With just two issues remaining in WildStorm's multiple Eisner-winning series, "Ex Machina," the DC Comics' imprint was no doubt eager to find a new home for the title's artist, Tony Harris ("Starman"). Mission accomplished as WildStorm announced Saturday at the Chicago Comics & Entertainment Expo a new project co-created by Harris and writer B. Clay Moore ("Hawaiian Dick"), "The Further Adventures of the Whistling Skull."
A pulp noir story set in wartime London in the 1940s, the series features the titular Whistling Skull and his sidekick, Brickfist cleaning up the filth and scum of the world's seedy underbelly while seeking answers about their own pasts and what it means to not only be a super man but a super friend.
And while the title suggests we should already know all about Whistling Skull, the hero's earlier adventures have never been told - until now.
Harris revealed exclusively to CBR News that despite being without superpowers and having a face only a mother could love, the Whistling Skull has been an active crimefighter for "decades upon decades upon decades."
"Nobody knows how old the guy is or who he is or if he's wearing a mask or if he's a ghost or what, but when things go wrong, he's there to make them right," said Harris, before sharing how it's possible.
"There have been seven different men who have been the Whistling Skull. And we actually begin our story with No. 7. The Skull's sidekick Brickfist is actually Nigel, the son of No. 6. When a Skull dies, he has to have already chosen his successor and named him in his will and testament. And upon his death, the will is sent unopened to the person's name that's on it. And it happened to be John, who is No. 7.
"John grew up in the same neighborhood with Whistling Skull No. 6 and he and Nigel became childhood friends. So when John and Nigel grow up and get to be young men, Nigel's father ends up being killed - or disappears, you don't really know. And then his will is sent to John because he knows that John and Nigel are very, very close friends. But a condition of John becoming the seventh Skull is that he has to take on Nigel as his ward."
Moore explained that the focus of "The Future Adventures of Whistling Skull" is on the relationship between the hero and his sidekick, but the history of the Skulls will also be explored.
"They're all connected. Every new Skull undergoes psychological experimentation where he basically retains all of the knowledge that the previous Skulls have used to get out of different situations and jams," said Moore. "So while John is connected to the past, he's also his own character. And the idea is to kind of examine how this London kid has been thrown into this weird and fantastic world with a sidekick that's really the heart of the book."
Nigel, Harris shared, is developmentally disabled, though, while it's fallen on John's shoulders to look after him, he's more than capable of looking after himself.
"During his world travels as the Skull, dealing with magic and mysticism and all this other stuff, No. 6 comes up with a potion that he gives to his son, Nigel, that makes the skin on his hands as hard as stone," explained Harris. "He gave it to him so he can protect himself. So he's a really big guy with these hands of stone, which makes him a very big asset to John as the Whistling Skull."
Unlike most heroes, John doesn't have a secret identity as a scientist, a police officer or even a newspaper reporter. He's just a street kid.
"He didn't really have parents to speak of. He just kind of ran on the street and learned his own way. He's an incredibly smart kid and very, very strong, as well, emotionally and physically," explained Harris. "And as far as training and how apt you are at becoming the Whistling Skull that comes after you accept the mantle. You don't necessarily have to be proficient in one or 15 different crimefighting techniques or anything like that to have the mantle willed to you."
Moore added, "John has to bring his game up a little bit because he's got this new responsibility that's been added to his plate. We assume that he has friends that ended up in jail or whatever, but he's kind of a leader amongst these kids, someone who would try to keep other people out of trouble. And the fact that he's always looked out for Nigel, who is his sidekick, just out of a sense of decency, is kind of the thing that impressed the previous Whistling Skull. He's an active guy. He's clever but he's just a decent person at heart. And so, when he has to investigate some of the shadowy corners of the world, he understands the responsibility of the role. Sure, he's over his head to a degree, but he's a good guy."
Harris teased that he and Moore leave it kind of vague as to what actually happened to the previous Whistling Skull and that no time is wasted setting up John as the new man of mystery.
"We try not to get too mired in backstory. We just throw the reader right into the middle of the adventure, much like John and Nigel have been," said Harris. "You literally see them on their very first outing as the Skull and Brickfist. You really get to see them stumbling through it like idiots and kind of finding their way and trying not to screw up 60 years of history of the Whistling Skull."
Moore explained, "John relies on the guys who thrust the mantle on him to kind of ramp him up to speed rather quicky. There are moments where John has doubts and he has to rely on the guys who came before him. Ultimately, it's like you have to put a kid on a bicycle and push him out there. And if you can't do it, the next guy will."
Harris likened his leading men to another dynamic duo that solved the cases that otherwise couldn't be solved in and around London.
"John and Nigel are kind of like a weird-ass, fucked-up, backwards Sherlock Holmes and Watson during World War II. With a little bit of mysticism and magic and craziness all mixed in," said Harris.
That "little bit of mysticism and magic" includes an inter-dimensional hermit, who has found a way to rip through walls into alternate universes. He also happens to be a wicked watchmaker.
"Fagan lives inside Big Ben in London, but you have to be outside the door, outside the clock, up on top of it, on the quarter hour when the bell chimes and open the door right at that exact moment, if you want to see him," said Harris. "Then you'll be walking into his workshop, but if you try to open the door one second after the bell tolls, you're just looking at the inside of Big Ben."
Harris continued, "You don't know how old he is or who he is. He lives in an alternate dimension, but he's invented this thing called the worm watch. It's basically a time-jumping device in the guise of a pocket watch. He has given this watch as a gift to the mantle of the Whistling Skull, so it's passed on to every Skull through the ages. But you can only use it once, and then you have to take it back to him to have it reset. The trick of it is, it takes some time to figure it out to use it properly, because you have to set the hours and the minutes and the seconds by the hands on the watch by estimating your time. And the target where you want to jump to has to be within your line of sight.
"You can't just jump to Tokyo. You have to see where you want to jump, and you have to estimate in your mind in yards and feet and inches how far away it is, set the watch, pull the pin on the watch and a rip in time opens that you can jump through in that other spot."
Readers desperate for Harris and Moore to use the worm watch so the first issue of "The Further Adventures of Whistling Skull" can hit comic book stores sooner rather than later will have to wait a little bit longer, however, due to that other title Harris is drawing.
The artist said he would begin work on the double-sized "Ex Machina" #50 once he returned home from Chicago. Once that's complete, he'll start serious work on "Whistling Skull."
Originally pitched as a 40-issue series nearly two years ago, Harris confirmed his and Moore's series will now be released as a five or six-issue miniseries, with a plan to develop further "Further Adventures of the Whistling Skull" in the years ahead.
"We'd like to follow John beyond this first arc, kind of from start to the end," added Moore. "And in the process, also sort of share stories of the previous Skulls and give readers a feel for the ones that came before him.
"And also there is an underlying mystery regarding what might have happened to the previous Whistling Skull that we examine, as well. There is no end to the nooks and crannies we can explore."