Thursday, December 16, 2010

Justice League of America #177-178 (April-May, 1980)

"Who would have thought you could get seasick in a briefcase? I hope my friend from the Science Institute reaches his destination soon, or I'm liable to do something we'll both regret..."

The Atom was hiding out among the file folders, pencils and bubblegum where kidnappers likely expected their ransom for Dr. Margavy's daughter would be. Instead, the briefcase opened to reveal six inches of density-altering whoop-ass. The doctor could hear his young child crying from within a locked closet, but it just so happened one of the Atom's specialties was lock-picking. The Mighty Mite worked the tumblers with his feet until the door was opened. "I wish all my cases were as cut and dried as this..." That was, until the kidnappers suddenly transformed into human-sized chess pawns.

As it turned out, the Tiny Titan lucked out, since more advanced and dangerous chess pieces attacked Aquaman, Black Canary & Green Arrow, as well as Superman & Batman during their various cases. Zatanna saw the pattern forming from monitor duty aboard the Justice League Satellite, and called everyone home. Ray ran into the Sea King at the Metropolis transporter tube location, so they rode up together. They were met by everyone else who had been attacked. “How come everyone looks so glum?”

Aquaman replied, “I think ‘grim’ is a more appropriate word, Atom… and I expect your expressions reflect the reason for this emergency meeting!” Zatanna explained, “Isn’t it obvious what’s happening? You were in the opening gambit of some cosmic chess game, manipulated by some unseen force! A force that can attack again, at any moment, without warning!”

As if on cue, a bishop turned up to beat on Green Arrow, Superman and Batman. Black Canary tried to kick the bishop, which sounds like a naughty game, but nothing came of it. The Atom shrunk into Aquaman’s palm, then was tossed into the bishop’s featureless face for a two-fisted atomic punch. The bishop then showed the Mighty Mite the backswing of his pimp staff. Zatanna finally cast a spell to protect the remaining Leaguers as they smashed the chessman.

Ray Palmer studied the debris as his fellow heroes collected themselves in the aftermath of the attack. “Well, we can rule one thing out… This baby wasn’t made in Boise… or London… or Moscow… or Peking! It’s got an atomic structure that’s a physicist’s nightmare-- and I should know. As Ray Palmer, I am a physicist… and this thing gives me the creeps! You think that stuff’s solid? Guess again. It’s proto-nuclear material, which means each atom in its structure is independent of each atom. What happens to one part of that thing shouldn’t affect another part… It may come as a shock to our egos… but get this straight: That chesspiece was more powerful than all of us combined. It let us win… but don’t ask me why!” A silence fell over the room.

Zatanna had noticed that before the bishop was destroyed, it had managed to wipe out every file related to League members past and present... except one. Meanwhile, in a spaceship hovering over Mars II, Despero was playing the Martian Manhunter a deadly board game, with the Justice League and J'onn's people caught in the middle. Once Zee had pointed out the name on the sole remaining file, it was a simple matter to check Mars II and, upon recognizing the situation, magically transporting the team to Despero's ship.

Despero's chess pieces were in the shape of the Justice League members he had been manipulating, so he didn't notice when the Atom made a substitution. It came as a shock when the Tiny Titan talked back. “Haven’t you guessed fish-face? In chess terms, this is what they call the endgame!” The Mighty Mite sprang from the board to knock Despero back out of his chair.

“You… startled me… gained a momentary advantage! But only momentary! I still control this ship! And these animates, these chess pieces, will answer to my commands! However you came to be here-- you came here to die!” The League began fighting all of Despero’s pieces en masse, without the benefit of J’onzz’s benevolent guiding hand. The heroes began to falter, until the Atom called, “Superman! We’re in trouble-- but we’ve got maybe one small chance! And when I say small, I mean me! Remember I said these chess pieces were made up of independent atoms? Well, maybe I can knock those atoms into a series of chain collisions-- if I hit them small enough, and fast enough! I tried something similar with Aquaman-- but he didn’t have your speed!”

Superman feared the move might be suicidal, but went along, casting the Mighty Mite at another bishop. In a microcosmic game of billiards, the Atom managed to set off a reaction that destabilized all of the chessmen, causing them to explode. Despero called out no’s while Atom recited yeses at this turn of events. “Face facts, Despero, you’ve just been hustled-- courtesy of the master chessman of Mars!”

Under the moons of Mars II, Despero was escorted away in chains by two Martians in heavy blue robes, while J'onn J'onzz offered “a celebration at the palace of heroes… as my ever-honored guests!”

"The Graveyard Gambit" & "The Chess-Master of Mars" was by Gerry Conway, Dick Dillin & Frank McLaughlin.

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