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June 1, 2020

JSA: The Liberty Files – Revisited 20 Years Later


DC Comics: 2000, 2003, and 2012

Writer: Dan Jolley and Tony Harris: D. Clay Moore

Artists: Tony Harris and Ray Snyder

After a slight detour to review two independent titles and the final instalment of Doomsday Clock, we return to our exploration of espionage comics with JSA: The Justice Files, an out-of-continuity wartime adventure set first in World War Two and then the Cold War. It comprises two related stories, one called JSA: the Liberty Files and the second called JSA The Unholy Three,  first published twenty years ago by American superhero comic book behemoth, DC Comics. A third story, The Whistling Skull, followed ten years later.

As with DC Comics’ Manhunter (which we recently revisited), JSA: The Justice Files also contains superheroes. Most of these are derivations of characters from the American comic book industry’s Golden Age of the 1940s, grouped together as the Justice Society of America (“JSA”, although you never hear that term used within this title). 

Some of them are more obvious than others. The main protagonists in the first story are the Bat, the Clock, and the Owl, together known as the Unholy Three. These are wartime secret service operatives who in the first story fight Nazis, mostly in North Africa. There is a strong sense of the classic motion picture Casablanca in the setting and with some of the characters (notably with the singer and informant, the Canary), accentuated by artist Tony Harris’ beautiful period artwork. But the Bat is plainly Batman, the Clock is Hourman, and the Owl is Doctor Midnight. Batman is a globally renown franchise, but Hourman and Doctor Midnight are only nowadays recognised by devoted readers of DC Comics.

Even then, in this story, the characters are not very recognisable:

1. a chunk of their adventures in this title take place out of their superhero costumes and masks – which have been adapted by artist to be quite different than the costumes we usually see: the Bat and the Owl both wear goggles, for example. The Bat’s cape is a ragged cloth, and the Owl wears a bandana instead of the standard black mask. While in Morocco the Clock wears an Arab ghutrah / keffiyeh. When Mister Terrific joins the team in Switzerland, his field attire looks nothing like the classic and stereotypical Mr Terrific costume of the 1940s. Instead, he wears a fencer’s chest guard, carries an epee, and wears over his face cloth cut from his dead fiancée’s dress. The man’s right eye stares from the bloodied bullet hole where she was shot dead. The cloth flaps behind his skull like a grim flag. Mister Terrific is not a man to be messed with. 

2. Hourman, Mr Terrific, and Doctor Midnight have historically been characterised as white men patriotically fighting Nazis, and later criminals and supervillains. Until the 1970s they were indistinguishable from each other: in 197 Hourman developed steroid-like anger management issues. But in JSA: The Justice Files, Doctor Midnight is an unrepentant womaniser, and Hourman is angry but slightly stupid (despite in peacetime running a drug company called Tyler Pharmaceuticals). Mr Terrific is an immaculate senior field operative who is wracked by the grief of his loss.

For his part, Batman is a borderline paranoid, as has been the character’s personality for the past quarter century, but he is also a right wing ideologue deeply suspicious of the Red threat. That is an entirely new take on the character and one that has not been repeated since;

3. the characters are at war. They have no serious qualms about killing and inflicting serious harm. The Bat reminisces to himself about the time he choked to death a Nazi spy, the man pleading for his life. When interrogating an albino cut-throat called Jack the Grin (the story’s reinterpretation of the Joker), the Bat has no hesitation about injecting a painful truth serum into the base of Jack’s skull with a large syringe. Jack disappears from the story after that. We doubt Jack is sent to Arkham Asylum as the Joker is after being captured yet again by the Batman in regular adventures: we suspect Jack ended up dead and thrown into the streets for the dogs. Later, fighting a Nazi zombie version of Batman’s nemesis the Scarecrow, the protagonists  try their level best to kill him, eventually succeeding. In the second story, Batman uses a kukri knife to slice off the hand of Two-Face (not the classic scarred version, but a version which is half-insect).

Because it is espionage field work set in World War Two and the Cold War, there are many casualties, and these are for the most part drawn from the ranks of the Justice Society. Here is a list of the fallen:

1. The Clock, murdered by the Scarecrow;

2. Johnny Thunder, murdered by The Parasite;

3. The Hawk (Hawkman), killed by Zod;

4. Sheira Hall (Hawkgirl in mainstream continuity), murdered by Zod;

5. The Atom, decapitated by Zod;

6. The Lantern (Green Lantern), killed by Zod;

7.  The Cat (Wildcat), dead in The Whistling Skull (see below).

This is quite different to stories such as those appearing in All-Star Comics in the 1940s, or Roy Thomas’ All-Star Squadron of the 1980s. The only fatality in All-Star Squadron was an obscure character called the Red Bee (who haplessly controlled bees). The benefit of writing a story out of continuity (under what was DC Comics’ Elseworlds imprint) is that there are no lasting consequences when a character is killed – an intellectual property asset of the publisher is not permanently extinguished by reason of the writer’s desire for drama. 

While the first story is set in wartime, the collected work is in our view much better characterised as a tale of espionage. The protagonists rely upon sources for information, and, perhaps most importantly, there is no a lot of glory attached to the stories. They are dirty, ugly affairs with collateral damage, infiltration and betrayal, and torture. 

There has been a sequel, called The Whistling Skull, written by B. Clay Moore and with art, again, by Bob HarrisJustice Society characters do appear at the beginning and the end, but the story focuses on adventurer William Massey. Massey as The Whistling Skull wears a strikingly steampunk mask which looks like a decomposing skull with a chimney, together with a monocle and a derby hat. The Whistling Skull has the benefit of access to the information and experiences of his previous Whistling Skulls. Together with his leather-clad henchman Knuckles, the Whistling Skull investigate the mysterious Der Karneval. 

In an interview for USA Today, Mr Moore says that the strength of The Whistling  Skull is that the concept does not have direct roots in any established comic book: https://www.usatoday.com/story/life/2013/02/18/jsa-liberty-files-whistling-skull-comic-book-series/1927113/

“Essentially, he’s a costumed adventurer, operating in the early days of World War II with the help of a network of strange and fascinating operatives,” Moore says. “His world is a step removed from ours. It’s a darker world, with unnatural forces always dancing around the edges of reality.”

But what this does is remove the story from the original concept of taking known superhero characters, mostly from the 1940s, and stripping them back to what they would have been like as soldiers in a war. The crunch of the ill-fitting pieces is explained by Comic Book Resources https://www.cbr.com/jsa-whistling-skull/The Whistling Skull was originally intended to be a creator owned series published by Wildstorm Comics.  When Wildstorm was absorbed by DC Comics, the story was repurposed to become a Liberty Files prequel. We do see the Clock and the Owl as bookends to the story, and we see the death of the Cat (disappointing rendered as a male version of Halle Berry’s interpretation of Catwoman, complete with whip, rather than as the heavyweight boxer which is Wildcat).

But because of that disconnect, The Whistling Skull does not ring true as a Liberty Files story. 

We lament that DC Comics has let this concept go to seed. There are other Justice Society or Golden Age period characters that were not explored, such as Wonder Woman, Dr Fate, the Spectre, the Seven Soldiers of Victory, Power Girl, and the Star-Spangled Kid. And what delight would Messrs Jolley and Harris have brought to have created a triptych whereby the sons and daughters of the protagonists, known as Infinity Inc in mainstream continuity, continued the fight against the Soviets in the 1950s and 1960s. Such concepts seem destined to remain the stuff of speculative fan fiction. 

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