At the outset, New Challengers had a lot going for it — an all-star cast of creators, a story spinning out of Scott Snyder’s epic Dark Nights: Metal event, and a built-in franchise stemming from a notable DC property: Challengers of the Unknown. Regrettably, New Challengers fails to reach any significant measures of accomplishment. The entire volume is marred with a myriad of decisions that are a disservice to the classic Challengers of the Unknown and the current attempt at rebooting the title. If there is one word to summarize New Challengers Vol. 1, it would be “inconsistency.” It comes as a surprising disappointment considering the team brought together to bring the Challengers to a new era. There are kernels of potential for success, but they are too few and far between.
Current comic readers unfamiliar with the Challengers of the Unknown needn’t worry; the current run does enough to service the uninitiated while dropping Easter eggs for well-informed fans. New Challengers is a rebranding of Challengers of the Unknown. The original series was created by Jack Kirby and is a precursor to the Fantastic Four (false comparisons are bound to be made). New Challengers ties loosely into the original’s history but takes attempts (“attempts” being the operative word here) to bring the series up to date with modern times. DC describes the series as follows:
“A new team of misfits are given a second chance at life by the mysterious figure “The Professor” …but only if they’re willing to explore the most unknown reaches of the universe. Seeking a set of powerful artifacts, the team must defeat a rival group of explorers to combine them…or the world as we know it could end.”
How each member of the Challengers is chosen remains unclear, but they come from disparate corners of the DC Universe, each with unique skills and personalities that service discovery. Trina Alvarez, a benevolent black-market doctor to the impoverished; her compassion is a double-edged sword. Moses Barber, agoraphobic hacker extraordinaire; a man cut off from society, finding solace in the digital realm. Krunch, unwavering member of the DingBats gang; quick to fight, but always with good intentions. And finally, there is Bethany Hopkins, the death-defying soldier of fortune; she is a woman all too familiar with bloodshed and tragedy.
Each member of the team is plucked from the moment of their death and brought to Challengers Mountain with little in the way of explanation for how they got there. The mountain serves as a conduit to the vestiges of life they have left. Every mission outside of its walls begins a countdown to their possible demise, the time ebbs and flows based on the exertion of the task. An ominous tattoo of an hourglass is embedded into their forearms, a constant reminder of the extremity of each mission.
Once the team is brought together, they are introduced to their benefactor: Prof, a member of the original group, but displaced out of his initial time. The team is immediately thrust into to their first mission to retrieve an esoteric artifact. Giving away too much of the purpose would land squarely into spoiler territory, but suffice to say that there are some twists, turns, and world ending events; when isn’t there a world changing event.
For better or worse — but mostly worse, so much worse – the tone of New Challengers feels as if it was taken from the ’90s, from the inconsistent art to the excruciating dialogue and the apparent turn of events. I said it earlier, and I’ll say it again, “Inconsistency.” Artists taking over duties of a comic is nothing new, but to do so in a six-issue miniseries begs questions. The most glaring example is when the change in art takes place in the middle of issue #3. Andy Kubert establishes a style for the New Challengers, despite some foibles (more on this later), and the method quickly becomes familiar — that is until the artist changes in the middle of the narrative; it is jarring, to say the least. The drastic change is detrimental to a comic series that struggles to find an identity.
Moreover, Kubert appears to be struggling with remaining steady in his attention to detail from each panel. One panel may be more comprehensive in capturing the moment, only to be followed up with poor execution and little to no depth. Reading a comic is a form of escapism, and when the art kicks readers from that escapism, the proverbial ball is dropped.
Then there is the story itself. Two significant decisions worked well from the start, only to be disregarded from one issue to the next. The first of which is the narration. Leading the first issue is first person narration told from the POV of Trina. The following issue introduces Moses’ POV narration. The pattern begins taking shape… until the third issue completely omits the narration from Krunch’s backstory. Issue #4 picks up where the first two issues began, with a narrative told from the mind of Bethany. This is to be expected when a new arc begins, or a new team takes the reigns, but a miniseries? Inconsistent.
The second decision that was a boon early on was the use of flashbacks; think of Lost‘s better years. Each issue follows the team’s present-day mission while digging into the backstory of one member. It allows audiences to understand how the team’s past affects its present. Unfortunately, the flashbacks felt like a crutch. Once we gain insight into the characters and the entirety of the issue focuses on the current mission the pace is stagnant. You would think more action would benefit the title, but when the dialogue is filled with forced one-liners and poorly implemented action sequences, you’ll long for some backstory.
I wish I could recommend New Challengers to most readers, but the demographics of this book is limited. If failing to live up to one’s potential could take physical form, it would be New Challengers. I genuinely hope the property isn’t abandoned altogether — with such a rich history and exciting premise there is an inkling of something that could shine, but for the time being, leave New Challengers on the shelf.