Tony Harris Declassifies "JSA: Liberty File - The Whistling Skull"

Nearly two-and-a-half years ago CBR News spoke with Tony Harris and B. Clay Moore about an exciting new series set to be launched by Wildstorm, cryptically titled, "The Further Adventures of the Whistling Skull."

Cryptic, because there have never been any previous adventures of the Whistling Skull. But Harris ("Starman," "Ex Machina") and Moore ("Hawaiian Dick") explained there had been countless fictitious ones -- they were just all in their heads.

Since then Wildstorm has gone the way of the dodo bird and the DCU has transformed into the New 52 and still no Whistling Skull. But that all changes later this year as DC Comics announced earlier this month that "JSA: Liberty File - The Whistling Skull" will make its long awaited debut in December.

The major change, obviously, is that the Whistling Skull is no longer a new character being unleashed without boundaries as a Wildstorm creator-owned property. He's now been dropped smack dab in the heart of a pre-existing series of Elseworlds publications, "JSA: The Liberty File" (2000) and its sequel, "JSA: The Unholy Three" (2003), both drawn and co-written by Harris.

CBR News reached out to the always candid Harris to get a better understanding of how "JSA: Liberty File - The Whistling Skull" came together, and the Eisner Award winning creator didn't disappoint, revealing details of what happened behind the scenes at DC Entertainment to allow this series happen and more importantly diving into specific plot threads and character elements of the magical new world he's created with Moore, his partner in crime on the further adventures of the Whistling Skull.

CBR News: Who is the Whistling Skull?

Tony Harris: I can't tell you that. You have to read the comic. [Laughs] But he's a lot like Sherlock Holmes on mescaline. He and Knuckles are very much like Holmes and Watson. They're detectives and they're defenders of the weak.

When we spoke about the earlier incarnation of project a few years back, you said the series was just as much about the relationship between these characters as it was about their adventures.

Yes, it definitely is an exploration of their friendship and what they mean in each other's lives. They've been friends since they were children. The main character is William Massey, the Whistling Skull. Actually, he's the seventh Whistling Skull. There's a long line of Skulls, dating way back -- it's an inherited mantle.

Anyway, he becomes involved in this world by becoming friends with Knuckles. He was originally called Brickfist, but we changed his name. And his real name is Nigel. William and Nigel became friends when they were children. Nigel's father was the sixth Whistling Skull. Because of their friendship and the way it grew over the years and how close they grew, William became very protective of Nigel even though Nigel is almost three times his size. Nigel's father, even though he was gone a lot on adventures as the Skull, was pretty aware of that. When it came time for him to choose his successor, he chose William.

What happens is, a letter is sent to the person that's been chosen to pick up the mantle and you have to go to a law firm in London called Phineas, Teagle and Sons. They're the firm that handles the estate of the Whistling Skull, all the way back to the first one. You show up with your letter and they basically interview you. And if you choose to take the mantle, you become the next Skull.

Nobody that's been chosen has ever declined.

Did William consider declining?

We don't actually tell you that he did, but there are a few moments in that first interview that are, let's say, pretty darn awkward. There is a gentleman in the interview that William didn't expect to be there. His name is Dr. Moon and this guy is just a freak. He, basically, physically examines William during his entire interview with Mr. Teagle, which makes him extremely uncomfortable.

The Whistling Skull doesn't possess any superpowers, correct?

That's right. He's absolutely human. But Dr. Moon has built a machine that has the ability to extract experiences and memories from the Whistling Skull, to store them and eventually transfer them to the next person who takes the mantle. When you become the Whistling Skull, you have this huge store of resources that you can pull from, which are usually triggered by events.

If you find yourself in a situation and you need to do something very specific to live, you have these past experiences of the other Skulls that you can tap into to.

If you need to fly a helicopter, you may not know how to do that, but maybe the fourth Whistling Skull did.

Correct. And that type of knowledge comes to you when you need it.

Is Dr. Moon a recurring character in the series or is he just featured in the interview scenes, because he sounds great.

He's featured throughout. I don't know if we initially planned for that, but Clay became very fond of him so he found himself written into a few extra scenes -- certainly more than we expected.

This was your original concept, and you brought Clay to the project once you had established the Whistling Skull universe. It sounds as though he has been a good match.

Absolutely. I have never considered myself a writer. I'm a better idea man more than anything. I just love Clay's work and I think he was perfectly suited for not just this particular project but for us to collaborate in general.

I get his strengths and he gets mine. We just kind of leave each other [alone], but when we feel like we have to step in, we do.

The easiest way to work, for me, when I am trying to create something new, is that you have to create the world first before you actually tell a story within that world. That's what I set about to do: establish this whole little corner of the universe, brick by brick. "Here are all the main characters. Here is where they operate and how they operate. And this is the relationship between each guy." But then I said, "Alright. Now I have to find a guy to actually write a story." And now, Clay is every bit as invested in this as I am.

In hindsight, I can see that it was never mine. It was always ours. I just hadn't found Clay yet.

The major change, obviously, from when we first discussed this project is that originally it was a WildStorm comic, and now it's a series set within the DCU. Maybe not the New 52, but it's a sequel to "JSA: The Liberty File," which you created as an Elseworlds story with writer Dan Jolley back in 2000. Did that constitute a complete overhaul of the concept or were you able to simply pepper some JSA characters into the story in lieu of some of your own?

That all came about when it was announced they were going to close WildStorm. I suddenly thought: "Now, what? Where's my book going to end up?" Literally just one afternoon, it hit me -- like a bolt of lightning. This universe is not that different from "The Liberty File." I always hoped and intended to come back to that stuff eventually. I thought about and came up with folding these two worlds together and ran it up the flagpole to see what DC thought about it. I put together a page or two about how it would work ,and Jim Lee, Hank Kanalz and Ben Abernathy loved it. Clay thought it was crazy but loved it nonetheless.

The crazy part is that this was pre-New 52. I don't know if that was even in the works at that point. It just seems that weird that they would do that and then change up the whole universe so for a second time. We were curious about how this would affect us.

When we folded it into this, we were very careful to keep the focus on the Whistling Skull because it's our first outing. We didn't want to put too much emphasis on the JSA or the "Liberty File" stuff because we thought it would water down introducing a new character.

We really use the JSA in this first miniseries as a framing device at the beginning and the end. We didn't want readers to be taken out of the moment of the story. Instead of trying to shoehorn Skull into the "Liberty File" universe, which is massive, this adventure actually takes place before the JSA existed. Completely. In a way, you get to see the birth of the Justice Society within the pages of "The Whistling Skull."

So to clarify, this world exists outside the New 52.

Yes. When they did the New 52, they did away with all the old-school stuff, which they technically had already done anyway, but after that, somebody told me that the "Liberty File" stuff we created was seated in one of the 52 worlds. I don't know which one it was, but our version of Batman appeared in one of those crossovers at some point. I can't remember which one it was, but he was there.

On the cover for the first issue, you tease The Cat, The Clock and The Owl. What role do they play in this series?

It's Ted Grant, Rex Tyler and Charles McNider, but in this world, they are covert government agents and those are their code names.

Is Whistling Skull an agent too?

Read the book. [Laughs]

There's another supporting character that you told me about from the original series, and I hope he still plays a role in this series -- Fagan, the inter-dimensional hermit that lives in Big Ben. Is he still around?

Absolutely. The Skull carries this pocket watch called the Worm Watch. It's basically used to open a portal to a wormhole. It allows them to jump a great distance one time per use, but the trick is, where you are jumping has to be within your line of sight. You can't say, "Japan" and you're in Japan. It's for great distances by one man's standard but not globally.

You have to actually calculate the distance visually by yards, feet and inches and use the different dials on the Worm Watch to dial that stuff in. If you calculate incorrectly, you could end up inside a tree. [Laughs] And after you use it, no one knows how to reset it except Fagan. He created the Worm Watch for the original Whistling Skull and he refuses to hand over all the documentation on how it was made and how it works -- basically to ensure his own safety and job security. The firm could never do away with him or kill him. He'll always be an asset they can't do without.

But he doesn't live in our dimension. He lives in an alternate slice, which is a little bit different from ours but is essentially the same world. He lives inside Big Ben, but in a different universe.

After you use the watch, you need Fagan to reset it, so you need to visit him at Big Ben. You have to be right outside the door to his room at precisely quarter-past, when those bells start to chime, and you can walk right into his workshop. But if you turn his doorknob one second late, you walk into Big Ben and there is nothing there. It's just a clock.

I love it. "The Whistling Skull" has been announced as six-issue miniseries but it sounds like you and Clay have much bigger plans for the characters.

Absolutely. The whole story is 40 issues, a number we globbed onto based on ideas for stuff that we want to do with these characters. The way the market is, DC is not going to approve a 40-issue series. Just like "Ex Machina" -- everyone thought that was just going to be a miniseries because they don't approve ongoing series like that. They base whether or not they are going to do an ongoing series on sales of the first miniseries.

Our plan is to do a 40-issue story through a series of miniseries. It will never be a monthly book because I don't want anybody to wait for the story if I get sick or whatever.

Towards the completion of each arc, it will be solicited. Right now, I am inking #6 and Dave McCaig is coloring #2 or even #3. We're doing a December release, so everything should be just fine.

Buy the comic. If we do well, you'll get to see the whole thing.

Can you give us a tease about what happens in this first series?

It all focuses on this small village in Switzerland. Some of the events begin in 1939, and there are also flashbacks to the late 1920s, when the boys were very young. But the main chunk happens in Switzerland in this small village where people and children are being murdered. They're just vanishing. There is this really weird circus that's been traveling throughout different parts of Europe, including this part, and people are starting to suspect the circus, which is largely made up of a freak show. I'm not going to tell you about the freaks or what they are, but they're really fucked up. [Laughs]

The Skull is brought in to look at the situation and the story unfolds from there.

Finally, you mentioned you're currently inking #6. That's new for you, right?

Yes, I'm inking my own work now, which is a big change. That's afforded me a lot of freedom to make my stuff look exactly as I want it to.

I've also stopped using photo reference as of the completion of "Ex Machina." I decided to just draw. I've worked in several different styles over the years and if you've followed my work, you've seen that. This one goes back to a style I was developing on "Obergeist." It's a more cartoony style but also a lot more signature and recognizable than the photo reference stuff. I used it to an extent in "The Liberty File" too.

What I'm doing now on "JSA: Liberty File - The Whistling Skull" is the ultimate goal that I had in mind for the conclusion of my artistic journey. I have developed it to the point that I am ready to fully explore it. I'm never totally happy with anything -- but it's pretty close.

"JSA: Liberty File - The Whistling Skull," by Tony Harris and B. Clay Moore, debuts in December from DC Comics.

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