Classic JSA Returns in WHISTLING SKULL
When DC closed its WildStorm imprint in 2010, fans worried about the future of properties that were previously announced under that heading.
But thanks to some quick thinking by Harris and some revisions by Moore, DC is still releasing the project, but now it's an Elseworlds "sequel" to the 2004 series, JSA: The Liberty Files.
As DC announced last week, the new series titled JSA: The Liberty File - The Whistling Skull will begin in December. It takes place in the same world as the successful Liberty Files mini and its own sequel.
And the artist said he's revisiting the motif that was so prevalent in his work on Starman, with similar panel borders and page layouts.
According to Harris and Moore, although the name has changed since that original announcement, the concept is still centered around a character from an alternate 1940's DCU named the "Whistling Skull." Newsarama talked with the two creators to find out more about the series, and got some exclusive artwork by Harris from the series.
Newsarama: I know you guys have been working on the “Whistling Skull” story for a while. Thinking back to the genesis of the project, what originally attracted you to working together on this type of story?
Tony Harris: For me, it was looking for the writer I thought had the right interests—specifically in World War II and 1940s pulp—and sensibilities to approach the story in the proper way.
I had been developing Skull in the background of my monthly efforts on Ex Machina for some time, slowly cutting and pasting ideas together and building the world that The Whistling Skull and all the supporting cast would ultimately inhabit.
I discovered Clay’s work from the suggestion of a few friends and immediately saw his “Headspace” clearly. So I set about getting his contact info and set the rough pitch in his lap, I believe in a phone call? I may have sent him some text, initially.
B. Clay Moore: Honestly, I think Robert Kirkman recommended to Tony that he run the initial concept past me, as period and pulp stuff are right up my alley. Tony emailed me out of the blue one day and asked if I’d be interesting in co-creating a book called The Further Adventures of the Whistling Skull and Brickfist (which was the original title). My reply was something like “Holy shit yes!” Almost immediately we started batting ideas back and forth, and it wasn’t long before we had a shared vision for the concept. This was in, like, 2007.
Harris: We both just kind of “got” this world and the cast pretty easily. That’s always a great sign that you’re working with the right person.
InteriorMoore: And Ben Abernathy, Kristy Quinn and Hank Kanalz championed our cause from day one, for which I’m eternally grateful.
Nrama: What was behind the decision to make it a JSA Liberty Files story? Or was it always intended to co-exist with that story?
Moore: That was Tony’s idea after WildStorm was rolled into regular DC. I thought it was bold and interesting, and was surprised and delighted when DC agreed. I’ve always been a huge fan of the Liberty Files concepts, and the chance to expand our story into that universe opened up all kinds of story opportunities.
Harris: [The idea] came about far into actual production of the first mini-series. I don’t remember if I had already begun penciling yet, or if we had to go back and rewrite some of the existing material after the decision was made.
But I do know that it was shortly after the announcement that WildStorm Productions was to be shut down. I remember feeling kind of lost at that point. And also feeling that the best course was action and not reaction.
I had all these ideas that had been rattling around in my head concerning the Liberty Files Elseworlds that I was a part of creating years earlier, and had always hoped to revisit those characters. So I had this prequel to The Liberty Files that had kinda always been there, waiting, that dealt with events that were mentioned but never seen in LF and it hit me like a ton of bricks: why not “seat” The Whistling Skull in that same universe?!
So I had to figure out a way that The Whistling Skull could fit, without having it feel forced. And I guess it was meant to be, because the opportunities and choices to be made in that regard just presented themselves fully formed. It just worked.
I called Clay and laid the idea on him and of course he thought I was nuts! But he loved the notion. I pitched it to my editor, Ben Abernathy, and he too went nuts for it, and sent it up to Jim Lee and Hank Kanalz. It wasn’t long before we were on a conference call with those guys, hammering out the details, and it was decided.
Aha! I just remembered that I had not started penciling yet. I was painting all six covers at this point, and DC asked me to paint a new #1 to feature the Liberty Files guys on the image. So after Clay retooled the opener to #1, I was able to begin penciling the series.
Nrama: For people who haven’t heard anything about what you’re doing in Whistling Skull, how would you describe it?
Harris: Sherlock Holmes and Watson on mescaline. Really weird pulp stories set in World War II with a real “heart.” High adventure sifted through the sands of twisted notions. All the while witnessing the birth of something bigger than ourselves. A global force of good.
Moore: Essentially, the book is a new take on the concept of the generational hero, with the goal to focus on the seventh bearer of the “Whistling Skull” mantle. On the surface, it’s about a couple of costumed adventurers probing wartime weirdness, but it’s also about the relationship between the two, and how the lead came to be where he is. The Whistling Skull’s sidekick, Knuckles, is a grown man with the functional capacity of a child. He and the Skull operate on two different levels, and each one is valuable to the other in different ways.
Nrama: Tony, how are you approaching the story visually? Is it different from other work we’ve seen you do, or have you used any different tactics?
Harris: It’s quite different. As of the completion of Ex Machina, I decided to put down the camera and no longer use photo reference. It was a necessary part of my process for a long time, and I think it served many of my earlier works well, but I felt this needed to be totally different. This was an opportunity for me after 23 years in Comics to reinvent myself.
So I decided to continue to develop the visual style I had started with The Liberty File, and then further on Obergeist to its ultimate destination, and jump in with both feet. It’s really been liberating and I feel the work has an energy that I lacked visually when using a camera. I didn’t want any stiffness rearing its ugly head in the middle of pivotal moments and I wanted a smoothness and clearness of storytelling pure and undiluted.
I’ve also found a way to revisit the use of “motif” that was so prevalent in my Starman work with panel borders and page layouts. Sticking to a very Art Deco regimen—not allowing those trappings to divert or distract from the moments and flow of the story, but to add to them. That’s a difficult tightrope!
Nrama: How would you guys describe the Whistling Skull character?
InteriorHarris: That’s a tough one. He is what he is, really. A symbol. He benefits from the experience of all the men who have worn the Uniform before him and from the network of spies called The Skeleton who have been in place globally since the “Birth” of The Whistling Skull. A consummate Detective who is a force to be reckoned with, but very human. A young man who takes on the heaping responsibility wielded by men who were certainly his betters, a mantle that’s lost its luster, but is nevertheless more important than ever.
Moore: This Whistling Skull, William Massey, is a man who, through his wits and determination, pulled himself up from the streets of London to become a well-respected, responsible young man, engaged to a beautiful girl, ready to start his life in full. Who then found himself pulling on a skull mask and shooting at mutant sideshow freaks in a Swiss village, acting as caretaker and friend to the previous Whistling Skull’s son, who dresses in leather and breaks things with diamond-hard fists.
Nrama: What interested the two of you about this Whistling Skull character in particular and telling his story?
Harris: A chance to be a part of something created from whole cloth. Something new. Where we set the rules and steer the ship.
Moore: The costumed character came first, so the interesting part was figuring out who was in the costume, and how he’d navigate this strange new
universe he’d been thrust into.
Nrama: You mentioned the character Knuckles. How would you describe the his role?
Harris: To help, and hopefully not hurt.
Moore: Knuckles (Nigel Singleton) is, more or less, the moral compass and the heart of the story. William feels responsible to look after Nigel, but realizes that Nigel is more than capable of looking after himself, and often, needs Nigel to keep him safe.
Harris: Nigel and Skull (William) have been friends since they were small children. With Nigel’s father being The Whistling Skull before William took the mantle—it became increasingly obvious to Nigel’s father who the choice would be to succeed him. Mainly because he wanted to ensure that Nigel would be taken care of not just monetarily but emotionally. Nigel might live in the body of a late-20-something’s body, but he has the mind of a nine-year-old, so conducts himself in a manner that a child would. He needs William as much as William needs his strength. He really has become the true heart of the book.
Nrama: We see Hourman, Wildcat and Doctor Mid-Nite on the cover that DC released...
Moore: You’re actually looking at the Clock, the Cat and the Owl.
Nrama: Oh, right. The Liberty Files universe. Are they a big part of the story?
Harris: Yes they are. In fact they were involved in the world of The Whistling Skull before William and Nigel were.
Moore: We open with these three (the original Unholy Three) in battle along with the previous Whistling Skull. Who they are, and the relationship between the Skull and his Skeleton network and these heroes, provides a backdrop for the larger story. We’ll see glimpses of other slightly familiar wartime heroes, as well.
Harris: As time goes on, the Justice Society plays a larger role, but I think it’s more like The Whistling Skull plays a larger part in the world of The 52 (the globalization of The Justice Society of America).
Nrama: Tony, how did you approach the way these new characters look that you developed for this series?
Harris: Strictly from a Pulp view. Looking back at all those characters I love so much from the 1930s and 40s as inspiration, but sticking to my “rule” of a utilitarian look. A suit that works. There is a purpose for every bit of it, but hopefully with a cool aesthetic! As far as the supporting cast, and Baddies? Just cut loose and got my weird on.
Nrama: Will this story explore the history of the other Whistling Skulls who came before?
Moore: Yes, through the adventures of the current Skull.
Harris: But we don’t want to give away important bits to how the story unfolds.
Nrama: What are the themes you’ll be exploring in the story?
Harris: Humanity, mainly. The needs of the many and how they will always outweigh the needs of the few. And how those decisions can destroy one’s soul if you don’t keep yourself anchored, with love and friendship.
Moore: I suppose the larger themes revolve around the pressure living up to a legacy, and how relationships work in unusual circumstances. There’s also the matter of family, and what that means to different people, in different conditions.
Nrama: Are there hopes to do more stories set in this universe?
Harris: Yes, indeed. This is a finite story, to the tune of 40 issues. This is our first outing and hopefully it will resonate with people, and Clay and I can tell the whole thing. We are already developing the next arc.
Moore: Tony and I have always planned on following this particular Skull over the course of about forty issues. The idea is to follow him from the beginning of his career (here) to the very end. Beyond that, there’s an almost endless amount of material at hand, considering the larger Liberty Files universe, and the multiple men who have worn the Skull’s mask.
Nrama: Anything else you want to tell fans about Whistling Skull?
Moore: Primarily, I hope people are excited about discovering a new character and investigating a new world, framed as it is within the loose confines of a vaguely familiar comic book “universe.”