There’s the Door, Spaceman
DC: The New Frontier: The Deluxe Edition
by Darwyn Cooke
DC Comics, 2015
The longer Marvel and DC superheroes saturate film and television, the clearer will become the fact that only one of these companies actually knows what its fans want. Those who have followed Captain America’s or Wonder Woman’s exploits for decades realize that this has always been most evident in the comic books themselves—the imaginative bedrock upon which Hollywood empires are built.
This spring, Marvel and DC will end their current publishing zeitgeists (NOW! and The New 52) with massive Crossover Events. Once these overblown stories pop, the superhero landscapes of both houses will be fresher—for a few years, anyway. At Marvel, this means more variations on their main attraction, the Avengers (like the all-female A-Force), and more titles that aim for Quirky Sitcom rather than something the average basement-dweller will read (see The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, already in progress). DC, meanwhile, will try to remember that not just straight white guys enjoy comics, and do its damnedest to keep up.
Let’s rewind. The New 52 began in 2011, resetting the narrative continuity of DC’s entire line, aiming to simplify and modernize their characters. Efforts were also made to bring iconic stars, like the Flash and Superman, closer to Earth by giving them miserable private lives (like “the Parker Luck” that curses Spider-Man). Though successful at first, the majority of these retooled titles proved to be little more than testosterone-soaked throwbacks to the 1990s, when guns, breasts, and blood essentially helped the comics industry print money. DC also realized too late that the majority of its potential audience, aghast at the falling tower porn of Zack Snyder’s film Man of Steel (2013), was likewise exhausted by the uniform grimness of their comics. Off-kilter titles like Gotham Academy eventually arrived, as well as a teen-savvy version of Batgirl, adding some lightness to the publisher’s step.
Aside from the consistently fun and challenging writing of Grant Morrison (Batman Inc.) and Geoff Johns (Green Lantern), DC’s current incarnation has had trouble finding the pulse of young, hip—and most importantly, new—readers. And yet, the company plays a certain kind of nostalgia with the heady grandeur of a Rachmaninoff piano concerto. Most of the best-selling trade paperbacks from the publisher’s back catalog are self-contained stories that peer into their characters’ decades-long heydays; among the best are Batman: The Long Halloween (1996, by Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale), Justice (2005, by Alex Ross, Jim Krueger, and Doug Braithwaite), and World’s Finest (1990, by Dave Gibbons and Steve Rude).
These comics harness the elemental qualities of the Big Three—Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman—and then reorganize their primitive, often goofy early adventures into epic storytelling. Instead of scenes in which a young Bruce Wayne poses in his smoking jacket after a night of clocking bandits, The Long Halloween offers a complex, psychological mystery, and can sit on the shelf with Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train (1950). It’s packed with riveting dramatic turnabouts, and red-herrings—both visual and verbal—that would lean Hitchcock out of his seat.
Arguably, DC’s greatest triumph over its uneven past is The New Frontier (2004), written and drawn by Darwyn Cooke, with lush coloring by Dave Stewart. Thanks to the vagaries (that is, delays) of monthly comic publishing, it’s been about ten years since the original six issues came out, and DC has released a celebratory deluxe hardcover. It includes the main event—an utterly sprawling tale that brings major and minor DC characters together, in real time during the 1940s and 50s—as well as annotations, preparatory sketches, storyboards for the animated adaptation, and The New Frontier Special from 2008.
Cooke’s masterpiece rallies around John F. Kennedy’s acceptance speech from the 1960 Democratic National Convention, which is full of cautious optimism that politics can be transcended, because
The times are too grave, the challenges too urgent, and the stakes too high—to permit the customary passions of political debate. We are not here to curse the darkness, but to light the candle that can guide us through that darkness to a safe and sane future. Today our concern must be with that future. For the world is changing. The old era is ending. The old ways will not do.
As the speech moves forward with the imagery of “balances of power” and “the confusion between what is legal and what is right,” Cooke offers, in his deceptively innocent style, snapshots of DC characters embodying all that is hopeful and awful about humanity: Wonder Woman reading to children under a tree, Lex Luthor presiding over his chemical plant, the disparate Justice League members forming under their banner for the first time. Other moments, like the small boy excluded from the “WHITE ONLY” water fountain by a policeman, leave out the colorfully-dressed heroes and villains, emphasizing that we are the saviors the world needs. The marriage between pictures and text is haunting:
The problems are not all solved and the battles are not all won—and we stand today on the edge of a New Frontier—the frontier of the 1960s—a frontier of unknown opportunities and perils—a frontier of unfulfilled hopes and threats…
Are we up to the task—are we equal to the challenge? Or must we sacrifice our future in order to enjoy the present? That is the question of the New Frontier. That is the choice our nation must make—between the public interest and the private comfort—between national greatness and national decline—between the fresh air of progress and the stale, dank atmosphere of “normalcy”—between determined dedication and creeping mediocrity.
Sure, Cooke’s story could have happened at Marvel, with Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four—in fact, Alex Ross and Kurt Busiek’s Marvels is a similarly uplifting, decades-spanning tale. But Marvel’s core schtick has always been how imperfect and human their heroes are, as opposed to DC’s aliens and mythical avatars. Using the Justice League icons, whose powers of flight, speed, and will-power allow them to rise against the highest stakes very quickly, Cooke sets the heroes on a trajectory commensurate with Kennedy’s lofty ideals.
The speech, however, comes at the end of The New Frontier. First we’re treated to the Justice League’s grand origin-behind-the-origin, which highlights the journeys of characters like Hal Jordan and John Jones as they struggle against the cultural tides of 1950s America. The two eventually become Green Lantern and the Martian Manhunter, who battle the space menace, Starro, on the team’s first adventure. But here, they represent the high that was America’s dream of space travel, and the low that was the country’s sinister witch-hunting.
Cook begins his four color opera at the close of World War II, with an elite military unit called the Losers searching the Pacific for Colonel Flagg. They find him on an island populated by dinosaurs, in reference to the 1960s DC title The War that Time Forgot. Then, as the 1950s approach, we’re reminded of DC’s clever inclusion of actual history into its fictional cannon. Senator McCarthy and his red-baiting pushed masked crime-fighters like Doctor Midnight and Hourman to comply with government regulations or quit; this runs flush against the cultural backlash superheroes faced in an era that deemed comics too violent and unwholesome for children. Cooke portrays Superman and Wonder Woman as successful heroes during this era because they fell in line with the West’s Commie-trouncing agenda—at least initially.
When we meet the pair, Superman is visiting Wonder Woman in French Indo-China, where she and a throng of female survivors are celebrating their victory over oppressive male captors. And by victory, we see that the Amazon let the female prisoners murder their captors. Superman is appalled, and says he’ll have report her to the U.S. government. He receives this further answer from the princess:
Their families, their mates…their children were murdered before their eyes. This is civil war. I’ve given them their freedom, and a chance for justice…the American Way!
We can’t get involved unless it’s some dirty act of sabotage that our government sanctions. Take a look around. There are no rules here. Just suffering and madness. I want you to go back and tell your undersecretary that. There’s the door spaceman.
A glance at Cooke’s art brings to mind either the bold pencils of Jack Kirby—whose lantern-jawed, stony-eyed superheroes defined the genre’s resurgence in the 60s—or, the animation of Bruce Timm, who guided DC through two decades of televised greatness in the 1990s and 2000s (the apex of which was Justice League Unlimited). But Cooke’s thick line-work and smiling faces, coupled with the sheer warmth of Stewart’s coloring (which the deluxe edition’s matte paper holds beautifully), only underscore that The New Frontier is a staggering procession of mature character moments that’s rarely seen in comics, even while they compete with books and film for adult attention.
The shape-shifting Martian Manhunter—who’s actually from Mars, and is occasionally drawn in his true, craggy green alien form—steals most scenes he’s in. The arc he travels—from outsider who learns about humanity through television, to sturdy bastion of hope—perhaps mirrors that of a growing boy who’s coming to understand the complex world around him. When he finally meets Superman, Manhunter says what a young Cooke himself might have (though perhaps not as stiffly): “I greatly enjoy your animated adventures at the cinema.”
When the Manhunter does decide to join society, it’s as Detective John Jones. Partnered with Slam Bradley (another treat from DC’s archives), they investigate a cult that worships something called the Centre. They also run afoul of urban legend Batman, who scares the children they’re rescuing as badly as the cultists did. Later, the heroes begin acknowledging that they must band together to fight the maddening influence of the Centre, and Batman stops by John Jones’ apartment to inform him,
I’ve been watching you, Mister Jones. I know all about you. Except where you come from. My instincts tell me you’re to be trusted, but make no mistake—it took a seventy-thousand dollar sliver of meteor to stop the one in Metropolis. With you, all I need is a penny for a book of matches.
This is some sly, thrilling dialogue that readers with even a basic working knowledge of the DC Universe can appreciate. And in such a moment, Cooke helps elevate the less popular but beloved Manhunter (whose weakness is fire, by the way) into the ranks of the Man of Steel or the Caped Crusader.
But it’s test pilot Hal Jordan to whom Cooke lovingly devotes the most narrative payload. We’re introduced to Jordan as a lad passionate about flying, and follow him to the minutes after fighting in the Korean War has ceased. His plane goes down in a remote area, and he can’t communicate quickly enough with a North Korean soldier to avoid a lethal encounter. A pacifist, Jordan is devastated by having to kill. As a young man, he flounders as a pilot for Ferris Aircraft—until he learns that it’s a front for the U.S. Military. Scientists test Jordan’s seemingly infinite well of bravery for what he assumes will be a mission of space exploration; then he’s debriefed about the existence of Martians on Earth, and the need to destroy them at their source.
Cooke establishes that Jordan, a mere human, possesses a fortitude on par with the Big Three—which makes his inheritance of the Green Lantern ring so richly satisfying. The ring comes from dying alien cop Abin Sur, who crashes to Earth in time to hand over the artifact that runs on will-power, allowing Jordan to fly and manifest hard-light constructs. Meanwhile, government pressure has made Barry Allen, the Flash, scuttle his career, and Wonder Woman has retired to Paradise Island after President Eisenhower shushed her revealing comments about life in Southeast Asia.
Once the primordial rage of the Centre fully awakens (I won’t spoil the beast’s actual form), a lengthy roster of heroes—including Adam Strange, Aquaman, Green Arrow, and the Challengers of the Unknown—assembles for battle. Blessedly, Cooke remembers that the dynamic between Superman and Wonder Woman, DC’s two most powerful people, must shine through, if not command, so epic a story. He gives us a moment when she’s grievously injured and he’s too insecure to take charge. “It’s on its way here, Kal. I had to warn you. It’s too big to stop alone. To defeat this, you’ll all have to come together…for the greater good. It is you that must lead them, Kal.” Within a hospital room, she kisses him quickly, saying once more, “There’s the door…Spaceman.”
Her words are as bittersweet as is Cooke’s visionary work. The New Frontier is six over-sized comics, two trade paperback graphic novels, or now, a deluxe hardcover. But no matter how many different formats I read it in, I always wish at the end that this particular Justice League—smiley, bantering, optimistic—could thrive in today’s marketplace. Instead, DC has decided—seemingly on principle—that it must be the dark, brooding landscape that Marvel isn’t.
I’m just glad there are many doors, to the past, and to more colorful places, that are open for us.
Justin Hickey is a freelance writer, and editor here at Open Letters Monthly.