In a perfect world, or at least a better economy, you’d have more Matt Maxwell comics to read, but I do enjoy his lucid writing about comics, and movies, and whatever else he finds time to discuss. Matt broke about the only rule we had for Guest Reviewer Month of using something old (in fairness, it was only implied and not explicit), but it’s such a good piece, who cares? It’s one thing to champion something obscure or cultish, but quite another to find the real strengths, and even subversive ideas or auteurish touches, of a real mass appeal commercial piece of art, as Matt does here with Darwyn Cooke’s masterpiece. —Christopher Allen
This was written some time ago, more than five years now, but it’s still one of my favorite essays on one of my favorite comics of the last several years. And sure, we’ve got a nice hardcover version, but we still don’t have an affordable one-volume paperback that I can find. Pity. -–mm
Thoughts on The New Frontier
Hmm. This is likely to be a disorganized and messy affair. Quite unlike the book in question, which was painstakingly paced and plotted. True that some commentators complained that the first issues were simply unconnected vignettes, but that’s one of the risks that you run when you read your fiction serially. It’s very easy (and wrongheaded) to criticize the whole based on the first couple of chapters.
That doesn’t prevent us from doing it on a regular basis, mind you…
I see a lot made of New Frontier’s appeal being primarily nostalgic (and some folks take it further and declare that it’s the book’s only appeal) in that it reads like a Silver Age comic. Make that a Silver Age comic written extremely smartly, with deft characterization and spot-on illustration, as well as the space to actually tell the story (Without. Coming. Off. Like. The. Author. Was. Stretching. Things. Out. Needlessly.) Sure it’s just like a Silver Age book, but you forget the political content, not merely subtext, and the opportunities for ruthless bastards to turn around and be revealed as truly heroic (not just to have their actions explained away as “merely following orders.”) And did I mention the whole mature take on your favorite DC superheroes thing?
You simply aren’t going to find darkly-tinged portrayals of Batman and Wonder Woman in Silver Age books. You’re certainly not going to see anything as shocking as Wonder Woman’s actions in issue #2 of New Frontier. Now I’m not talking Identity Crisis or Avengers Disassembled non-shocks. I’m talking about genuine and stirring did-I-just-read-that sorts of shocks. These are moments where real character is revealed, not just poking the reader and saying “Dig this exciting take on things! Isn’t it just HARDCORE?” It’s not about twisting the characters around, but giving them a chance at meaning.
Yes, a great deal has been made about the restoration of Hal Jordan, and his rehabilitation at the hands of Darwyn Cooke (conveniently timed just before his restoration at the hands of Geoff Johns and Ethan Van Sciver). Personally, I could really care less about the continuing adventures of Hal Jordan and Green Lantern (unless in the hands of a master, say, Grant Morrison, though I doubt he’d have any interest), but Darwyn Cooke gave some dimension to the character instead of relying on easy answers or fan knowledge to drive him.
However, Mr. Cooke doesn’t get a lot of credit for the way he handled other, less well-known characters. Much was made of Hal Jordan, but very little was made of Col. Rick Flagg, ultrabastard. We meet him before we meet Jordan, and long before Jordan becomes anything close to the Green Lantern. Flagg (and his more cerebral analog, the Oppenheimer-esque King Faraday) is at least as important in the story as Jordan, and maybe more so. Both Flagg and Faraday are the faces of a ruthless federal government, seemingly bent on maintaining their monopoly on superpowers and generally making life tough on the protagonists. They’re bad guys right?
Wrong. Lee Marvin (and I’m paraphrasing here) was once asked how it felt to always play the bad guy. He answered by saying that he never played a bad man. His characters always had their motivations and always did what they thought was best, which made his acting compelling even when the roles themselves were repellent. Darwyn Cooke manages the same trick with his portrayal of the faces of Government. Flagg, particularly, comes across as a near-psychotic badass who seems to revel in holding the obviously sympathetic characters down and questioning their ideals and finally stomping all over them. You figure that you’d want to cheer when he finally dies, right?
Wrong again. Flagg’s death is a heart-rending moment because we’re finally shown that indeed Flagg was another guy doing what he thought was right, what he thought needed to be done, learning the lessons that his world had taught him. And as hard as his exterior was, we’re revealed in his last moments that he has the same dreams and hopes as the best of us. It’s a powerful instant of identification and sacrifice that for all of its hyperbole of “the planet itself will perish if I fail!” is still one of the most moving in the entire story. We also see why he personally took the one thing that Hal Jordan most wanted and put it out of reach, and in that understanding Flagg becomes truly heroic.
He’s also got a deft hand when it comes to portraying the heroes of the DCU. As noted above, Cooke is a master at adding weight to the proceedings, but he’s equally talented in giving a light touch as well. The Martian Manhunter and The Flash come to mind here. And just to show how well he does it, Cooke starts us off on completely the wrong foot with J’onn J’onzz (the Martian Manhunter, for those of you not versed in DC lore…). We’re given a creepy setting, an observatory draped in shadow and darkness. In it, a man lays on the floor dying, and even though he declares that it’s not the stranger’s fault, we’re given the feeling that the Manhunter is indeed responsible for the man’s death. Then we get the full-page reveal (whereas before we’d only seen silhouette and a pair of red and inhuman eyes) of a creature that may be humanoid, but is distinctly not human. And given these setbacks to reader sympathy, Cooke still manages to turn the Manhunter into a sympathetic and empathetic character. Of course, Cooke knows how to play to the crowd (and even makes fun of it via Slam Bradley.)
Cooke’s take on Superman is a sight to behold, even though he’s taken out of the big fight at the end (but is responsible for putting the big fight into the crowd of heroes). He’s also smart enough to contrast Superman’s Favored Alien status with the persecution that a similar alien (again, the Martian Manhunter here) feels in Red-Scare America. Jonn uses his power to blend in and pass as human (fearing discovery the entire time) and by his very existence, Superman not only draws attention to himself, but reinforces governmental strength, the very power that Jonn fears. They’re opposites, both in power and in status, but in the end, they’re opposites united and made whole.
Moments like this are what make New Frontier worth coming back to, what makes it a great story. Cooke understands that dimension is what separates character from caricature, and that informs all of his work here. Yes, Lois Lane is in love with Superman and she’s an ideal woman. She’s also more than a little manipulative and knows how to get men to do what she wants. And she can be forceful in getting her way (as well, so can Carol Ferris, another strong woman who plays a role in the proceedings). She’s also frail and vulnerable and the panel where she and Superman are reuinted after his apparent demise is one of the most powerful in the book.
Dimension. It’s all about being more than one thing. If you’re unrelentingly good, you’re just as boring as the unrelentingly evil chap over there. Granted, you’re likely to be more sympathetic than him, but not any more interesting. There’s very few, if any, stock characters (well, maybe the eggheads, but we don’t get to see them long enough to get a real feel for ‘em) to be found here. Hal Jordan is both fearless and wracked with self-doubt. Wonder Woman is a liberator and a destroyer, both callous and courageous. Batman comes across as both pragmatic and idealistic, fearsome and troubled.
The same is true of the America that New Frontier depicts. It’s a beacon of freedom and opportunity, as well as a land of repression and fear. It’s a place where bad is done in the name of the common good, where the government seems more concerned with vigilantism than the crimes that inspire it. I’m not going to stand here and argue that it’s precise and nuanced political discourse, but I will say that it’s striving to be a depiction that doesn’t shy away from the shadows at the edges of society. There’s the promise of wealth and ease, and the shadow cast by these isn’t simply ignored by Mr. Cooke. It’s given an uncompromised look. Lynchings and racial repression, such as those that inspired the fictional John Henry, were all-too real. Not that donning a hood and hammering justice into the KKK is a real-wold solution: it isn’t. This is story, more precisely, s superhero comic story. This is a representation of conflict and counter-action, not a model of how to base a struggle for civil rights.
Still, the world feels real (even in the face of impossibilities such as superheroes and prehistoric leviathans that threaten humanity) because it’s visually grounded. Yes, the visuals themselves are idealistic, iconic, and there’s a reason for that. These images are impressed on the American (and Canadian) psyche as part of our history. Again and again and again, Cooke shows that he has a masterful eye for design and a keen historical accuracy that evokes a feeling of Postwar America (even if that America never really existed—not unlike a couple of Englishmen successfully evoking another America that Never Was in the pages of Watchmen.) Edwards Air Force Base, Las Vegas, googie architecture and design, the first stirrings of the space race and the Cold War, sprawling noir cityscapes, newsreels, talking-head public affairs shows, Blue Note record covers, automobile design, commercial design and propaganda are blended together seamlessly into a visually stunning whole.
And Darwyn Cooke can draw the super-heroes, too. Not over-muscled pose-fests, but living breathing (and breathless) action. Cooke taps the power and cosmic majesty of Jack Kirby (and some nods to Steve Ditko in that regard), the shadows of Krigstein, Toth’s powerful simplicity (and expressionism) as well as a daunting knowledge of commercial design. And he makes it his own thing, not just a chance to play spot-the-influences. He’s also managed to take what works about decompression in comics and the “widescreen” format and really use it to its best advantage. No, I won’t lie to you. It eats up pages, fast. But when the pages are this gorgeous and cinematic, infused with a blend of raw power and great finesse, there isn’t much room to complain.
And I’m a guy who generally hates splash pages, remember. But there isn’t a splash page here that isn’t serving the story, whether it’s the best single encapsulation of Aquaman in a panel that you’ll see, or the awesome spectacle of Superman getting sucker-punched by a behemoth from another time.
I’ve seen some comparisons made to Watchmen and Dark Knight Returns in terms of New Frontier’s importance and impression on the superhero genre. As flattering as those are intended to be, I’m not sure that they’re entirely fair. Watchmen, even if the story had been subpar, (which it wasn’t) would be an important work for its mastery of structure, of form. Dark Knight was equally masterful in structure, though in a different way, obviously. New Frontier has its own feel and vibe, but I’m not sure that it’s one that will serve as a template for stories to come. It may not achieve the dizzying heights (or blackest depths) that Watchmen trod, but New Frontier certainly deserves recognition for being a strong story, skillfully told in a visual style that is indeed its own.
I wish I didn’t have to say this, but the above is an exceedingly rare thing these days. New Frontier should be celebrated for that, as well as all the other stuff that I’ve gone on at length about.
Now if only DC had the common sense to put the whole thing together in one affordable package. Oh well. I’m holding onto my floppies and will hold out for the hardcover.