum, and it turns the villain into a child. Too small for the mind-over-matter helmet to fit him, he is helpless. Ace dons the mind-over-matter helmet himself, rescues the government troops, and destroys Drabny's super-weapons. With order restored, Ace turns Drabny over his knee for appropriate punishment; "As a child, Drabny, you deserve no more than a spanking! But with the youth solution wears off, you'll get much more than that!" Drabny ends up going to jail , the mind over matter helmet and future goggles are destroyed (funny how the good guys in these stories never have any faith in the abilities of good people to use marvelous inventions for good purposes) and Marie turns over the castle to "vacationing children, so we'll have youth, inventiveness and a wonderful future after all!"

The second, cover-featured story is "The Prisoners of Robot Planet!", also drawn by Kirby and Wood, and the splash page has the Challengers being thrown around in the air by a giant robot while an alien urges them to "reach the robot's controls, or else we all shall perish!" As the Challengers go out for a flight in their jet, pilot Ace (I wonder if he ever ran into Hal Jordan in his pre-Challenger test piloting days?) loses control of the plane and it lands by remote control.. The explanation appears in the form of a red-caped, yellow-skinned alien calling himself Juhl, who telepathically explains that he has witnessed the Challengers' exploits from afar and came to seek their help. It seems that a weird radiation, which somehow emanated from an exploratory Earth rocket, has caused his home world's robot servants to gain added intelligence and self-will and take control of the planet. Moreover, the radiation emanating from the robots weakens the aliens, making them helpless to resist. Before Juhl can finish his tale, one of the robots shows up to recapture the fugitive alien. The Challengers prove to be immune to the weakening radiation, but it initially does them little good as the giant, super-strong robot "flips them around like pebbles!" However, they execute what seems to be a favorite battle plan; while Rocky, Red and Prof attack from the front with an improvised log battering ram, Ace sneaks up from the back and manages to reach the robot's conrols and deactivate it.

Juhl asks the Challengers to travel to his planet, and since humans cannot use the teleportation system Juhl used to reach Earth, the alien uses a device to create travel bubbles that will transport the four Earthmen through outer space at amazing speed. The Challengers enter the bubbles, and Ace is shot off through space, followed by the other three. (Thus the cover scene is enacted, but the cover gives the impression that the Challengers have been captured by a hostile alien, whereas actually in the story our heroes go into space willingly.) Arriving on the alien world, the Challengers meet Juhl, who has teleported himself home, and learn that the robot hordes, led by a robot named Kra, are mounting an offensive to punish the aliens for their "insolence" in seeking offworld help. The robots are destroying the aliens' chief city, driving the refugees into the hills, and though the aliens have developed an antidote to the robots' deadly radiation, with no aircraft they have no way to deliver it. But one functioning aircraft remains in a museum, and the Challengers resolve to capture and use it. Their plan; Prof and Red will make a feint at the robot headquarters, while Ace and Rocky go after the airplane. But Kra promptly sounds the alarm; "Four Earthmen are in the city! They cannot be stopped by radiation-- but they MUST be stopped! Kra has spoken!" Confronting a squad of giant robots ahead of them in a corridor, Prof and Red try to backtrack but are surrounded by more robots behind them. Both ranks of robots charge, but the athletic Challengers manage to tumble out of the way as the robots smash into each other. Meanwhile, Ace and Rocky approach the museum containing the last airplane, but Rocky trips an alarm alerting the robots. Ace (who clearly functions as the team leader, even though he is not formally named as such until a much later post-Kirby story) comes up with ain instant plan which sends Rocky fleeing ahead of the robots; "Bru-THER! Here they come! Ace's plan had better work! I hate playing decoy to mechanical devices!" Suddenly, the robots trip and crash to the ground, thanks to Ace executing "the old rope-across-the-trail trick" executed by Ace. (These robots clearly weren't designed for combat....Magnus would have laughed at them.) The two Challengers reach the aircraft, a helicopter-type device, get airborne, and reach the alien hideout where they stock up with the anti-radiation antidote. Meanwhile, Prof and Red are still prowling around the robot headquarters, where Prof advises a puzzled Red to fill his pockets with some conveniently located sand. Why sand? Well, when they encounter Kra, the Challengers hurl the sand at him and it gets into the leader robot's joints and gears, immobilizing him. (Yeah, *definitely* not designed for combat....) Prof opens a compartment on Kra's back and crawls right inside him, removing various mechanisms to make room for him to huddle inside and control the robot manually. Speaking in Kra's voice, he gives orders for all the robots to gather in the city's open square-- where Ace and Rocky in the copter can spray them with the radiation antidote that takes away the robots' will to rebel. Another robot catches "Kra" giving the "wrong" orders, and attacks him; "This iron ape is going to botch up things!" Prof operating Kra's body finds himself outmatched by the rival robot-- "Weakling! I will make a much better master than you!"-- but just in the nick of time, Red leaps onto the robot's back and deactivates it. With things nearly back to normal on the alien world, Juhl offers the Challengers a reward, but all they want is to be returned to Earth. "You know, fellows, we didn't even bring back a souvenir!" "Oh, yes, we did! We brought back an ACTOR! If Prof wants a job, he can play the TIN MAN in 'The Wizard of Oz'!"

"The Man Who Stole the Future!" was reprinted in SUPER DC GIANT #S-25 in 1971, a Challengers giant which, along with issues #75 through 80 of the regular CHALLENGERS title, reprinted the greater part of the Kirby CHALLENGERS run. "Prisoners of Robot Planet" has not been reprinted that I know of, though it is scheduled to appear in the second of two CHALLENGERS ARCHIVES volumes collecting the Kirby run (reportedly, since the Kirby run totaling 12 issues including 4 SHOWCASEs was a little too long to appear in a single regular size ARCHIVE volume, it will be split into two thinner-than-usual ARCHIVE books). Both villains in this issue, Drabny and the robot Kra, turned up later in the post-Kirby era as members of the "League of Challenger Haters" (even though Kra seems to be semi-dismantled and thoroughly neutralized at the end of this issue).

Reading this issue at the same time as some early FANTASTIC FOUR issues, I reflected on how the contrast suggests that the team of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby was a true synergy, and not just Lee riding Kirby's coattails as some would suggests. Kirby's CHALLENGERS were fun comics, but the Challengers were much more bland characters than the FF, lacking distinct personalities as well as super-powers. The Challs stories had action and imagination but little in the way of characterization, humor (except for a few labored jokes) or human drama, while the FF had all of these things. Even if we suppose that Kirby contributed the lion's share of these elements, at least Stan Lee as an editor had the sense to give Kirby his head and not restrain him as DC's more conservative editors did.

On the other hand, it's a little distressing to look at the beautiful Wood inks over Kirby's pencils in this issue-- or even the Martin Stein inks on earlier Challengers stories-- and compare it to the rather crude inking on many early FF stories by people like Chic Stone and George "Bell" Roussos. Not till Joe Sinnott came along did Kirby get an inker at Marvel to match the inking he got at DC. Considering that Wally Wood did work for Marvel for a while in the mid 60's, it's kind of a shame that he and Kirby didn't join forces again, at least for an issue or two of FF.