Another subscription copy of the giant JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA run that Steve Englehart was producing with artist Dick Dillin. This issue in particular wasn’t really to my taste as a kid. Partly that’s because it’s a story that focuses on the Atom, Aquaman and the Elongated Man almost exclusively, and while I liked all of those characters, none of them were particular favorites. But really the problem was that I could tell that there was something going on here that I wasn’t picking up on, and it frustrated me.
At this point, I had no working knowledge of Steve Englehart’s career. I did not know that he’d just come off of a hugely-successful tenure as the writer of AVENGERS, or that he’d introduced a character named Mantis who had become his signature creation. This entire issue of JUSTICE LEAGUE is a continuation of Mantis’s storyline, carried over from AVENGERS and thinly-disguised. It’s a bit of fun that I’m a little bit surprised that Julie Schwartz allowed (assuming that he was aware of it in the first place–he may not have been.) And it was a terrific payoff for the fans who had been following Steve’s career trajectory. But for me, in those pre-internet days, all it created was a sense of confusion and dissatisfaction, for all that there was plenty to love about this story.
The more universal premise of this story is to show what the three aforementioned Leaguers were up to when they didn’t respond to the team’s alerts during the preceding issues’ Manhunter crisis. In fact, the Atom and Elongated Man were vacationing with Aquaman, and the Atom, feeling relatively useless, was considering hanging up his miniaturized cowl. But before things could get too maudlin, a pair of spaceships streak into view, one firing at the other, and the three heroes make their was to the downed craft, where they make the acquaintance of the green-skinned Willow, who speaks in a particular manner.
Speaking cryptically, Willow urges the three heroes to take her to Atlantis beneath the waves, where she will be momentarily safe from her pursuer, the Construct. The Construct is a machine-mind that developed from all of the disparate signals that were being beamed across the planet, a pretty cool idea. Dick Dillin’s design sense, unfortunately, was stuck somewhat in the 1950s, so the Construct’s robotic form looks a bit absurd. But he was a pretty cool villain. He contacts the heroes in Atlantis and tells them that, while he can’t reach Willow there, if they don’t turn her over to him, he and his cannons will wipe out Miami.
Willow convinces Aquaman and the Elongated man to sally forth to protect Miami, telling the heroes that she must continue her pilgrimage on Earth and that she’ll take the incredulous Atom along as her bodyguard. Nobody thinks this is a good idea, least of all the Atom himself, who is plagued by self-doubt about his effectiveness to begin with. And, indeed, when he and Willow make landfall and are attacked by the Construct’s cannons, Willow shows herself perfectly capable of taking care of herself–she’s a mistress of the martial arts, like her Marvel inspiration. None of which make the Atom feel any better about his place in this story.
Arriving in Miami, Aquaman and the Elongated Man find the city being evacuated, as a mysterious death ray is causing people to drop over dead. The two heroes are able to locate the Construct’s Cannons and find the machinery for his Thanotron, and through skill and trickery, the Elongated Man is able to destroy the thing. But the Construct is unconcerned; it’s just a machine, he can always build another one. It’s Willow he’s worried about. Meanwhile, having finished their adventure with the Manhunters, the other Leaguers turn their attentions towards finding their missing comrades. Green Arrow and Flash take this opportunity to tell Superman that they don’t like the way Wonder Woman has been acting, and Ollie wants her kicked out of the League. A troubled Superman realizes that the team has some internal problems building up that may destroy it.
In the meantime, Willow and the Atom have reached her goal, a particular island. But they’re ambushed by the Construct, whose electronic mind is able to create a body for himself out of the very metal ores in the soil around them. He bombards the pair with death rays, and Willow can’t stand up to them. But the Atom can, by shrinking to the point where they cease to be anything but a collection of agitated molecules. He’s able to enter the body of the Construct and then, by expanding to his regular 6-foot form, destroy him from within. Turns out that (of course) Willow predicted that this would happen, and that only the Atom of all of the Leaguers would have been able to cope with this attack by the Construct. So Ray’s got his confidence and sense of self-worth back.
And now at last, at the Atom’s urging, Willow tells him her story–or as much of it as she legally can. She was once an Earth-woman who mated with a creature from the stars, and now, pregnant, she’s come back to Earth like a salmon returning to its spawning ground, to have her child, who will become the Celestial Messiah and lead mankind to the stars. Willow also cryptically tells the Atom that her old friends on Earth wouldn’t recognize her anymore, and that it’s better to let things lie–these kinds of mentions frustrated the hell out of me as a kid. I could tell that there was something i was supposed to be putting together from them, but I just didn’t have the background to do so. Anyway, Willow swears the Atom to secrecy so that she can have her child unmolested, and the Tiny Titan returns to the Justice League with a renewed sense of purpose.
And it was still Statement of Ownership month, so in this case we were able to discern that JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA had been selling 194,000 copies on a print run of 402,000, for an efficiency of 48%, a marked improvement from the preceding year. But just to point out how wasteful this whole distribution model was, what this means is that, in order to sell 194,000 copies, another 208,000 copies of each issue would be printed, distributed, returned and destroyed. This is why the non-returnable Direct Sales market was such a boon to the industry–you no longer had to print two copies for every one you sold.
Finally, the issue closed out with my favorite feature, a two-page segment recounting what had been going on in the series 100 issues prior. In this instance, it was the famous story in which the League attempts to recruit new DC super-star Metamorpho to the team, but the Element Man refuses their offer–something that was virtually unthinkable back in 1965 when this story was originally printed.