Comics Review: Challengers Of The Unknown Must Die

Challengers Of The Unknown may sound like a B-movie, but they are an adventurous team seen in the pages of DC Comics. After a near fatal plane crash, Ace Morgan, Red Ryan, Rocky Davis, and Mark “Prof” Haley” are men living on borrowed time. Yet one question remains- “What happens when time runs out?”

Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale attempt to answer that question in Challengers Of The Unknown Must Die. While they became famous for their work on Batman, this 1991 miniseries is their first work as a duo. Although not a big hit, DC had plans for a follow-up, but this never came to be.

Challengers of the Unknown Must Die
Challengers of the Unknown in action

Loeb and Sale depict the Challengers as middle-aged heroes in semi-retirement. Their hometown, Challenger-ville, is a tourist attraction. One day, an explosion from Challenger Mountain destroys the town. Haley and wife June Robbins are among the thousands killed in the blast. Ace, Rocky, and Red manage to save people, but they are facing manslaughter charges.


Ace, Rocky, and Red endure a heavily-covered trial, but Superman testifies in their favor. The court decides Haley’s experiments are to blame, but the others are found not guilty. They are liable for damages and ordered to disband.

Challengers of the Unknown
What a way to start the series- with a bang

From here, the team ventures into different paths. Ace moves to New York and rents a room in Greenwich Village (a la Doctor Strange). He delves into the mystic arts and gets lost in his own demons. Red becomes a mercenary fighting in third-world countries. As for Rocky, he goes to Hollywood and becomes a famous movie actor. He develops a major drinking problem and ends up in rehab.

Meanwhile, reporter Harold Moffet suspects sinister forces are at work. He’s certain the Challengers didn’t cause the explosion, but he lacks the evidence to prove his theory. Soon, a series of similar events indicate there is someone else behind it. Moffat makes it his mission to reunite the team.

Loeb succeeds in breathing life into the Challengers and exploring their personalities. He deconstructs the 1950s concept of heroes and makes it work. By being out of their comfort zone, the team has to come to terms with their existence. It is unfortunate the series didn’t get a follow-up, because Loeb gets what makes the characters tick.

challengers of the unknown
Is it just me, or is Sale’s artwork very cinematic?

Sale uses real-life people as a basis for his characters. Red bears an uncanny resemblance to Ed Harris. Rocky sports the Kirk Douglas chin, and Ace has Robert De Niro’s aquiline nose. Heck, Moffet looks like Jerry Seinfeld.

The series’ main problem is the lack of team action. Since Haley and June are dead, one would expect the survivors to step up as a group, but they go their separate ways. When the group reunites, it is exciting to watch, but one keeps wishing for a bigger payoff.

Nor is the villain very exciting. At first, the main antagonist appears to be Duncan Pramble, a small nerd who used to be known as Multi-Man. However, he only serves as a puppet of a cosmic entity from another realm.

We get some character exploration of Ace and Rocky, who cope with their own problems. While Ace’s arc might feel like Doctor Strange, his struggle with faith and destiny are thought-provoking. Rocky’s alcoholism subplot is moving to read about. That being said, Red’s vigilante career feels like a light version of the Punisher. Prof and June get some development as a married couple, which isn’t given much depth.

Challengers Of The Unknown Must Die has some great moments, but it struggles to find a direction. Loeb tends to weave dated pop culture references into the story, but these feel cliche at times. Sale’s artwork and visuals are very impressive. The duo’s first collaboration is a sign of greater things to come.

Challengers of the unknown
The Challengers have big screen movie potential, but would audiences pay to see it?


Jonathan Bruce
Jonathan Bruce
I am an English teacher by day and a freelance writer at night. Specialities include news, reviews, opinion and commentary articles. When I'm not teaching, I participate in theatre, building sets and working stage crew as a hobby. I also enjoy reading and having an occasional glass of Scotch.