And so it came to an end. Steve Englehart’s one-yearlong stint as the writer of JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA concluded with this issue, which the postman happily brought me. I wasn’t unaware of the fact that different people worked on the assorted comics that I read, but I was still a few years away from being concerned about it in any greater sense than awareness. I wouldn’t yet follow a book for a creator, nor drop one when that creator left. But this definitely represented a sea change for JLA, a series I had very much been enjoying under Englehart (even when I didn’t quite get it, such as when he brought back a thinly-disguised version of Mantis from his AVENGERS run.)
There was a bunch of business to be tied up in this final outing, but fortunately, Englehart was working in the double-sized format, which gave him a much greater number of pages to work with. These were the days when an artist like Dick Dillin could produce 34 pages a month without missing an issue (and still have time for the occasional other job as well.) The story opened with the League forced to confront the fact that their latest foe, the Star-Tsar, was in actuality none other than Snapper Carr, formerly their honorary member.
Most of the Leaguers are baffled by this revelation, but guest hero the Privateer is ready to throw the book at Snapper. He and the Red Tornado trade barbs, with the Privateer being overbearing and Reddy his usual self-conscious self. Snapper regains consciousness and offers no apologies or answers to the League. Suddenly, the Star-Tsar’s men rush out of the bushes and attack, using weapons powerful enough to clobber most of the team. (I have to mention, as a kid I really dug the way the Star-Tsar’s mask’s eyeholes formed two of the five points of a star, and I stole the design for a number of my own homegrown characters.)
The Star-Tsar and his guys take off before the League can recover. Once they do, though, they choose to send out a wide alert, figuring that everybody on the team will have a stake in finding out what’s going on with Snapper. Yeah, it’s a bit of overkill for one former honorary member, but it’s Englehart’s last issue, let him have it. Red Tornado has worked out that they can follow the energy emissions from the Star-Tsar’s weapons and track him down, so most of the group proceeds to do just that–when they are suddenly ambushed by weapons bearing the style of their old enemy, the Key.
As the battle goes on, the team is drawn into a huge keyhole, which traps them individually in separate keyholes in the limbo between dimensions. The Key makes his entrance, stiffly, and explains how it is that he’s still alive after seemingly perishing in their last encounter. He also confirms that the Star-Tsar is Snapper. Meanwhile, a small contingency of Leaguers has traveled to Happy Harbor, Snapper’s home town, to find out more about Snapper’s circumstances. His sister Janet tells them about how, after Snapper was expelled from the League, he couldn’t focus on his studies, couldn’t find work, and couldn’t even get welfare. He became desperate. As Janet finishes her tale, the Star-Tsar swoops down on a rocket sled and attacks the team.
But Snapper is no match for even a portion of the League, and after a brief scuffle, he takes off, with the JLA in pursuit. They follow him back to a concealed base centered around an old lighthouse and tentatively make their way inside–where the Star-Tsar suddenly appears, trying to warn them away. Before they can react, a second Star-Tsar appears, and blasts them all into unconsciousness with his star-blaster. An hour later, this second Tsar breaks into the White House and demands that President Jimmy Carter give him a million dollars the following evening.
The Leaguers and Snapper wake up imprisoned in keyholes alongside their fellow members, the whole team reunited. And Snapper gives them the rundown. he was approached by the Key to form an alliance: they’d share the Star-Tsar identity, with the Key providing weaponry and Snapper being young and vital. The crimes had been committed by the Key–and when Snapper confronted his old heroes, his sense of right and wrong reasserted itself and he deliberately left them the trail to follow back to their headquarters. But now comes the matter of escape. Flash vibrates himself into the Elongated Man’s key-prison, where Ralph Dibny stretches himself into a makeshift Cosmic Treadmill, which allows Flash to vibrate himself back to his proper dimension and then liberate the others.
Freed, the League members quickly track down the Star-Tsar and literally knock his block off–revealing the tiny, shriveled form of the Key within a hollow mechanical body. He hadn’t quite gotten away with his brush with death so well as he had indicated, and this is why he needed Snapper to be a young and spry Star-Tsar in front of his men. As the Key passes out, the JLA gets a message relayed to them from their computer concerning the threat the Star-Tsar made to the President, and conclude that this Star-Tsar could have been neither Snapper Carr nor the Key. So who is the Star-Tsar? The Red Tornado says that he knows.
And Reddy points to the Privateer! I remember being quite stunned by this revelation–as Englehart had planned, I had accepted all of the events of his run as they appeared on the surface. The Red Tornado explains that, as an android, his computer mind records everything he experiences, and there have been a number of occasions over the course of this adventure when the Privateer was not present and his absence was unnoticed. Caught out, the Privateer reveals his true colors and tries to flee, but it caught before he can get far. He reveals that, having tasted the power offered to him by being a Manhunter, he never got over it–and he planned to play both sides against one another, by joining the Justice League as the Privateer (and thus having access to their movements and secrets) while simultaneously accruing wealth and power as the Star-Tsar. But that plan is ruined now. And the Red Tornado laughs–he had been concerned that the Privateer would undermine is position in the League, but it was his own inhuman nature that brought about Mark Shaw’s downfall. And with that, the Englehart era of JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA reached its end.