“JSA Liberty Files: The Whistling Skull” #1 is less about the Justice Society of America (in any imaginary incarnation) and more about the backstory of the Whistling Skull. Honestly, it’s only barely about the Whistling Skull and so much more about Tony Harris’ art. Jumping from 1940 Japan to London in 1925 and back to 1940 for a brisk run through Switzerland, Harris’ art drives the story, which really doesn’t do much other than keep pace.
While “JSA Liberty Files: The Whistling Skull” #1 is a grand display of Harris’ art, the story itself leaves a little to be desired. Sure, this is only one-sixth of the total narrative, but the issue hops all over time and space, delivering random glimpses at the Whistling Skull in various points in time before abruptly stopping. At no point does the titular character provide the reader with rationale for his cause, nor do we achieve a true sense of the scope of that cause. Three members of the JSA appear in the opening scene of this issue, but they’re quickly forgotten as we segue to a flashback showing the forging of friendship between Nigel Singleton, whom the Skull addresses as Knuckles, and the Skull’s alter ego, William Massey. It is as though this story were first intended as a longer narrative, divided after the fact. The final page of is a bit of a whimper instead of a cliffhanger, and the “To be continued. . .” slug is rather small and appears wedged in.
Thankfully, the shortcomings of “JSA Liberty Files: The Whistling Skull” #1 somehow play quite nicely to its strengths. In bouncing across three locales and fifteen years, Harris is given the chance to draw a variety of settings and scenery, including gigantic robots in Japan and a variety of eccentric armaments used by the Skull, his friends and his foes. Sporting a bowler hat and train whistle sprouting from the side of his monocle-wearing, apparently skinless noggin, Harris’ Skull is a little bit noir, a little bit steampunk, and a lot of fun.
While art and story are not truly synchronized in “JSA Liberty Files: The Whistling Skull” #1, there is reason for hope. It appears as though Harris is drawing what he wants to draw, given the energy on the page, and there remains plenty of story to be told in the remaining five issues, including the power set (or lack thereof) that the Skull possesses, and how he goes from trying to solve a mystery in Switzerland to fighting alongside the JSA in Japan. Hopefully, as those threads get addressed, art and story will merge together.