Monday, April 22, 2013

Pulp Noir Monday: JSA - The Liberty Files

As mentioned previously, Monday's posts for the time-being will be reserved for talking about pulp noir influences from a variety of media, whether TV shows, movies, games, or comics. For a full list of previous pulp noir posts, check out the Pulp Noir tag here.

Today I'm going to cover another comic with a cool pulp noir feel, with a twist. It's DC Comics' 2000 series JSA: The Liberty File #1 and #2, and 2003's JSA: The Unholy Three #1 and #2, all four of which are collected in a trade paperback called JSA: The Liberty Files. Note that this trade seems to be out-of-print right now, but you can find copies relatively easy on Amazon from third-party sellers.

This short review avoids spoilers while still pointing out what makes this a cool pulp noir resource.

What Is It?
JSA: The Liberty Files is a World War II era spy thriller that tells the story of three DC "superheroes" - Batman, Hourman, and Dr. Midnight, who are here re-imagined as government agents known as "the Bat," "The Clock," and "The Owl." Their secret identities are still in place - "The Bat" is still Bruce Wayne. However, their methods and their personalities are slightly different than what you'd be used to from mainstream comics.

I suspect that many of my readers are unfamiliar with the Golden Age heroes Dr. Midnight and Hourman - these guys were some of the original superheroes who were invented in the rush by comics companies to create new heroes in the wake of the success of Superman (who, it should be noted, first debuted on the scene 75 years ago last week in Action Comics #1) and who were part of the original Justice Society of America (JSA) - the precursor to today's Justice League of America. You don't need to know the origins or powers of these guys to follow the story - all becomes clear in the story.

Our three heroes, as mentioned, are government secret agents operating during and directly after World War II. There are appearances and slight nods to some other Golden Age heroes and heroines in the story, but I'll leave it to you to discover those when you read it.

In the story, the agents are sent to capture an albino smuggler named "Jack the Grin" and stop him before he sells the Nazi's greatest weapon to the highest bidder. That's the first part of the story, and it has a really awesome surprise ending that I actually didn't see coming.

The second part of the story is a Cold War spy thriller that introduces some new agents as the "Unholy Three" (the code name of The Bat's secret agent team) is brought out of retirement to stop some KGB agents from discovering the most powerful weapon on Earth with the potential to destroy everything. Again, there are some really interesting and creative twists in this story and I loved how it played out.

Who Are the Creative Team?
The stories are written by Dan Jolley and Tony Harris, with the pencils done by Tony Harris.

Jolley is an author who has penned many genre titles, including comics (Firestorm, Twisted Journeys), manga (The Lost Warrior), novels (an original young-adult science-fiction espionage series called Alex Unlimited), and video games (Fallen Earth, a post-apocalyptic MMORPG).

His work on JSA: The Unholy Three earned him an Eisner Nomination in 2003 for "Best Limited Series."  

Harris has been in the comics industry since 1989, and has illustrated such works as Iron Man, Ex Machina, and Starman, which led to an Eisner Award with co-created James Robinson.

In addition to his comics work, Harris also did some production design work for the movie, The Mummy.

I should point out, in the interest of full-disclosure, that Harris is at the center of an online controversy begun last Fall when he posted a rant on his blog about female cosplayers, which led to accusations of misogyny by many publications. I leave it up to you to do the research and decide for yourself.

Cool Bits
I can't get too much into what I think is cool without getting in to major spoilers, but I can say that it's really fun to see some favorite comic book superheroes re-imagined as secret agents (complete with all of their super-powers) during a pulp setting like World War II and the early stages of the Cold War. While the time period does stretch the definition of "pulp" a bit (I generally think of pulp noir as falling around 1920-1930s), it's still in the spirit of pulp.

The story is very clever and keeps you guessing as you read it, and the twists aren't really "gimmicks" like in an M. Night Shamalan movie, but instead natural progressions of the story. They fit in and once they're revealed, they're fun without being annoying or overly complicated.

The artwork is fantastic - tons of art deco stylings in the backgrounds and in the heroes' technology (automobiles and weapons and such). It's just a blast to see these guys operating back in the time period during which they were originally invented, and yet in stories that aren't campy or silly. This is a "serious" (not heavy or preachy - I just mean it's not silly like most of the original 1940s superhero stories) spy thriller that keeps you guessing to the end.

There's also a sequel mini-series that's currently being published entitled JSA: The Whistling Skull. It's monthly and started coming out last Fall, but I have to be honest that I don't really like it as much. The characters are all different (the Unholy Three as missing, for example, and they aren't replaced by other well-known Golden Age heroes), and the artwork is in a complete different style, that I don't like as much, even though it's by the original artist (Harris).

Who Will Like It?
This should appeal to your average comics fan, especially ones who have a fondness for some of the older, original heroes (like the original Justice Society of America). Spy/thriller story lovers would also most likely enjoy this tale, as it's woven together very well and doesn't rely on superpowers or campy heroics to save the day. As usual, Batman (or, "The Bat" in this case) is just a regular guy who has to rely on his wits and powers of deduction and investigation versus just punching guys in the face.

And, as with all the subjects of my Pulp Noir Monday posts, people who have an interest in the pulp era should definitely enjoy this tale, particularly the visuals that evoke a classic art deco pulp feel.

Any Good Fodder in Here for My Role-Playing Games?
As always with comics, or really with any other non-game resource you look at, there can of course be inspirations in the source material for your tabletop RGPs if you want to look for it.

In particular, JSA: The Liberty Files has tons of great ideas for anyone playing a Supers or a Spy type RPG. And, it's a great example of how to play a fairly "straight" Supers campaign in a setting that's as dark as World War II, or even during the Cold War, which I think is a relatively untapped well of fun ideas for RPGs.

Is It Good For Kids?
This is a trade paperback, so it's not actually covered by the Comics Code, and therefore there's no "rating." The current JSA sequel carries a rating of "Teen" so let that be your guide. There's definitely a lot of gun violence as well as straight-up hand-fighting and some scary parts including portrayals of heroes that are not always in the most savory light, which could be very off-putting to younger kids who want to look up to their heroes.

  • Format: 264-page full-color trade paperback
  • Where to Buy: Try to buy it at your local comics shop. If it's no longer available, you'll have to search online. I found mine on Amazon.
  • Price: $19.95 was the list price
  • Rated: Teen
  • More Information: DC Comics' page on JSA: The Liberty Files.

Hanging: Home office (laptop)
Drinking: Nothing
Listening:"East of the Sun (And West of the Moon)" by Stan Getz


  1. I've never been much of a DC fan, but I remember seeing this just as I was getting back into comics and thinking it seemed like a fun series. I should track it down one day.

    1. It's a little bit hard to track down, but you could probably find it as a digital comic, if you're into that sort of thing.

      I just really like the re-imaging of the heroes into the setting. It's pretty neat.


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