The New Frontier: Volumes 1 and 2

Reviewed: May 30, 2007
By: written and illustrated by Darwyn Cooke / coloured by Dave Stewart
Publisher: DC Comics
210 pages each, $26.99

One of the comfortable things about the serial television show, or the serial comic book is that you can get to know the characters, learn about the relationships and settings and develop a sense of continuity with the events that are going on.

For creative minds, however, that is also one of the traps. Continuity can freeze character development and the history of a series can often be so cluttered with debris that it’s hard to know what to do next without rewriting the entire thing.

So they do that. DC comics rebooted everything about its universe of heroes in 1985, and then did it again over the last two years, after another two decades of barnacles had attached themselves to the story lines. These periodic CRISES allow the creative staff to toss out things that don’t seem to be working, or bring back things that the previous batch of writers and artists didn’t like when nostalgia finally kicks in.

The other way to play with the concepts is to step outside the continuity of the monthly books completely and simply work with the characters as if they were new, retelling origins and creating new motivations for why they do what they do.

Canada’s Darwyn Cooke made his way to comic books by way of animation, being one of the artists behind the various successful Batman animated series of the 1990s. Both his written work and his art have been acclaimed and The New Frontier won the 2005 Eisner Award for "Best Limited Series".

What Cooke did with the six issues of The New Frontier was to blend reality with fantasy in an interesting way. Comic book history breaks into several eras, the original surge of creativity in the 1930s to 1950s being known as the Golden Age. Then came a slump, partly brought on by over supply, partly by a Congressional investigation into the role of comic books in inciting youthful violence, and partly by changing tastes. Except for Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman, superhero comics almost vanished for some years, replaced by war comics, romance comics, westerns, television adaptations and, in the case of one entire company line, Archie.

Then came the so-called Silver Age, when new versions of old characters were created that were more in line with the mood of the late 1950s and early 1960s.

Cooke zeroed his story in on this period, starting the series with an amalgam of some of DC’s lesser known combat heroes, and then working his way through the rebirths of the Flash, Green Lantern, the Martian Manhunter, and some of the non-powered adventure groups like the Challengers of the Unknown.

The series is structured more like a novel than the average comic book (which most often resembles a soap opera in terms of the use of subplots and story arcs these days) in that it has a definite beginning, middle and end and was not intended as the springboard for a whole new ongoing series. There are clues in the first twenty pages that do lead inexorably to the final battle in the last four chapters of the book, but the story is much more about people who are busy figuring out who they are and what they should do with themselves and their new abilities.

One of the key characters in Cooke’s story in J’onn J’onzz, a Martian shapeshifter and telepath trapped on Earth in an era when “aliens” in America were looked on as suspicious and dangerous. J’onzz, disguised as detective John Jones, blends in as best he can and spends much of his time trying to understand the enigma that is humanity. The story takes on a keener edge when we remember that it was created in the years following 9/11, when aliens were once again viewed with suspicion.

The text for the epilogue to the story, in which we get a visual tour of “what happened after”, is from John F. Kennedy’s 1960 “New Frontier” speech, a speech full of optimism and high hopes.

Cooke’s writing on this series has not given us heroes as naive as the original work of that era, but neither is it as dark and cynical as Frank Miller’s “Dark Knight” version of Batman or the dystopias of Alan Moore’s “Watchmen” or ÔV for Vendetta”.

His art has the look of the animator’s storyboard, yet it is both sketchy and realistic at once, and captures the flavour of the various artists who made the Silver Age period what it was.