Saturday, November 26, 2011

4 Normals & a Gimmick

Comic Books seem to go through periodic sea-changes where interest in one thing drops off and a scramble then ensues to find the next big thing, at which point everybody jumps on that.

After Superman in 1938 there were more superheroes than you could shake a Cosmic Rod at, after the first superheroes wore their welcome out there was the first scrum starting around 1947 between Western, Romance, War, Crime and Horror comics for the top spot, with horror pretty much winning out.

This led to comics just about being wiped out in the backlash which led to the gray mediocrity that was 1953 to 1957, until things started to perk up with the introduction of the new red suited version of the Flash, the science fiction Green Lantern, and leading to the coming of Marvel.

Until the so-called “Marvel Age of Comics” took over the post of “next big thing” however was still open, and at DC one of the contenders that seemed to be in competition with the return of the superhero was something I call

4 Normals & a Gimmick:

The first such team was the Challengers of the Unknown, which appeared in the January-February 1957 issue of Showcase (# 6), which in the way that comics were numbered back then means it appeared in December of 1955.

With plot and pencils by Jack Kirby; script by Dave Wood and inks by Rosalind "Roz" Kirby, (however it's generally agreed that Jack Kirby was the real creative mind behind it) they would over the years become one of DC Comics most persistent B-team group of characters.

Made up of test pilot “Ace” Morgan, daredevil mountain climber Red Ryan, wrestler (later heavyweight boxing champion) Rocky Davis and “Prof” Haley, a scientist specializing in underwater exploration. These four strangers meet when they get to be the first passengers to fly in an experimental robot airplane (sure, if I had an untried iffy item like that these are just the four sort people I would stuff into it,) the plane however proves to still have some bugs in it and crashes.

If it had instead first shot into space and exposed the quartet to cosmic rays Comic Book history might have been changed, instead what happens is that the four on surviving the crash decide they are now “living on borrowed time” and team up to take on challenges from the unknown.

Fortunately for the Comic Book reading public at the time this leads not, as it would in real life, to some interviews in the paper as they become 90 day wonders to be quickly be forgotten as the next detraction comes along leaving them to get together every year or so in a bar and gas on about “that crash,” but instead fantastic and weird menaces from space, and from various mad scientists fall all over each other throwing themselves at the team.

Along with Kirby’s art  there is another thing that makes the Challengers standout.  At the time they appear in Showcase # 6, all comic books were made up of at least two, but usually three or four separate stories. Kirby's introduction story of the CotU was the first to devote a whole comic to just one group of characters in one story separated into three chapters. (Alright Fawcett tried this most than 10 years earlier with Radar the International Police Man, but it was a flop and no one really remembers it) Which when Kirby took it to Marvel and the Fantastic Four would be one of the major changes to comics in the 60s, and which has become so much a part of comics that most readers today don’t know it was ever otherwise. (Well… except that now it takes around 4 to 38 comics to finish one story, but I digress.)

After three more tryouts the Challengers get their own comic.

Challengers of the Unknown
This setup would also led to perhaps the only challenge, if at best a weak one, to the superhero.

The Challenger's title apparently doing well, DC let things cook for about a year and then came out with four more such teams, only by then things had been tweaked so that it seemed that one editor or another, and they were really the ones who ruled comics back then, not artists or writers, had come up with a template so that these teams would consist of

1.  The competent in-charge strong-jawed leader, his steadfast right-hand pal who was often also a strong man, the leader’s girlfriend, and a fourth spot filled by a kid, or brain.

2.  No superpowers or any impressive gadgets other than…

3.  The one gimmick that lets them do their thing, i.e. mole-machine, scuba gear, time machine, a government license to get in trouble.

4. Normal (for the comics anyway) clothing.

5. The inability to do anything more complicated than opening a can of beans without it turning into the impossibly fantastic with only them standing between whatever came out of that can of beans and the destruction of the world.

The four that came out in quick succession where:

1.      Rip Hunter: Time Master
Showcase # 20
May-June 1959
With Rip Hunter, Jeff Smith, Bonnie Baxter, and Bonnie's young brother, Corky
 Rip has a time machine and the four go tooling around in time getting in a mess everywhere and every when they land.
And while time travel should have its own rewards and dangers they, like most DC characters at the time, seem to spend most of their time dealing with alien invaders, dinosaurs (though almost none of them in say the Jurassic period, but during the days of the knight or in Ancient Rome) monsters and strange transformations (Rip becomes a big blue monster and almost gets turned into a robot.)
After their tryout these character got their own comic which lasted almost three years.

1.      Suicide Squad
Brave & the Bold # 25
August-September 1959
Lt. Rick Flag, Jess Bright, Karin Grace, Dr. Hugh Evans
As these characters had a vaguely military theme, being a team of experts the army tossed at weird events with the idea being that they probably wouldn’t survive. The fourth slot was filled not by a kid brother, but by someone with a PhD in Everything.
This time the concept didn’t do as well as. After all with a team bearing the rather pessimistic title of the “suicide squad” and yet still insisting on coming back and back again they start to sound like a cheat.
As such they were soon retitled Task Force X (and yet none of them had the decency to be mutants) and only made it for around 5 outings in which they deal with alien invaders, dinosaurs, monsters and strange transformations (they get shrunk to only a few inches in height and have to battle seagulls and stuff.)
They never make it to an on-going series and are soon forgotten, with the name Suicide Squad, and Rick Flag’s son being used years later for a much more successful version involving the government using super-villains for dangerous missions.

1.      The Sea Devils
Showcase # 27
July-August 1960
Dane Dorrance , Biff Bailey, Judy Walton and Judy's younger brother Nicky Walton.
With these we find four people exploring the world’s oceans via the then exotic method of scuba-diving.  
There you go, Jacques Cousteau, Sea Hunt, and all that “frogman” stuff,  that ought to lead a different sort of story and…. They run into alien invaders, dinosaurs, monsters (the giant Octopus Man being one of the more persistent) and at least one strange transformation where a sponge diver gets jabbed by a mutant sponge and turns into a 30 foot tall sponge man who can absorb anything, including color and sound, and who leads to the Sea Devils being in a team-up with the  Challengers of the Unknown.
This team also gets a series that like Rip lasts for about 3 years.

1.      “Cave” Carson: Adventures Inside Earth!
Brave & the Bold # 31
August-September 1960
Calvin "Cave" Carson, Bulldozer Smith, Christie Madison and Johnny Blake
The last of the 4 Normals & a Gimmick took their adventures underground, they were revolutionaries? No, spelunkers with a mole machine, that looked suspiciously like sports car, a to make things easier.
I’ll give you one guess what that ran into in their only five outings, only now these almost regulation monsters were found in the surprisingly well lit lands beneath our feet, or at least the feet of people in the DC Universe.
They at least did come across something a little different when they ran into a few civilizations hungry to take over the surface and they never got turned into aliens or trees or whatnot.
That however was not enough of a difference to get them a title of their own, and they, and soon the rest of these un-powered adventures, were replaced by the new army of superheroes, heroines and villains that became not just the main thing, but eventually the only thing, comics could tolerate for quite a few years.

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