Saturday, June 18, 2016

Retro Review: DC: The New Frontier

It is easy to begin Darwyn Cooke's DC: The New Frontier, classify it as an "Elseworlds" story, and continue on, reading it with pleasure to its conclusion without revising that classification, that is an Elseworlds, one of many. But New Frontier is, significantly, something different than – something more than – an Elseworlds, and part of what makes it so outstanding lies in that subtle distinction.

Yes, New Frontier meets the definition. Just as "imaginary stories," from the era before the term "Elseworlds" was coined, fits as well. New Frontier presents variants of familiar DC characters in a variant of the familiar DC Universe. But to see how the story is more than that, note the ways in which it deviates from both the Silver Age and post-Crisis renditions of the DCU:

New Frontier has an absolute timeline with precise dates, and with characters aging one year for every year that passes.
• As a rule followed in all cases but three, Cooke defines characters' debuts and careers to match their actual publication dates. For example, Barry Allen debuts, in the world of New Frontier, at the same time that Showcase #4 was published in our world. The exceptions are so rare that they are worth identifying: Dick Grayson, John Henry Irons, and (in a cameo only) Roy Harper all debut around 1960 instead of in 1940, 1993, and 1941, respectively.
  New Frontier interweaves the timelines of actual historical and cultural events with DC publications so that, for example, the launch of Sputnik is inserted in proper sequence after the arrival on Earth of J'onn J'onzz and the accident in which Barry Allen gains super speed.
• Artistic style and period-appropriate slang makes this work about 1960 look and sound like it was created in 1960.
• Though the style is from the Sixties, the perspective is from the 2000s, turning an eye to much that was ignored by comics and the mass media in its own time, such as racial discrimination, racial violence, and the excesses of McCarthy-era anti-Communist rhetoric.
• Cooke includes not only DC's stars, but also a huge lineup of DC characters, offering memorable renditions of characters ranging from Batman to Slam Bradley and the Challengers of the Unknown.
• Cooke adapts, from post-Crisis continuity as well as Watchmen the notion that superheroes became feared by the public, and thus the JSA era was ended. He adapts, from The Dark Knight Returns, the notion that Superman (and Wonder Woman) continue to operate by pledging their loyalty to the U.S. government, while Batman continues on as an outlaw.
• The comprehensive history of an era, showing the dawn of DC's Silver Age, suggests parallels between the optimism of John F. Kennedy's "Camelot" and the debut of the Justice League.

To summarize the nature of New Frontier's world: While a typical Elseworlds offers a variant of the standard DCU, or makes the DC characters interact with some fictional variant of our world, DC: The New Frontier places DC characters in a world that is much more like the real world than any previous rendition of the DCU. During long, extended scenes and in tiny details, New Frontier is a period piece that is about our world – primarily the United States, but other places as well. It educates while it delights and entertains.

Because of all this, the superheroes are much as we've always known them, but their world seems different, and, though set in the past, and worked from established material, it is incredibly new in the way it combines older plots and styles with a new perspective. The superhero action, front and center, is as universally white and non-inclusive as the comics of the Fifties, but Cooke makes the readers and his characters aware of the glaring social inequalities of the times, with xenophobia, rape, lynchings, and Joe McCarthy's Red Scare punctuating the usually-sunny narrative.

And while it does such a great job of being about the real world – circa 1960 but seen from the perspective of the 2000s – New Frontiers does two other things, too. It crescendos around a particular story with a particular threat, called The Centre. But before, during, and after that central plot, it constructs an architecture of an entire age of heroes, showing the Golden Age and the Justice Society in the rearview mirror while it drives us through the beginning of the Silver Age and the formation of the Justice League.

The first time that NF shows us a superhero in costume is when Hourman dies fleeing from the police as a vigilante in 1952 – this is the first year after DC ceased publication of the Justice Society, and also the time that McCarthyism was near its zenith. As in DC's post-Crisis continuity, NF posits that the JSA was driven underground, leaving the world without superheroes for a time. As in The Dark Knight Returns, NF shows Superman working behind the scenes as a government agent while Batman fights crime illegally. Like the continuity applied retroactively to the Silver Age superheroes, we see heroes like the Flash (Barry Allen) and Green Lantern (Hal Jordan) debuting some time after Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman. Unlike any of those once-main continuities, NF asserts that the Trinity belonged to the JSA era, and after a few years, went on to be part of the JLA era. This is a luxury that NF's timeline allows because only eight year separate the two teams' tenures, unlike the decades that passed before DC reintroduced JSA stories in the late Seventies under the post-Golden Age concept of Earth Two.

At its finest, New Frontier is an origin story, not of one hero or another, but of a team – a universe. Most central are the three Silver Agers who joined the Justice League as charter members. Barry Allen is trim, almost petite, but supremely confident and courageous. J'onn J'onzz is lonely and isolated in his exile on Earth, but utterly driven to act only on the behalf of others as policeman John Jones. Hal Jordan, whose life is shown in more detail than anyone else's, begins as a kid in an outtake from "The Right Stuff," then goes on to become a war hero, a test pilot, an astronaut, and a superhero. New Frontier is a coming-of-age story for the Justice League's universe, tying together many loose threads, and ending by showing how the nascent League goes on to fight together, opposing Starro, the JLA's first opponent in print, back in Brave and Bold #28. The finale, quoting Kennedy's inaugural speech is overflowing with optimism. If it makes you want to see the new world that has been born, it's there in print, in the first fifty or so issues of Justice League. But those stories by Gardner Fox are written for kids, perhaps older kids. New Frontier is a look at that world that was newly minted for kids, but dressed up and sophisticated for adults, full of meaning and style. Sometime a few months ago, I realized that it is, in all likelihood, the best comprehensive account of the entire DC Universe in one work. If I had one DC story to take to a desert island, I can't think of a better choice.
 
Earlier this year, I read New Frontier for the nth time, taking notes, putting together drafts of a review to post on my blog. And then, when the review was nearing completion, Darwyn Cooke died, far too young. All of the kind things I say about the work, and by extension about Cooke, might seem like a puff piece, something overly kind said of the dead. No. After many times admiring New Frontier, I was putting into words why I thought it was so wonderful, and this was nearly complete when I heard that the author was gone. All of the admiration was firmly in place and for the most part already typed out when I got the sad news. Darwyn Cooke, this review – too late – is for you.

6 comments:

  1. Fantastic Rikdad. I love this comic, it is collected beautifully in the Absolute edition. Darwyn Cooke was a treasure, and he will really be missed. Great review

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  2. I put off reading this for the longest time as I tend to stay away from the retro nostalgia stuff like Batman '66, etc. However after having caught the DC animated movie of this, what a totally phenomenal story. It wasn't just sentimental cheese and 'oh gosh weren't things so much better back then' *COUGH*ALEX ROSS*COUGH*. There were tings of darkness, emotional stakes and a genuine sense of wonder that these beings had changed the world forever.

    Just an eggcellent book all around. Shame about Cooke, he left this world too soon, and selfishly he left us without the stories he had yet to tell.

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  3. Jonny, that's a good recommendation for the Absolute edition. There were follow-ups published in later years that added some background to NF's world, and I'm not sure if that's in the Absolute edition or not, but I think the original books, as I bought them, stand very well on their own.

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  4. Sakei, I'm glad you took the time to read NF. The endless rehashes and re-rehashes of some of DC's canonical material gets a bit tiresome and redundant, but NF is, in my view, a damned good version of how the story should be told if it were only to be told once. And while the names and dates might be things we've seen before, the perspective and tone of Cooke's work is definitely distinct from anything before or since.

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  5. On that note Rikdad, I'm curious what your thoughts are on Matt Wagner's Trinity and his Batman retellings Monster Men and Mad Monk.

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  6. Sakei, I really relished Monster Men and Mad Monk, and flipped through them briefly last month. What I particularly appreciate is their relationship to the source material, going back to Batman's first couple of years. The original material was written with very different sensibilities than one sees in later eras, and to integrate the facts of those stories, which involve the supernatural, with a more realist, "Year One" Batman is a compelling, even essential accomplishment that moves the character forward. They really delighted me.

    Trinity may be no less of a work on its own, but it doesn't fit into any mythos in the same way, and becomes a disposable, one-of-countless tellings of how Superman, Wonder Woman, and Batman met. That's not Wagner's fault – it's just as well-written and illustrated as those two Batman stories – but it makes it a little less interesting to me, anyway.

    I might have preferred to have Wagner re-imagine the JSA story in All-Star Comics #36, which was the first printed meeting of Superman, Wonder Woman, and Batman, which was handled very nonchalantly by Gardner Fox, like it was no big deal. They didn't appear together again until 1960. I'd like to have seen Wagner take up that story and make it into myth, a la Sandman Mystery Theatre.

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