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Showcase 12
"Menace of the Ancient Vials!"

COVER IMAGE NOT FOUND Showcase presents Challengers of the Unknown
January-February 1958
Story: Dave Wood
Art: Jack Kirby & George Klein

(First posted March 17, 2001)
Since there are 64 of us now, compared to what seemed to be fewer than half that number previously, I'm posting reruns too.)

Four adventurers are shocked as their speedboat is pulled out of the water by a giant octopus! Ace Morgan pulls his gun while Red Ryan leaps overboard! Rocky Davis, already in the water, fires (apparently at Red!) while Prof Haley yells, "Another monstrous creature released one of those magic bottles! We're trapped!" No, this isn't a complete issue of an early Image comic but the cover of the Challengers' third Showcase appearance.

Chapter One: "Menace of the Ancient Vials!" The Challs, with daredevil pilot Ace Morgan at the controls, are flying over the Pacific. Appropriately deputized, they're in pursuit of Karnak and his gang of "international espionage agents." Uh-oh, a cloudy patch ahead develops into a typhoon! With one of the engines acting up, our boys opt to fly over the storm and pick up the trail when it blows over. Below, Karnak's plane is taking a beating when one of his two accomplices spots an island and they land. They burst in to a nearby house, guns drawn, surprising an elderly man as he surveys a scroll. The house is filled with odd jars, masks and arcane sculpture, drawing Karnak's curiosity. The old man offers them food, and the men, pulling their guns again, ask why he's hiding out in the middle of nowhere. It comes out that he's Amos Hunter, an archeologist. He'd uncovered signs of a mighty civilization at its height before recorded history, ruled by sorcerers who discovered things unearthly and frightening. Eventually, they released forces that destroyed them. Hunter has translated their writings, but is most intrigued by five vials filled with unknowable potions. Karnak wonders if the potions are magic, and Hunter replies that the liquids are Power... over air, water, even men. So, he isolated himself in order to experiment with them. Suddenly, a plane is heard overhead. Karnak, realizing it's the Challengers, orders one of his men to drink from one of the vials: there's no time to lose! What the heck, replies the hatless one as he drinks, it's just an old man's crazy story. At that moment, the Challs are on the beach, fanning out to approach the house with caution. Suddenly Rocky Davis, the renowned prize fighter who looks like he could kick Rocky Balboa's butt, shouts in amazement. Giants! And sure enough, two of Karnak's men approach, hat (named Gortz) and hatless, trampling a stand of trees as they overtake the Challengers. Ace spots a cave and scoots in, Prof and Rocky at his heels. The entrance is too narrow to allow for the colossal hand that lunges after them. Rocky notices that Red isn't with them. In fact, Red is behind the giants, and shoots at the hillside over the cave to draw their attention away from his pals. The giant men give chase and Red notices a stone formation like a giant teeterboard. As he climbs onto the extended stone "plank," the hatless thug approaches, menacingly.

Interlude: house ad for the Kings of Comedy: Sgt. Bilko #5, Jerry Lewis #42, Bob Hope #42 and Jackie Gleason #?. Also: one page, "Rocket Take-Off," a science page explaining rocketry, penciled by Infantino (lettering: Saladino).

Chapter Two: "The Fire Being!" 2/3 page splash panel: a flaming, man-sized lizard creature charges out of roaring flames toward the Challengers. Resuming the previous chapter, Red Ryan stands defiantly near the edge of the long rock and fires at the bareheaded thug. Enraged, the thug slams his fist down just as Red leaps away, which sends the other boulder flying into his skull! Red turns to rejoin his pals when he finds he's being charged by Gortz. But, an instant before the giant can grab him, Rocky swings on a vine Tarzan-style and whisks him away. Running ahead of Gortz, they run to join the others at the cliff's edge... where the giant skids on the palm fronds they've laid out, and falls 100 feet down to the beach, unconscious. The Challs tie him with vines and scoot back to Amos Hunter's house, not noticing that their captive has begun to shrink. Back at the house, the Challengers burst in as Karnak, cradling the vials, holds Hunter at gunpoint. He drops his gun but refuses to give up the vials, just as his men, now normal size, enter the house with guns drawn. A fight ensues, a shot is fired, and one of the vials is hit. Where the shattered vial hits the floor a white-hot lizard shape emerges, causing everything nearby to burst into flame! Hunter is terrified for his manuscripts and the vials, but Prof is holding the manuscript and insists they run for it. Behind them, the house and surrounding area are ignited as the Challengers lead the lizard away from combustibles, to the beach. Hunter explains that the explosive force of the bullet against the second vial created the fiery Salamander of legend. Ace says they must not allow it to exist in our world. Red reminds him that the others are still loose with the three remaining vials, and they split up. Elsewhere, Karnak urges his men to the plane while the Challengers are busy with the fire being, but his men aren't having it. Holding a gun to Karnak, hatless demands he hand over the vials.

Interlude: Professor Eureka and a General watch an atomic explosion. The General compliments the Professor on his work, but regrets that future experiments are going to be canceled due to budget cuts. Walking away nervously, the Professor wonders what to do. "One Month Later," the General reads a telegram from Professor Eureka, telling him to come to the lab. They walk to a field and Boom, there's a mushroom cloud. "Amazing," the General exclaims, "where did you get the funds to continue?" As the slogan "Drink Ace Cola" emerges from the cloud, the Professor boasts "I got a big company to defray the expenses! See? This can be seen for HUNDREDS OF MILES!" Ha-ha. Script/art: Henry Boltinoff (letters: Saladino).

Chapter Three: "The Demon from the Depths!"

2/3 splash: enormous tentacles overwhelm a seafaring boat and threaten Rocky and the hatless thug, as Red fires into the creature. Then, continuing the story, Karnak kicks the gun away from hatless and they struggle. Suddenly, the area bursts into flame. Gortz kayos Karnak and the thugs flee, with Red and Rocky in pursuit. The thugs find Hunter's speedboat and have barely set off when the two Challengers clamber aboard. Off-balance, Rocky is stunned by a blow to the skull, and the two thugs overpower Red. When the two Challs come to, they see that Gortz has them at gunpoint and that the boat is some distance out to sea. Gortz taunts them, opens the vial teasingly, telling them that they'll die knowing they couldn't stop him. Suddenly, a wave pitches the boat, knocking the vial overboard! As Red catches Gortz with a right to the jaw, Rocky watches first steam, then a shape as big as a mountain rise from the water! It attacks the boat as the thugs jump over the side, then shatters it outright as Rocky and Red jump themselves. Meanwhile, on the island, Ace, Prof and Amos Hunter crouch behind a protective wall of mud. As the fire being approaches, Prof sets off dynamite that was in their plane. As the smoke clears, the being continues forward, and Prof blasts it with fire extinguisher foam. This also fails to stop it. Convinced the answer is in the manuscript, the trio dart to the Challengers' plane, where Hunter reads that the being can be controlled by "shrieking winds." Grasping at straws, Ace gives the plane full throttle and the jets howl like banshees. Caught in their wake, the fire being vibrates away. Hunter postulates that the creature was from another dimension where matter vibrates on different frequencies. "When the ancients summoned such a being, they also used intensified vibrations to send it back." (Meaning what, battalions of men hitting gongs in syncopated rhythm?) Ace spots Karnak running to his own plane, and they give swift chase. The crisis is still on: he mustn't be given a chance to use the remaining vials. Prof points to the water below, where the giant octopus is smashing Rocky and Red's boat to flinders. Prof sees them swimming away, and Ace decides to give up on Karnak in favor of saving his fellow Challengers.

Interlude: A little morality play instructing teen-agers not to crash parties. Art: Ruben Moriera.

Chapter Four: "The Deadly Duplicates!" 2/3 splash: each of the 4 Challengers grapples with a Karnak as a 5th Karnak in the background holds a gun on Ace. Now, as the story continues, Ace skillfully darts his plane between the weaving tentacles of the sea creature. Then, with pontoon deployed, he touches down on the water long enough to pick up his teammates, taking off a moment later and avoiding a flailing tentacle with his name on it! As they fly, Hunter surmises that they're dealing now with the legendary Giant Kraken, the greatest fear of the mariners of old. The manuscript says it can be thwarted by "a weapon that strength cannot wield -- but wisdom can withdraw." While the others puzzle over that one, Ace strafes the Kraken with the plane's rockets, to no effect. Then, over the horizon comes a fishing fleet. Good gravy! But Ace realizes this could be a stroke of luck, and he has Red radio the fleet to dump all their fuel. The fishers don't like the sound of it, as they'd prefer to use the fuel to get away, but since escape is unlikely, they comply. In moments, the Kraken reaches the oily water... and dives under! As they fly away, Red mutters that Karnak's men were responsible, but that they paid for it with their lives, as he saw them both drown. Another voice in the plane offers that it's too bad they didn't live to stand trial. Regarding that spilled oil business, Prof explains that air can be a weapon, if you withdraw it, and that the Kraken obviously chose to live. The fishermen have radioed for help already, so the Challengers fly on to track Karnak. Hours later they approach the American mainland, the closest land he could expect to reach with his battered plane, where they spot the plane in a cove. They wade to land to be met by two lawmen, guns drawn, who accuse them of being Karnak's agents. Assuring them that they're the Challengers of the Unknown ("You can check on us!"), one of the cops recounts recent events. Having witnessed Karnak's shaky landing, they challenged him for identification. When Karnak hesitated, the cops drew their guns, and Karnak swigged from a vial... and became 50 sets of twins! Defying the lawmen to figure out which of them was real, they ran in all directions, though the cops nabbed one apiece, and their narrative ends. Soon, at the police station, a doctor shows Ace x-rays indicating that the Karnaks have physical structure limited to nerve endings, as though they are extensions of Karnak's mind! The manhunt is on: Karnaks are arrested all over the place, only to be revealed as duplicates. Finally, Red and Rocky catch one in the act of a holdup, but they let him go. Having no mind of it own, it leads them to Karnak's hideout on the edge of town. As our boys burst in, Karnak gloats as he lifts the final vial to drink a toast to them. The resultant effect is... nothing! Rocky grabs him, declaring that the last vial had no magic powers. Red, pointing behind them, shouts that Karnak's duplicate is vanishing! The boys turn Karnak over to the FBI. Later, Hunter tells the Challengers that all the duplicates vanished. The last vial seems to have been the antidote, the duplicate nullifier. Smiling, Ace declares the case over, and welcomes the next one: "If it's dangerous, we'll take it!"

The end!

The depth of this single 24-page story stands, in my mind, as a challenge to any current six-issue story arcs written with TPB reprinting in mind. Sorry for the length of the write-up, by the way, but with six panels per page there was a lot going on here!

Karnak makes an imposing figure: he's the stereotype of a Frenchman minus the long loaf of bread. He wears a beret and sports a waxed mustache. He wears a turtleneck shirt, a scarf tastefully tied around hit neck. A shoulder holster completes the ensemble.

The inks for this issue have sometimes been credited to Wally Wood, and the mistake is understandable. George Klein, who in my considered opinion was the actual inker, had an approach smoother than many of the inkers Jack had in those uncredited, late '50s DC stories. It's a very flattering job, but not as chiseled as Woody's approach. A decade later, Klein inked Kirby again on two issues of Thor. There the line was broader, but of course so was Jacks, by then.

Ben Oda lettered the issue, as he did for a great many of Jack's jobs back to Black Magic, Boy's Ranch and Three Rocketeers, and including the Kirby DC jobs from this era.

There are an amazing number of guns being waved around! However, no one smokes.

The final element of the story would have benefited from an editor's touch: the final vial should have been said to have undone ALL the previous vials.

Tom Orzechowski.
San Francisco CA