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Lost & Found: Karl Kesel on Jack Kirby

Free Comic Book Day is this Saturday, May 5th. In case you, like me, are in the process of considering how to get the most bang for your (unspent) buck on this holiest of days, today’s Lost & Found brings a reading recommendation from super-cartoonist Karl Kesel. Here’s Kesel on Jack Kirby’s Challengers of the Unknown.

The very first time I read a superhero comic-book, I fell in love. The idea that someone could fly or lift a tank off the ground was intoxicating to me. It opened my ten-year-old’s mind to endless possibilities. Almost immediately I dedicated myself to becoming a cartoonist. I had found my calling.

A number of years later, I discovered the classic comic-strip Terry and the Pirates, by Milton Caniff. In all honesty, it was the first time I realized you could have gripping, edge-of-your-seat comic stories without super-powers and skin-tight outfits. It changed my life. My favorite heroes became the ones who won with just wits and fists, pluck and luck. Of course, I still loved the dazzling spectacle of an alien invasion or lost civilization. If only there was a comic where earth-bound adventurers faced out-of-this-world obstacles.

Of course, there was. And it had existed since before I was born.

Challengers of the Unknown debuted in January, 1957. It was created by Jack Kirby—the same force of nature who created or co-created Captain America, the X-Men, the Fantastic Four, the Hulk, the entire genre of romance comic, and much, much more. The concept was brilliantly simple: four men—Ace Morgan, fearless jet pilot; Prof Haley, master skindiver; Red Ryan, circus daredevil; Rocky Davis, Olympic wrestling champion—survive a plane crash that should have killed them. Now “living on borrowed time” they band together, dedicating their new lives to facing the fantastic and exploring the unknown. Long before The Da Vinci Code, the Challengers solved “The Riddle of the Star-Stone.” Indiana Jones may have found the lost arc, but this fantastic foursome faced “The Menace of the Ancient Vials,” “The Secrets of the Sorcerer’s Box,” and “The Sorceress of Forbidding Valley.” They were “Captives of the Space Circus” and “Prisoners of the Robot Planet.” They stopped “The Beasts from Planet 9” and “The Day the Earth Blew Up.” They were all that stood between us and “The Wizard of Time,” “The Man Who Tampered with Infinity,” and “The Man Who Stole the Future.” No matter what they were up against, the Challengers never backed down. With nothing more than elbow grease, good old American know-how, and a wink of luck, these icons of the Eisenhower era always won.

Kirby only produced a dozen issues of the Challengers, although the title continued on in other hands for about ten years before being cancelled. It’s generally considered a second-tier creation. Even Kirby himself reworked many elements of the Challengers origin and characters into 1961’s Fantastic Four—a comic that would become the cornerstone of the Marvel Comics universe. To my mind, the biggest conceptual difference between the two comics is that the Fantastic Four are four super-heroes who act like normal people, and the Challengers are four normal people who act like super-heroes. And don’t get me wrong—the Fantastic Four is without question on of my favorite comics of all time. But…

But the Challengers are special. They speak to me in ways no other comic characters ever have. Although there’s never been much editorial interest in reviving the Challengers of the Unknown in their own title, I’ve been lucky enough to write a handful of stories featuring them. One was in a Superman comic, although I didn’t have the Man of Steel show up until page fourteen of a twenty-two page story. The artist I was working with said, “You didn’t really need Superman at all, did you?” He was right. At the first sign of danger the Challengers leap into action. Literally. Off the top of a building. With no idea how they’ll survive the fall, let alone their foes. The artist called that foolhardy. No, I corrected him, that’s fearless. The Challengers are smart. They’re resourceful. They know their limits and capabilities. No matter with situation they’re in—and with the Challengers the odds are always somewhere between astronomical and impossible—they’ll find a way to win. Without being able to fly or lift a tank off the ground.

And I can’t think of a better message to put in a story than that.

Karl Kesel has been a cartoonist for the over 20 years, working on Superman, Spider-Man, and The Fantastic Four, as well as the lesser-known Suicide Squad, Hawk & Dove, and Vegas–a superhero-western of Kesel’s own creation.  Visit him on the web at Mad Genius Comics.

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