"Time Signs a Death Warrant for the Justice League"
Writer: Gardner Fox
Penciller: Mike Sekowsky
Inker: George Roussos
Cover: Mike Sekowsky & George Roussos
Reviewed by: Tom-EL
An impending time storm disrupts the vehicle's ability to remain cloaked in this era, so the pilot informs the guests that they will have to return to their own time. At the moment the craft leaves, none of the League members notices a blue glow in the trophy room of the sanctuary, and at the same moment, a blue glow is around the Key, a master thief, in his prison cell, many miles away. An artifact that the Key left in Justice League HQ during their last encounter with him (JLA #41) has just become operational now three years later. In that previous battle, just as the League captured him, the Key was able to leave a souvenir "cosmic-key" in their trophy room that over the years has stored up enough cosmic energy to receive his mental commands and give him complete mental control over the JLA. The Leaguers will be absolutely compelled to obey any telepathic order he gives them, orders that are transmitted by this cosmic key. And so the Key sends out his mental command. He says "Members of the Justice League - Hear the commands of the Key! For the next hour you shall remain inside the secret sanctuary. You're forbidden to leave it to seek help outside!" He then telepathically tells them "You shall spend that hour figuring out foolproof ways to KILL one another!"
The blue glow fades away, but the League members come to the realization that at the end of the hour they must sign their own death warrants. They all know that if they don't find a way to get out of the sanctuary in less than sixty minutes, they are finished. Each member tries his best using his powers to break out, but not one of them is successful, they then realize they are forced to obey the Key. A second later, Green Lantern and Hawkman notice that Superman is gone. The Flash tells them he's not gone, he's just running in a circle at ever increasing super-speed. The Flash is the only one that can see him. Another second later and Superman is sitting in his chair wondering why everyone else looks worried. He tells them that all he knows is he was sitting at a meeting three years ago, then all of a sudden he's in a meeting that for him is three years in the future. He assumes that his future self for some reason went three years in the past, which automatically shifted the Superman of the past to this time, and now he wants to know why. His friends explain exactly what is going on. Batman points out that present-day Superman who is in the past is still under the Key's telepathic direction to kill one of them, so they still must work to free themselves from the Key's mental commands in the time remaining. Superman-past is not hindered by the command not to break out, so he has no trouble opening the cavern doors. However, the other members are under the command to stop anyone who tries, so each makes an effort to stop Superman. None of them are successful, and Superman begins taking them outside, two at a time, saying "You're all wasting valuable time stuggling like this, but I understand why!" Members on the inside fight hard not to be forcibly taken out, but ultimately Superman gets them all outside. When they are all outside the sanctuary, they become their normal selves again, and agree that in the fifty minutes they have left they had better find the Key.
Superman uses his telescopic vision and sees the Key and his Key-men, out of prison and advancing on the United Nations. The Key, in the belief that the JLA is now out of his way, is out to fulfill his life-long dream to make himself Key-master of the world. Then the Justice League shows up and the Key is in disbelief, thinking "How'd they manage to escape?" and wondering where his plan went wrong. The JLA doesn't give him much time to ponder that as they move in, knowing that they don't have a second to waste. To keep the Key "locked up", Superman unloads a pile of bricks on top of him as the other Leaguers go about rounding up the Key-minions. The Key-men put up a terrific struggle, using key-shaped weapons that shoot gas, electricity, and fire, but the JLA eventually takes them down. At the end, with only six remaining Key-men still able to use their weapons to fight back, Superman comes at them from one direction, the rest of the League from the other. But to the amazement of the Key-men, Superman bypasses them and goes flying directly into his team-mates, attacking them! GL figures that the Key must have finally gotten a mental command through to Superman. In fact, Superman was aware that the hour was up, and if he didn't knock his friends out, they would have started killing each other. After taking care of his fellow members, Superman again turns to fight the few remaining Key-men. As Superman brings down the Key's men, the Key, who has this entire time been under the pile of bricks, sees a Key-gun land on the bricks, pointed directly at him. He yells out to Superman to save him, which Superman is willing to do - just as soon as he countermands his telepathic orders to the League to kill each other. Realizing that request must mean that he still has mental control over them, the Key refuses. The Key thinks he can re-issue those orders to the League, but Superman reminds him that they are all knocked out. Then the Key tries to order Superman to save him, but big blue refuses untill he revokes his kill-the-JLA command. The Key wishes he had the guts to just let the Key-gun kill him, but he knows he doesn't have the nerve, so he agrees and countermands his orders. Superman smashes the gun, then promises the Key that he will imprison him in a place where he can never threaten the JLA or anyone else ever again. The Key says "Bah! I'll find a way to escape no matter WHERE you put me". Superman considered that possibility, so he asks "Really? Even from my Fortress of Solitude, where you will be in a state of suspended animation?". The Key admits that does present some difficulty, but states "Hear me good Superman - like a bad penny, a key always keeps turning up!"
When the Justice League members come to, Superman explains to them why he did what he did and how he got the Key to countermand his orders. As they return to the sanctuary, he asks "Which of you was slated to kill me?" They were all under the Key's mental control not to inform each other who would kill who, so Superman continues to ask each member. Finally, one member speaks up and says "The key selected me to kill you, Superman." It was Snapper Carr. Superman seems incredulous. "You can't work magic, you have no Kryptonite on you, so how could you possibly have - ". It was the souvenir key in the trophy room, the Key ordered Snapper to get it. Under the cosmic key's lead coating, it was made of green K, and Snapper would have just filed off the protective lead. The Flash grabs the key to get rid of it, while Snapper says "But, I didn't mean any harm." Superman says "I'm confident I didn't kill any of you three years ago - you're all living proof of it!" he then returns to the past, and the Superman of the present automatically returns. The obvious question is, who was Superman supposed to kill, and what kept him from carrying out the Key's mental command three years ago? The answer is, he was instucted to kill Batman. Earlier Green Lantern told Superman-past that he wasn't sure his power ring was powerful enough to stop Superman, and Wonder Woman said the same about her magic lasso. Superman-present remembered his past self being told that, so when he arrived in the past, unable to explain his presence, he told GL and Wonder Woman to use ring and lasso on him simultaneously, and not to release him for one hour. From what they said about not being sure that his power ring or her magic lasso individually could stop him, Superman gambled that if they worked together as one, their joint power of ring and lasso could stop him and prevent him from killing Batman. Neither Green Lantern or Wonder Woman remember that from three years ago, but they chalk it up to the Key's mental control causing them to forget that. At any rate, the JLA now considers the case - CLOSED!
Which brings us back to the time travelers from the future who believed the JLA members were going to kill each other. When the travelers returned to their time, it seems the history books recorded no such event taking place. Their assumption is that the time storm was playing tricks on their memory. The boy tells his dad "The Justice League adventure with the Key was one of my favorites, I've read it dozens of times - so I guess the true story was implanted deep in my sub-conscious mind. That part of me still retained the real story, even if my conscious mind didn't." The end.
Story - 4: The time travelling historians plot is a clever addition, and was homaged by Gerry Conway in JLA #206. This story is a sequel to a previous Gardner Fox story in Justice League of America issue #41, called "The Key Master of the World", the JLA battled a villain who called himself the Key. At the very end of that story, as he was apprehended, the Key is seen thinking to himself "The Justice League thinks it has triumphed over me, but just before I surrendered, I managed to pull my last and greatest key trick!" In that story, the Key used "psycho-chemicals" and a keyboard to control the JLA, supposedly the cosmic key of this story would give him that mental control without the need for the keyboard and the chemicals.
Superman appeared in most of the silver-age Justice League stories, but in few if any was he the central character that so much of the story hinges on as he was in this tale. Gardner Fox spent time in the 50's writing Batman stories, and in the 60's writing the Flash, but this is one of the few times he got to focus on Superman and in my opinion it made for an interesting story, with some cleverness on Superman's part. And as far as I am aware, while there are many silver-age stories of Superman time-traveling to the past, this is the only time I remember that he was shown to be able to do it in an enclosed room. Usually it was out in space or flying around the world. This was a neat trick. The story does have what seemed to me to be a couple of little inconsistencies. In the beginning, the first mental command the JLA is given is "You shall remain inside the sanctuary!" So what's the first thing they do? They try to break out and fail. But a few minutes later, Superman of the past works to do the same thing and the rest of them are all over him, trying with all their might to stop him from doing what they were ALL trying to do minutes before. So did they have limited free will, or no free will under the Key's mental directions, which was it? Later Superman-present remembers something that was said to Superman-past, but Green Lantern and Wonder Woman, who did not time travel, have no recollection of the same conversations. These are little things I do grant, but in the smooth flow of a story, little things like that are like speed bumps on the road to me, because I think "Wait a minute, I thought he/they could/couldn't do that." It's an interesting story with a few little plot twists, and a couple of inconsistencies, but I liked it, especially Superman's part in it.
Art - 4: This was Mike Sekowksy's last issue as penciller of the Justice League of America. I certainly won't deny to being a big Sekowsky fan, but to me, his work was a 5 when it was inked by Bernard Sachs. The others that inked Mike on JLA, including Roussos, Sid Greene, and Joe Giella, while not doing a bad job, just changed it enough that IMO, pulls it to a 4. Still, it was as good or superior to a lot of the pencilling and inking in comics during that time, and sixty-three issues (plus 3 Brave and Bolds) is an impressive run. Maybe a 4.5 because I thought Roussos was the best of the later three inkers, and to me, he managed not to detract too much from Mike's fine pencilling of Superman.
Cover Art - 5: Principally because of the dominant way that Superman is placed on the cover. In fact, this is to the best of my memory, the only time that the the title at the top of the cover had to be restructured from the regular JLA shield logo, and made smaller to accomodate the size of Superman on the cover. On the cover Superman is saying "NOW- who's the toughest Justice Leaguer of them all!" and six other League members laying trashed on the ground. Some time back, I read a blog of this issue, with the blog-writer wondering if Superman ever had this dream.
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