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Retro: Capes, Cowls & Costumes 4: Stars and Second Stringers

Updated: Mar 18, 2023

(Look! Up in the sky! It’s a bird…it’s a plane…no! It’s a 2008 column I wrote from!)

A survey of the shelves of your local bookseller would seem to indicate that in order to score a book deal, a comic book character has to have either widespread recognition, a movie or a TV show to support them. The first superhero to make it into prose was Superman, then Batman. In recent months, it’s been Iron Man, The Hulk, The Dark Knight, and Hellboy II, all major motion pictures in theaters near you. (Yes. You!)

In truth, it’s not only the superstars or the cinematic Flavor-of-the-Week that get the novel treatment…although as the DC Comics house editor for the Catwoman film novelization, let me assure you that not every movie needs a novel (and no slight intended to writer Elizabeth Hand, who created a fine pitcher of lemonade with what she was handed to work with). Every now and then, a novel comes along that makes you wonder what they were thinking.

Which brings us to The Challengers of the Unknown (1977), a novel by Ron Goulart based on the mid-range DC Comics characters created by Jack Kirby in 1957. The Challengers are scientist and deep sea diving expert Prof Haley, pilot Ace Morgan, daredevil Red Ryan and professional boxer Rocky Davis, four men who survive certain death together in a plane crash. Deciding they were living on borrowed time, they dedicate their lives to the investigating and challenging, if you will, of the unknown.The Challengers of the Unknown ran seventy-seven issues, until 1971, and then was revived in 1977 for a seven-issue run. And, apparently, a novel.

While the Challengers seem unlikely fodder for novelizing based on their comic book history, a look at the basic concept actually made it, in terms of what was going on in paperback originals in the late-70s, a fairly clever choice: four he-man adventurers with high-tech gear traveling the world (and beyond) fighting menaces natural, supernatural and alien. He-man adventurers were all over the paperback racks in those days; add in the cool name and, for a little sex appeal, blond and buxom June Robbins (a later addition to the comic book cast of characters) and you had the makings of a series. Alas, The Challengers of the Unknown, with a plot involving a legendary killer monster in a South American lake, Nazis on youth serum, a shadowy national security agency, and the guarding of U.S. oil interests (ah, some things never change!), lacks real heat and fails to make any of the above particularly interesting. The story seemed cobbled together from too many genres for readers to ever really figure out what this was supposed to be.

By contrast, 1982’s Blackhawk by William Rotsler knew exactly what it was and where it was going. Created in 1941 by Will Eisner and Chuck Cuidera, Blackhawk was a Polish aviator whose family was killed by the Nazi pilot who shot him down in a dog fight during the Blitzkrieg. The Polish aviator vows to get revenge against the Nazi monster who killed his family and gathers together fearless pilots and fighters from around the globe to combat the Nazi menace. The comic ran forever, jumping from a feature in Military Comics to their own title, which lasted until 1968 and, some reprint issues aside, returned in 1982 for another two year run.

Rotsler used the original comic book stories as a jumping off point, filling the novel with the back story and logistics that Golden Age-era writers never gave second thought to. Who funds the Blackhawks? Where did they get a whole island, ground facilities and support crew? How does this squadron of fliers without any national affiliation get its intelligence? Blackhawk reads like a cross between the pulps and the men’s sweat magazines, including a little Nazi S&M action there at the end. So why Blackhawk? Director Steven Spielberg had shown some interest in the property for a film project (he would’ve been a lot better off if he’d made this instead of 1941 for his World War II movie from that era) so DC was trying to sweeten things with the revival of the comic book title and the novel.

Superman’s girlfriend Lois Lane has been a star in her own right for years (she got a title in 1958 after five years of weekly TV exposure), whereas Spider-Man’s main squeeze, Mary Jane Watson, has only recently found fame outside the four-color page thanks to Kirsten Dunst in 2002’s mega-hit Spider-Man. Marvel Comics, in one of only about three titles they published under their own Marvel Press imprint, took advantage of her newfound fame with 2003’s hardcover Mary Jane, by young adult fantasy novelist Judith O’Brien (one of the other Marvel Press titles was the 2004 sequel, Mary Jane 2).

Set in the Ultimate Spider-Man continuity of the young high school aged Peter Parker, Mary Jane shows us what went on in Spidey’s early days from Mary Jane’s point of view. And with just having returned to her old neighborhood after her parent’s divorce, a reunion with her childhood crush, Peter Parker, the sudden attentions of rich boy Harry Osborn, and her mom’s creepy new boyfriend, she’s too busy with what’s going on in her life to pay much attention to some new costumed do-gooder who happens to swing by. Mary Jane is not only chock full of teenage angst, it also features some lovely black and white illustrations by Mike Mayhew.

Michael Turner’s Witchblade, published by Top Cow, was making the scene in 2002 as well. The comic, which debuted in 1995, stars New York City homicide detective Sara Pezzini, the current holder of the Witchblade, an ancient magical weapon of great power that eventually controls whoever holds it. A TV series starring Yancy Butler based on the comic had debuted on TNT in 2001 and would run for two seasons, during which time the novel Witchblade: Demons by Mike Baron would be published. In Baron’s very capable hands, Demons takes Detective Pezzini into the decapitation murder of an antiques dealer which leads to suspects as diverse as the owner of an NBA team to a professional sword polisher. But at the heart of the mystery are the weapons crafted in the 16th century by a master sword maker said to imbue all his creations with supernatural power and the warrior believed to have sold his soul to the devil in exchange for the great fighting skills these weapons would bring to him.

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