Review – DC: The New Frontier

Not your Zack Snyder's DC Universe

New Frontier Cover

Overview

Synopsis In the wake of World War II, superheroes have become a thing of the past. While heroes like Wonder Woman and Superman work for the government, vigilantes maneuvering outside the law either vanish or hide in the shadows. At the dawning of the Cold War, a new breed of heroes – soldiers, scientists, explorers, pilots – face the mounting challenges of a new era. But when an extraterrestrial threat rises, heroes old and new will need to unite and save a desperate world.

Author Darwyn Cooke

Artist Darwyn Cooke
Publisher DC Comics
Genre Superhero

Length 408 pages

Release Date March 2004 - November 2004

From the 1930s to approximately the late 1950s, comics experienced what has been termed “The Golden Age.” Highlighted by a rapid increase in popularity towards the medium, this Golden Age saw the debut of iconic characters such as Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, the Spirit, Captain America, and even Archie Andrews.

The Golden Age preceded the Silver Age, a post-World War II era that saw an uptick comic book interest after the Golden Age ran its course. Darwyn Cooke establishes his award-winning limited series, DC: The New Frontier, in this pocket of time. As the Cold War dawns on an unsuspecting planet, so do new heroes and menaces usher in a new epoch of superhuman epics.

Justice League

Content Guide

Violence: Several men fight dinosaurs, blasting them with guns and grenades and getting injured or killed by teeth and claws. One character jumps into the maw of a T-Rex, grenades strapped to his person. Other dinos are crushed or sliced open. A few characters fall to their deaths, and several engage in fisticuffs, landing blows and breaking bones. We see bruises and blood. It’s implied a character is shot in the head. A few dead bodies pop up. Racists try to hang an African American man and set his home on fire with his family inside. Someone is shot. We’re told a man is burned alive. It’s implied a man commits suicide. We see a character covered in blood. An invulnerable character is blasted by lasers and tossed around. We’re told an apocalyptic situation has left thousands dead. A man appears to have his brain fried.

Sexual Content: Several characters kiss. A hero is stated to have rescued several women from attempted assaults. Someone makes a crude reference.

Drug/Alcohol Use: Several characters smoke and drink. We’re told one hero derives his powers from drugs.

Spiritual Content: Batman puts a stop to a cult that ties a boy to a cross in a church. Several references are made to a mysterious force/entity known as “the centre” and an equally mysterious ancient book. A reference is made to Valhalla. A deceased character is praised for attending church every Sunday. Someone wishes another character Godspeed. An Amazonian character mutters “Great Hera.” Another character asks for an amen. Someone juxtaposes several demon-like monsters with a superhuman woman seen as an “angel.” Several mystical characters consider themselves “spiritually informed.” A reprinted speech by John F. Kennedy quotes Scripture.

Language/Crude Humor: God and Jesus’ names are used inappropriately multiple times, and words such as h***, a**, d***, and b****** show up on several occasions. We see one unfinished “son of a…”, a possibly unfinished f-bomb, and one use of the British profanity “bloody.” Though not necessarily a curse, some may be offended by a single use of “retarded.” Cooke’s inclusion of racial slurs is even more bothersome. Words like “red,” “commies,” and “pinko” pop up as anti-communist sentiment, but slang for Japanese, African-American, and Inuit people show up, as well. Readers may also be troubled by an instance of the n-word.

Other Negative Content: As part of his job, a military figure is expected to lead several waves of men to their deaths. A man cuts a woman off in the middle of her presentation in a moment made to look misogynistic.

Positive Content: Several characters risk their lives to save others. Some actually sacrifice themselves to rescue loved ones or humanity in general. A man buries a dead body out of respect. One character is driven by his firm belief in following right principles.

Justice Society of America

Review

Before diving into the review, I would like to address Cooke’s use of racial slurs. Googling the subject, I found very little in the way of criticism regarding Cooke using such language. I dug up one brief discussion on a message board, where commenters hypothesized that some of Cooke’s words, though inappropriate, fit within the era of The New Frontier. Another individual added that it seems hardly fair, in light of Cookie’s recent passing, to bring up his linguistic foibles.

On a personal level, I felt uncomfortable with Cooke’s word choices, particularly when they pertained to race. Contextually accurate or not, certain words were as inappropriate to use in the 1950s and 60s as they were in 2004 (and still are now), when New Frontier was originally published. One might let pejoratives such as “pinko” or “commie” slide, as those words are more confined to the Cold War era. Though Cooke did not intend to offend with his word choices – at least one character becomes visibly angry at a racially insensitive nickname he receives – I would argue it may have been wiser to leave those words out. If Cooke’s intentions were to draw attention to the injustice of the word or add a dosage of realism to the period he worked in, he may have found better methods of doing so.

Superman gives a speech about not condoning evil

 

The “S” Stands for “Simplicity”

The language issue leads nicely into a bigger point regarding New Frontier – the tone. From page one, you’re invited into a superbly constructed world that feels yanked straight out of a comic from the 50s. Cooke’s illustrations have an old-timey quality to them as he replicates era-appropriate designs for his characters. Batman’s mask has the long, pointy ears reminiscent of his earliest costumes. Green Arrow looks less like the mustachioed vigilante of the TV show and more like a Robin Hood cosplayer. Superman’s S symbol looks patterned after a costume design from a 1940s cartoon. Throughout the series, Cooke fascinatingly pairs his more modern art with these antiquated designs, leaving an indelible impression on each page.

The art style seems to ape the creators of yesteryear. You get the sense that Jack Kirby and perhaps Steve Ditko inspired some of Cooke’s design choices. “Simplicity” sums up Cooke’s work. His art isn’t as lifelike as Alex Ross’ photo-referenced visuals, for example. Then again, Cooke doesn’t fully embrace a “Saturday morning cartoon” style either, where characters could be exaggerated or intentionally goofy. While paying homage to era-appropriate styles of art, Cooke adds just enough modern detail to introduce varying levels of emotion and tension.

Batman and Robin vs Joker while a young African American reads by John Henry's grave

“Touch Points”

Paul Levitz, former president of DC Comics, underscores one of the key selling points of New Frontier in a well-written foreword: it’s interconnected roster. Levitz writes:

“It was inconceivable in the DC comics of 1960 to have characters from Bob Kanigher’s war comics [such as Sgt. Rock] meet the superheroes who populated the Justice League, or to have either exist in the same world as the Blackhawks… Darwyn went back to the beginning and structured a story that allowed the heroes and their casts to mingle, and look at what some of the likely touch points would have been.”

Crossover comics are all the rage these days, but Levitz’s point is important. Cooke isn’t just writing a story about superheroes mingling in modern times. New Frontier is a tale of the past, highlighting how these heroes may have interacted if given the chance.

Batman and John Johns

These “touch points” can be brief, but they draw attention to the cast and the multi-faceted world where these heroes live. You’re genuinely entertained seeing the Flash rescue hostages from Captain Cold (including Ted Grant’s Wildcat) or watching Martian Manhunter’s alter ego John Johns interact with Batman for the first time. Even the small connections, occasionally lost on the characters themselves, emphasize the universe’s intertwined nature. Cooke pulls together various DC Universe character types – superheroes like Superman and Wonder Woman, military heroes like Sgt. Rock and the original Suicide Squad, explorers like the Challengers of the Unknown – to give a fuller perspective of DC’s pantheon of characters. Scientists, supermen, and soldiers unite, making Cooke’s world feel wonderfully populated and diverse.

Yet, even as Cooke highlights the woven web of the past, his story will remind you of something more modern: scads of violence and language pepper the pages, as Cooke’s colorful illustrations brush up against a more serious backdrop. Most superheroes have gone underground in the wake of World War II, the only remaining heroes operating either in the shadows or under government supervision. An African-American character becomes a costumed crimefighter to battle the Ku Klux Klan. After crashing, Hal Jordan tussles with an enemy soldier during the Korean War. The Justice Society of America disbands amidst Red Scare allegations. A stark sense of reality permeates the pages, a darker and weightier world disguised by Cooke’s art.

Martian Manhunter watches TV

Cooke’s Cold Cost

Cooke wants you to enter his world and feel like you exist there, experiencing the developing Cold War as his characters do. You feel the weight of moral choices and the burden of compromise. His world teeters on the brink, offering a burgeoning promise of either hope or disaster. Which way will our little blue sphere topple?

The experience, however, comes with a price tag, namely the violence and language. Safe to say, not every character makes it out alive. Man-eating dinosaurs are more than happy to feed on unsuspecting characters, and an extraterrestrial adversary cares little for body counts. Perhaps not as graphic as some other stories, New Frontier still dives into darker territory, delivering splashes of gore not found in the original stories which inspired Cooke.

The language is a whole other issue, as I’ve mentioned. Cooke’s word choices hurt his story, whether the terms are era-specific or not. When an Inuit character reacts angrily to someone casually using a racial slur, the lesson is clear: he has a name, so please use it. But I wonder if, by using the slur in the first place, Cooke undermines his point instead of indicating how far we’ve come since the Cold War’s early days.

Green Lantern

Entering the “Heart’s Eye”

Fortunately, the disappointing verbal choices don’t derail his story. Fun as the various character interactions are, Cooke ramps up his series’ impact in later chapters. Hal Jordan receives his Green Lantern power ring in a particularly stellar sequence that cuts to the heart of the narrative. Flying unaided with a freedom he’s never experienced, Hal comments, “It’s like my heart’s eye come to life.” The deepest part of who is, the person he was intended to be and always desired to be, has finally been born, or perhaps reborn. I would argue Hal’s comment is almost meta, as if Cooke himself is speaking. Serving as writer, penciler, inker, and cover artist, Cooke puts his whole self into the story, all his talent and energies. His creative influence is the driving force behind each panel, every word.

The story works best when viewed as a love letter to the past. Cooke takes pieces of his childhood and sews them together into something coherent, where he can control the minutia. Sure, his control is sometimes faulty, as indicated by occasional word choices; yet, as Hal says, you do feel as if the author is letting you into his heart. Though he has since passed away, Cooke was able to share his gifts and talents through New Frontier, inviting readers to enjoy the ride with him. You get a glimpse into what made him tick as a creator.

In an afterword, Cooke shares how he was inspired to create as a child, telling readers that “once [that inspiration is] in your heart,” you never lose it. It may sound like a nice self-help lesson, but I believe it points to something deeper: a reminder of the God-given abilities we as people are created with, the passions we are allowed to develop, the talents we take time to learn. Like Hal Jordan, Darwyn Cooke was a man with beautiful potential; like Hal, Cooke discovered how to bring that potential to life. His life may have ended prematurely, but it wasn’t wasted. His “heart’s eye” may be forever closed, but he kept it open, wide and perceptive, for as long as possible.

Positives

+ Cooke's artful blend of fantasy and reality
+ Wonderful character interactions
+ An engaging look at a past DC Comics era

Negatives

- Unnecessary foul language
- Some surprising violence

The Bottom Line

Darwyn Cooke paints a breathtaking but quasi-realistic look at the DC Universe's Silver Age, tripping up only when his desire for authenticity outweighs his better judgment.

 

Story/Plot 8.5

Writing 8.5

Editing 8.5

Art 9.0

8.5

Nathan Kiehn

Nathan has loved comic books and graphic novels for as long as he can remember, ever since his father handed him a digest sized volume of "Marvel Age: Spider-Man." He's dedicated a lot of time and effort to exploring the far reaches of the Spider-Verse, but he's also been known to dive into other corners of the Marvel Universe and maybe even stuck his nose in a Batman story arc or two (just don't tell Spidey).

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