DiDio Takes “Challengers of the Unknown” Into “DCU Presents”

Challengers coming to the New DCU 52by Kiel Phegley, Source: Comic Book Resources

DC Comics’ classic sci-fi adventure team the Challengers of the Unknown has had a way of excaping the grim death of comic book cancelation for too long. Since their mid-century heyday at the hands of creator Jack Kirby and the artists who followed him, the purple jump-suited adventurers have had a wide variety of relaunches and reinventions to bring them back to the market. But in 2012, DC’s Co-Publisher has plans to test the team’s survival rate in a whole new way.

Starting in February’s “DC Universe Presents” #6, Dan DiDio will introduce a new era for the Challengers alongside artist Jerry Ordway. The second arc in the New 52 anthology title (a first arc starring Deadman by Paul Jenkins and Bernard Chang wraps in issue #5), the Challengers feature imagines a new start for the team where the entirety of its membership will play a role…and one where they may not all make it out alive.

This makes DiDio’s second turn as creator in the New 52 as he’s also writing “O.M.A.C.” for artist Keith Giffen. And with the announcement of the “DCU Presents” arc with the Challengers, the Co-Publisher spoke exclusively to CBR News about the connections between the two books, why working with writer-artists makes this the best part of his job and how giant monsters, hidden cities and mysterious conspiracies all play into the fate of the Challengers squad.

CBR News: Dan, one would assume you’ve got a lot on your plate right now between the New 52 launch and writing “O.M.A.C.” What about this Challengers story made you say, “Yes, what I need right now is another writing gig”?

Dan DiDio: [Laughs] I got a lot of things on the plate, but the best part of being able to do this job is that while working on “O.M.A.C.” with Keith Giffen and with the incredible Jerry Ordway on “Challengers” is that in both cases, they do so much of the heavy lifting. They’re really such a pleasure to work with that writing this is more relaxing than it is work to me.

What was the origin of you and Jerry teaming on this franchise? Is this something you’ve been planning on at DC?

Yeah, I’ve been wanting to get a Challengers comic off the ground for a long time. This is one of the things we wanted to put into “DC Universe Presents” so people could get a taste and see how they liked it. Just like they used to introduce series in books like “Brave & The Bold” in ’60s or “Showcase,” I wanted to put this idea out there and see if there’s a real interest and appetite for it. I had a particular idea in mind for what I wanted to do with the series, and it had a specific look and style. One of the things we’re trying to do with “Challengers of the Unknown” is challenge some really huge unknowns – like massive powered monsters and creatures that come out of places like mythology and hidden cities. The person that seemed to be the most natural artist for that was Jerry, so I gave him a call to see if he wanted to do it with me. Plus, Jerry is such an accomplished storyteller and writer in his own right that it makes it much easier to work with him on the project.

What’s the core of this concept and version of the team? They’ve been shuffled up quite a bit since their original ’50s stories.

Exactly. The funny thing is that there have been a couple iterations of the Challengers over the years. You had the core team, which gained some members along the way, and then there was the second team that was introduced by Steven Grant. What we’re doing now is taking all the characters and putting them in one big group. But there is a big mystery to unfold and an almost survival aspect to what’s going on with them now. While they survive the initial crash in issue #1, there’s forces attacking them that leads us to believe that the team you’re seeing at the start of the first issue won’t be the same team that you see later on in the series.

Is there one cast member, be it Rocky or Red or the Professor, who take a lead role here, or is this more of an ensemble book?

We’re having some fun with this actually. The whole concept stars with a reality TV show called “Challengers,” and what you find out is that June Robbins is actually the producer of this show, and she’s put together a rather eclectic group of people to star in this “Survivor”-style series. They’re headed to the Himalayas where the plane crash occurs. Then you’ll find out through the course of the story that all those people were not on the show by accident. They’re all there for a particular reason. And they survive for a reason, but just because they survived the crash doesn’t mean each one will survive the other challenges coming along.

“O.M.A.C.” first, now “Challengers.” I’m starting to see a Kirby theme in the books you’re choosing.

[Laughs] You know, it’s funny you say that because I didn’t even notice that until someone pointed it out to me. I always gravitate to the things I enjoyed and the high concepts with bigger, stronger, crazier adventures. That’s what makes comics fun. “O.M.A.C.,” as we call it, is an action book pure and simple from beginning to end. We always want to make sure that at least 50% of the book is tied to a big battle scene, and with “Challengers” we really wanted to capture a lot of those 1950s-style monsters that populated comics in those days but give a nice contemporary spin to the Challengers team. I wanted them to have a sense of purpose of what their doing and for the mysteries they go out after.

These days, a lot of people tie conspiracy theory stories to more modern takes on the genre like “X-Files” or what have you, but that style of adventure story was built in the spy/Cold War era. Did those influences play a role here?

Really what you’re trying to do is touch upon ideas that resonate with folks today. Realistically speaking, in “OMAC” the whole series is about control – trying to regain control of your life or seeing if you have control when so many other forces are leading you towards your own decisions. With “Challengers,” it’s all about destiny. It’s about why these people were destined or chosen to do this and whether or not you can change fate and what you’ve been predestined to do. And I think those themes can relate whether you’ve got a story set in the ’50s, ’60s or today.

I remember speaking to you about working with Keith when you first paired up on “Outsiders” and I assume this is true now with Jerry, but since you have writer-artists on the book, you’re implying a more “plot-first” scripting style to let them do their own story choices on the page.

What I did with “O.M.A.C.” and “Challengers” is create a series bible which lays out who the characters are, what they look like and their motivations. Then I pick an over-arcing theme for the first storyline and break that out into a plot. And for the first couple of issues, there will be a little more on the paper. But with Keith and I, we did a lot of the second issue and beyond on the phone where I’d pitch him the plot and he’d lay it out from there. That’s one of the joys of working with Jerry is that I feel the same kind of relationships evolving here too.

In a book like “Challengers of the Unknown” particularly when monsters show up, one of the great joys is the ridiculous names for these mythic beasts. Will you be continuing that tradition here?

[Laughs] We’re working on that as we speak! But what we did is went through books, and I was looking at some different places where we could have the adventures take place. We’re going to some of the more forgotten civilizations or remnants of forgotten civilizations out there so we can have a lot of fun there. And you can count that we’ll encounter some characters with stranger names as we go, that’s for sure.

We’ve just got a cover from Ryan Sook to look at for the moment. What are you most excited to see in Jerry’s pencils for the first issue?

There’s a couple of things, but naturally for me, the big payoff is that confrontation with the first big monster in the Himalayas. I’m looking forward to Jerry knocking that out of the park. Our goal on this was really to get a bit of that sense of the high adventure you’d see in an “Indiana Jones.” But its a mix of the crazy fighting of “Final Destination” with the creatures of a Ray Harryhausen film. That’s what we’re getting from “Challengers.”

One of the selling points for the New 52 has been that the books are making a good jumping on points for new or lapsed readers. Do you feel a similar jumpstart creatively? Like you said, there have been a number of “Challengers” revivals. Do you feel more confident in their chances now?

Oh yeah. One of the best things about the New 52 is that some of the titles that might have been deemed “weaker” early on saw their first issues launch very strong. We’re finding some strong footing in regards to how they’re holding up across these first few months of sales. So what that means is that we feel even more empowered to take some risks on the more eclectic ideas that we’ve always had – the things that always seemed exciting to us but could never get a foothold when we released them in the past. With the New 52 now, we’re hoping that people have found a level of faith and belief in the fact that we’re finding new ways to reenergize these characters. I hope that means they’ll try some of the stranger ideas we have out there that can excite everybody.

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