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Justice League of America 63
"Time Signs A Death Warrant for the Justice League!"

COVER IMAGE NOT FOUND June 1968; DC Comics; Julius Schwartz, editor; written by Gardner Fox, drawn by Mike Sekowsky and inked by George Roussos.

In the early days of the Justice League, Superman, along with Batman, hardly ever got to appear on the cover (editor Mort Weisinger didn't want the Big Blue Cheese "overexposed"). Later, during TV Batmania, there was a period when Batman dominated JLA covers to the point that, at least outwardly, the book looked like "Batman and a Bunch of Sidekicks". Here, the Man of Steel finally gets his chance to dominate a JLA cover, and I do mean dominate. Not only does he stand triumphant amidst a slew of thoroughly trounced fellow JLA'ers lying unconscious, battered and tattered on the ground, as he shouts, "NOW-- who's the toughest JUSTICE LEAGUER of them all!"-- he even nearly squeezes the JLA logo off the cover, scrunching it into a smaller space than usual.

What historic event happened on May 8, 1968? Why, the very last meeting of the legendary Justice League of America. At least, so says the tour guide for a crowd of time-traveling tourists secretly observing what appears to be a routine JLA meeting. Can't they warn the JLA of the terrible fate that awaits them? Apparently not.. not only are the inhabitants of the "chronal craft" totally invisible to the people of our time, but history records the ending of the JLA, and, as we all know, history cannot be changed-- despite a young boy's plaintive cry, "They MUST be wrong! I'll never admit ANYBODY ever beat the JUSTICE LEAGUE!" It seems the time tourists will be cheated out of part of their voyeuristic thrill, however, as a sudden "time-storm" forces the craft to flee back to its home base in the distant future.

As the JLA meeting comes to a close, Green Lantern proposes placing the "blackmail box" that figured in the previous issue's adventure among the JLA's trophies. Little does he know that another trophy-- the oversized key acquired from the villain known as The Key, back in JLA #41-- spells doom for the JLA. Sitting in his prison cell, the Key gloats to himself how he pulled off "his last and greatest key-trick" by planting the rigged key in the JLA's Secret Sanctuary. It took almost three years for the "Cosmi-Key" to absorb enough cosmic-ray energy to perform its function, but now it is ready to transmit the Key's irresistible telepathic command to the JLA, and that command is, "For the next hour you will remain inside the Secret Sanctuary! You will spend that hour figuring out foolproof ways to KILL one another! When the hour is up-- you will fling yourself on your chosen victims-- and utterly destroy one another!" The shocked JLA members present try to defy the Key's command by fleeing the Secret Sanctuary, but find that none of them can summon up the will to use their powers to penetrate the headquarters wall. Then, suddenly, Superman vanishes from sight. Has he found a way out? Not exactly; Flash, with his super-speed vision, perceives the Man of Steel is running in circles at super-speed too fast to be seen by normal eyes. Then Superman reappears-- but not quite the same Superman. "Why all the long faces?" he asks. "I was at headquarters attending a regular meeting-- when all of a sudden I'm at a totally different meeting-- THREE YEARS LATER-- to judge by the calendar!" Supes perceives that his 1968 self has used super-speed to travel back in time three years, which by the laws of time travel automatically forces his 1965 self forward in time. But why did he do that? The JLA'ers explain the Key's trap and realize that Superman escaped in the only way possible-- he did not defy the Key's command, since he remained within the Sanctuary the whole time, traveling in time but not in space. Now the Superman of the past-- who hasn't been subjected to the Key's control-- can leave the Sanctuary and track down the Key to force him to countermand his deadly order. Not only that, but he will take the rest of the JLA along to help him. The others protest that not only does the Key's influence prevent them from leaving the HQ voluntarily, but it will force them to fight back against any attempt to remove them bodily.

"Fight ME? I won't give YOU the chance!", Superman boasts, and he proceeds to force each of the struggling JLA members through the sanctuary door. Even Green Lantern's ring fails to halt him, and he evades Wonder Woman's magic lasso-- and avoids the necessity of manhandling a woman-- by blowing her through the door with his super-breath. Once they are all out of the Sanctuary, the JLA'ers are free of that part of the Key's command, and they backslap Superman, grateful for his somewhat rough assistance. But the kill-conditioning is still in effect, and the JLA only have 50 minutes left to find and stop the Key.

Meanwhile, the Key himself has apparently been very busy in those ten minutes-- he's broken out of jail, donned his villain costume, and is leading a troop of his "Key-Men" henchmen in a raid on the United Nations building, in pursuit of "my dream of becoming Key-Master of the World!" As the JLA arrives at the scene, the Key thinks they have somehow freed themselves of his mental compulsion, and sends his Key-Men to attack them. While Superman wrecks the Key's vehicle and imprisons him in a pile of rubble, the Key-Men attack Green Lantern with clouds of poison gas; but Flash creates a whirlwind to drive away the gas, before being himself felled by electrical bolts, and GL creates a power-ring jar to imprison the Key-Men. Aquaman summons a troop of whales to the nearby dockside to topple more Key-Men with fire-hose like blasts from their spouts, and the Atom punches out the villains. Still more Key-Men are disarmed of their "key-weapons" by Wonder Woman's magic lasso, enabling Green Arrow to subdue them with his net-arrow, while Batman handles some more adversaries with judo, and even Snapper Carr gets his licks in, using power-ringed boxing gloves created by Green Lantern.

But as the last few Key-Men make their last stand, they are pleasantly surprised when Superman bypasses them to take on his fellow JLA members, leaving them all sprawled unconscious on the ground. Has Superman fallen victim to the Key's orders after all? No; "The hour's UP! Had to act swiftly-- or my fellow members would have started killing one another!" The Key-Men's relief is short-lived, as Superman punches them into dreamland as well and then turns to the Key, who is still trapped in the rubble and threatened by a fallen, sputtering Key-weapon that may discharge at any moment. This gives Superman a chance to finesse his oath against killing; he can't threaten to kill the Key directly, but he can refuse to save the Key from the malfunctioning weapon unless the Key withdraws his kill-command. Chagrined to learn that his command is still in effect, the Key reflects, "I could have ordered them all along to stop fighting my Key-Men! But I was so sure they'd overcome those commands-- I didn't even bother to check it out!" Even now he could still order the JLA to kill each other-- except that Superman has rendered them all unconscious and helpless. The Key is of two minds; "If I only had the guts-- I'd let that Key-gun kill me! And I'd die happy-- knowing that when the Justice Leaguers come to-- they'd still be under my compulsion to kill themselves!" But finally self-preservation wins out over revenge; "I haven't got the nerve to give up MY life-- for THEIRS! I'm countermanding my previous orders!" (But since they're all unconscious, do the JLA'ers "hear" his command? Apparently so.)

After smashing the Key-gun, Superman seizes the Key and informs him that he is going to be put away where he will never bother anybody again. The Key boasts that he will escape again, but Superman answers, "Really? Even from my Fortress of Solitude, where you'll be in a state of SUSPENDED ANIMATION?" (Supes seems to be playing a bit fast and loose with legal procedure and civil liberties here.... and if his special legal status does enable him to imprison people in his Fortress at will, why hasn't he long since done it with Luthor, instead of sending him back to the jails he keeps escaping from?) Not completely daunted, the Key warns, "Like a bad penny, a KEY always keeps turning up!"

As the Justice Leaguers rouse, they are relieved to be free of the Key's command, though the Flash grouses, 'Did you HAVE to hit so hard?" Superman curiously asks which JLA'er was under the Key's orders to kill him, thinking it must be either Green Lantern or Wonder Woman, but both deny either that they were Supes' appointed killers or that their Power Ring or Magic Lasso would have had the ability to kill him. Then-- "Gulp!"-- Snapper Carr, of all people, reveals that he was the Super-assassin. (Was this another part of the Key's revenge plot, to humiliate Superman even in death by having him killed by the JLA's honorary member/hanger-on?) Snapper was to take the souvenir key in the JLA trophy room, from the team's previous encounter with the Key, and file off its lead coating to reveal its Kryptonite interior. In fact, Snapper demonstrates, causing Superman to keel over briefly before the Flash disposes of the K-key. (Wait a minute-- wasn't the souvenir key in the Sanctuary the "Cosmi-Key" that transmitted the Key's hypnotic commands? Was it also the Kryptonite key? Or were there two souvenir keys?) Concluding that his job here and now is done, Superman does his super-speed thing to return to three years ago, displacing the present-day Superman back to his own time. Now free also of the Key's command-- "when he revoked his orders to you, he also negated mine, even though I was in the PAST!"-- Superman of 1968 reveals that his own kill-target was Batman, and that he avoided becoming a Bat-murderer in 1965 by directing Green Lantern to hold him helpless with his Power Ring and Wonder Woman simultaneously to restrain him with her Magic Lasso. While neither GL nor WW might have been able to stop Superman single-handedly, their combined powers were enough to do so. (Actually, given Superman's well established vulnerability to magic, you'd think the Lasso would have been enough to restrain him all by itself. And hasn't GL been known to create Kryptonite and red-sun rays with his ring?)

But what of the time tourists who were so convinced that history had recorded the JLA's death? Well, it seems the "time-storm" they passed through "played tricks with their memories", causing them to remember a "historical event" that never happened. The one boy who was so convinced that the JLA could not be defeated, was in fact subconsciously remembering the true history of their encounter with the Key.

Despite some plot holes, this was a clever and amusing story, that faced squarely an issue that tended to be ignored in earlier JLA stories-- the vast disparity in sheer power between Superman and most of the other members. (Though as I said, I think Wonder Woman and particularly Green Lantern would probably have given Supes a better fight than suggested doubt GL's will power was subconsciously working against the Key's command.)

And while the story wasn't the last mission of the Justice League, it was another kind of finale for the JLA-- the last story to be drawn by Mike Sekowsky, who had been with the team since its inception. After this story (which unfortunately suffered somewhat from crude inks by George Roussos) Sekowsky went on to become a writer/artist/editor on WONDER WOMAN and other titles (I sometimes think he made Diana Prince a "plainclothes" adventuress because after years of JLA he was sick of costumed characters), while Dick Dillin began his long run as JLA artist with the next issue. With the issue after that, Gardner Fox also made his last bow on JLA, truly ending an era.