Justice League of America #178 (1980)

Justice League of America #178 (May, 1980)

“The Chess-Master of Mars”
Writer – Gerry Conway
Penciller – Dick Dillon
Inker – Frank McLaughlin
Letterer – Ben Oda
Colorist – Gene D’Angelo
Editor – Len Wein

In the afterglow of the big two-hundredth post I decided to go “random” and just started rooting through my bins until I saw a wacky cover.  Here we’ve got Despero and Martian Manhunter engaging in a gentlemanly game of chess… yup, that’ll do it!

We open in the JLA satellite as Superman, Black Canary, Green Arrow, Zatanna and Batman await the arrive of Aquaman and the Atom.  We get brought up to speed when we learn that they’d all recently been attacked by sentient chess pieces.

The crew reflects on the attacks, and Zatanna mentions that it feels as though they are just players in an intergalactic game of chess… perceptive girl, that Zee.  Green Arrow thinks it’s all a bunch o’ hooey, and claims that he’s got more important… more real things to deal with back home in Star City.  Ollie sure is playing up his guilt here… luckily his diatribe is cut short by the arrival of a giant chess bishop with glowing eyes!

The next several pages chronicle the battle of the League and the Bishop.  Each member is able to get their shots in.  After Superman and Batman are kayoed, Zatanna proves herself to be the most useful member of the team by magicking up some shields… long enough for Black Canary to sonic scream the bugger to pieces.

Once the dust settles, it comes time to haul it to the lab for examination.  The Atom takes one look at it and gets the heebie-jeebies… saying this would give even a physicist the cold sweats, and he oughta know, because he is one!  Yeah, thanks Ray… we didn’t ask to see your resume… I think we’ll take your word for it buddy.

Green Arrow, having not rattled anybody’s chains for a good few minutes, sets his sights on Zatanna.  He claims she just stood back while the team fought the Bishop and accuses her of freezing up… Um, Ollie… you did see her apply magic shields to her teammates so they could take the thing down, right?  C’mon dude…

What’s worse is Zatanna doesn’t remind Ollie that without her the team may not have won this one, and says that she had “sensed a presence” and she knew the chess piece meant “no harm”… which only ticks Arrow off even more!  While we’re here… if it meant no harm, why bother with the magic shields, lady?  Somethin’ ain’t meshing here.  Anyhoo, we get a close-up shot on the JLA member database, which has been broken… more on that later.

We shift scenes to the big surprise reveal… that is, if it wasn’t spoiled on the cover.  Despero and J’onn J’onzz are having themselves a game of high-stakes chess.  Manhunter is bound to his chair, so it’s clear he is not here of his own free will.  The stakes are as follows… if Despero wins, J’onn dies… and his new home planet “Mars II” gets wiped out as well.  Now, J’onn’s using the “normal” chess pieces, while Despero is using the JLA members as pieces… meaning, if J’onn wants to win… he’s gotta kill his pals.

J’onn threatens his captor, resulting in getting a fiery surprise… which settles him down.  Despero goes all “your move”, and J’onn chooses to move his knight.  Despero is pleased by the choice, and uses his third-eye to beam the bugger into the satellite… where it sits… all by its lonesome.  Cuz the League is AWOL.

Now, I’m not anything resembling a chess grandmaster (is that a title?  I dunno…) I think I look like someone who would play and like chess… but I ain’t!  Either way, J’onn claims that since Despero can’t “field” his “players” he must forfeit.  Is that a thing?  So, if I ever play chess, I should just steal my opponents pieces?  Why hasn’t anybody ever thought of that?  Despero starts freaking out, and goes to grab his back-up pieces, which include Green Lantern, Flash, Wonder Woman, Hawkman and Hawkgirl.

Not so fast, fish face… the League is in the building!  But how?  Well, apparently by busting up the JLA database what J’onn was doing was sending his pals a message… because, get this… it cleared the entire roster except for J’onzz himself… pretty precise work for smashing a computer box with eye-beams and a scepter!

We enter the “endgame”, and the League takes on the rest of the over-sized chessmen.  We get some nice action, which concludes when the Atom shrinks down to microscopic size and is thrown inside a chess piece where he can play a billiards game with the particles that it consists of.  This causes an explosion, which Despero watches all too helplessly.

It’s not long before the Mars II PD arrives to arrest our fin-headed menace.  As he’s fish-marched away, Zatanna breaks rule #1 of the magician’s code by explaining how she dun the trick.  Green Arrow, still salty, walks off in a huff claiming he’d be of better use in Star City… and it appears as though he’s planning to walk there… from Mars II.


Okay, it was kind of fun… like most of the satellite era League books, but ya know… not all that great.  I was with it until about the midway point where somehow Zatanna just knew that J’onn was trying to send a message.  Now, I ain’t no magician… but I can’t help but think I missed something here.  It just seems way too convenient… I swear I think I’d have rathered a Twilight Zone type of explanation here than the one we got.

I still have a problem accepting this pre-Crisis fish-faced Despero.  My first exposure to the fella was during the second half of the Giffen/DeMatteis Justice League run… and there, well his fin went front to back rather than left to right… and he was a massive beast who could destroy an entire town in an evening.  This version just looks geeky as all get out.

Again, coming in post-Crisis I often take for granted that the Martian Manhunter wasn’t much of a mainstay in the team during this era.  It always feels so strange to see any iteration of the League without a Martian on its roster.  As if the cover wasn’t strange enough… seeing the blurb advertising the “guest-starring” J’onn J’onzz certainly caught my interest.

Overall… as you can probably tell if you’ve read this far, I don’t have a whole lot to say about this one.  It’s silly, and a bit convenient, perhaps a tad too fighty… but I suppose you could do worse.

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