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WHttDCnU? – DCU Presents: Challengers of the Unknown

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As Trailblazer’s boots singed the ground, she wondered if it was okay to stop running. She didn’t know what had become of Crimson Hound, they’d lost contact some time ago, before the Challengers proved to be too much. This was an encounter Trailblazer couldn’t handle, and when that happened, she did what she did best: run.

Ran she did, but so exhausted she was not even her gift of otherworldly speed could carry her for long. Soles scraped through the gravel, the speedster braking hard, and she fell to her knees. Surely now it was safe. Surely it was over. But looking up, before her the Challengers appeared from somewhere Unknown… vapid and redundant, sucking the very soul of creativity from the surroundings. Just as Trailblazer resigned herself to a losing battle, a glow of hope shone by her side.

“I’ll handle this. I survived Deathstroke after all.”

WHTTDCNU-synopsis

keeper-rA plane flies through the cold air of the Himalayas, as a helpful info dump from the Daily Planet informs us of the upcoming season of ‘Challengers’. Hosted by Clay Brody, Challengers is a reality TV show in the vein of Survivor, taking celebrities ad pitting them against each other in games of skill, strength and wits. But ratings have been dropping, and producer June Robbins is facing unemployment if this latest season isn’t enough. Unfortunately, her lineup of celebrities is confined to D-listers, so she has her work cut out for her.

The pilot of the plane is Ace, replacing usual pilot Maverick, who is unable to fly with a broken arm. This doesn’t stop him from co-piloting. Meanwhile, June moves to greet her D-list celebrity contestants. Prof Haley, of News Science Daily, a Bill Nye-style science show. Rocky, who might be a boxer, it’s never explained.  Red Ryan, who plays guitar, and must therefore be a music artist of some kind. Brenda, whose claim to fame is some sort of video involving Oliver Queen(I choose to believe it’s a hard-hitting expose, proving that Oliver Queen is a liberal socialist who spends his evenings helping out at homeless shelters.). And finally, Ken Kawa, who has over 4 million flutter followers.

Clay Brody, who chose the location for this years season, says that he feels it’s the perfect place and time, before alluding to his time as an archaeologist. Unfortunately, he is cut short when Ken’s attempt to film through the cockpit windows blinds the pilots. As Ken shuts his camera off, something stares into the cockpit, distracting Ace and causing the plane to crash.

June comes to, finding herself in a dark cavern with Ace attempting to kill her. Half his face missing, Ace screams that ‘Everyone wa there for a reason – everyone except me.’ before plunging a knife into her chest.

It was all a dream, and June awakens screaming in a monastery. The members of Challengers are there, unconscious and being tended by the monks… except Ace and Clay, An elder monk explains that she is in Nanda Parbat, and that Ace is dead, while leading her to Clay, who has found what he seeks.  A pentagon containing a spiral, this talisman apparently has unknown power. The other Challengers awaken, with Maverick’s arm healed, but their discussion is cut short when the meal they are sharing turns out to be drugged.

They awaken in the remains of their plane, with rescue coming in the form of a helicopter. As they ascend to a mountaintop flat enough to land on, they find themselves attacked by a giant frog-like creature, that shies away from Clay’s talisman. As the creature focuses on June, Clay sacrifices himself, throwing the amulet to June before being swallowed as the rest of the Challengers escape.

Two acolytes of Nanda Parbat betray their Order, resurrecting some ancient evil and giving it the body of Ace. It promptly drains them of life and declares ‘the Challenger’s must die!’

Meanwhile, Challenger’s has become the hottest thing on television, although June’s unhappy about how the TV executives are behind her now they’re popular. With Clay and Ace gone, and no other evidence, the talisman is the only lead they have.

Luckily, Ken is rich and brilliant, apparently, taking them to his house outside Denver, he reveals that he’s been studying he amulet. Along with Prof Haley, they’ve found evidence of two other talismans. Taking everyone but Prof Haley and Ken, June heads out to the Teutoburg Forest in Germany, watched from the shadows by Ace.

The second talisman, called the Sefer Yetzirah, is found in a cave, but when removed from the stone holding it, the entire cave collapses, with the carved statues lining the walls coming to life. Trapped between the walls of the cave and the statures, the Challengers are forced to fight. Maverick and Rocky are armed with weapons capable of taking out the stone guardians, but with few shots and many targets, things look grim. Red, thinking quickly,  uses a grenade bring the cave down upon the statues, burying them and saving the team.

Meanwhile, Ken and Prof Haley uncover a source about the talismans, referring to something called ‘Convergence.’ They are interrupted by Ace, who stabs them both and says ‘The talisman’s mine. Only I know its true purpose.’

A month later, and Challengers is even hotter in the TV world. In a bid to find the third talisman, the Seal of Shamash, the team had travelled to Bolivia, where they found the Sun Gate. During the attempt to close the Sun Gate, Brenda was caught and pulled through, into the unknown. There is no evidence she isn’t dead. A tribute is made for her, but June has had enough of people making entertainment off her friends death, and quits.

Having survived the attack on him, Prof Haley is only now getting out of the hospital, being picked up by Maverick and Rocky. He mentions that the third talisman should have been in the Middle East, and is eager to get back to analysing it. However, he is held back for one last test, while the rest of the team reconvenes in Denver.

Entering the Lab, both teams are surprised to find Prof Haley, who says he came in through the back door. He reveals that there are seven talismans, and asks to see the two that the Challengers have, the first having been stolen by Ace. However, Rocky is suspicious of Prof, and the arrival of the real Prof Haley, wounded and leaning on a cane, confirms that the first was an imposter!

The imposter morphs back into Ace, before revealing that he is the Forgotten Lord, simply inhabiting the shell of Ace’s body. He demands the other talismans, murdering Rocky and blasting the team away  before threatening Maverick’s life. With no recourse, Prof asks June to give the Forgotten Lord the talismans. The resulting power spike consumes Ace’s body, destroying the Forgotten Lord, or at least severing his tether to the mortal realm.

The remaining members of the team are ready to forget the talismans, but June reveals the vision she had at the beginning of the Journey. And so our intrepid heroes swear once again to seek out the talismans, and become ‘Challengers of the Unknown!’

WHTTDCNU-art

trailblazer-lIt’s so easy for me to praise good art, and it’s especially easy for me to rag on bad art until my fingers break off. This artwork is neither good or bad, in general. It’s passable, but the ever changing line work, inconsistent colour palate and poor use of panelling and transition got up my nose very fast. But even then, these were just further annoyances on top of my lack of enjoyment for the book’s story, but more on that later.

It had its problems, definitely, but it was never really a series of mistakes bad enough to make me say “ugh, what bad artwork.” There were more just moments of “wait, when did they go there? How did that change?” and etcetera. The most interesting thing to see was the design of the mountain top hallucination city, and that’s about it. To sum it up, the work of Jerry Ordway was just “okay.”

crimson-hound-rCotU had three issues to do something unique with its art. Unfortunately the most unique thing it did was show off a cool Kirby-Esque type monster while doing nothing else. Again three issues but if that was all that was going to be given then why not try to push for something more interesting with the art? Nothing surreal or impactful, just usual people being drawn and maybe one or two sci-fi like moments, like the horde of giant fire ants coming out of a gate, a very run of the mill “Inca-Stonework” type of gate to some unknown realm. If you thought that sounded cool, well that’s due to you having a better imagination than the artist on this one. No cool technology or mystical items, just really generic set ups like stone giants posing as part of a gate structure or the big fancy lab that one of the characters own. I’m sorry about this one guys, it’s just you really can’t get much out of these three issues that isn’t me saying how unimpressed I am with the artwork.

Hell at least “I, Vampire” had beautiful artwork and I didn’t like that book, worse the storyline before Challengers was the Deadman and that at least had some good art to it. Was it outstanding artwork? No but it was still decent and had some very good moments even within such a short amount of books. Maybe DC should have pushed to give this book seven issues or at least five just so something more interesting can be done here.

WHTTDCNU-writing

trailblazer-lThis… had potential. I say that with extreme trepidation, because the concept alone was shaky to start with, but as the first issue of the story unfolded it just got stupid, and lame, and incredibly unoriginal. The setting of a lost plane in the mountains with a load of D-list has-beens was already an unimpressive place to start, but that is nothing compared to the weak plotline of Shiny Stone of Saint McGuffin Says So, therefore mystical responsibility and magical fever dreams! What the hell are you people doing? Why did you know to go there? Does no one know that there are PROFESSIONAL heroes and explorers you can turn to for your stupid chosen path so you don’t have to drag your lame TV deal into it?

I was hoping that with a title like “Challengers of the Unknown” that we’d get some actual supernatual mysteries, but instead we have a pointless cast of characters whom all seem to have varying levels of uselessness for the sake of making June the proactive one and plot progression that comes out of no where purely for convenience to get the characters in other places. The choices made, often by both the characters and the writing team make no sense, and the purpose of their journey is trite. I started out by being annoyed and soon went on to just uncaring. I really feel that this story failed to deliver, because nearly every bit of it is just drowning in “Just Because.”

To my knowledge though, this is one of the first instances where the Convergence was mentioned before the DCnU event was soon to take place, and I wonder if that makes it the only clever foreshadowing thing Challengers managed to offer, or was it just a waste. I say the latter.

crimson-hound-rSpeaking off trying to do something more interesting in a short amount of time, talk about rushing the story here. A nice way to explain the problem here is with comparing and contrasting here with the Deadman story, which was a simple five issue story that set up our character, his conflict, and then gave a satisfying resolution. All in five issues, and that’s not including the fact we got interesting side characters on top of that.

Here we’re stuck with what might as well be the attempt to do the “cast of thousands” where we have stereotypes that try to be developed into characters. Nothing wrong with that but man this was rushed too fast to do anything with them. Not to mention nothing was actually explained which might be due to the fact this probably was supposed to be more than just a three issue story arc. We’re just supposed to be on board that this group of people who managed to stumble upon one of the most important mystical places of the DCU are our heroes and watch them do stuff that might somehow explain their own destinies.

Oh and to be on board with them having it also be a reality TV show that was supposed to show them at first compete in strange and dangerous locales but then got rewritten to be just a Reality TV show following their exploits. That gets dropped by the end of the third issue so never mind on that front. Plus we have a villain but we barely get an inkling about his motivations outside of “I’m an evil being from somewhere that wants to rule stuff” but he’s dispatched rather anti-climatically. Wait though, we lost about half our cast throughout the three issues and then we’re teased with the possibility that they might still be alive and we’ll see them again if the series is a hit… oops.

WHTTDCNU-characterisation

trailblazer-lCan this be called characterization? Three issues is not enough page time to introduce and establish a team story while trying to tell THE STORY. But at very least, characters need to be at least presented in a semi-sensible way. We have very jagged character development for all of one character, that being June whom is clearly the “leader” of this stupid outfit, and then everyone else is just thrown in to take up page space. You have a mismatched group of failing celebrities all mouthing pointless driven about each situation and in some cases bring literally nothing of benefit to the group.

But back to June, whom drinks a gallon of imaginary determination to become the group’s leader through all the stupid, and if we want to be kind, there’s Ace whom gets body-jacked for the revival of some evil dude that no one has heard of or cares about. The rest are all basically just along for the ride, other than possibly “Prof” who didn’t get a real name until the second friggin issue and might actually be the only one who could be suited to this line of work. Ken gets a complete 180 in usefulness for the sake of “and now they can science their way around the magical problem!” before being killed off for DRAMA. And that guy is strong! And that guy can fly! (planes, don’t get too excited) and that guy is Wheeler from Captain Planet! And that chick who was killed off if only to spare her from getting in the way for no reason any further! Yeah we’re qualified to solve crazy legends like this! Only, we’re all about as interesting as a plastic cup. Without pictures on it.

crimson-hound-rThere isn’t any. Okay yes there were characters but again, they were just stereo types that we were supposed to learn more about through… well actual story telling. Again three issues doesn’t help much, especially since we get the barest of minimum here.

Our characters are in order: Rich Smart Guy, Poor Smart Guy, Slutty Red Head Diva, High Strung Blonde Executive Woman, Black Guy, Male Slutty Red Head Diva, and Fat Bearded Archaeologist.

Nothing else, just barest hints that might have been more interesting to explore but unfortunately the rush job on these issues just made me blank or just not care for them. Half these characters die so if I had made an effort it would have been wasted on this. Seriously why couldn’t this have also been a five issue story at the bare minimum? At least then we’d have gotten some information about these characters and their motivations.

WHTTDCNU-conclusion

trailblazer-lThe potential to have made something incredible out of the Challengers of the Unknown, by way of a better plot and better character progression should have used more than three issues, and I really feel that DC buggered up right there. A single character spotlight like Deadman made full use of five issues, the same should have been saved for the Challengers. Anything else could have taken up that three issue slot and saved the Challengers for later, but really, would more time and space have been enough?

I found the setting for the Challengers utterly underwhelming and the plot disappointing. The characters were annoying and failed to garner any reason for me to care about their wellbeing, deaths making no impact and challengers stirring no excitement. It wasn’t just that a lot of the book was dull, much of it was just downright stupid. Hell, I don’t think I even needed an origin story, which this story flails around at, after all BlackHawks proved it can be done.

It may be harsh to speak so negatively towards a book that seems to have failed mostly by not being great, but when you add everything up from the dull artwork to the stupid cast to the poorly crafted “plot”, the book ends up being a three page waste of time and space, and it makes it hard for me to recommend DCU Presents vol. 1 even if just for Deadman. I didn’t like Challengers of the Unknown, this was so unfulfilling to read.

crimson-hound-rDon’t. Just don’t. Not even as a curiosity, hell not even as a way to show how to do storytelling wrong, there are better examples that are far more entertaining than this.

Such a frustrating read, the worst part is that there clearly was something interesting that could have been done here, something that actually could have been at least a “so bad it’s fun” kind of thing but nope, we’re stuck with a rush job that didn’t even grab my interest to the point where I now realize I was lucky to get even three issues. Geez talk about wasting time and effort on this one.

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