Absent Friends: Darwyn Cooke
The New Frontier
by Darwyn Cooke
DC Comics, 2015
It’s been twelve years now since comic creator Darwyn Cooke released his mini-series masterpiece DC: The New Frontier, and amid the endless carousel of reinventions and reboots at DC Comics, the series’ self-contained perfection has only become more apparent in that time. As comic fans mourn the sudden and much too early death of Cooke, who passed away on Saturday from complication of an aggressive cancer, it’s worth looking back once more on one of the most beautiful and breathtakingly original superhero stories of the past two decades.
Set in the late 1950’s, at the edgy Cold War chasm between the Eisenhower and Kennedy eras, The New Frontier begins with a simple but brilliant premise: what if the trademark heroes of the DC pantheon had all come into existence at the time of their fictional creation, during the Golden and Silver Age of comics? In Cooke’s imagining (which takes a page from previous DC creators like Roy Thomas and James Robinson), a split has emerged between World War II-era heroes like Superman, Wonder Woman, and the Justice Society of America. Put under heavy government pressure to apply their powers to the war against international Communism, the the old guard have either reluctantly resigned themselves to being de-facto military employees, or (as in the case of the reclusive Batman) been forced to operate underground. At the same time, a new generation of young, space-age heroes is bursting onto the scene, including the Flash, the Green Lantern, and the newly arrived J’onn J’onzz, a bewildered, shape-shifting martian teleported to earth in a science experiment gone wrong.
J’onzz, thrust unwittingly into a tense world of heroes, villains, Americans, and Commie Ruskies, becomes the narrative center of Cooke’s tale, and a super-powered stand-in for the reader. Assigning himself a crash course in human society via a TV set in a small apartment, and learning values of heroism and justice through pop culture, J’onzz (who soon assumes the identity of John Jones, police detective) comes to look up to two-fisted heroes as an inspiration and guiding force, just like millions of comic fans before him:
For several weeks now I have been studying life on earth with the help of this charming device they call the television. It is giving me all the information I need to act like a typical citizen of this nation called America…I ingest the news programs, current affairs and popular game shows. Even brilliant achievements in art that feature fantastic creatures called “cartoons…” Two things become clear to me. The first is that this is a world where good and evil struggle in all levels of existence. I want to be a force for good.
J’onzz’s arrival, it soon emerges, is mysteriously linked to a strange and violent cult worshipping a mysterious entity known only as the Centre. That mystery provides the impetus for the inevitable drawing together of the multitude of heroes who pepper Cooke’s canvas, and their uneasy cooperation to tackle a menace bigger than any of them along. This is an oft-told tale, but Cooke gives it a clever and unfamiliar twist by drawing inspiration from his period setting. This is more than just window dressing: the characters of New Frontier are defined and motivated by the jittery backdrop of mid-century America.
Thus, Cooke gives us a Superman who reluctantly takes orders from President Eisenhower to bring Batman into line, because the president’s folksy patriotism appeals to his Kansas upbringing (the president calls Superman “son” and asks about his parents: “Now tell me, how are those folks of yours? Martha’s back still acting up?”) Likewise, Cooke’s Wonder Woman walks an ambivalent line between obedience and independence. Blunt and confident (and drawn with a tall, muscular frame befitting an Amazon princess), she is capable of both brutal violence and gentle compassion, and unyielding in her principles of justice. When she breaks with the government’s program, she patiently lectures Superman on the responsibilities of heroes:
…They bought me off with a medal and sent me on holiday. Because what I have to say doesn’t line up with their agenda. They don’t want me if they can’t use me. That’s not the America I fought for. My America…our America, is an ideal, not an administration. During World War 2 we knew we were right. We’ve always just assumed we were right ever since. Kal, your real power lies not in your strength but in your values and compassionate spirit. That is what America needs now, not another administration. It needs a leader.
Cooke’s artwork is here, as always, a revelation. His clean linework and bold inks and colors are light years away from the grainy realism of most modern DC books, and deliberately harken back to Silver Age pencillers like Gil Kane and Jack Kirby, and farther back still to the 1940’s animated shorts of Max Fleischer. The effect is a bright, colorful evocation of the space age, which only becomes more effective when Cooke turns his attention to the darker sides of postwar American life, as in a harrowing sequence involving an African American costumed hero who takes violent revenge against the Ku Klux Klan.
At the story’s climax, as the disparate heroes are brought together to form what long-time readers will immediately recognize as the as-yet-unnamed Justice League, Cooke provides a showpiece action sequence for each of his characters. It gives him a chance for some his most vibrant and energetic artwork, as well as for moments of first-person reflection from each her in the heat of battle. In the thick of the final battle, he has the Flash reflect:
Confusion. Apathy. Self-doubt. The futility of existence. In less than a second it has run me through a gamut of nightmares hidden in my own mind. Can’t concentrate. So alone. I’m losing it. Then, above me, I catch a glimpse of something magnificent. I’m not alone at all. They’re protecting me. They’re counting on me. The world is counting on me. Iris is counting on me. That does it, as always.
This is superhero storytelling at its best and most compelling: four-color heroes struggling against evil aliens and societal injustice all at once, and finding the moral courage to come out victorious. The New Frontier provides just this sort of thrill time and again, and it’s a testament to the skill of its creator that it never once feels forced, insincere, or cheaply nostalgic. This is a comic series that earns its emotional payoff.
Darwyn Cooke was one of the greats in contemporary comics. His death leaves a hole in the superhero firmament that won’t soon be filled. Readers looking for a way to pay tribute could do much worse than to snatch up a copy of his masterpiece, available in a nifty hardcover collection at a comic shop near you. Odds are, you might just find yourself inspired.