It’s no secret that DC has recently suffered from a poor public image. From failed cinematic ventures such as Zack Snyder’s Batman v. Superman and Justice League, to the overall lack of presence compared to Marvel Studios’ cinematic universe, DC is often dismissed as the inferior comic book publisher. Yet there is so much quality content to love within the DC Universe. The heroes are bright, optimistic symbols of hope. Characters such as Superman, Batman, and the Flash are all the classic, archetypal heroes. Each hero represents a potential within each of us. Superman is the simple decency for which we all strive, Batman is a self-made man, the Flash runs at speeds which are the envy of athletes, and Green Lantern idealizes the ability to overcome fear through sheer force of will. As opposed to Marvel’s more flawed, humanized characters, DC characters represent ideals which inspire us to be better than we are.
The late, great Darwyn Cooke’s DC: the New Frontier embodies these ideals through a nostalgic yet historically authentic narrative. Taking place during the early days of the Cold War, the New Frontier provides a historical look at the origin of classic DC characters such as Green Lantern, Martian Manhunter, the Flash, and many others. For new readers, this is the perfect opportunity to witness the colorful, bright nature of DC which is so often lacking in other media. In framing the narrative within its original historical context, Cooke demonstrates the impact of DC’s heroes, not just within the story, but in the real world when they were initially published. Just as Green Lantern and the Flash pave the way for a new frontier in the story, so do they provide a hopeful escape from the harsh realities of the world.
The protagonists of this story are also those in desperate need of this hopeful escape. For example, Hal Jordan, an airforce pilot who will one day become Green Lantern, is a dreamer. From the beginning of the narrative he expresses a desire to see the stars as an astronaut. Although Jordan has experienced the harsh cruelties of the Korean War, he remains hopeful in this dream, which is finally realized when he is chosen to become a Green Lantern. Jordan’s heroic journey is not only inspirational to the reader, but it also rewards the character’s own desire to be more than he already is.
J’onn J’onzz, the Martian Manhunter, goes through a parallel journey. Arriving on Earth from his home planet of Mars, J’onn goes through an immigrant’s narrative. Much of J’onn’s story is focused on his struggle to find his place within this promising yet strange new world. Like many immigrants, J’onn experiences several instances of hatred and mistrust, but he also finds small pieces of goodness in this world. J’onn’s friendship with King Faraday, a federal agent, gives him a glimpse of how good this new world can be. J’onn finds a role on Earth through friendship and heroism, an idea which can resonate with many immigrants.
Finally, Barry Allen becomes the Flash in his own small character arc. Barry is much like the reader: a comic book fan who could only dream of gaining super powers. When he does, Barry is living his dream as the Flash for a while. When social issues such as McCarthyism wear him down, however, Barry becomes disillusioned, quitting his role as the Flash. This disillusionment is reflective of many Americans’ shattered optimism at the time. It is only at the end of the story, when Barry decides to become the Flash again and save the world, that he rises above his shattered belief in the world. Barry’s return to heroism illustrates the optimistic nature of the New Frontier through perseverance in the face of societal hardships.
All of these protagonists lie between the end of one era and the beginning of a new one. Throughout the narrative, the ending of the original World War II era of heroism serves as a source of tension. McCarthyism has dominated the political sphere, as superheroes have been forced into retirement. Any who attempt to perform super-heroic duties, such as the Flash, are hunted down and captured by the federal government. Superman works for the government, Batman remains in the shadows, and Wonder Woman has returned to her home on Paradise Island. Over the course of the story, however, a new dawn of heroes approaches. Slowly but surely, heroes such as the Flash, Green Lantern, Black Canary, the Challengers of the Unknown, and many more begin to emerge. While society shows much resistance to these new heroes at first, it is when these heroes come together at the climax of the story that people see how much the world needs a new age of heroism. The emergence of this new era demonstrates a promise that no matter how dark things may seem, there is always the promise of a brighter tomorrow.
The villains of the New Frontier help to emphasize this new era of heroism. These alien beings are known as the Centre, a mysterious force which is deep hidden throughout time and space. Our heroes gradually unfold the mystery of the Centre over the course of the story, in spite of the adverse social conditions of the world around them. The government, for example, continues to outlaw superheroes, hunting down these bold, colorful characters. Historical villains such as the KKK also play a role, challenging the heroes’ faith in society. In a way, the outside world is an antagonist in its own right, acting as a spiteful obstacle that must be overcome in order to ascend into the new age. It is only when the new heroes look past their social and political differences that they come together to face the alien threat of the Centre.
Cooke does an excellent job incorporating the whole DC Universe into the narrative as well. DC’s trinity of Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman are each given appropriate attention within the story, serving as constant figures within the heroic community. While these three are constants within the universe, they still cannot save the world on their own. For this reason, Cooke shows how the main trio of DC act as a guiding force for the new age of heroes. This new age is comprised of many heroes who appear in cameos across the story. The Challengers of the Unknown, Green Arrow, Adam Strange, the Blackhawks, Task Force X, and several other DC characters are included in the New Frontier, illustrating Cooke’s attention to detail and love for the DC Universe. While much of US history is shown in this story, Cooke also makes a point to fit much of DC history into the New Frontier as well. The origin of many of these heroes is reworked to fit the storyline while remaining faithful to the original comics. Small changes in characters such as Batman are on display as well, showcasing his transformation from a dark noir character to a more family friendly caped crusader with a teenage sidekick.
Cooke’s artwork is probably 90% of what truly makes this story shine. The aesthetic is a very old-fashioned, nostalgic look. The people look straight out of an old 1940s Superman cartoon, and the heroes are given a bold, larger-than-life stature. The giant splash pages throughout provide a great emphasis on key moments in the story, along with being simply beautiful in their own right. Just one page of Cooke’s art is the material that people use on posters and other DC merchandise, so reading a full graphic novel of this artwork is jaw-dropping. Action scenes are fluid and vivid in detail, emphasizing the elegance of the fights over their brutality. The mundane, historic material is contrasted by the bold, bombastic superheroic parts of the story, as Cooke is able to easily traverse between worlds. In both realms, Cooke gives everything a sense of importance. The large, wide panels leave much room for the grand scenery of every page. Much of the story is told through these massive, cinematic panels which project a feeling of awe onto the reader, invoking classic artists such as Jack Kirby.
Through his bombastic artwork and nostalgia for the simpler days of heroism, Darwyn Cooke captures everything great about DC Comics. The New Frontier is a story that uses the historical ambiguity of the Cold War to highlight the necessity of good old-fashioned superheroes. In the midst of McCarthyism, racism, nationalism, and all of the other “isms” in society, there is something comforting about men and women who can create giant green constructs and run faster than the speed of light. A certain element of escapism comes with these bold, colorful characters. In both the narrative and in real life, DC heroes become a source of hope that human beings can be better than we thought possible. It is this sense of awe and wonder which is missing from the contemporary perception of DC. The New Frontier reminds readers not only of the simplicity that makes DC characters so great, but how inspirational these heroes can be for us all.
Thanks for reading! If you happen to enjoy DC: the New Frontier, here are some other DC recommendations:
- JLA by Grant Morrison
- Justice League of America by Gardner Fox & Mike Sekowsky
- Crisis on Infinite Earths by Marv Wolfman & George Perez
- the New Teen Titans by Marv Wolfman & George Perez
- the New Gods by Jack Kirby
That’s all for this week! Check back in next week for another weekly recommendation, and be sure to follow the blog on Twitter @book_column for more updates!