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Absolute New Frontier (Review/Retrospective)

This post is part of the DCAU fortnight, a series of articles looking at the Warner Brothers animations featuring DC’s iconic selection of characters. This is a comic book review of the graphic novel which inspired the animated movie Justice League: New Frontier

Today some would say that those struggles are all over– that the horizons have been explored– that all the battles have been won– that there is no longer an American frontier.

The problems are not all solved and the battles are not all won– and we stand today on the edge of a new frontier– the frontier of the 1960s– a frontier of unknown opportunities and perils– a frontier of unfulfilled hopes and threats.

– John F. Kennedy, 1960

It’s a Kennedy-era superhero saga, capturing a lot of the spirit of the sixties, the era that really saw DC comics – and comic books as a whole – massively reinvent themselves.

Green Lantern's light...

Some would suggest that superheroes are the new mythology. Indeed, that’s why they fascinate me so. They have formed the cornerstone of a complex shroud of American mythology, speaking a whole manner of allegorical fairytales and secrets that underpin what is still one of the youngest (and most powerful) global entity. Look at the archetypical superhero, typically a self-made man (or woman) who has pulled themselves up off the ground in pursuit of an ideal – the belief that their individualism can somehow make the world a better place.

Many are even what this story describes as a “landed immigrant” – although not those huddled masses from overseas, but from beyond the stars. Without a millenia of iconography from a shared cultural identity bogging it down, the superhero looks like what a modern mythology – created from the ground up – might. Darwyn Cooke’s New Frontier is a retelling of an “origin myth”, one that ties the birth of modern America and the birth of the modern superhero together in a conscious fashion. They are America, and America is them. It’s a cultural exploration of that troubled period during the fifties when it looked like America might have stumbled, and lost its ground – but then found a new light to show it the way.

Have they got the right stuff?

Although come iconic heroes – Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, for example – can trace their roots back to before the Second World War, the comic book industry reached a somewhat stagnant phase in the fifties. Somewhat tied to the witch hunts going on elsewhere, the Comics Book Code effective neutered the genre – killing the gothic horror genre and somewhat restricting what the stories could show or talk about. Those were the lean years – referred to by many industry historians as “the interregnum”.

This perhaps reflected a sense of anomie that settled into American culture. The Cold War was simmering away in the background. Eisenhower – the general who had led the Allied Forces to victory – was sitting in the White House. The House Un-American Activities Committee was just gearing up to begin their own purges of the entertainment industry (and American life and culture in general). The issue of civil rights was sitting on the boil in the background, but nobody would admit to it yet. It was the era of bomb shelters. Soldiers returned home from the war in Europe and on Japan, to ponder what they had been fighting for. The Korean War was kicking off, a conflict that would eventually be described as “the first war we lost”.

Barry couldn't hit the casino fast enough...

This is the era in which Darwyn Cooke sets his magnum opus. He uses the rather clever conceit that comic book time equates to real time. So, Superman was first published in Action Comics in 1938, so he first appeared in 1938. The Martian Manhunter debuted Detective Comics in 1955, so he arrives on Earth in 1955. And so on. It’s a very clever device, which allows Cooke to explore what exactly these heroes say about the American psyché.

Of course, the appearance of these heroes on the stands always reflected something of the American popular consciousness. There’s a reason that the first appearance of Barry Allen in Showcase in 1954 is generally seen as one of the events which triggered “the Silver Age” of comic books – an era dominated by space-age “science heroes”, such as the debut of Hal Jordan in Showcase in 1959. These were the times that Americans began to look up to the skies and wonder – their grasp stretched to the heavens. The monochrome of the 1950s gave way to the psychodelic technicolor of the 1960s.

Reach for the sky...

There’s a wonderful image that Cooke prepared which serves as the cover to the final issue of his New Frontier, and one which was used heavily to promote the series. You can see it directly above. In it, Hal Jordan reaches upwards to accept the Green Lantern ring, his destiny and his purpose. He also reaches, as with every other American, to the stars. Indeed, the first thing he does when he is chosen to wield the ring? “I head for the stars.”

Cooke’s story is essential an origin story for the Justice League of America, commonly regarded as the first superhero team-up. However, that really undersells it and only focuses on one aspect of the tale. The book does suffer slightly from lack of focus, but it offers the reader an absolutely beautifully wide canvas of the DC Universe. The linear plot follows the movement of “the Centre”, a strangely self-aware island populated with dinosaurs and monsters. Something big is happening, something bad – and something that no individual hero can handle alone.

John Jones goes to Bat...

At the same time, America begins to organise a space programme, prompted by the arrival of Martian J’onn J’onzz in Gotham. Ferris Aircraft are subcontracted to do the work, and washed-up fighter pilot Hal Jordan (a pacifist who refused to fire his weapons once in Korea, but was forced to kill in self-defense) is the test pilot. At the same time, America has marginalised it’s “heroes of tomorrow”, using Superman and Wonder Woman to “covertly” enforce foreign policy (and even sidelining Wonder Woman when she attempts to use her high profile as platform to question the ideology behind her actions).

And yet this is just the background to the story the Darwyn Cooke is telling. Seen as this is a story of “man reaching beyond his earthly cradle”, it’s appropriate that the author focuses mostly on the new age of superheroes – the ones emerging during this volatile period. As such, the bulk of the novel’s panel time is split between Hal Jordan (Green Lantern), John Jones (Martian Manhunter) and Barry Allen (The Flash) as individuals trying to make their way in this strange new world, and to find their place. As Barry articulates it, “Why is everything so… small?”

The sky's the limit...

At the same time, Cooke offers us reader vignettes into the lives of other heroes of the time, giving us a multi-layoured perspective of the America of the era. Perhaps the most notable and effective are a series of pages outlining the lives and times of John Wilson, an African American veteran who takes the name John Henry (“a steel drivin’ man,” to quote his tombstone). He’s introduced focusing on what appear to be a set of jagged white teeth, but are revealed to be the hoods of local Klansmen, who have burned down his family home and killed his wife and daughter (“Local police asserted that Wilson had committed the crimes and run off,” a news reporter comments). It’s perhaps the most affecting vignette that Cooke offers us, but it is by no means the only one.

Throughout the tale, Cooke draws in virtually every possible DC character – including non-superhero groups such as “the Challengers of the Unknown”, the original “Suicide Squad” and even “the Losers” – that lends his story a genuinely epic feel. Indeed, virtually every character gets a moment in the sun, and an exploration of their inner workings. Although events don’t necessarily tie together perfectly (there are essential two kinds of events in the story: those which further the main plot, and then those that don’t). This can lead to somewhat strange feeling when, for example, we get several pages of a modern history of Task Force X, but Barry Allen – one of the most important characters in the story – gets three panels to relate his origin and choice to don his costume.

Steel yourself...

Still, you can’t have it all and Cooke forshadows most of his big moments effectively. Even Ray Palmer (the Atom), who does not appear until the finale, appears on magazine covers throughout the book, which means that even though we only meet him in the final chapter we’ve seen him before. And, being honest, I wouldn’t really have dared change anything in this collection. I like the vignettes and the way that Cooke finds time to work in all these little transitions (we even get a small sequence where Batman offers an explanation for his change from the dark and gothic knight of the 1940s to the camp crusader of the sixties (complete with costume change) – “I set out to scare criminals, not children”).

This is a book about the transition for the Golden Age to the Silver Age, and how difficult that was for the medium. From Cooke’s perspective, it was in no small part due to the way that the genre lost its footing. It became weak and uncertain. There are undoubtedly many parallels to be made with the difficulties the genre has undergone once again in the past few decades. In the afterword, Cooke refuses to be drawn on whether his book is “a love letter to a bygone era or an allegorical reflection of contemporary concerns”, but there’s undoubtedly more than a bit of reflection to be found here.

The Flash needs to freeze!

There’s the simple fact that Cooke chose to focus his work on the two “dead” founding Justice League members – Hal Jordan and Barry Allen – both of whom were recently revived by the company in an attempt to bring the company “back to its roots”  (in Green Lantern: Rebirth and Flash: Rebirth respectively). There’s also the rather pointed observation that Cooke’s Justice League “don’t succumb to envy, greed or jealousy”, suggesting that Cooke’s version of Hal Jordan never became an omnicidal maniac who tried to destroy the universe.

More than that, there’s the simple use of iconography. Cooke’s second chapter features a full-page splash of Superman hammering Batman into the ground (with the commentary that “Photo taken seconds before the Bat-Man defeated Superman with an explosive charge. After several well-placed boots to the solar plexis, the Bat-Man made good his escape.”) – an image which owes more than a slight debt to a similar Batman-Superman bout in Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, a comic which is general credited with launching “the dark age” of comic books. Of course, in Miller’s book the fight was very real. Here, Cooke reveals it was “staged”. The implication here is that true superheroes would never truly come to blows.

Superman didn't take Batman's criticisim of his "red-S-on-black-triangle" fashion sense particularly gracefully...

Indeed, Miller’s portrayal of Superman in that book as a government tool is firmly rejected here. Although he takes the callsign “Bishop Six”, he ultimately rejects playing government patsy (“It is my destiny… my goal, to take part in reclaiming this country. For free men and women everywhere.”). Cooke sees Superman as his own man, a leader.

Cooke began his career as an animator on Batman: The Animated Series, and that is reflected here. Much of the series’ charm comes from the sense of reverence and love carried over from Bruce Timm’s animated version of the DC canon. The characters looks beautifully rendered, and the colours (by Dave Stewart) add a wonderful sixties style to the artwork. It looks great. Cooke’s decision to offer his story in pages of three widescreen panels lends the tale a sort of cinematic scope, and one which suits it well. The story was adapted into a rather good animated tale by Warner Brothers a few years back, and the material seems perfectly suited to it (though the animated film is simply too “small” to do Cooke’s story the justice it deserves – condensing subplots to mere sentences).

Darwyn Cooke is the real champion here...

The Absolute Edition is fabulous (though aren’t they all?). There are some great extras thrown in and it’s lovely to see Cooke himself played such a big part in assembling it together. It was clearly a labour of love for the author, but then the whole miniseries was, I suppose. I wonder if it might have read better using the covers as chapter breaks, but I don’t know – apparently material was added, so it may have disrupted the flow.

If you are at all interested in the notion of superheroes as an American mythology, or the rich and varied history that DC has crafted over the past eighty or so years, this really is a must read. It’s a wonderful adventure, but it’s also a stunningly well-put together origin tale. I think Cooke can be very proud.

2 Responses

  1. I think of this as the all time greatest Justice League story and one of the greatest comic book stories ever.

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