Home > Weekend Asides > Weekend Aside: DC: The New Frontier

Weekend Aside: DC: The New Frontier

November 28, 2009 Leave a comment Go to comments

Written and illustrated by Darwyn Cooke, with colouring by Dave Stewart
Buy the Absolute Edition here.

The DCAU, while known for producing top-notch animated content for Warner Brothers, has also served as something of a talent incubator for writers and artists who would go on to work at DC Comics, especially as DC itself started to use Bruce Timm’s minimalist look as a house style. The most successful artist to come through the animated system is undoubtedly Darwyn Cooke, who after being hired on by Timm worked on series through Batman Beyond, for which he designed parts of the animated sequence. At that point, Cooke began to get regular work for DC itself, eventually teaming up with Ed Brubaker to completely revamp Catwoman for a new ongoing series. After proving his writing chops with a well-recieved Catwoman graphic novel, Cooke embarked on a project with a much higher profile: The New Frontier.

Fair warning – this is a very image-intensive post. Those of you reading on mobile devices may want to wait until you’re home to get to it.

About once or twice a decade, DC winds up putting out a landmark series focusing on its history, simply because it seems to enjoy reminding everyone of the fact that the vast majority of its heroes can be linked back to comics’ formative days. In the 80s, this was via Crisis on Infinite Earths, in the 90s it was Kingdom Come and The Golden Age, and New Frontier was this decade’s equivalent. The concept is simple enough: to provide a bridge between the classic WWII-era heroes and the sci-fi / Julius Schwartz-era silver age heroes that began to appear in the late 1950s.

What’s funny about the series is that it’s much easier to explain in simple terms to a new reader five years after its publication, simply because we’ve finally got a pop culture touchstone involving the late-50s / early 1960s to work off of. In its most basic form, this is “Mad Men with Super Heroes;” examining the late 50s and early 60s with a modern touch.

The first chapter of the story takes place against the backdrop of the tail end of World War II, and tells the story of a top-secret mission to rescue Col. Rick Flagg from an uncharted island in the South Pacific – one which happens to be populated with Dinosaurs. Flagg is rescued, but at very high cost. The remainder of the issue sets the stage for what is to follow, first by showing the young Hal Jordan meeting Chuck Yeager, then examining exactly what happened to the JSA in the aftermath of the war and in the face of McCarthyism and the communist paranoia sweeping America in the 50s (which was the specific event examined by The Golden Age). The issue closes with our first glimpse of Lois Lane, as an embedded journalist during the final days of the cold war, as she gets mixed up with Jordan, whose inherent pacifism is challenged when he’s shot down behind enemy lines.

Of further note is Batman’s “defeat” of Superman, which is more fully explained in Justice League: The New Frontier, a tie-in comic written by Cooke that has the feel of a DVD special edition, with three stories told in the same general universe as the limited series. Superman  is played as something of a take-off of his famous role in Dark Knight Returns, namely as somewhat naive and so patriotic that he’s unwilling to question the government’s stance vis a vis his fellow heroes.

The second issue introduces the remaining main characters, specifically J’onn J’onzz, freshly arrived on Earth and attempting to find a way to blend in (in one of the best scenes in the book, he eventually does so by watching cartoons, giving us an all-too-rare opportunity to see Bugs Bunny in a DC book). We also get a glance at the fact that Wonder Woman is clearly rebelling against the Eisenhower administration, and Superman’s moral views, by being more interventionist in the world. However, the key sequence of the issue takes place in Las Vegas – just then developing as a tourist destination – where Ted “Wildcat” Grant, cheered on by several former JSA members, improbably knocks out a young Cassius Clay. While I have some serious misgivings about this scene, given that having Ali being beaten in the mid-50s kind of ruins his story (aside from making no sense), it does give the entire story a very rat pack-ish vibe, especially with playboys Bruce Wayne and Oliver Queen in attendance. However, it’s all to set up an action sequence as Captain Cold storms the party, only to be thwarted by the arrival of the first of the new breed of heroes, the new Flash.

After spending so much time with military-oriented heroes, seeing Barry dash out of Central City and from Ohio to Vegas in the blink of an eye is where the storyline really starts to work. The sense that things are changing perhaps faster than the powers that be would like is apparent; while the JSA were patriotic enough to agree to retire rather than break the law, Barry has no such loyalties. The issue ends with Hal getting his interview with Ferris Aircraft, which will lead to the next section of the story as the space race becomes part of the storyline.

Issue three is the one which feels the most like a placeholder. Aside from showing the formation of the Challengers of the Unknown, and John Henry’s war against the Klan in the south, the main focus of the issue is on Hal Jordan. This is the key difference between the comic and the animated adaptation: while the animated movie is much more focused on Hal and his story, the comic is more about the transition to the new breed of hero from the rougher, military-oriented action heroes of the early 50s. The main plot of the book is more obviously hinted at here, as J’onn is confronted by Batman – who has of course guessed his true nature – and investigates accounts of the mysterious island, complete with the ominous hint that something far deadlier is at play.

The fourth issue certainly contains one of the more depressing scenes in the story, specifically the horrible end of John Henry’s one-man war. Aside from that, the real mission Hal has been training for finally takes flight, albeit with him not on-board. This finally draws J’onn into an active role, as after being confronted with the reality of America’s prejudice by watching a news report on John Henry, he has determined that he needs to escape the planet. Unfortunately, he is captured, and the mission to Mars launches without him or Hal. That proves disastrous, as the weapon-laden ship begins to crash into the atmosphere, with the unwitting Challengers attempting to bring it in for a landing that will imperil the entire planet. Superman is forced to be called in, but the real development happens in the final scenes, as Hal’s grounding leads him to test a simulator that is absconded by a mysterious green force.

With Hal finally transformed into Green Lantern, all the players are now in place to have the story proceed, as the threat – the island turns out to be a massive alien invader – is revealed. It first devestates Diana’s homeland before turning its sights on America, and Superman rises to defend. Here’s where the story takes its final turn; Superman flies to deal with the problem, as he has all series, and is quickly put down. Remember, the series is about the emergence of the Silver Age heroes. and both Superman and the critically injured Wonder Woman are Golden Age creations. The entire book is a partial feint; the reader is fooled into thinking that Superman is going to lead the heroes to glory, but in the end he’s out of play as the story reaches its climax.

I’m not going to spoil much about the final issue – well, other than the fact that the good guys win in the end – but it’s one of the better conclusions I can remember in a series of this type. Rather than beating the monster with brute force, it’s ultiamtely beaten via the application of science, albeit science that isn’t quite as perfect as its creator would like. The issue ends with the confirmation of the new order; the military heroes who had bridged the gap in the 1950s are pushed to the side as the new generation of super heroes takes the stage, organised into the JLA and with Kennedy’s words of hope ringing out.

Aside from the brilliant storyline – which really does merit a full set of annotations – the real draw of the book is Cooke’s art. I think they got it pretty close in animated form, but the series itself has a more iconic feel throughout, with the characters all looking distinct in spite of the relatively low-detail style. The panel above is my favourite, an obvious tribute to The Right Stuff, which happens to be one of my favourite movies. It’s up there with the famous “three origins” spread from Kingdom Come in terms of iconic DC images.

There’s no question in my mind that New Frontier was the best thing DC did in the decade, and likely will be remembered as one of the best miniseries, period. Again, it’s much easier to understand and appreciate now that we’ve got similar re-examinations of the general time period taking place in a top-notch TV series, but even if Mad Men hadn’t come along, stories set in this time are likely always going to resonate just because they’re such a perfect environment for the superheroes that they spawned, in the same way that the 80s were a perfect environment for darker heroes and deconstructionist takes on the heroic myths.

We’ll eventually talk about the animated movie itself, but if you want to watch the story instead of reading it – which I maintain is a mistake – it’s out on Blu-Ray, complete with a couple of JLU episodes. Mind you, it’s still very good, to the point where it’s close to the best of Justice League, but doesn’t quite have the scope of the comic version.

Next Time: The conclusion of Superman: TAS in “Legacy”

Categories: Weekend Asides
  1. OctoPrime
    November 29, 2009 at 9:54 pm

    New Frontier is easily among my favorite comic stories of the past decade(or any of the decades before that, come to think of it), but I can’t really appreciate how friggin’-damn good the art was until I saw it scaled back like this.

    Because holey-moley, this is a nice looking book.

    • December 1, 2009 at 12:40 pm

      Yeah, the art is really what still carries it for me. I’m probably always going to prefer Kingdom Come, for the combination of me generally preferring a story that focuses on Batman and Superman and the fact that it actually has something to say about comics in general, but, heck, if DC ever put out a collection of the splash pages in poster-sized format, I’d buy that in a second.

      I quite deliberately avoided showing too much panel-by-panel art here, simply because I didn’t want to give away too much of the story, but that’s one of Cooke’s strengths. I think it’s attributable to the fact he came up through the ranks doing design and storyboard work for Timm et al.

  2. Red Hedgehog
    December 1, 2009 at 12:04 pm

    Does the Absolute edition include the Justice League: The New Frontier comic you mention?

    • December 1, 2009 at 12:36 pm

      I’m honestly not sure – I bought the two-part TPB collection because I was fastidiously and mistakenly avoiding Absolute editions for a while.

      Then I got Absolute Watchmen for my last birthday, which now looks quite lonely on the bookshelf all by itself.

  3. Red Hedgehog
    December 1, 2009 at 5:57 pm

    Okay, further research has revealed that it does not as the Absolute Edition of New Frontier came out before the Justice League: The New Frontier Special comic was released. Guess I’ll have to track that down.

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