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Comics You Should Own – DC: The New Frontier

I actually thought quite a bit about including this … but will you figure out the reason I did? Find out below!

DC: The New Frontier by Darwyn Cooke (writer/artist), Dave Stewart (colorist), and Jared K. Fletcher (letterer).

DC, 6 issues (#1-6), cover dated March – November 2004.

You know there are SPOILERS! That’s just the way it is!

The New Frontier is an odd animal – widely praised on its release (rightly so), it has serious flaws that keep it from being a transcendent masterpiece of the form. It was inexplicably released as six giant-sized issues for $6.95 each with 64 story pages and no advertisements, which sounds like a great deal (and it is), but may have not been too smart, as notoriously parsiminious comic book fans often look only at cover price and psychologically react against that no matter what is inside the book. It’s also an “Elseworlds” story that came out around the time DC stopped branding those as such, and many comic book fans don’t buy something that doesn’t “count.” If we ignore the odd marketing, however, and concentrate on the comic, it’s the story that falls short and holds this back a bit. I’ve featured comics in these posts that have glaring flaws before, so why not another one, right?

Cooke is an artist first, which always seems to hold back his work because his writing isn’t quite up to snuff. His best comic remains Selina’s Big Score, possibly because it relies less on writing than much of his other work. It’s evident in The New Frontier that he has different agendas that he wants to get into the narrative, most of them dealing with the rotten core of the American Dream and its renewal through the heroism of DC’s costumed vigilantes. There’s nothing wrong with that idea, but Cooke goes about examining it in the most facile way possible, robbing his grand epic of any meaningful insight into what makes the United States tick and what shameful acts it covers up in its past. The disconnect between Cooke’s more personal stories in the book – the tragic story of the Losers on Dinosaur Island in World War II, J’onn J’onzz’s attempts to fit into society while investigating the activities of “the Centre,” the mission to Mars that goes horribly wrong – and his grander political statements is jarring, as is the weakness of the writing when compared to the magnificence of the art.

The main plot of the book, which deals with a Cthulhu-like creature trying to destroy humanity, is largely inoffensive and provides the heroes plenty of chances to do heroic things. Cooke’s subtext, however, is where he runs into trouble. Basically, his themes can be boiled down to “racism sucks” and “totalitarianism is bad.” Neither of these sentiments are likely to be opposed by intelligent people, but at the same time, they don’t leave much space for nuance, and Cooke isn’t a good enough writer to add it. The majority of the book takes place in the 1950s, so both themes are very much relevant, but they’re also themes that are difficult to encompass, especially in the context of a superhero story. One problem is that Cooke wasn’t alive during the 1950s, which in itself isn’t a problem, but as he’s not a historian either, his grasp of American society in that decade is suspect at best. His “examination” of racism is the worst part of the book – in issues #3 and 4, he introduces John Wilson, a southern black man whose family is killed by the Klan. He fights back as “John Henry,” the steel-driving man, until the Klan tracks him down and kills him, with the help of a young white girl who betrays his position. It’s unfortunate that Cooke chose to put this in the book – it adds nothing to the main plot and all it does is provide a momentary pang of conscience among the all-white cast of heroes before they continue to ignore the plight of minorities. John Wilson’s arc is dull and even a bit insulting – the only black man in the sprawling cast cares only about revenge, which is contrast to, say, Hal Jordan, who famously won’t kill even though he’s a fighter pilot in Korea. Wilson is even pathetically ineffective – other heroes get heroic deaths, while he was beaten, “humiliated,” and burned alive. If that’s Cooke’s point – that black people in the 1950s didn’t get heroic deaths because their mean existence didn’t allow them even that tiny bit of dignity … well, it’s possible, but given the lack of subtlety in the writing of this comic, I have a hard time believing that.

Meanwhile, his other trope – “totalitarianism is bad” – is embodied in the public’s view of superheroes, which come under heavy scrutiny throughout the course of this series. Cooke, like many others before and after him, ties this into the House Un-American Activities Committee, which is perfectly fine (although he implies that HUAC investigations and Joe McCarthy’s proceedings were one and the same, which they weren’t). There’s no doubt that this was an ugly time in American history, but once again, Cooke approaches it with the subtlety of John Wilson’s sledgehammer. Today, we think of Communists as a harmless fringe group, but in the wake of the Russian Revolution, there was real fear in the States that there would be an uprising like that one, and after World War II, when the Iron Curtain came down and the Cold War began, there’s plenty of evidence that Soviet spies had actually infiltrated the United States government. Of course the government overreacted, because the government always overreacts (just like people), but Cooke’s implication that the government simply went after anyone they didn’t like is a bit extreme. I’ve written enough about politics on this blog to know that someone, somewhere will get really, really angry at me, and I’m certainly not arguing that McCarthy was great for the country, like certain conservative revisionists will have us believe, but Cooke never gets below the surface to examine society’s fears about the threat of the Soviets, why we picked the wrong side in Vietnam, or exactly how people rebelled. Basically, Cooke’s thesis boils down to the government jailing superheroes without cause until they need them to fight the Centre, after which everyone loves superheroes (and conveniently ushers in the glorious era of John F. Kennedy, even though Eisenhower probably did more for civil rights than any president between Lincoln and LBJ). It’s maddening how simplistic this worldview is, and what’s wrong with it is that Cooke didn’t need to make it so overt. If he were a better writer, he could have dealt with racism and the threat of totalitarianism much more subtly. Instead, we are bludgeoned with it.

There are a few other problems with the writing – I mentioned Hal Jordan’s pacifism, which seems so out of place with the way the world is and with Cooke’s take on a government that looks askance at any sort of deviation from the norm – and it basically comes down to Cooke not trusting his art, which is ridiculous. As you might be wondering exactly why on earth I think these are Comics You Should Own based on what I’ve written so far, I suppose I should point out the beautiful artwork, which is a true tour-de-force in sequential storytelling. Cooke has always been a far better artist than writer, but what makes much of his work flawed is that he doesn’t seem to understand that, so we often have to endure his writing while hoping that his words don’t obscure his wonderful pictures. Cooke is a brilliant artistic storyteller, and that’s the reason this book is so worthy of praise. If we return once more to his saga of John Wilson, as heavy-handed as the story is, the art is superb. Cooke damages it, however, by quoting the entire saga of John Henry as Wilson stalks the Klansmen who killed his family. Look at the first three pages of Henry’s revenge. None of it is improved by Cooke’s lyrics, which add only signposts for the imbecilic:

But if we endure the words, we can revel in the art, which is stellar. Cooke’s saga begins on Dinosaur Island, a callback to the old Bob Kanighar DC war comics in which American soldiers were always ending up on Pacific islands where dinosaurs never went extinct. The Losers – Captain Storm, “Sarge” Peterson, “Gunner” Wilson, and John Cloud – are dropped in to rescue an OSS squad that was smuggling an Axis scientist to the States the long way around and crashed on the island. Of course, they don’t know what is waiting for them on the island, and Cooke marvelously gives us a variation of the old movie chestnut, where a group is stalked by something horrible. The Losers die and the OSS leader, Rick Flagg, manages to get off the island with the scientist’s notes, but what makes this compelling is how futile it all is. Flagg apparently didn’t need rescuing, and the last Loser, Cloud, didn’t need to die – he completes the mission of killing the dinosaur that took out his comrades because it’s the noble thing to do. Even the way he is incapacitated is silly, but what gives it gravitas is Cooke’s beautiful art – when Cloud looks to the sky and sees his warrior spirit riding along above him, Cooke makes it subtle enough that it could just be clouds, or it could actually be a great warrior. The final sequence of Cloud diving into the dinosaur’s open mouth, grenades ready, is stunning, as is the way Cooke chooses to portray the death of the dinosaur – off-panel, with the explosion illuminating the four markers where the Losers made their final stand. It’s a tremendous brief piece of work and sets the stage for the rest of the comic.

Cooke does this throughout the book. The “death” of Rex Tyler is shown from a unusual angles – first, from the ground as Hourman and the cops and a photographer chase him over rooftops, and then Cooke shifts to give us the final photograph of Rex Tyler, printed in a magazine about the HUAC and the crackdown on costumed heroes. The point of view is from above, as the photographer from the previous scene manages to snap a shot of Tyler and the cops falling to the ground, and it’s an astonishing shift from the “fluid” sequential storytelling of the chase to the static shot of men falling to their deaths. Cooke does this kind of transition from the “real” world to representations of the world very well – in issue #3, he does a very good representation of a Superman cartoon, Movietone news, and a cheesy sci-fi movie in the space of a few pages; in issue #5, the first sight we get of the Centre is on grainy black-and-white newsreel, which has a wonderful impact because it feels much more visceral; and when the heroes win in the end, we shift from their celebration to Jimmy Olsen’s photograph of them celebrating effortlessly. In this way, Cooke ties what’s happening in the world with the media representation of it – as part of the narrative of this book is how society perceives events, this is a clever way to show that.

John Cloud’s death also presages another thing Cooke does quite often – major events in this comic happen off-panel with regularity, which is an effective device for when there is something really big. We don’t see J’onn J’onzz’s arrival on Earth, we see Professor Erdel’s death from the shock of it. We don’t see the Vietnamese women massacring their former captives, we see Wonder Woman telling Superman about it later, with panels cutting away in flashback before it becomes too bloody. John Wilson stalks the Klansmen but we don’t see what he does to them. Cooke doesn’t cut away because he can’t choreograph action scenes, but because he wants the action scenes he does show us have more impact, leading up to the final confrontation with the Centre. Therefore, when Slam Bradley, “John Jones,” and Batman break up one of the Centre’s cults, Cooke needs to show the entire thing because Batman’s terrifying impact on the young kidnap victim is a turning point in his life, as he soon takes on a teen sidekick and lightens up a bit. Barry Allen’s takedown of Captain Cold in Las Vegas is drawn beautifully, and we see every bit of it. Superman, who does next to nothing in the final showdown (Cooke removes Superman, Wonder Woman, and Batman from the picture rather awkwardly, because this entire comic is really Hal Jordan and Barry Allen’s story), gets his big moment when, in issue #4, the mission to Mars goes pear-shaped. Cooke is brilliant in these pages, from the moment when Superman, who’s fighting a giant robot in Tokyo, gets the signal that he’s needed elsewhere, through the Challengers of the Unknown’s attempted rescue, to Flagg and Karin’s final moments and Superman’s last-second rescue of the Challengers. As tragic as the event is, Cooke nails the look perfectly. Finally, of course, there’s the battle against the Centre, which is the kind of fight we want when we see a group of men battling a weird, extremely powerful monster.

Cooke uses all his nifty artist tricks in the book, as well, beyond simply changing the “media” through which we view the events of the comic. If we believe Tim Callahan (and why wouldn’t we?), we don’t often get true first person narrative in comics, but Cooke does it a few times in this book. When Hal Jordan is shot down over Korea, we experience some of what he’s going through in first person, meaning we see the world through his eyes instead of viewing him from the outside, which according to Tim is not true first person (and Tim’s a smart guy, so I think his point is valid). In issue #6, we get Jimmy Olsen’s point of view as Wonder Woman leaps back into the fight, which is a nice moment. Cooke doesn’t overdo the first person viewpoint, but when he does, it’s done well. We also get some wonderful tricks with the “effects” of the book – Flash’s battle with Captain Cold in issue #2 “feels” fast because Cooke uses blur lines very well, while the page showing the death of Flagg and Karin is gorgeous, as the colors (I’ll get to the coloring) shifts from yellow to white as Flagg and Grace press the self-destruct button, saving the world. The final battle, of course, is tremendous – the Centre alters the perceptions of Hal, Ace Morgan, and Nate Adam, so that we get a Ditko-esque kaleidoscopic journey through time, space, and other dimensions. It’s a wonderfully hallucinatory experience, and shows how versatile Cooke is.

The design of the book is very nice, too. In all his work, Cooke shows a fondness for 1950s/1960s moddish design work, which is partly, I imagine, why he’s currently adapting novels set during the early 1960s. He does it very well in this book – this feels like a book from the 1950s, even though it’s a stylized 1950s. Cooke’s attention to both male and female style is well done, as is the architecture and furniture. His costuming works, too – Superman, Batman, and Green Lantern look just a bit schlumpy in their superhero suits, as if it’s just a bit ill-fitting, which, in the days before spandex, isn’t surprising. Wonder Woman is a bit on the zaftig side, and it’s nice to see a lot of people smoking. Cooke gets so many details right that we can forgive the fact that it’s a bit of an idealized version of the 1950s – Cooke can’t help but make even John Wilson’s horrifying South and Wonder Woman’s Indochina cleaner than they most likely were, because that’s his style. But the design of the book is so holisitically pleasing that the minor tics can be forgiven and even ignored.

Part of the reason for the art’s grandeur has to go to Stewart, who’s one of the best colorists in the business. The drawings in this comic pop off the page thanks to Stewart’s bright palette, contrasting the primary colors of the superheroes very well with the darker forces swirling around them. Stewart gives Superman a slightly darker color scheme, matching the original look of the character, which is a nice touch. I’ve already mentioned the sequence where the mission to Mars goes wrong, and Stewart matches Cooke’s amazing line work with a crazy-quilt of colors, from the neon day-glo of Tokyo to the softer tones of Flagg’s daydream about growing old with Karin before he switches back to the harsh yellow and then the angelic white of their final moments. Of course, the final battle wouldn’t look the same without Stewart’s trippy colors, which add a nice layer of weirdness to Hal’s journey into the Centre. Stewart uses a lot of reds in this book, especially during the action scenes, and they add an urgency to those scenes, especially as Cooke likes to shift quickly back and forth from action scenes to less frenetic scenes, so Stewart’s color tips help keep the roller coaster of the book rolling. Some pages of the comic almost have a strobe effect (not an unpleasant one), in that they shift so suddenly from harsh reds to cooler blues and greens. For a 384-page (!) comic, The New Frontier is remarkably fast-paced, and while Cooke deserves most of the credit for that, Stewart plays a crucial part in making sure that the colors never slow us down.

While some of the problems in The New Frontier loom large, they don’t overshadow the sheer adventure of Cooke’s main narrative. As unoriginal as it is, Cooke does a very nice job building the plot slowly, so that even the opening sequence with the Losers comes into play. If you’re dealing with an “alien” invasion (the Centre, after all, isn’t really an alien), you better do it damned big and damned impressive, and Cooke is firing on all cylinders when it comes to that. This is a spectacle of a comic, and while Cooke’s writing chops when it comes to the political commentary aren’t up to snuff, that doesn’t change the fact that The New Frontier is a blast to read and, more importantly, to look at. Why is it a Comic You Should Own when so many comics feature battles against giant monsters? Mainly, it’s because of Cooke’s scope in telling the story, and the fact that he’s such a great artist that you can open any page of these six issues and stare at one panel for several minutes, appreciating the craft and beauty of each drawing. Not every Comic You Should Own features both great writing and great art. But when one is so tremendous, the deficiencies of the other don’t detract too much from the whole. That’s certainly the case with The New Frontier, which is a stunning work of art … with some words and themes it doesn’t need.

DC: The New Frontier has been collected in two trades and one honking huge Absolute Edition, which I would love to have (someday, when I have a bunch of cash lying around). I can’t imagine how spectacular Cooke’s art looks in the oversized format. While The New Frontier doesn’t feature the greatest story or writing in the world, Cooke carries it home with his phenomenal art. You know you want to check it out! And hey – you can look at the archives for more books you should check out!

32 Comments

I have yet to read this. I only saw the movie adaptation, which was good. In fact, I think that Hal Jordan kills one Korean pilot at the beginning. I don’t know if it happens here.

About John Henry, I don’t understand your insulting comment. Revenge is one of the oldest themes in literature and since his family was killed by the Klan, it seems like an obvious (and a very human) reaction. Don’t you think that if he chose to forgive the Klan and didn’t follow the revenge path, it would be seen as a patronizing portrayal? I get that you’re contrasting him with the white superheroes, who apparently don’t kill anyone throughout the comic, but I still think that it’s a valid characterization.

Dude: Yeah, Hal kills a pilot in this, too. He doesn’t mean to do it, though, and it’s an important point later, after he becomes Green Lantern.

It’s not that I think John Wilson wouldn’t seek revenge on the Klan, it’s that it’s the only thing we know about him, and he’s the only black man in the book, and he not’s very good at it. I certainly think it’s fine that Wilson goes after the Klansmen, but it feels condescending because that’s all he is. Cooke actually spends some time making the other characters a bit more nuanced – Wonder Woman, another vehicle for his personal ire at society and government in the 1950s (she hates what the U.S. is doing in Vietnam), gets quite a bit of characterization which helps us understand her point of view and how she deals with her ineffectiveness. I have some problems with the way Cooke uses Wonder Woman in the final conflict, but I don’t think her characterization is one-note. Wilson’s is, very much so. I just don’t like that he’s pretty much the only black man in the comic, and Cooke uses him very poorly.

Awesome article. I love Cooke’s artwork and have really wanted to read this ever since seeing the animatted movie based on it. I’m hoping to add this to my collection

Dude, I completely agree with your point. It seems like when it comes to comics books, superheroes aren’t given the chance to experience human emotions. John Henry wants revenge for his family, that seems like a very human reaction to have. But because he puts on a costume and becomes a vigilante he can’t do that? It seems like our view of heroes can be a double-edged sword. I praise writers who tkes heroes into directions we don’t see because they have experienced tragedy and react in a human way we as readers can relate to, instead of just forgiving the guilty party and going on their merry way.

It’s hard to argue with that because in the movie, they cut him out almost completely. I think he’s barely mentioned. I’m really going to have to read this.

For me, the scattershot plotting and references to DC continuity that I don’t follow overshadowed the art. A story which had me saying, “oh, that was clever” was often followed by one that had me asking, “what the hell is going on here and who are these people?”

The 2 softcover trades inhabit a place of honor on my top shelf. I love losing a day in this book from time to time – the artwork (lines and colors) never fail to take me away on a satisfying trip back into faux-history. Someday I too would love to own that oversized hardcover. Thanks for the look back, Greg.

@ PJ: Thanks! I feel the same way. I think it’s possible to have a balance between “Superheroes never kill” and “Grim and gritty heroes that kill in cold blood”. John Henry’s case is one where the readers can understand why he chooses the path that he does, and it seems a more human and interesting direction to take a character than the usual “We can’t kill them because then we would be just like them”.

I have to agree, the John Wilson part was insulting. I’d rather have had him not address blacks at all than have such a patronizing moment. Also, he wasn’t the only black person in the book. There was also Muhammad Ali, who was beaten up by Ted Grant, something else I also didn’t like.

T.: Yeah, I forgot about the Cassius Clay part (mostly because Clay’s not really a character), which I was going to mention because according to Cooke’s timeline, Grant would have been fighting a 15- or 16-year-old, which is silly. Plus, Clay would have mopped the floor with Grant!

I want to reread this piece, but I see how the conversation is building, so I want to add in that I think the John Henry section is thematically meant to dovetail in with the John Jonzz thread a bit; black as alien, outsider, limited options.
You could also argue that Cooke was sneaking in a criticism of more recent hyper-violent vigilante “heroes” like Punisher. Swap the Klan for the Mob and they’re essentially the same character.
Add in Cooke’s oft spoken distaste for the way characters are written today, and I think he’s showing what we get when we lower the moral bar for the icons we create; as well as hinting that the fiction in these books simply wasn’t made to fight REAL real world problems like the abject hatred of the Klan.

I expected the below-the-fold text to simply read “Duh!” But my sad, deadly secret is that I have never read this comic.

I was fortunate enough to get Absolute DC: The New Frontier as a birthday present, and it is just a incredible to look at as you might think it is. This is one of my favorite comic books ever, and I was one of those who was turned off by the $6.95 price tag, and as such I didn’t read it until much later.

On a side note, I think this book is a great example of what all the Marvel Zombies are missing when they sneer at the idea that DC continuity is too long or silly or difficult to understand. DC was doing some really great, off-the-wall stuff in the 50’s and 60’s and people of my generation who got into comics in the 90’s are doing a disservice to themselves if they believe that, a few great stories aside, the general drivel DC was putting out in that era is all they have ever done. Silver Age DC, although very different than Marvel of the same period, is really good fun to read.

JRC: It’s certainly possible that Cooke is doing all those things; I wouldn’t be surprised if he were. I think it’s a bit counterintuitive to opine that real world problems shouldn’t be covered in superhero books (a sentiment I tend to agree with) by doing it yourself and doing it poorly. That seems weird. But I can believe those were his ideas behind what he did, I just think he didn’t do it well at all.

@ Greg: agreed.
While I personally didn’t mind the John Henry parts of New Frontier, I’ve heard enough of the same complaint from virtually everyone to know it didn’t play well.
In the end I think the John Henry stuff might’ve simply suffered from Cooke realizing he didn’t include any minoritites in the book, and because of the specific subjects he was dealing with, realized he “needed” it in there and wedged a half-baked attempt in to compensate.
A solo John Henry one-shot might’ve been the way to go, and might’ve excelled from the focus.

I too have the Absolute Edition as well as the original comics. The Absolute Edition is simply beautiful. It has loads of extra pages that fill out the story and a fantastically detailed anotation. This is one of my all time favourite reads.

Chiller67: Well, that’s annoying. I don’t mind annotations and sketches and all that, but I think the original story should stand on its own. If Cooke had more story pages originally, DC should have released those. They were already doing 64 pages with no ads, so what’s a few more? If Cooke added them later, that’s also annoying. I still want the Absolute Edition, but that’s kind of a pain.

One detail that amused me in New Frontier was that Superman is shorter than Wonder Woman.

I agree that the story is a bit too overstuffed for its own good and a bit unoriginal, but Cooke is a great writer. He really has a knack for characterization; his depictions of Martian Manhunter, Green Lantern, and the Flash are among the best ever (far better than Johns or even Waid) and his writing of King Faraday made him into such a cool character.

The John Henry part was not fully fleshed, but I cannot see any way Cooke could have had a story in which 1950’s America (a pivotal period in all aspects of American politics and culture, a time indicating that as much as the world seemed bound to stay the same, soon everything must change) contributes to the overarching theme and aesthetic of the book, could ignore the issue of race. It is fault line too powerful to ignore.

Tom Fitzpatrick

March 18, 2011 at 5:19 am

I’ve read this book, and although well done, I’m still not compelled to own this series.
I’m just not a Cooke fan.

“That’s the way it is”

Wow. It’s so refreshing to not see people gushing over the book so much.

I just found it quite underwhelming.

I read this before heard anything about it, and really didn’t think much of it. I found it hard to follow. It’s a shame, because obviously I *want* to enjoy something I’m reading, but I just didn’t care for it. I read it once and sold them on ebay. :-/

i read this after i found all 6 issues in a dollar bin. i have the same reactions that Greg did about the heavy handedness of Cooke’s writing. i still have the issues, but i have thought about selling them back due to the writing.

i would be happy if someone gave me the Absoute Edition, but i won’t be buying it.
DFTBA

I love New Frontier. The background politics is cartoony and simplistic– but so is the politics in Watchmen, to say nothing of Dark Knight. I find it a lot less politically tedious than The Golden Age, which it resembles in various ways: a story of the transition from the Golden to the Silver Age on a unified earth that takes as its point of departure the long-established cartoony “JSA retired under threat from McCarthyism.”

For that matter, I think most of popular culture has embraced a cartoony account of the 50s, the early 60s, and the relationship between them. It’s pretty much just background noise. What happens in the foreground here is terrific.

I am a big fan of NEW FRONTIER.

Is it the best possible superhero epic set at the dawn of the Silver Age? No. The politics are too shallow and the history is under-researched. Cooke scores too many facile points far too easily. This is tendency that is even worse in his follow-up special. The Civil Rights stuff feels tacked on, because it is.

On the other hand, Cooke does an awful lot right.

First, this is one of the rare occasions when the “DC Universe” feels like a coherent fictional place. The characters all fit together nicely. That is helped by Cooke’s fantastic design work. His Wonder Woman is arguably the best ever. I love how skinny his Flash is.

Second, Cooke’s design work really improves his character work. Hal Jordan has never been as interesting as he is here. The guy looks and acts like one of those mid-century flawed heroes. Nobodies and had-beens, like King Faraday, are made into compelling characters.

Third, if you are looking for a comic with a ton of “F**k Yeah!” moments, then you could do a lot worse than NEW FRONTIER. There is one every ten pages and the thing is almost 400 pages. That is a ton of great moments. Better, Cooke is democratic enough as a creator that everyone gets a moment starting with Johnny Cloud and ending with Jimmy Olsen.

Fourth, Cooke plainly loves both the era and its comics. He manages to reference Wally Wood style Space Opera, Japanese Giant Robots and War Comics without it ever feeling forced. All the seemingly random pieces add up to a coherent narrative.

This is a great, great comic even with its flaws. To me, it stands with ALL-STAR SUPERMAN and WEDNESDAY COMICS as the three best DC books of the last decade.

I agree with everything you wrote in your well thought post Dean. I stands head and shoulders with All-Star Superman for the best of DC from 2000 and on. I thought it was better executed than Wednesday Comics, which was pretty sweet, but had flaws which exceeded that of New Frontier.

The art of New Frontier already begins to assume the look of the iconic in my mind. And Cooke was in fantastic command of his material comic book subject matter. He wrote with such elan and passion. The real world history may have been a bit of a caricature, but that seemed true in keeping with the spirit of a comic book of the Silver Age, which was all about exaggeration, heroism and striking a pose– .in pursuit of the zeitgeist rather authentic relevance, which was still a decade or more away.

agree with Jacob about the politics, many of these historical fictions have not really tried to do nuanced politics (I mean Watchmen having Nixon win four times is ridiculous, Nixon was never that beloved, about the only thing that would have made sense was for Agnew to have won in ’76 and 80, and Reagan after that) picking on that misses the overall theme of New Frontiers which is to end with the optimism of Kennedy’s acceptance speech.

The series was pretty good, and I think it’s a must have series as it did a great job of characterizing the main characters of the DC universe, I think it’s a great introduction to the DC universe even if it’s an Elseworld tale.

This is a brilliant essay, Greg. There are very few people writing excellent comics criticism, and you are one of them. Nice job.

You are absolutely correct in both recommending this as a “Comic You Should Own” while damning it for Cooke’s heavy-handed narration and inability to juggle all the balls he’s thrown into the air. I actually do like a lot of the ideas he had (character, plot, and otherwise), but the failures are exactly where you say they are: the over-simplistic (yet overwrought) section on John Henry, his lack of depth when trying to tie the story into the politics of the time, and his insistence on cramming JFK’s speech into the book (unnecessary and forced; the title of the book didn’t need to be literally represented in its pages). But as you say, the artwork is so astounding that it makes up for the writing. In fact, I can’t help but wonder if the book is somewhat of a victim of its art. That is to say, would be judging the writing so harshly (well, the John Henry portion certainly earns derision) if the artwork wasn’t so unbelievably fantastic?

On the side of praising the story, I have to say that one of my favorite bits in the book is the inclusion of The Losers and the dinosaur island. That whole element of sci-fi wackiness provides the book with a real nice sense of silver age mythos. I was really disappointed to see it excised from the movie.

@ capt usa (jim):

I have a couple responses:

First, can we retire the “even if it is (only) an Elseworlds tale” line? A huge percentage of the best DC Comics in the last 25 years either came out under the Elseworlds brand, or would have if the brand was in use at the time of publication. NEW FRONTIER is an Elseworlds story, so is KINGDOM COME and THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS and ALL-STAR SUPERMAN. Even WATCHMEN started as a kind of proto-Elseworlds. I am not sure how post-COIE DC titles that I would call “great” that weren’t either Elseworlds, Vertigo or essentially one of those brands. Given the respective batting averages, it would make more sense to say that the Morrison-Porter run on JLA even if it is only in mainstream DCU continuity.

NEW FRONTIER is a great introduction to the DC Universe. Period.

Second, WATCHMEN blended real history with a kind of meta-history of comics. If Alan Moore didn’t invent the HUAC equals the Hollywood blacklist equal Wertham metaphor, then he certainly solidified it as the default mode in which superhero comics perceive that era. In that formulation, Nixon equaled the Comic Code. Revisiting the assumptions of that metaphor have some potential, since hindsight has shown that at least HUAC and Wertham had better points than they are generally given credit for. However, Darwyn Cooke had exactly zero interest in going there. Like 99% of the creators that have followed WATCHMEN, Cooke was far more interested in the comic book meta-history than he was looking into real history.

AccidentalVisitor

July 10, 2011 at 5:01 am

Amazing. I’’m ashamed to say I’m surprised at how the writer of this review and most of the people who responded got it so wrong in regards to the John Henry storyline. Ashamed because I SHOULDN”T have been surprised at all given how this is the typical clueless, don’t-wanna-know-so-don’t-bring-it-up attitude that typically comes from the mouths of Americans when anything regarding America’s ugly racial past is brought into a mainstream story. I will at least admit that at first I too had some of the same issues regarding the use of John Henry, his lack of interaction with other superhero characters, and the fact that his death seemed to be quickly forgotten. But then the light went off in my head and I figured out what Cooke was trying to accomplish.

I could go on and write an unnecessary explanation but I won’t because someone out there in the internet wilderness already wrote such a breakdown years ago and did so in a short and sweet fashion that I could only hope to imitate.

On the website Seduction of the Innocent a writer by the name of Penrod (hey, well it is what it is) wrote a wonderful piece regarding John Henry’s role in the New Frontier. What follows is his final three paragraphs:
“John Henry gets a total of 16 pages of the story, which is only three less than the Flash. His story is pretty simple, our introduction to him is his family’s lynching. We do not get to see what John Henry’s life was like before his family gets taken away from him but in a Batman sort of way it fits the story. From there we see his uprising against the Ku Klux Klan, dulling out justice by crushing KKK member’s skulls with a hammer. His story, unsurprisingly, ends tragically as he is captured by the KKK. The real tragedy is the terms in which he is captured. Shot and bleeding, John Henry crawls into an alley, only to be met by a little girl. Dying he asks the girl “Please child… help me. Hide me.” The little girl pauses and yells “He’s here! He’s here! The nigger’s over here!” This is the first time, and only time, that that particular word occurs in the entirety of New Frontier, including John Henry’s story. Obviously an artistic choice, the word is more jarring when it cements the character’s death and moreover comes from a child’s mouth.

John Henry’s story is not particularly deep or long at 16 pages, however the simplicity of the story allows for reaction and interpretation by the other characters. A few people when reviewing New Frontier have stated that John Henry seems to be a thinly veiled attempt at diversifying the heroes in the story and a superfluous addition as he has no direct interaction with any other major character. In truth, John Henry (or any black superhero in the 50s) would not be shaking Eisenhower’s hand along with Superman and Wonder Woman. His segregation from the rest of the characters is purposeful, and his crusade and death seems no less important to the characters than the main plot. Martian Manhunter seems to find a kindred spirit in John Henry as a fellow outcast. Lois Lane and Superman are shown appalled when Edward Murrow reports of John Henry’s demise.

If you have ever wondered what African-American super hero would be like during the early silver age, you should look no further than John Henry. If you have not read DC: New Frontier, I strongly suggest that you do.”

http://seductionoftheinnocent.blogspot.com/2008/01/penrods-reflection-on-black-super.html

To follow up bit on Penrod’s point John Henry has no interaction with the main characters because in the real world he would have indeed been segregated from them. I will go a step further by saying he is also segregated from them because during the 50s and the 60s these DC characters never seem to interact with black characters either, let alone black super heroes. So it is true for the times and true for the established mythology of the DC superheroes. It would be phony to place John Henry alongside Superman, Green Lantern and Flash, after given some token acknowledgment to the Civil Rights struggle, and then pretending that that the 50s and early 60s was some sort of time of racial enlightenment in America. You know what I’m talking about. Like modern movies that place black characters alongside white characters in the 1940s or the old west without ever acknowledging the blistering often deadly prejudices of the day. That is the type of watering down view of history that Americans seem more comfortable with; fantasy presentations of our American past that does not include horrific, monstrous legacies and acts that ruled the day. Yeah, let’s have John Henry as part of the team of heroes interacting with someone like Wonder Woman even though in the real world such an interaction of any sort between a black man and a white woman (let alone a beautiful one) would have led to all sorts of outrage.

Sorry, folks. Cooke wasn’t going to cop out like that and take the easy road. He appears to have a better understanding of the circumstances of that era than some of you are giving him credit for. If there s one criticism pointed out however that may be justified perhaps it is the brevity of John Henry’s story. But even then the man still deserves praise because he could have dropped the whole Civil Rights issue altogether (just like the recent X-Men movie). Instead he decided to include it and devoted around 16 pages to a character that hadn’t existed previously, a character whose short legacy would be quickly forgotten in the annals of heroes of that particular universe. His story may have been brief but eve panel counted in telling his tale which reminded us of the prejudices not just within America society of that era, but within the comic book industry itself at the time; a comic book industry that would introduce a Martian super hero to its lineup long before it would introduce a black superhero. Cooke subtlety explores an answer without having to directly ask the question: where were the Supermans of the world when America was terrorizing its own such as John Henry and his family.

To even criticize that more should have been devoted to this storyline is baloney and you know it. Most readers wouldn’t have any patience with any more pages devoted to that struggle because of its uncomfortable truths. Comics books may have dealt less with the Civil Rights struggle even less than Hollywood films. Both mediums prefer to tackle Nazis and the evils of German society more so than the evils that could be found in America’s past. Cooke could have taken an easy way out in the end by having the little white girl help John Henry in the end by hiding him from the Klan, thus showing the kinder nature of white folks in the South (and white America in general) and reminding us of the notion of the innocent and bigotry-free disposition of childhood. But instead he delivered a kick in the guy when the girl betrays Henry’s whereabouts while using such horrible language in the process. It was the right choice because it was the most honest and realistic choice. It didn’t sugarcoat the issue, instead it displayed how such a scenario would have likely gone down. And by doing so Cooke gave us, at least in my opinion, one of the most devastating moments in comic book history as well as one of the most memorably substantial in regards to racism. And afterwards, when our white “heroes” learned of the event, they were appalled but forgot about kit as they went on with more pressing concerns in their lives. Just like white Americans in our real universe during those dark decades.

I could go on with a rant about why

AccidentalVisitor

July 10, 2011 at 5:03 am

Amazing. I’’m ashamed to say I’m surprised at how the writer of this review and most of the people who responded got it so wrong in regards to the John Henry storyline. Ashamed because I SHOULDN”T have been surprised at all given how this is the typical clueless, don’t-wanna-know-so-don’t-bring-it-up attitude that typically comes from the mouths of Americans when anything regarding America’s ugly racial past is brought into a mainstream story. I will at least admit that at first I too had some of the same issues regarding the use of John Henry, his lack of interaction with other superhero characters, and the fact that his death seemed to be quickly forgotten. But then the light went off in my head and I figured out what Cooke was trying to accomplish.

I could go on and write an unnecessary explanation but I won’t because someone out there in the internet wilderness already wrote such a breakdown years ago and did so in a short and sweet fashion that I could only hope to imitate.

On the website Seduction of the Innocent a writer by the name of Penrod (hey, well it is what it is) wrote a wonderful piece regarding John Henry’s role in the New Frontier. What follows is his final three paragraphs:

“John Henry gets a total of 16 pages of the story, which is only three less than the Flash. His story is pretty simple, our introduction to him is his family’s lynching. We do not get to see what John Henry’s life was like before his family gets taken away from him but in a Batman sort of way it fits the story. From there we see his uprising against the Ku Klux Klan, dulling out justice by crushing KKK member’s skulls with a hammer. His story, unsurprisingly, ends tragically as he is captured by the KKK. The real tragedy is the terms in which he is captured. Shot and bleeding, John Henry crawls into an alley, only to be met by a little girl. Dying he asks the girl “Please child… help me. Hide me.” The little girl pauses and yells “He’s here! He’s here! The nigger’s over here!” This is the first time, and only time, that that particular word occurs in the entirety of New Frontier, including John Henry’s story. Obviously an artistic choice, the word is more jarring when it cements the character’s death and moreover comes from a child’s mouth.

John Henry’s story is not particularly deep or long at 16 pages, however the simplicity of the story allows for reaction and interpretation by the other characters. A few people when reviewing New Frontier have stated that John Henry seems to be a thinly veiled attempt at diversifying the heroes in the story and a superfluous addition as he has no direct interaction with any other major character. In truth, John Henry (or any black superhero in the 50s) would not be shaking Eisenhower’s hand along with Superman and Wonder Woman. His segregation from the rest of the characters is purposeful, and his crusade and death seems no less important to the characters than the main plot. Martian Manhunter seems to find a kindred spirit in John Henry as a fellow outcast. Lois Lane and Superman are shown appalled when Edward Murrow reports of John Henry’s demise.

If you have ever wondered what African-American super hero would be like during the early silver age, you should look no further than John Henry. If you have not read DC: New Frontier, I strongly suggest that you do.”

http://seductionoftheinnocent.blogspot.com/2008/01/penrods-reflection-on-black-super.html

To follow up bit on Penrod’s point John Henry has no interaction with the main characters because in the real world he would have indeed been segregated from them. I will go a step further by saying he is also segregated from them because during the 50s and the 60s these DC characters never seem to interact with black characters either, let alone black super heroes. So it is true for the times and true for the established mythology of the DC superheroes. It would be phony to place John Henry alongside Superman, Green Lantern and Flash, after given some token acknowledgment to the Civil Rights struggle, and then pretending that that the 50s and early 60s was some sort of time of racial enlightenment in America. You know what I’m talking about. Like modern movies that place black characters alongside white characters in the 1940s or the old west without ever acknowledging the blistering often deadly prejudices of the day. That is the type of watering down view of history that Americans seem more comfortable with; fantasy presentations of our American past that does not include horrific, monstrous legacies and acts that ruled the day. Yeah, let’s have John Henry as part of the team of heroes interacting with someone like Wonder Woman even though in the real world such an interaction of any sort between a black man and a white woman (let alone a beautiful one) would have led to all sorts of outrage.

Sorry, folks. Cooke wasn’t going to cop out like that and take the easy road. He appears to have a better understanding of the circumstances of that era than some of you are giving him credit for. If there s one criticism pointed out however that may be justified perhaps it is the brevity of John Henry’s story. But even then the man still deserves praise because he could have dropped the whole Civil Rights issue altogether (just like the recent X-Men movie). Instead he decided to include it and devoted around 16 pages to a character that hadn’t existed previously, a character whose short legacy would be quickly forgotten in the annals of heroes of that particular universe. His story may have been brief but eve panel counted in telling his tale which reminded us of the prejudices not just within America society of that era, but within the comic book industry itself at the time; a comic book industry that would introduce a Martian super hero to its lineup long before it would introduce a black superhero. Cooke subtlety explores an answer without having to directly ask the question: where were the Supermans of the world when America was terrorizing its own such as John Henry and his family.

To even criticize that more should have been devoted to this storyline is baloney and you know it. Most readers wouldn’t have any patience with any more pages devoted to that struggle because of its uncomfortable truths. Comics books may have dealt less with the Civil Rights struggle even less than Hollywood films. Both mediums prefer to tackle Nazis and the evils of German society more so than the evils that could be found in America’s past. Cooke could have taken an easy way out in the end by having the little white girl help John Henry in the end by hiding him from the Klan, thus showing the kinder nature of white folks in the South (and white America in general) and reminding us of the notion of the innocent and bigotry-free disposition of childhood. But instead he delivered a kick in the guy when the girl betrays Henry’s whereabouts while using such horrible language in the process. It was the right choice because it was the most honest and realistic choice. It didn’t sugarcoat the issue, instead it displayed how such a scenario would have likely gone down. And by doing so Cooke gave us, at least in my opinion, one of the most devastating moments in comic book history as well as one of the most memorably substantial in regards to racism. And afterwards, when our white “heroes” learned of the event, they were appalled but forgot about kit as they went on with more pressing concerns in their lives. Just like white Americans in our real universe during those dark decades.

Just read New Frontier for the first time and wanted to get an idea what others thought about it. And I gotta say, Greg, you nailed it. Not only was the political subtext about as subtle as a punch in the mouth, it was simplistic and distracting. And it fell flat. The art and visual storytelling, however, was nothing short of fantastic. The story as a whole was set up very well in the first half, but the execution and climax was poor. Partly because as we learn more and more about the “Centre,” the less we understand it, and the less compelling or interesting it becomes as a threat.

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