Before re-reading this comic in preparation for this blog post — probably the first time I’d cracked its cover in at least three decades — I had been remembering it as a more typical example of the JLA stories of the period than the first one that I’d bought and read, the philosophical and essentially villain-less “The Indestructible Creatures of Nightmare Island!” in JLA #40. As it turns out, however, this issue has a good bit more in common with its immediate predecessor than I’d previously recalled. Like in that story, the main action here turns upon a character manipulating people’s attitudes and behaviors by artificial means. However, in “The Key-Master of the World!” (uncredited, but produced by the book’s regular creative team of Gardner Fox, Mike Sekowsky, and Bernard Sachs, according to the Grand Comics Database), the manipulation is limited only to the titular heroes rather than affecting the whole world, and the perpetrator’s intent is malicious, rather than benign.
The perpetrator in question is the Key — an evil scientist who has developed “psycho-chemicals” that enable him to tap the full potential of his own mind and senses, as well as to influence the psyches of others. He wears an orange jumpsuit and a vaguely keyhole-suggesting headpiece, and all his weaponry and gadgets use a key motif, because… well, just because he likes keys, I guess. His fiendish plan involves doping the Justice League members with his psycho-chemical, forcing them to disband, and then going on a crime spree which the heroes will be unable to prevent. Once he accumulates enough wealth, the Key intends to use the JLA as his own personal super-powered army to take over the world, and from there move on to intergalactic conquest:
It seems a pretty ambitious plan for one smart guy with some strong drugs and a few nifty key-gadgets — but, after all, a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?
In another parallel to JLA #40, the story follows the individual heroes as they engage in combat with villains from their own series, thus providing us with cameo appearances by the Wrecker, the Weather Wizard, and the Invisible Destroyer, not to mention crime-fighting partners like Robin and Hawkgirl. It’s one of these partners, in fact, who exposes the Key’s cunning plan, as Hawkgirl realizes something’s awry after her husband is unable to see the Key-Men robbing a bank right in front of him:
This issue was my introduction to Shayera Hol, who made quite an impression on my eight-year-old self. Of course, at the time I didn’t question why Hawkgirl, whose powers and capabilities were identical to her husband’s, didn’t share star billing with him in his own title, or have her own membership in the JLA. And a few years later, when I read a reprint of the story from JLA #31 that featured Hawkman’s induction into the team, I completely bought the Atom’s lame excuse for Hawkgirl’s exclusion, and Shayera’s deferential acceptance of the same:
What a good sport, that Shayera Hol, huh? Sigh.
(Eventually, of course, Hawkgirl would become a full-fledged League member in her own right, and the character would also go on to enjoy the sweetest revenge of all when the excellent early ’00s “Justice League” animated TV series featured her as the one and only Hawk on the team.)
But returning to JLA #41… Once Hawkman finally realizes what’s up, he quickly alerts the other erstwhile members of the League; then, immediately after officially re-forming the team, the heroes all set out to find and capture the Key and his henchmen — thereby providing the eager new comics reader that was my young self with still more nifty information about the various characters’ abilities, and what strengths they each individually brought to the League
As an example, this scene reinforced my impression of J’onn J’onzz, the Martian Manhunter — whose power-set included super-strength, flight, invulnerability, and “Martian vision” — as being basically just a bald, green-skinned version of Superman:
(In fact, J’onn possessed a number of other cool abilities that were all his own, such as shape-shifting, invisibility, and intangibility — but for whatever reason, they never got a lot of play in the ’60s Justice League comics.)
And this scene showed just what unique skills even a non-powered hero, such as Batman, could contribute to the team:
All right — so Batman just hits people. But he’s really, really good at it, OK?
Eventually, the combined might of the League, not to mention their exemplary teamwork, overcomes the weaponry of the Key and his Key-Men. The story then wraps up with these two final panels:
As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, DC didn’t pay a lot of attention to issue-to-issue continuity in the mid-’60s, but every once in a while they did drop a teaser like this one, which wouldn’t be resolved for another three years. Assuming this blog lasts that long, we’ll get around to that story in 2018.
UPDATE 7/18/2021: Although your humble blogger had every intention in 2015 of following through with a post about the Key’s next appearance in JLA #63, I must abashedly confess that when the time rolled around for me to do so, in April, 2018, I dropped the ball. So, please don’t go looking for that post. Rather, if you’re curious about how the Key’s secret ploy finally came to fruition, I recommend taking a look at the Mike’s Amazing World of Comics page for this issue, which offers a tidy synopsis of the adventure. (My thanks, as well as my apologies, to reader/commenter Anastasios, who called my attention to this error.) We now return you to your 10/21/2015 blog post, already in progress…
(And just for the record, that 1968 story wouldn’t be the last we’d see of the Key, either. Although he’s never appeared frequently, the character has managed to hang on for decades, all the way down to the present day. His modus operandi and appearance have gone through a number of changes over the years, but in spite of some memorable efforts by writers like Steve Englehart and Grant Morrison, he’s never quite made it out of “C-list” status.)
One of the aspects of my early comics reading that I haven’t yet touched on in this blog involves the advertisements — more specifically, the various house ads that DC ran in every issue, promoting other comics that were already on the stands or would be going on sale soon. These ads definitely did their job in getting my attention and whetting my anticipation for coming attractions. However, due to the irregularity of my visits to the Tote-Sum and Short-Stop convenience stores where I bought my comics, not to mention my limited funds, I was never able to buy everything that looked interesting.
With this in mind, I’d like to welcome you to a new, occasional feature of this blog, The Most Intriguing House Ads for Comics I Never Bought. This first installment spotlights JLA #41’s ad for the 63rd issue of The Brave and the Bold, featuring a team-up between DC’s two preeminent heroines, Supergirl and Wonder Woman:
Apparently, DC’s marketing staff didn’t expect their presumed primary audience of young boys to take the team-up of two “superchicks” very seriously, as their ad copy clearly didn’t. (Though we should probably give them a few points for listing “beautiful” as the third, rather than the first, essential attribute of a swingin’ superchick, coming after the rather more relevant “brainy” and “brawny”.)
To the best of my knowledge, this story has never been reprinted, and that’s probably a mercy. Judging by the synopsis on the DC Comics Database wiki, the actual story is even more risible than the ad implies, with both of these powerful women deciding to abandon their heroic careers in favor of more “feminine” lifestyles focused on fashion or romance. Neither of them is under the influence of psycho-chemicals or being coerced in any way when they make this choice, nor are they carrying out a hoax. Each simply decides that she wants to Enjoy Being a Girl. They do come to their senses by the end of the story, of course, but it’s hard to imagine a similar story being told at the time about the Flash and Green Lantern taking a temporary hiatus from super-heroing so they could spend more time, oh, I don’t know, watching football or building a deck or something.
There’s no question that in 2015 mainstream comics have a long way to go to completely eliminate sexism in their portrayals of super-heroic women. Still — as we anticipate Supergirl’s impending advent on live-action television (five days away as of this writing), as well as Wonder Woman’s 2016 big-screen debut (finally), I think we can look back at this comic published 50 years ago this very day (!), and be grateful that we’ve made some progress, at least.