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.