Friday, April 22, 2016
Lost Legends: DC Challenge!
When I talked about DC's Emerald City Comic Con announcements, I mentioned the original DC Challenge mini-series and that I would get around to talking about it. Well, now's that time. Let's head back to 1985, a simpler time, when there were still infinite Earths, when heroes were heroes, and when it was decided by DC brass to try one of the strangest experiments in comic book history.
Now, remember, this is back in the day when letters pages in comic were not the exception, but pretty much the rule, and through the letter pages of this comic, readers got an explanation of how this particular project came about. Long story short, as the first letters page essay is longer than my average column, A group of comic writers got together at San Diego Comic Con in 1983 and decided to propose doing what they called a round robin, or what some might know as a game of exquisite corpse, where writers each write one chapter of a story and leave it to the next writer to pick up the story without being told what the previous writer's intention was to wrap up the story. There were specific rules against consultation between creative teams, about not using the, "It's just a dream!" gambit to get out of a sticky situation, and a few more logistical points, but generally, this was no holds barred comics like we rarely get anymore, twelve issues of pure crazy joyful comics.
I've been trying to decide how to write about this series since I realized I wanted to write about it. It's not easy, because it goes in all sorts of crazy directions. While each writer had to wrap up some of the plot points left by the previous writer or writers, some were left to dangle for issues at a time, to the point that I can't imagine reading this in anything but the concentrated burst I did; after all, if the writers were ignoring something for six months, how could readers be expected to remember them? Also, some of the best parts of the series are discovering the random, "Wow, that's a character that I never expected to see in here."
The basic premise, at the start of the series anyway, is that there are djinn-like creatures possessing people and interacting with heroes, while Floyd Perkins, a copy boy at the Daily Planet, is encountering hidden floors on the planet building and dead celebrities seemingly back from beyond. Pretty soon, aliens are involved, as are time travelers seeking mysterious stone tablets, battles between different alien species on the planet Rann, an alternate reality where Hitler won World War II, and Cthulhu like tentacle creatures from beyond. It's everything and the kitchen sink too storytelling.
As for the characters used, well it starts out simple enough with the DC Comics holy trinity of Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman, as well as their supporting casts, and sci-fi hero Adam
Strange. But issue two starts the spiral of the obscure, by bringing in not just well known western hero Jonah Hex, but Congorilla and B'wana Beast, as well as then little used villain, Mongul, who had only appeared in a handful of DC Comics Presents issues, as well as the legendary Superman Annual #11, "For the Man Who Has Everything." One of the rules the writers were given was they had to work with characters they didn't write on a monthly basis, so by series end, not only had most of the Justice League appeared, as well as many big name DC heroes, characters from other DC Earths of the time like Captain Marvel and Blue Beetle, but lesser known characters like Rip Hunter, Viking Prince, Detective Chimp, Captain Comet, Space Cabby, Enemy Ace, and Doiby Dickles, sometimes sidekick to Plastic Man all had featured roles. Basically, if you're a long time fan of DC Comics, you will find your favorite obscure character on the 60s, 70s, and early 80s somewhere in here.
And as for the creators who worked on this book? Well here's a rundown of each issue (along with the titles that each issue had, which were given to the new creative team by the previous one) and who the creative team was. These are guys who are now legends, some of the greatest writers and artists of the 70s and 80s, and they all worked together on this one project.
Issue #1, "Outbreak": Written by Mark Evanier; Illustrated by Gene Colan & Bob Smith
Issue #2, "Blinded By the Light": Written by Len Wein; Co-Plotted and Pencilled by Chuck Patton; Inked by Mike DeCarlo
Issue #3, "Viking Vengeance": Written by Doug Moench; Illustrated by Carmine Infantino & Bob Smith
Issue #4, "Atomic Nights": Written by Paul Levitz; Illustrated by Gil Kane & Klaus Janson
Issue #5, "Thunderbolts and Lightning": Written by Mike W Barr; Illustrated by Dave Gibbons & Mark Farmer
Issue #6, "A Matter of Anti Matter": Co-Written by Elliot S. Maggin & Dan Jurgens; Illustrated by Dan Jurgens & Larry Mahlstedt
Issue #7, "Don't Bogart That Grape... Hand Me the Gas Pump!": Wriiten by Paul Kupperberg; Illustrated by Joe Staton & Steve Mitchell
Issue #8, "If This Is Love, Why Do My Teeth Hurt?"" Written by Gerry Conway; Illustrated by Rick Hoberg, Dick Girodano, & Arnie Starr
Issue #9, "All This And World War, Too!": Written by Roy Thomas; Illustrated by Don Heck
Issue #10, "Jules Verne Was Right!": Written by Dan Mishkin; Illustrated by Curt Swan & Terry Austin
Issue #11: "How Can You Be In Two Places At Once When You're Not Anywhere At All?": Plot by Marv Wolfman, Dialogue by Cary Bates; Illustrated by Keith Giffen & Dave Hunt
Issue #12: "Fathers Against Suns"
Issue twelve had half a dozen chapters, each from a different creative team, and many of the artists were not involved in the earlier issues, including Tom Mandrake, Denys Cowan, Jan Duursema, and others. All twelve issues were colored by Carl Gafford and lettered by John Costanza.
And while I don't want to talk more about plot than I already have, since it would give away the fun and also take a ton of time to describe all the strange intricacies of the plot, here are a few favorite moments:
- Issue #2's cliffhanger has a time displaced Jonah Hex knock out the gangsters who have abducted him, led by a seemingly resurrected Peter Lorre, only to realize he doesn't know how to drive the car they're in as it screams down the road towards a group of nuns and school children.
- Issue #7 gives us Albert Einstein, who on his deathbed master the Unified Theory and now is the master of time and space, living in the nexus of all reality like a kindly Time Lord.
- Issue #8 is suddenly narrated by the Joker out of nowhere, because why the heck not?
-Issue #11's reveal of the big bad who's been behind the whole series. This is a character that few artists capture as well as Keith Giffen does, and the big splash page is amazing. Actually, that issue's art is possibly my favorite, as Giffen also draws an excellent Batman and Spectre.
While there's a lot of experimentation with form and character in comics outside DC and Marvel right now, the big two like to play it fairly safe. They don't try a lot of new things. DC Challenge might not have been transgressive or world shaking, but it was something that hadn't been done in comics before, and ended up being a project that was wildly fun, and in the still dark era of mainstream comics, I can only hope the new Kamandi Challenge series can recapture some of the glorious insanity of the original.
As with all Lost Legends posts, DC Challenge is currently uncollected, but I found it at a convention as a set not too long ago for a very affordable price.. However, as we near the release of the Kamandi Challenge title, I wouldn't be surprised if a collection was released. I do hope they include all the creator notes from the letters pages in that collection as well, as they added a lot of interesting back story to this unusual project.