Collecting all six issues of Darwyn Cooke's DC: The New Frontier in oversized hardcover format.
Writer: Darwyn Cooke
Artist: Darwyn Cooke, Dave Stewart (colours)
Publisher: DC Comics
Allow me to preface this review by saying that I've never been a big reader of DC comics. I don't have the emotional attachment to their characters that you get from reading about them in your youth, I don't have the encyclopaedic knowledge of their universe's history that I might have if I'd read their books for the last 20 years, and I simply don't have the love of their superheroes that I do for (say) Marvel Comics. All the more impressive, then, that the love-letter to DC comics that is Darwyn Cooke's New Frontier still manages to work pretty well for me.
The central conceit of the book is a strong one: showcasing the birth of the Silver Age DC Universe in "real time" - that is, in the 1950s and '60s era of the characters' first publication. This allows Cooke to tie their origins to a solid historical foundation, showing the rise in prominence of the superhero genre in its real-world social context and making time for commentary on contemporary issues as diverse as the menace of Communism, the dawning of the nuclear age, and the growing momentum of the Civil Rights movement in the United States. However, it's DC's vast pantheon of heroes who are the real stars of the show, and Cooke pays homage to the entire history of the DCU, from the Golden Age JSA all the way through to the Silver Age heroes of America's "New Frontier". Every character appears at the same time as they first made their debut in DC comics, and Cooke plays up the importance of the politics of that bygone era with some well-conceived and insightful plot points such as the DKR-esque use of Superman and Wonder Woman as government-sanctioned pawns in the Indochina War, Hal Jordan's distressing experiences as a young soldier in Korea, or the hounding of the Golden Age JSA by the House of Un-American Activities Committee to the point where they are forced to disband.
Brief character sketches fill us in on important information, and help to establish the large cast of New Frontier fairly quickly. Cooke has a lot on his plate here, but he manages to present his own take on both established and more obscure heroes efficiently, from the clash of viewpoints as the kind-natured Superman and the Amazon warrior Wonder Woman discuss the best way to deal with the victims of war, to the out-and-out macho wartime action of The Losers, to the weird and wonderful Kirbyesque antics of the Challengers of the Unknown. As the book's timeline progresses, we start to see the changing of the guard from the Golden Age to the Silver Age heroes, with Cooke's characters still reflecting the most significant social issues of the time: we see the black hero John Henry, who valiantly fights back against the KKK, paying the ultimate price for his decision to take a stand; we see test pilot (and Green-Lantern-to-be) Hal Jordan's reckless antics reflect the USA's desire to win the space-race at all costs; and we see the Martian Manhunter grapple with the best and worst aspects of humanity, with the racist and anti-communist undertones of 1950s society playing into John Jones' personal dilemma of whether to leave the planet or stay behind and make a new life for himself despite his alien roots. As more and more characters are added to the mix, a plot involving a giant alien menace is also outlined, and the book culminates in an epic showdown which harnesses the full potential of DC's entire universe of superheroes, followed by a neat epilogue which ties everything together (narrated by President John F. Kennedy, no less) and culminates in the first appearance of the Justice League of America. Taken as a whole, it's a wonderful tour of DC's earlier years which feels as much like a book about the maturation of the United States of America as it does the birth of the modern DC Universe.
When it comes to Cooke's artwork, the influences are obvious. The large, 'widescreen' panels (which are uniformly applied, three-per-page) and the simple, strong, clean lines betray Cooke's background in animation, but there's also a strong Jack Kirby sensibility which shines through every square jaw, every squint, and every squirm-inducing tentacled sea monster that Cooke brings to the page. The thick, confident linework is reminiscent of Kirby in his prime, and there's also a hint of the early Fleischer Superman cartoons (with Cooke even going so far as to feature one of them in his story) in the retro, stylised manner in which Cooke brings the DCU's superheroes to life. Dave Stewart's colours are bright and vivid, but never overly flashy, complementing the linework of every panel rather than drawing attention to themself unnecessarily. The boldness and strength of Stewart's palette matches the clearly-defined 1960s style of Cooke's designs, and the colourist plays a huge part in setting the tone of each scene, with some particularly outstanding moments - such as the beautiful snowstorm in Las Vegas, or the thrilling outer-space rescue by Superman - owing a lot of their effectiveness to his input. The visual style of New Frontier may take a while to get used to, especially for readers who are used to more realistic, modern sensibilities in their superhero art, but it suits the story that Cooke is telling to a tee.
If there's any flaw to be found with the book, it's that there's a little too much time spent building up characters at the expense of the slow-moving and fairly simple overall plot - and even then, some of the key players receive fairly short shrift. The sheer scale of the undertaking means that it's impossible to flesh out every one of the superheroes who eventually gather to defeat their common enemy, and Cooke wisely avoids spending too much time on the familiar big guns (Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman), preferring to concentrate his efforts on exploring characters like Green Lantern, Martian Manhunter and The Flash. Still, he leaves little time for other minor personalities to be developed, with Green Arrow and Adam Strange arriving to the party fully-formed but virtually unintroduced, and a surreal tangential scene on the moon which features the Spectre, Dr. Fate, Captain Marvel and Zatanna making little sense in the context of the story. Of course, for those who are well-versed in DC lore, these omissions won't be as much of a problem - but it did detract from the story slightly for me.
As is the norm for these Absolute editions, this oversized, slipcased hardcover presents the story beautifully, on thick paper stock with a slick, glossy finish. There's a wealth of extras, including a detailed, scene-specific commentary by Cooke, with numerous reproduced extracts from the original comics which featured the characters who appear in New Frontier. There's also a explanation of Cooke's creative process, some comparisons of the evolution of certain pages (from sketches, to pencils, to inks, to the final coloured and lettered page), and a huge sketchbook of concept designs, promotional artwork, the original series' covers, along with some intriguing "deleted scenes" and rejected layouts. There's also a stunning picture of Superman drawn in full-on Kirby mode, which makes me wonder how the book might have looked if Cooke had gone with his original impulse to draw the entire book in this style. I can't fault the design of the book, all the way down to the garish and vibrant images that adorn the slipcase, and any readers who are already fans of New Frontier are going to adore this package.
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