DC: The New Frontier
Collects: DC: The New Frontier #1-6
Writer: Darwyn Cooke
Artist: Darwyn Cooke
Colorist: Dave Stewart
Letterer: Jared Fletcher
Cover: Darwyn Cooke
By Michael David Sims
14 March 2008 — Normally my reviews start off talking about my experience with the subject, or sometimes they beat around the bush. Several have played coy, while others lamented the internal logic of the series. And a few others begged a question before moving on, a question I would later answer. In this case, none of that is needed, because I feel it's best just to get to the point; simply put, Darwyn Cooke is a genius, and DC: The New Frontier is a masterpiece.
To begin, the book tells the tale of The Losers — a group of soldiers sent on a mission to rescue a former Nazi scientist. His research, we're told, will place America miles ahead of other nations, scientifically speaking. No matter the consequences, these men cannot fail. But what should have been a simple search-and-rescue proved far more dangerous than anything they signed on for — dinosaurs roam the isle!
When you think about the DC Universe, the first character that springs to mind is obviously Superman, followed closely by Batman. Both characters are DC, and you'd surely expect either man to grace the opening pages. That they didn't isn't a strike against the book, it simply means the author went in a direction no one would have anticipated. But truth be told, I must admit my initial confusion. Though I was pleased to be reading about the (original) Losers, and though I understood that this book was to encompass the greater DC Universe, it wasn't until much later in the series when I realized why this tragic tale opened DC: The New Frontier. It's sort of like reading the "novel excerpts" in Watchmen. At first you're left wondering what Alan Moore was going for — but then it all comes together in a dazzling flash of world- and story-building brilliance.
Now you're asking yourself, "Is Mike really comparing New Frontier to Watchmen?"
And the answer is yes. Yes I am.
Not just in this one manner, either. All around, I honestly feel New Frontier has the same epic scope of Watchmen, along with its honest look at the men behind the masks. Just as Watchmen is about a global war, government-controlled superheroes and a looming doomsday, it's also a love story and a mystery mixed with the author's political point of view. New Frontier is all those things, but set in the 1950s amidst the McCarthy era rather than an alternate, Nixon-led 1985. In terms of story structure, the similarities are there, but never would I claim New Frontier was attempting to be the next Watchmen. Furthermore, the parallels neither helped nor hurt the book; it's its own story set within its own living, breathing universe — populated by characters who are nothing like those in Watchmen. The reason I've chosen to mention the slight resemblance is to set the stage. Chances are great that you, dear reader, have read Watchmen. So by telling you that New Frontier is like Moore's book (but at the same time not), I'm hoping you understand how large and powerful New Frontier is. What Watchmen did for comics in the 1980s, New Frontier will do for comics in the 2000s.
Comics have become darker since Watchmen, with creators attempting to emulate the real world grittiness Moore's story naturally had. Nowadays it's commonplace to read superhero comics where characters are raped, murdered and / or brutally destroyed. But what the writers of today are forgetting is that Moore's story called for those things. He wasn't attempting to be hip or edgy; he was simply telling the story that needed to be told. That's why the grittiness in his book worked while the bloodshed in most modern comics seems false. There's a big difference between darker themes and over-the-top violence, and Cooke gets that. Though the violence in New Frontier is kept to a minimum, when it's there, it's there for the story. More than that, Cooke's story perfectly captures the gloomy mood of the 1950s — giving what TV tells us was a cheery time a grittier, more realistic attitude. And, just like Watchmen made me crave for more stories set in a slightly alternate reality, after reading New Frontier I'm begging for more potent superhero tales set against real world politics — of any era.
As I've hinted at a few times, in New Frontier the superheroes of the day must not only thwart thugs (and later a large-scale threat), but also their own paranoid government. As communism spreads across the globe, masked superheroes are on the rise. Is it a coincidence? Most likely, but the government can't take that chance. So the heroes are asked to unmask and sign oaths of loyalty. Some do, but most refuse. By snubbing the law, they're forced to either retire or go underground. The Justice Society won't fight their government, but they also won't bend under government pressure. In a puff of smoke, they disappear forever. The biggest hero to ignore the government, as you might have guessed, is Batman. (Wonder Woman dislikes the law, too, but she initially went along with it.) In one corner we have Superman and his belief in the laws of the land, and in the other corner there's Batman and his belief in the laws of the jungle. Both men are right and both men are wrong, and it honestly isn't that dissimilar from what Mark Millar would later write in Civil War when Iron Man and Captain America butted heads — except New Frontier does it better. Much better. Setting Civil War aside, what makes New Frontier resonate is that both Superman and Batman change throughout the story. Superman still believes in the government, but he's come to question them for the first time in his life. Batman still believes in himself, but he's come to understand that he needs to tone his attitude down.
It's fascinating watching these two icons change — not because they change, but because they're not the focal point of the story. At its core, New Frontier is a story about Hal Jordan and his quest to reach the stars. All Hal has ever wanted is to fly planes and traverse space, and it's his quest that we follow from midway through the first issues until the very end of the six-issue series. Superman, Wonder Woman, Batman and most of the other characters bring important elements to the story (e.g. the government standpoint, the opposing view, the darker side of the world, etc.), but it's still Hal's book. It would have been easy to leave Superman and Batman unchanged, instead focusing solely on Hal's journey, but Cooke crafted a story that demanded everyone change. And that's what makes the book so special; by the end, not a single character is in the same place as when New Frontier started: not the government or her men, not the icons or the man with a dream. Everyone grows, and it happens naturally. By the time you set the book down you'll come to embrace everyone who's crossed the pages, and you'll most likely get misty when a few of them meet their demise. That's how human these characters become; they're forced to make choices, and their decisions make them all the more real.
That said, when you first open DC: The New Frontier you're going to be struck by the artwork. Don't let appearances fool you; just because New Frontier has a cartoony design doesn't mean it's light and fluffy. It has its lighter moments, sure, but the story takes several dark turns, and the art fits each moment. (Not to soapbox, but to assume something is "light and fluffy" because of the style is ridiculous. As anyone who's watched Superman: The Animated Series or played The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker knows, appearances can be very deceiving. Behind the lines and colors is something much darker and deeper than first appearances would seem to indicate.) Cooke's style isn't that dissimilar from Bruce Timm's which isn't that dissimilar from Jack Kirby's, which perfectly embodies the era in which New Frontier takes place. Using an artist with a style that's indicative of modern comics on a retro book would have failed. Miserably.
The art also allows the story to flow like an animated feature film — no wonder it was adapted by Warner Bros. The action is so intense that I insist no other style would have worked. New Frontier needed to feel like it was constantly moving, and only Cooke could perfectly execute that. Any other artist would have made the book feel too current, or would have added static shots that were nothing more than glorified pin-ups. Cooke, on the other hand, mostly employs a three-panel page. In so doing, New Frontier has both a classic and storyboard vibe. It moves, but at the same time it wouldn't feel out of place next to any Silver Age comic book. On the rare occasion when Cooke breaks away from the three-panel page, giving us splash pages, they're larger-than-life / rip-at-your-heart moments in time: a moving kiss, a powerful death, a haunting introduction, a victorious instant. Each time he chooses to add these splash pages, they're built towards. They're not used to gobble space or look cool; they're there because the story downright warrants them. Cooke used them to take our breath away, and each time he succeeded.
If New Frontier has one fault it's that the book is dense. Even though the series is only six issues long, it had to be collected into two trade paperbacks — each weighing in at 208 pages. By comparison, DC published four volumes to collect its entire weekly series 52. Each collection was comprised of 13 issues, totaling just over 304 pages. Think about that. Three issues of The New Frontier are roughly two-thirds the size of 13 issues of 52. This is a heavy story, to say the least; bedtime reading this is not! New Frontier demands your full attention, and you're rewarded for it. At the end of the day — which is how long it will take you to read it — you feel as if your brain just finished a literary banquet. Dense it may be, but — damn it — it's worth every turn of the page.
If New Frontier has two faults it's that it could be daunting to those readers who aren't all that familiar with the DCU and / or the Silver Age of comics. On the flip side, I only have a passing knowledge of Silver Age comics and — yes — I'm more of a "Marvel guy," but not once did I feel lost in this epic tome. In fact, afterwards I wanted to read more stories about these characters and era. That, my friends, shocked even me! Going in I expected to read a wonderfully written, beautifully drawn book, but I absolutely did not think I'd want to read Silver Age issues of Green Lantern as a result. Let's be honest: if a comic can make a notorious Hal Jordan hater (RE: me) love Hal Jordan, it excelled on more levels than I can count!
But neither of those above points are faults, really, because New Frontier needed this much room to spread its wings. To tell this story in, say, half the space would have done the story, characters and universe a great disservice. This is Cooke's love letter to the Silver Age DC Universe, and his love glows so bright. His love makes you love this era and the characters that were birthed from it. So don't be put off by its scope, size or setting. More than any other book on the self today — yes, even more than Watchmen — I implore you to buy New Frontier! Buy it. Devour it. Break the spine. Don't worry about the corners bending, because New Frontier is meant to be loved — cherished, even. And the best way we can cherish a comic is not to place it in a little plastic bag with a cardboard backing, tucking it away in a box stored in a closet, never touching the book again. It's to wear the cover out due to constant rereading. That's what DC: The New Frontier deserves.