A Tribute to the of

There are advantages to having a history, or maybe a better way to put it is institutional knowledge. Such is the case with DC’s Silver Age, which owes a substantial debt to its own Golden Age. A case in point is the subject of this edition of the Silver Age Sage where, in the pages of Justice League of America #41 from December of 1965, we are reintroduced to a villain that faced the JLA’s predecessors, the Justice Society of America. Our antagonist is The Key who aspires to be “The Key-Master of the World!” as told by Gardner Fox with Julius Schwartz editing. Cover art is courtesy of Mike Sekowsky with Murphy Anderson on inks. Interiors are also from the pencil of Sekowsky but with Bernie Sachs providing the inking chores. Lettering is done with aplomb by the great Gaspar Saladino.

As I mentioned, The Key took on the JSA in the pages of All-Star #57, the February/March 1951 issue which just happened to be the final JSA bow in the title, at least until it was resurrected in 1975. In an uncredited effort, Julie Schwartz also edited “The Mystery of the Vanishing Detectives!” and Bernie Sachs was also the inker on most of the book over Arthur Peddy pencils. John Broome was our writer and if you look at the splash page, it bears no small similarity to the cover of JLA #41, except for the fact that The Key in the JSA story is in a suit and tie and his head resembles a keyhole with a face on it. The stance and firing of a key-rifle, however, is all but identical, though I couldn’t help but be amused at the lengths Mike Sekowsky went to in order to fit Green Lantern onto that cover. Notice how GL’s head is within a whisker of his right heel? Gymnasts would be jealous of such flexibility. The new Key just seems to have a keyhole for headgear and is now in a jumpsuit.

The JSA story doesn’t even show The Key until the last three pages and he’s not wearing any sort of costume or mask. He’d done his dirty work throughout the story through henchmen and boasted that no one had ever looked upon his face and lived to tell the tale. Before he can be captured by the JSA, however, he leaps from a cable car into a 1,000 foot depth ravine, apparently killing himself to avoid incarceration.

Fourteen years later, likely at the suggestion of Julie, The Key is back and boy, has he got some ambitious plans. First, though, things start in a rather surprising fashion as the JLA is meeting in their secret sanctuary and has just decided to disband over a bowl of punch. Green Lantern destroys the joint with his power ring and everyone heads for home.

Snapper Carr, however, stops at a payphone (remember those quaint objects?) and reports that the Justice League is no more. At the other end of that call, The Key hangs up in satisfaction stating that his plan to be Key-Man on Earth, the Solar System and ultimately the universe itself cannot fail. He continues to monologue, explaining that he’d come up with a pyscho-chemical affording him the ability to take over the minds and behavior patterns of all mankind.

Through some surveillance, he’d arranged for Snapper Carr to have a little accident that The Key witnessed. He then rescued the JLA’s mascot and gave him some water laced with the chemical. Then, back at his Key Club HQ, The Key is manipulating a massive electronic brain with a bank of key controls to manipulate those under the influence of the psycho chemical. He makes Snapper spike the punch and then causes the JLA to do the unthinkable when they call it quits.

This, however, is just the beginning. More keys are twisted as he makes certain the League won’t be able to see his Key-Men committing robberies to finance operations. Soon he’ll follow this pattern with world leaders and after subduing the Earth, he’ll have Superman or Green Lantern transport him to other worlds until he’s got everything under his thumb. Like I said, he’s an ambitious little so and so.

It isn’t long before the acid test when Gotham City is being menaced by The Wrecker and his gang, last spotted in Detective Comics #197 way back in July of 1953 and sporting one of the blandest costumes in the biz in a flowing, grim-reaper like outfit draped with a full face mask and big white “W” on the front. Despite the Wrecker pointing out that Batman and Robin are ignoring the Key-Men who are robbing right under their noses, they cannot see them and presume he’s just trying to distract them.

Over in Ivy Town, a nearly identical scene as the Atom busts up an art gallery robbery and the leader of the thieves objects that the Mighty Mite is ignoring the guys dressed in black leotards with keys on them as they march out with valuable canvases, wrapping up Part I.

Part II opens in Midway City with more of the same as Hawkman and Hawkgirl and taking down the fearsome Monarch Butterfly gang. I wish I were kidding. They’re sporting butterfly wings! Hawkgirl, however, notes Key-men committing a robbery down on the ground and goes after the astonished crooks who exclaim she shouldn’t be able to see them. Hawkman, however, is baffled when his wife asks why he didn’t help and he cannot even see the cold cocked crooks.

Back at home, Shiera ponders what they just experienced and looks at the nearby milk glass with just a small amount left in it. She then remembers that rather than drinking her customary night time beverage, she’d fed it to a stray cat. Microscopic analysis of the remainder reveals a powerful psycho chemical in the milk meant for her consumption. She further deduces that the only way it could have been slipped into the milk was by her husband, being directed by someone else.

The winged wonders head for their Thanagarian spacecraft, equipped with more and superior technology where they can temporarily neutralize the psycho chemical in Katar’s body. After the procedure, Hawkman recalls the incident at JLA HQ and the pair quickly begin to make arrangements to thwart the effects on the other members of the Justice League of America.

The first step is to use the amazing Absorbascon to learn the secret identities of the other League members in order to help them. He’s also able to discern that Snapper Carr was the delivery boy for the psycho chemical, but Hawkman cannot tell who gave the order.

Now its off to Central City for Hawkman where he finds the Flash in action against the Weather Wizard, who, upon capture makes a familiar complaint about nearby key-men making off with stolen goods. Katar is documenting things with a handheld video camera. Concurrently Hawkgirl, similarly equipped is recording Green Lantern in action in Coast City as he engages the Invisible Destroyer, an old foe last seen in Showcase #23 and reviewed here at the dear old Silver Lantern. Once again, the key-men are on the job.

Still later, Hawkman makes the rounds, visiting Bruce (Batman) Wayne, Clark (Superman) Kent, Ray (The Atom) Palmer, Barry (The Flash) Allen and Diana (Wonder Woman) Prince, alerting them to an emergency meeting at his spacecraft above Midway City. There they startle the members of the Justice League by telling them what’s been going on, despite their skepticism and lack of recall. Then, the projector rolls the film and each hero still cannot see the key-men.

Now they each, in turn, receive the same neutralization that Hawkman underwent and get a quick rerun and at last see what’s been happening beneath their very noses. A swift, unanimous vote is held to reform the JLA and the search for The Key begins.

Using the resources of the phone company (in these long ago days pre-caller ID) they track the number Snapper used to call The Key to locate its destination, but the place has been completely sanitized. The pieces begin to fall into place as restored memories kick in and GL learns from his power ring that he’d been compelled to issue a delayed order to the ring to conceal the secretly restored JLA HQ and to move The Key and his equipment there. At any given moment, the villain may start activating keys to regain control over the JLA. Part II concludes on that ominous note.

The third and final part opens with the members of the League furiously attempting to get into their old HQ, but the power ring barrier around it is keeping them at bay. Even Green Lantern’s efforts to reverse the work he’d done is taking a tremendous effort that moves very slowly. The Atom is struck with inspiration and suggests that the Flash take him to the same payphone Snapper used to report to The Key, reminding him that he often uses the telephone lines to travel through at microscopic size to get to the unlisted phone in Justice League headquarters. (Presumably, this is no longer an option to the World’s Smallest Hero in the age of the cell phone.) Despite his busy schedule of evil, The Key answers the ringing phone, assuming it’s one of his key-men checking in and the Atom is inside.

Outside, the power ring is at last breaking through, but The Key, meanwhile, is turning those keys at the control console. What he doesn’t know is that the Atom is inside, blocking contact between the keys and the electronics inside and is also hurriedly crossing circuits.

Meanwhile, the League is at the gates and The Key is baffled that they aren’t under his control, but doesn’t skip a beat in deploying special Key weapons to attack the League. It’s the usual sort of thing that you might expect: A flaming key flies toward the Martian Manhunter, while a yellow key with spiked mace heads hurtles toward Green Lantern. Superman is on the receiving end of a green kryptonite key, while Batman’s nemesis is a large bolo key. Hawkman’s key has wings and fires deadly bursts while Wonder Woman’s is a flexible, lasso-like weapon and the Flash faces a flying keyhole that’s sort of a sucking black hole.

For a little while they seem to be on the edge of defeat when Hawkman zigs out of the way of the flying key and seizes the opportunity to drive the kryptonite key into a rock wall. Snapper Carr helps the Flash to escape the keyhole and Wonder Woman uses her magic lasso to pull J’onn J’onnzz out of the influence of the flaming key and…oh, you get the idea. Each League member assists another until they’re all free and clear.

Now it’s time to clean house and they quickly blast through the waves of The Key’s defenses, knocking key-men asunder and then using heat vision, power ring and Amazon and Martian strength to destroy the electronic brain.

As The Key is taken into custody, GL uses the power ring to wipe the villain’s memory of their weaknesses and location of their HQ. The Key, however, thinks to himself that things are far from over: “They think they’ve triumphed over me—but just before I surrendered, I managed to pull my last and greatest key trick!

The final panel describes the story as being “The End—as of now!

I’ve not read any other stories with The Key, but he made a return appearance in issue #63, maybe filling in the blanks on this issue’s quasi-cliffhanger ending, made a cameo in #110, made a brief appearance in reprint form in #141 (100 issues later; get it?) and popped up again in #150 and #191 and possibly later, too. I guess even a second stringer like The Key had some staying power.

This story holds a particular place in my memory as I have hazy memories of it from very young childhood. I’m fairly certain my father had bought it and the figure with the odd headgear and blacked out eyeholes left an impression on me.

I continue to learn to appreciate Mike Sekowsky’s art, though I’m not sure he’ll ever be a favorite. According to my conversations with Joe Giella, Nick Cardy and others, he was incredibly fast and it had to be an unenviable task to draw so many characters all the time, particularly when most had continuity in their own books with more familiar and sometimes better rendering. Much like Jack Kirby’s habit of squaring off fingers on his characters, I never cared for the way Sekowsky’s feet always seemed to be just a quickly dashed off object coming to a point. All that being said, I surely couldn’t have done any better.

The story was pretty classic JLA fare, though I appreciated the slight twist of Hawkgirl figuring things out. The heroes helping one another out of individual jams at the end was textbook Gardner Fox technique, but it always worked well. I’ll give it an 8 on the 10 point rating scale for a well scripted adventure with a nice dollop of personal nostalgia. When I think of the Silver Age, the JLA issues are always one of the titles that immediately leap to mind and even the hokey ones were enjoyable to me.

As always, send your thoughts, questions, comments or suggestions directly to me at: professor_the@hotmail.com. It’s always nice to hear from the readership.

Be sure to return on the 1st of May when we mark the 75th anniversary of the publication date of Detective #27, which, of course, was when the world received the great gift of the Batman, courtesy of Bob Kane and Bill Finger.

Until then…

Long live the Silver Age!

© 2000-2014 by B.D.S.

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