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The Liberty Project

Posted: Friday, August 8, 2003
By: Ray Tate



Writer: Kurt Busiek
Artists: James Fry(p), Doug Hazelwood(i)
Publisher: About Comics

The Liberty Project collects the entire eight issue run of the series by Kurt Busiek and James Fry. To be honest, I never heard of this series before I saw the collection advertised in Previews. I have heard of the names Busiek and Fry though, and their talents as well as the bargain basement price of eleven-ninety-five persuaded me to special order it from the Phantom of the Attic, which incidentally didn't exist when this was released.

I mention the time of the series only to express my admiration of the reprint quality. Technology improves by the second, and the reprints in the trade paperback, slightly larger than a manga book, are detailed and textured in sharp black and white, with some gray toning, printed upon strong, off-white paper stock that's cut with care. In short The Liberty Project is technically a beautiful package.

Overall the story content and artwork make the book even more attractive and worth your while for a number of reasons. First, all the stories stand the test of time. Not one of these issues reads as silly. In fact most of today's "cutting edge" stories seem silly when compared to Mr. Busiek's clever plotting, thoughtful characterization and imaginative creations. Second, Mr. Fry's artwork synchronizes with Kurt Busiek's words. The one issue he does not sketch does not suffer from hackwork. Instead Richard Howell comes aboard for a partnership between Cimarron and Valkyrie: the classic heroine created by Fred Kida who was resurrected by Eclipse. Third, The Liberty Project is from whence it all comes. You can see the germination of the Thunderbolts and Power Company in The Liberty Project. Fourth, everybody is having fun on the book, and it shows through a comfortable looseness that facilitates reading. Fifth, The Liberty Project was specially edited for this collection by Mr. Busiek. Some may prefer the warts and all approach, but frankly by eliminating mentions of unnecessary Eclipse characters and changing the order of dialogue, as mentioned in the afterword, the story reads better.

The characters immediately interest. Burnout for instance is a pyrokinetic with a volatile temper. Predictable, but Mr. Busiek makes her more than that; she cares about Slick. She expresses vulnerability in her desire not to be again imprisoned and will do anything to stay free even if through startling inaction. Slick is a leader who does not want the responsibility. His power is one of the most unique I've seen in comic books. He can create super slick spots composed of an unknown substance. It's surprising how effective such a power can be. Cimarron can give Power Girl a run for her money in terms of strength and stamina, but the Southerner possesses more depth than the post-Crisis historical orphan. Mr. Busiek could have made Cimarron a one-note strong woman. Instead, he makes her self-aware of her failings. She simply likes who she is even if these aspects of her personality land her into a lot of trouble. Crackshot has the power that Arsenal, a generic hero if ever there was, nicked. Crackshot never misses, and he's a mechanical genius. He could have been on par to Black Lightning or Steel as a racial role model. Johnny Savage is both frightening and sympathetic: not an easy balance to achieve.

The Liberty Project opens with "I Fought the Law." The story introduces the characters. The dialogue reveals their personality quirks. The plot reveals the premise and takes the team on their first mission, and it is a mission since The Liberty Project carries The Dirty Dozen to its logical conclusion when the premise is placed in a super-powered world setting. What strikes me about this first issue is that without feeling rushed, it accomplishes so many things in only twenty-four pages. Contrast this to say Our Worlds at War which did nothing for something like five-hundred-and-four pages.

The second story "Savage Rules O.K.!" continues the first and shows how the characters think. Mr. Busiek displays his flair for characteristic humor, and although criminals each of his stars expresses some form of intelligence and wit. I can name five heroes off the top of my head that lack either or both.

"We Gotta Get Out of This Place" opens with a humorous stunning splash page by Mr. Fry that immediately hooks you into the story. The scene between Slick and Cimarron displays the usefulness of Slick's power and creates pure slapstick. The story fleshes out Cimarron's history while simultaneously creating the team's first group of adversaries. It's interesting how despite the title being filled with convicts--the Liberty Project forced to act for the public good and the Wranglers free to act on their criminal impulses--you can still tell who is the good guy and who is the bad guy. The Liberty Project acts ethically, and each member of the team respects each other. The Wranglers fight amongst themselves, and Gringo because of his attitude can easily become an escalating felon. This issue also demonstrates one of Mr. Busiek's shortcomings which has somewhat improved. He has a knack for concocting ludicrous character names. We have a character named Homeboy and another character named Blue Jean. The former is merely confusing and stupid. The latter is a character named after a style of pants! More inane than Warbird to be sure.

Mr. Busiek and Mr. Fry in this issue portray an attempt at a very tastefully prepared and shot love scene, but one of the characters actually considers the consequences of that action. Because the character thinks, because of the way in which the scene is executed, The Liberty Project becomes more sophisticated than anything in the Marvel Max or the Marvel Knights line of so-called mature books.

Events begin to simmer when Johnny Savage becomes one of the team. "Playing Nice!" opens with a firm depiction of Burnout acting like what she is: a teenaged girl. Savage throughout his tenure sends mixed signals to the team, and they are justly wary of him since he previously threatened to eat them. In a particularly noteworthy scene, the team lays down the law to Savage. After the incident, Savage seems to make an active effort to fit in and even reform, but his first impression casts a strong shadow.

Mr. Busiek isn't content to merely making Savage a monster. He shows him to be truly troubled. In his human form he would not be such a danger and might have even healed, but chance dealt Savage a bad hand. To the Project's and Mr. Busiek's credit, they do not treat Savage too badly. Crackshot attempts to befriend him in the extremely enjoyable "How to Take Over a Planet." Because the team is composed of convicts they are apt to treat people more pragmatically. As a result, they slowly tolerate to him. In a way Savage was the Guy Gardner of his era. The Justice League wouldn't exactly miss Guy if he vanished, but they would notice his absence. This issue represents the pinnacle of James Fry's work. His action sequences are stunning, and the character moments such as a grinning Burnout running beside Slick help make these characters breathe.

Next "Misery and Gin" begins Total Eclipse, an event like the Crisis, that I vaguely remember being promoted. In any case, the story despite being part of a major crossover is astonishingly easy to read and comprehend. Mr. Busiek's portrayal of Valkyrie impresses, and she offers a unique contrast to Cimarron. Lovely artwork which includes some breathtaking examples of inking only adds to the story's merit.

"Smooth Sailing" again looks at Savage's chemical instability. Had Savage not blown up at the slightest provacation, the relationship between he and the team may have taken a different direction.

A telling scene in this wholely character-driven exemplifies the maturity of the series. Burnout and Cimarron enjoy some down time, and Burnout questions Cimarron about her attraction to Slick. Cimarron gives a thoughtful answer to the question that eschews artifice, and the follow up draws upon her self-awareness to prevent the more obvious route of patronizing Burnout.

"Rebel, Rebel" concludes the Savage plotlines. The story weighs in with incredible impact that affects the entire premise. Artistically speaking, it's interesting that you never see the faces of the Project's guards. The effect makes their actions more impersonal, distinguishes heroes from villains as well as the banal evil from everyday men and women.

The Project returns in the Total Eclipse chapter "Serpahim Objective." Though a part of a larger tapestry, the threads weave an understandable story with a somber tone exemplified in a softer, realistic look to James Fry's artwork that's helped along by Sam De La Rosa's sensual inking and Mr. Busiek's character narratives. The heap makes an impressive guest-star. Again created by Kida, the Heap predated the Swamp Thing and Man-Thing.

In the current climate of the comic book business, you don't expect to get your money's worth out of a comic book let alone a trade paperback. The Liberty Project gives you more entertainment value than the asking price.



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