Copies of DC: The New Frontier tend to be well worn.
The 2004 series is one fans return to often or lend to friends. It’s packed with ideas and beautiful images. It pretty much demands multiple readings.
The New Frontier was writer/artist Darwyn Cooke’s love letter to DC’s Silver Age characters. He constructed a wide-ranging story set in its own special world that dramatized the transition from the heroes of World War II to a new age of colorful adventurers.
Most of the major heroes of the Justice Society and Justice League turn up in The New Frontier (in cameo, if nothing else). They’re joined by a wide selection of characters from other genres DC published in the ‘40s and ‘50s: war, sci fi, adventure, outer space, spy, monster, horror, detective and more. The plot ranged from the late days of World War II to the dawn of the ‘60s. It incorporated touchstones such as the Korean War, the Red Scare, foreign intervention in Southeast Asia, the Space Race, the Cold War, the Arms Race and the Civil Rights movement. Some old-fashioned comic book inspired insanity strung it all together.
The New Frontier had a lot going on. Major plotlines included:
– Most superheroes retreated in the face of a government demand that they register with authorities. Superman became the most prominent hero to register. Batman morphed into a shadowy rebel. An ideological divide opened up between Superman and Wonder Woman.
– Young pilot Hal Jordan battled PTSD from the Korean War to pursue a chance to fly into space as part of a project with Rick Flagg and the Suicide Squad. A dejected Hal later received a green ring from a dying alien.
– J’onn J’onzz, the last Martian, accidentally came to Earth thanks to a well-meaning scientist. Taking the identity of police detective John Jones, he tried to blend into his new environment while wondering if he should try to get home.
– Police scientist Barry Allen became the new Flash after a bizarre lab accident gave him super speed. His heroic activities made him a target for government operatives.
– Four extraordinary men survived a plane crash that should have killed them. They banded together as beloved adventures the Challengers of the Unknown.
– A young black man survived his lynching and the murder of his family at the hands of the KKK. He became the masked vigilante John Henry to exact justice.
Running throughout the series was a series of attacks from dinosaurs and other monstrous creatures faced by various characters. Numerous people lost their sanity and caused a variety of mischief. It all traced back to the mysterious Centre, a powerful, primal force that threatens the existence of Earth. The various plots converged in an epic final battle against the Centre at Cape Canaveral.
Retro revivalist Cooke loves this era of DC publishing. Not just the superheroes, but all of the wild adventures across a swath of genres. The New Frontier found clever ways to mix all of DC’s colorful past into one idealized adventure uniting the far flung pieces of the DC Universe. Cooke wrote almost all of the characters very well, but a few stood out.
Hal was the linchpin of The New Frontier. His coming of age reflected the changes in DC’s publishing line in the decade from the late ‘40s to the late ‘50s. Cooke perfectly captured Hal’s adventurousness and roguish charm, but also his idealism and the emotional damage at the character’s heart. J’onn provided another strong throughline, uniting the sci fi, detective and superhero aspects of the story. J’onn’s attempts to assimilate provided some of The New Frontier’s more endearing moments.
Cooke did some interesting things with other familiar characters, too. Rick Flagg and King Faraday emerged from the “G-man” muddle as fascinating, flawed anti-heroes. Barry Allen got some nice beats in his struggle of personal liberty versus the greater good. And Cooke deployed The Trinity (Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman) in some interesting ways, ultimately bringing out the inspiring nature of each.
Cooke penned some excellent wide screen, cinematic action. Many of The New Frontier’s set pieces were quite stunning. He opened with the doomed Losers facing off with dinosaurs on Monster Island. It was a blazing good start and set the stage for other dynamic sequences. Hal bailing out of a plane during a fire fight on the day of the Korean armistice. J’onn, Batman and Slam Bradley facing off with a murderous cult in a darkened church. Flash facing down Captain Cold during a daring casino robbery. The Suicide Squad’s ill-fated space flight and ensuing space encounter featuring Superman and the Challengers. And the dazzling, extended battle featuring almost all of the characters against the Centre. These sequences were well-written, packed with drama and intrigue, and were marked by strong character work.
Those scenes also showcased Cooke as an artist to strong effect. Cooke’s clean, uncluttered approach was deceptively simple. His character designs and basic style were deliberately retro, but the amount of care that went into each page is evident. As a writer/artist, Cooke was more easily able to experiment with layouts and form, coming up with some distinctive approaches that enhanced the presentation.
Where Cooke really shined was illustrating his big action sequences. The New Frontier is a gorgeous series. Cooke’s compositions were arresting. When combined with the genius color work of Dave Stewart, fans got a trove of stunning visuals to soak in. Cooke made frequent use of one- and two-page splashes to strong effect. These were lovingly crafted, packed with carefully embroidered details and positioned for maximum impact. Staring at these pages and drinking them in is as rewarding as the story they support. There are too many iconic images to even begin to list. The entire visual presentation was suffused with energy, warmth and devotion. These weren’t mere exercises in nostalgia. These pages were a living testament to the power of these characters and Cooke’s love for them shone through.
If there’s one flaw to The New Frontier, it was Cooke’s fudging some of the historical details. He was so eager to blame the Justice Society’s government-forced 1952 retirement on Richard Nixon that he ignored the fact that the Eisenhower administration didn’t take office until 1953. He similarly gave a pass to the Truman administration on issues like McCarthyism and U.S. entanglement in Southeast Asia. It’s also almost inconceivable that a brilliant military strategist like Eisenhower would patronizingly ignore Wonder Woman’s on-the-ground intel about Southeast Asia because her perspective didn’t align with his policy goals. No one should be reading comic books for an accurate history lesson. But for readers with knowledge of the real world events, those kinds of details can momentarily take them out of the story. Which is an annoyance, since the wider story was so involving.
On the whole, DC: The New Frontier is a stunning achievement. Cooke’s exploration of the characters of the past is a bright, vivid and powerful work that retains its luster as the years go by.
Originally published at thunderalleybcpcom.ipage.com on June 25, 2015.