Comics You Should Own – DC: The New Frontier
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!