Review: JSA: The Liberty Files trade paperback (DC Comics)

Thursday, November 22, 2007

[The following review comes from Collected Editions reader Simon Finger:]

The volumes in DC's Elseworlds line relocate familiar superheroes into a dizzying variety of genres, but they still tend to fall into two categories: those that show how the changed circumstances would result in changed characters, and those that show how the heroes would end up basically the same, no matter what the time or place.

JSA: The Liberty Files assuredly belongs to the later set. Perhaps that is not surprising, as writers Dan Jolley and Tony Harris, place their team, consisting of "The Bat" (Batman), "The Clock" (Hourman), and "The Owl" (Dr. Mid-Nite), into the context of World War II. At first blush, this may not seem like much of a departure, given the WW II origins of the Justice Society. But this is a world of spies and smugglers more reminiscent of Casablanca, The Third Man or even Indiana Jones, than of the four-color world of the original JSA.

The volume collects two separate, but related storylines, the eponymous "Liberty Files" and the post-war sequel "The Unholy Three." The first story follows a team of hard-boiled secret operatives across Europe and North Africa as they search out the truth about a rumored Nazi "Super-Man." In the process, they attempt to capture and interrogate an albino smuggler known as "Jack the Grin," a chilling Joker-analogue, and then to fight their way from Egypt to the heart of the Nazi war machine, and back again in time to prevent an Allied disaster.

"The Unholy Three" moves the action from the Second World War to the Cold War, with the embittered survivors of the first story reuniting to battle their Soviet adversaries for a nuclear macguffin called "The Trigger." Replacing the WWII atmosphere with a sensibility suggestive of early James Bond (especially "From Russia With Love"), the story follows the team, joined by a new recruit named Clark Kent, as they try to unravel a string of murders targeting American agents. The climax brings together still more DC icons, including excitingly re-imagined incarnations of Huntress, Red Tornado, Hawkman, Flash, and Sandman, as well as a familiar visitor from Krypton. These and others come together for a thrilling throwdown in the Siberian wastes.

In both stories, Tony Harris (Ex Machina, Starman) provides beautiful and expressive linework, conveying the subtle emotional beats of the story as effectively as he does the action sequences, which are frequent, exciting and sometimes surprisingly bloody. Though Harris ably handles the art in both storylines, the three years separating the publication of the two miniseries is evident in the coloring, which is significantly richer and more nuanced in "The Unholy Three."

The whole production never loses its forward momentum, breathlessly barreling from one set-piece to another. Jolley and Harris capably integrate the character development into the action, vividly establishing a "Bat" whose paranoia is not so far removed from the distrustful Batman of JLA: Tower of Babel and Infinite Crisis. Bruce Wayne is clearly the star of the show, though all the players get moments of nobility and heroism amidst the cynical world of espionage.

Still, while the story provides accessible narrative thrills even for the non-comics reader, it will probably prove a more rewarding read for those deeply versed in DCU lore, able to pick up on the subtle references and revisions that fill both stories. The torture of a young secret agent in an abandoned theater is all the more powerful when you realize that the spy is Sandy the Golden Boy, who faced a similar ordeal as Sand in the pages of Geoff Johns' JSA. Other cameos may likewise slip by anyone with a less-than-encyclopedic knowledge of the Justice Society, but they make fun little Easter eggs for anyone inclined to hunt for them.

As a package, JSA: The Liberty Files, provides a cracking suspense story, terrific art and rewards for both the casual and the dedicated reader. I recommend it without qualification.
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