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DC: The New Frontier

  • DC: The New Frontier volumes one and two

    • by Darwyn Cooke
DC: The New Frontier vol 1 DC: The New Frontier vol 2
DC: The New Frontier
vol 1 & vol 2

DC Comics has seemingly had a long-running – but suppressed – fascination with the 1950s. Some of this is probably due to comics’ ongoing fascination with its origins, and DC’s modern era essentially began in the 50s when the Silver Age heroes debuted. (Marvel’s modern era of course began in the 1960s.) But the 1950s were the one era that DC seemed to completely ignore when it came to what was going on in the world, so it’s as if there’s a big chunk missing in DC’s cultural heritage. That may be what drives its occasional publication of stories using its characters but set in that era. While Justice League of America #144 (1977) is arguably more a continuity detail than a cultural exploration, the fine series Martian Manhunter: American Secrets is set very firmly in 1950s America, while the truly-excellent The Golden Age is very much about the twilight of the 1940s and the dawn of the 1950s, set exactly on the cusp of DC’s Golden Age and Silver Age, and set in the early 50s.

When Darwyn Cooke’s series DC: The New Frontier came out several years ago, I passed on it. Cooke’s art style is not really to my taste, and at a glance it seemed like yet another story about the origins of DC’s Silver Age heroes. Much like the Ultimate Marvel Comics line, I thought, “I’ve basically read this before”, and didn’t pick it up. But thanks to a recent sale at my shop, I decided to give it a try after all, since it’s been a much-celebrated series.

The story takes place out of the mainstream, and starts around the same time as The Golden Age in the early 50s, when most superheroes have retired – voluntarily or otherwise – due to governmental pressure. Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman are still active, but the Justice Society’s day is past. However, new heroes gradually pop up: J’onn J’onzz is involuntarily brought from Mars and begins his life as one of the few honest cops in Gotham City, where he runs across Batman. The Flash starts his career in Central City, and so forth. But the first volume mainly follows many of the characters in their civilian lives, considering the advent of the space age, and with varying degrees of nostalgia for days of superheroics past.

But eventually it comes out that not only has the government been actively pursuing the remaining superheroes (other than those who are working for the government), but there’s another force working in the shadows which poses a threat to the whole world. The second volume focuses on the heroes gradually pulling together and overcoming their differences to face this threat and through defeating it usher in a new age of superheroes working out in the open.

Structurally, The New Frontier is almost identical to The Golden Age: A diaspora of the older heroes, a shadowy threat, and a final pulling together to defeat that threat, with extensive character portraits along the way. While the sets of characters are different – TGA focuses on the older heroes, while TNF focuses on the younger ones – it’s almost like The New Frontier was written as an homage to the earlier series. Overall, the plot of TGA is far stronger, its manipulations of preexisting characters less radical and therefore more believable (although there’s an excellent scene in TNF in which Superman’s odd behavior is explained), and in particular its villain – although no less over-the-top – feels more meaningful than the fairly generic threat in TNF, which has no real ties to any of the characters or indeed to any real or fictional history. I think Cooke is trying to evoke the feel of monster movies of the era, but it’s a poor choice, as the threat just doesn’t resonate.

TNF is told in highly episodic form but some episodes are great and others are a drag. Unfortunately, it opens with a lengthy episode involving The Losers set at the end of World War II, which sort of works to set up the big threat, but really isn’t very relevant and isn’t very interesting. At best it shows that Cooke’s willing to be brutal to his characters, as most of the ones involved in this episode die by the end. After a fascinating summary of the standing-down of the heroes as a result of government persecution, we get a rather tedious bit with Hal Jordan (the future Green Lantern) in Korea, and a slightly perplexing confrontation between Superman and Wonder Woman also in Korea. It’s not really until J’onn J’onzz arrives that the story really takes off, especially an encounter between him and Batman. There’s also an entertaining Flash escapade. But the first volume spends a lot of time covering many different characters and setting the stage, but it does so haphazardly. The Hal Jordan stuff especially drags on and on. The second volume is much better, as things get moving: Hal gets his ring, the Flash decides to retire because the government’s after him now, a mission to Mars goes awry, and then the big threat rears its head.

Cooke’s writing is much better when there’s more going on, as he captures the essence of characters like Green Arrow and Adam Strange even though they get very little screen time, and his depiction of the characters putting aside their differences – especially Flash and the agent who was after him – to work together is very effective and even moving. But it sure took a while to get there. I think the first volume could have been tightened up considerably.

Cooke’s art is not really my cup of tea, as I said. The simple line-work and awkward poses that the style forces don’t entirely work for me. It grows on me eventually – much as the similar style of Michael Avon Oeming did – but it’ll probably never be a favorite of mine. It works well enough in this setting, although compared to, say, Paul Smith on The Golden Age, well, it doesn’t really compare. (Though to be fair I’d rate Smith one of the ten best artists in modern comics.)

It’s interesting that DC seems to set its retro series so far back in the past, as series set during World War II or the 1950s can give some lip service to the problems of the era (as Cooke does with a “John Henry” character here whose story gets shoved to the side in the second volume and never seems to come to a satisfying fruition), but ultimately their themes are about America’s ascendance in the world. Examining DC’s heroes in the context of the 60s or 70s might be a little too dark for their brand. (Though that hasn’t stopped them from doing their own take on the zombie craze in Blackest Night. But zombies and are perhaps less threatening than Vietnam, 60s counterculture, Watergate, and the oil crisis.)

Overall, I enjoyed The New Frontier more than I’d expected to, but I don’t think it’s in the same class as The Golden Age or American Secrets. If you’re looking for a good adventure yarn then this may do it for you, but I don’t think it lived up to the extensive accolades it received. I think it suffers most from feeling a little too generic in its structure and plot, although Cooke’s characterizations are often quite a bit of fun.

Alison Bechdel: Fun Home

I said last week that the book Fables: 1001 Nights of Snowfall is (to my mind) the second-best graphic novel of the year. Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home is the best.

I’ve been a fan of Bechdel’s strip Dykes to Watch Out For for over a decade now, impressed not just with her linework but with her facility for character and especially her ability to consider liberal politics from some unlikely angles. In recent years I’ve felt like the strip was perhaps getting past its sell-by date, as it felt not as fresh as it had in the past. Of course, perhaps every reader of a long-running serial feels that it was better when they started reading it, but still.

Fun Home, though, shows that Bechdel is not only on top of her game, but that she’s got the chops to be a heavy hitter in the graphic novel line too, if she chooses.

Fun Home is autobiographical, and is mainly about her father. She grew up in a small town in Pennsylvania with her parents and three brothers. Her father was an obsessive-compulsive when it came to remodeling the old house they lived in, and by day he ran a local funeral home (from whence the title of the book). But he was also emotionally distant and treated his family more as resources to be used than as people. He was learned and read constantly, but he also harbored a dark secret.

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The story is told in chapters that are more thematic than chronological: Her father’s obsession with the house, her father’s death, her own obsessive quirks as a teenager, and so forth. The book is a peeling back of different layers to reveal things about her father, her family, and herself. Bechdel – as you may have guessed if you didn’t already know – is a lesbian, and her own realization of this is wound up in the events of the book.

The running theme of the book is one of emotional distance: Her whole family was very distant, and the book is told in a similarly distant manner, deeply analytical in tone. Granted, the events of the book are over 20 years in the past, but the similarity is eerie, and oddly powerful because the sense of pain and loss still shines through: Pain at her father’s death, at her father’s treatment of her, the loss of a piece of childhood that many kids have, the loss of some important events in her life as they were overshadowed by her father’s secrets and death. Credit the clarity of Bechdel’s narrative for bringing this feeling home; I can only imagine how long she must have worked to get just the right words down on the page.

On the art side, Bechdel is one of the great contemporary comics artists when it comes to drawing everyday people and events and making them visually interesting. She works an interesting territory between cartoon stylization and photorealism (and there are examples of the latter in it true form at a few points of the book). Her work is a textbook example of making people’s faces expressive and distinct with just a few simple lines. And in Fun Home she also works in a two-tone medium, with a soft greenish tone used for shading between the solid black lines, which makes Fun Home just that little bit different from her usual work, and giving it the feel of old sepia photographs.

Despite her overall skills, I did realize one thing while reading Fun Home: Bechdel’s characters rarely smile, and when they do they often seem like enigmatic, Mona Lisa-type smiles. Although entirely appropriate for the tone of the book, this is also true of Dykes to Watch Out For. Is this a deliberate decision on Bechdel’s part, I wonder?

I was hooked by Fun Home from the very first chapter, which shows off all of Bechdel’s art and storytelling skills as well as anything she’s ever done. I’ve browsed the book several times since then, and it’s still fascination to page through, with little details revealing themselves on repeated viewing. The book is a masterpiece of the art form. What a great book!

Fables: 1001 Nights of Snowfall

  • Fables: 1001 Nights of Snowfall

    • by Bill Willingham, Todd Klein, Charles Vess, Michael Wm. Kaluta, John Bolton, Jill Thompson, Mark Buckingham, et. al.
    • HC, © 2006, 144 pp, DC Comics, ISBN 1-4012-0367-1

Released last week, this graphic novel features characters from the ongoing Fables comic book series, but you don’t need to be reading the series to enjoy it!

The premise of Bill Willingham’s Fables is that the homelands of many classic fairy tales have been conquered by a mysterious Adversary, and many fables have escaped and are living in our world in New York (city and upstate). The framing sequence here sees Snow White sent as an ambassador to a Sultan in the middle east, to warn him that the Arabian fables’ lands may be next. Instead, she ends up playing the part of Scheherezade and telling the Sultan stories of her friends’ lives in their homelands to stave off her execution.

The framing sequence is charming, but as an illustrated text piece it drastically underutilizes the skills of Vess and Kaluta (I had similar misgivings about Vess’ illustrations in Neil Gaiman’s Stardust). But it’s the tales that Snow is telling that make up the meat of the book.

The book leads off with John Bolton’s piece, which is about a couple of very-well-known characters (no, it’s not a big mystery, but I won’t spoil it for you), and is the longest and best piece of the book. Bolton has been one of my favorite painting comic book artists and has been for years (for instance, I love his work in Gaiman’s The Books of Magic), and while his stlye has evolved, his sheer skill is not diminished; his work here is gorgeous, and unlike some painters, he’s also skilled at laying out a graphic story. (Some artists – to my eyes – seem to draw some stiff pictures that just don’t flow as a story; Bolton does not have that problem.)

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1001 Nights is sort of a primer to Willingham’s overall approach to Fables: Start with some well-known (or not-so-well-known) fairy tales, and either explore the ramifications of the story by considering what happens after it ended (or before it began!), or put it in a world with other such tales and meld them together into a larger whole. So here we see the early life of the Big Bad Wolf (appropriately drawn in a rough, wild style by Mark Wheatley), and a nasty witch of some reknown (in an eerie style by Esao Andrews – one of several artists here I’m not familiar with). While these contortions tickle the geek in me due to their cleverness, they’re also just good entertainment.

The witch story, actually, is the one story in the volume where I wasn’t fond of the artwork. It’s the one story illustrated by two artists: Andrews and Tara McPherson. In the case of each artist, it’s the stiff poses and relative lack of detail that turn me off. It’s not that their art isn’t expressive, bit it didn’t feel as fully-realized as that of the other artists.

The thread running through most of the stories is that this is backstory for the characters in Fables, and we get many different pictures of characters fleeing their homelands when they’re conquered. Such tales are typically grim, but “Fair Division” – featuring Old King Cole – is charming and heartwarming despite this, which is fitting considering its main character. It’s also wonderfully drawn by Jill Thompson, an artist whose style changes almost every time I see her work. Sometimes it like it and sometimes I don’t, but she brought her “A” game to this yarn, and it’s a fine bookend to Bolton’s story at the front.

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Whether or not you read Fables, you can enjoy this volume. It’s pretty to look at, fun to read, and worth coming back to. (But I wouldn’t blame you if you decided to wait for the paperback.)

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