It’s not easy distilling an entire decade worth of history into one graphic novel, particularly when it also involves reintroducing dozens of classic DC characters at the same time. So perhaps it was inevitable that Darwyn Cooke’s DC: THE NEW FRONTIER grew to over 400 pages in length with the deluxe omnibus edition. It’s a dense, beautiful, thought-provoking book, and as a result, Amy Ratcliffe and I decided to split our joint readthrough into two separate posts. You can find the first part here. You’ll want to read it before continuing on below.
Still with us? Then let’s dive into chapter eight!
Tim: Another very dense chapter, in which just about all of our characters face difficult truths, none more than John Henry. But not a single one of our heroes escapes from this chapter fully unscathed. Hal Jordan is booted off of Operation Flying Cloud. Wonder Woman is forced into retirement because her views don’t align with the men calling the shots. The Flash chooses to retire because he’s being hunted. And J’onn J’onzz sees this and decides to return home to Mars, realizing he’ll never be accepted.
Amy: Reacting from a place of fear is sometimes the best way to make a terrible decision. We've seen it sprinkled throughout The New Frontier with how the government is treating super heroes. I mean, the reaction to vigilantes is always a mixed bag because they're outside the law, but what's happening here goes to extremes—such as creating a trap for Barry Allen. In a single panel, Cooke communicates Barry's disbelief and confusion, and that single panel only includes half of Barry's face. His widened right eye was a jolt to my heart, and the pain continued when he popped onto television to broadcast his retirement from crime fighting. Being a super hero can be a thankless job, sure, but it's another matter entirely when it's a despised job.
Maybe one reason it strikes a chord is because, like much of this book so far, it's relevant to current affairs.
And along those lines, there's the death of John Henry. He was betrayed by a young child, and you know she was raised by her parents to be prejudiced. It was heavy and after reading the speech from the newscaster about the failures of our government, I had to put the book aside and let the weight sit on my shoulders. Yeah, it's all too relevant.
Tim: Yes, even in a heavy chapter like this one, that moment really stands out. John Henry was a hero, but in the end, it wasn’t some supernatural menace that took him down like we’ve seen with the other heroes who have died so far. He was taken down by regular people…and a child. Clearly, all of us have the capacity to be super-villains.
Tim: Looks like that Mars trip will have to be postponed. Both for J’onn and for Ferris Air.
It’s always easy to sing Darwyn Cooke’s praises, but this chapter and particularly the Flying Cloud sequence is a real standout in this series. I didn’t realize until after I’d finished the chapter and was looking back at it how much of an emotional roller coaster we’re taken on throughout the course of these pages. First of all, there’s the horror of what has happened—that this bizarre threat, which we still don’t fully understand, has driven one of the members of Task Force X insane. Then there’s the poignancy of discovering why Flagg has been so difficult on Hal Jordan, and that he does have a lot of respect for the pilot and his father. That’s followed by a moment of elation and glee as the Challengers of the Unknown unexpectedly fly off to rescue them. Then there’s a moment of uncertainty when we discover what the Flying Cloud rocket is carrying. And finally, there’s the tragedy of the ending, as Flagg and Karin Grace sacrifice their lives to prevent their payload from entering the Earth’s atmosphere while Superman saves Red and Rocky (which can only be seen as bittersweet).
What’s even more remarkable is that all of that is just part of why this chapter stands out. It also includes some of Cooke’s best art so far. There’s a variety of techniques on display, such as the wash he uses when Faraday confronts J’onn J’onzz at the rocket, the great use of speed lines during the crash sequence (assisted magnificently by colorist Dave Stewart) and the minimalist approach to drawing Rick and Karin in their final moment. Plus, all this is to say nothing about the phenomenal splash panels in this chapter, such as Jess Bright peering fearfully out of the rocket, Superman rescuing the two Challengers and Faraday grieving by himself in Arlington Cemetery. I know not all of those panels are silent, but nevertheless, those images communicate the story entirely on their own. They’re masterful.
Amy: At the outset of the book, I didn't know Hal Jordan would play such a large part.
Tim: I didn’t either!
Amy: It's been intriguing to see which heroes Cooke chose to take center stage. I admit Green Lantern isn't one of my favorite characters, but Cooke made me see him in a new light. It goes back to what Hal experienced during the war and how the event shaped him—I appreciated him more, if that makes sense? So, after warming up to him, I felt proud to see him be chosen by Abin Sur. I found it fitting for one of his first actions to be an attempted flight into space. He goes after his goals.
Tim: Totally! It’s exactly what he would do. Yeah, I had no idea that Green Lantern would play such a key role. I’m not sure you could call any character in The New Frontier the central character, but Hal probably comes the closest. You really get to know him as a character and individual in a way that you don’t get to know Superman, Wonder Woman, Batman, or even the Flash. (Batman’s very much in the background here, which is surprising, but I don’t mind it. It’s cool seeing other characters get the spotlight.)
Amy: Agreed about Batman! It's a pleasant twist to see him a more sidelined role.
One aspect I keep going back to is how well Cooke conveys emotion with his lines. He infuses Hal with such joy and excitement. I can see a "golly gosh" aspect about him in these pages that somehow meshes with the arrogant Hal we know, and I like watching the two sides come together to form Green Lantern.
Amy: Oh, this Centre business. With a rich world and inventive takes on familiar characters at hand, it's easy to get swept into the panels and forget about the overarching story. Though the puzzle started to come together chapters ago, I keep seeing the chapters as vignettes. But the mention of the Centre is enough to bring the big picture back into focus, and I respect how Cooke can go macro and micro with a gentle, guiding hand.
The Centre has been biding time, but it finally starts to make its presence known in a big way. This is where the danger the Centre poses sank in for me.
By the way, Robin's enthusiastic reaction to meeting Superman is endearing and adorable.
Tim: It is! And so is Superman’s genuine pleasure at meeting him! Though my favorite scene in this chapter is probably the chess game between King Faraday and J’onn. I love how these two characters have become friends, even though one of them is ostensibly the captive of the other (though they make it clear that’s not entirely true). Considering that Faraday is the same man who set the trap for the Flash that convinced J’onn to abandon Earth, it’s a nice reversal. I just love how optimistic it is. It suggests that if a man like Faraday can put aside his fear and prejudice against what’s different and come to appreciate what someone like J’onn has to offer, then anyone can. And again, I think that’s as good a message for today as much as it was for the 1950s.
All of this helps illustrate perfectly what you were saying about reading these chapters as vignettes and character beats. Many of them are, but they also move the greater story forward little by little. Though I suspect it would take a second or third reading of this to truly see all of the ways they do that.
Amy: A handful of panels and splash pages I've seen in comic books have stuck with me, embedded into my long term memory, and The New Frontier has added to that collection. My stomach turned into a knot upon seeing Wonder Woman in her invisible jet, blood dripping from her hands and pooled at her feet. The image has a shock value to it, but the reason I can see the art when I close my eyes is because of my attachment to the character and disbelief over seeing her so seriously hurt. If the Centre poses a threat to Wonder Woman, we're all utterly screwed, right?
Tim: Honestly, I was so shocked and startled by the sight of a profusely bleeding Wonder Woman that I didn’t even grasp that she got injured battling the Centre. Not until later. I don’t think that’s necessarily a flaw in the storytelling, though. I think we’re supposed to have that sort of visceral reaction here. After all, you and I both did.
Tim: This chapter is essentially a rallying of heroes, but put together in a really interesting way. We start off seeing the return of two heroes who were essentially out of commission—the Flash and Martian Manhunter. Then we get our first glimpse of Green Arrow, the Sea Devils and the Blackhawks before we see Hal Jordan start to embrace his destiny as Green Lantern. But most important of all, we learn the truth about Hal and his stance on killing. He’s willing to kill if necessary for survival, and that’s what the world is facing.
Also we discover the one way in which Hal Jordan is a coward—in the matters of the heart. His completely inaudible “I love you” may not be quite as memorable as Han Solo’s “I know” in Empire Strikes Back, but it still made me smile. It feels totally true to Hal Jordan.
Amy: I have a soft spot for Barry and Iris, so the panel where she pulled out his Flash costume and gave it to him to encourage him to go fight the Centre slayed me. There is so much love in just a few panels. Sure, part of it is the legacy of the characters, but much of it is the tone Cooke communicates with their poses and the looks in their eyes.
Tim: Clearly, you don’t put aside generations of mistrust easily as we see at the start of this chapter, but if there’s anyone capable of inspiring cooperation, it would certainly be Superman. Unfortunately, for a shining moment, his is pretty short-lived. Yeah, this Centre is bad, bad news. Wonder Woman AND Superman are now down for the count. Though if you take a step back and look at the story Cooke’s telling here, it’s probably necessary. This is about the next wave of heroes—about people of all kinds taking inspiration from the heroes who came before them, like J’onn’s love of Superman’s animated shorts. This is an inspirational comic through and through, both in the sort of story it’s telling and what it has to say about the nature of inspiration, which seems to be that taking inspiration from those who came before you can drive people to be greater.
Amy: You're so spot on about the transition. Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman are like the old guard in this story. They've kept the torch burning through difficult times and by doing so, have served as role models for our heroes taking point in the big battle. It has to be quite the hit to their morale to see Superman go down.
Tim: Cooke was also very vocal about how The New Frontier was inspired by the work of artists who came before him, like Gardner Fox, Joe Kubert and Will Eisner. This whole project is the result of someone allowing inspiration to drive him to greatness. It’s an example of the very themes it’s putting forth.
Amy: The events happening on Earth have the potential for repercussions for the universe, so I thought the meeting on the moon among the spiritually informed was intriguing. The pages threw me off at first because it took me out of the loss of Superman, but I went back and reread them. It was a matter of fact discussion—their tone was chilling—but also fitting?
Tim: We look in on many of our characters, and get to see Adam Strange in action for the first time, as preparations for the looming battle begin. I will say—and this is probably the first bit of criticism I have for this book—I found the opening moment with Lois Lane to feel a little false. Yes, we know that Superman and Lois Lane are one of the perennial comic book couples, but with both characters taking on such a peripheral role here, there was nothing to indicate that they even knew each other, let alone shared feelings for each other. In fact, I thought the kiss that Wonder Woman gave Superman in the last chapter was suggesting that they might share unrequited feelings for each other. They certainly share more scenes together.
Amy: I had the same thought!
Tim: But one thing that I absolutely do NOT doubt is Hal Jordan’s excitement over the power ring. He’s a man who loves living life full throttle and now…well, you can’t even say the sky’s the limit since he’ll clearly be traveling beyond that.
Oh, and how perfect was the Flash’s response to Faraday in this chapter? I think Faraday’s more than redeemed himself as a character, but he still had that one coming. And I loved seeing Green Arrow cracking up over it—it’s another one of those perfect character beats.
Amy: Faraday completely had it coming. He needed a reminder that what he pulled with the Flash was actually pretty despicable. Barry is often the nicest guy ever, but he needed to stand up for himself here.
The plot is starting to come together hot and fast, and while I was eyeing the number of pages left and starting to worry it would feel rushed, it actually comes across as true to life. I mean, I've never been involved in a fight for the planet against a massive creature, but I can imagine the scrambling and desperation. That all comes through in the panels.
Tim: I have a question for you, Amy, as we start this chapter. Every time I read a story or see a movie where there’s some sort of impossible mission like we have here, I always find myself wondering how I’d react if I were faced with it. I’m not sure how I’d respond to a do-or-die battle like this. What about you?
Amy: I think that's a common reaction. We all want to know our mettle, and if we're not in bananas situations like this, we just have to imagine how we'd hold up. Given that I'm an everyday citizen who can't even run around the block without practically hyperventilating, I'd be useless in a fight. But if I was on the ground on the administration side, I'd hope that I could stay focused and organize the heck out of the operation. I'm good at compartmentalizing, which I think could be useful.
Tim: Yeah, I think I’d have to be stationed at the desk next to yours because I’m the same way. After four Jurassic Park movies, I have a healthy fear of dinosaurs.
Looking at the chapter a bit more, something about the line spoken by one of the Blackhawks about how many of them won’t be coming back really got to me and I found myself thinking about the human heroes in this fight. Much of the story has been focused on the super heroes like Green Lantern and Martian Manhunter, but guys like the Blackhawks and the Challengers of the Unknown are just regular people. Granted, they’re highly skilled, but they’re still relying on regular weaponry to fight the Centre, and we’ve already seen it take down Superman and Wonder Woman and destroy all of Themyscira. The fact that they’re so ready to join the fight is pretty amazing.
Come to think of it, the hero of this chapter is one of these regular guys. Faraday sacrifices himself to save J’onn—someone he saw as a threat earlier in this book. The King Faraday/J’onn J’onzz friendship has become one of my favorite parts of The New Frontier’s second half, so it’s sad to see it end tragically like this.
But what did you think of Wonder Woman’s return?!
Amy: I have a hard time buying into deaths in comic books, but since we saw Wonder Woman so severely injured, I thought she was a goner. I was relieved when I saw her leap back into action. I could practically hear a triumphant horn blowing in the background.
I agree with what you said about the value of human heroes that fight without super strength or speed. The double page spread of them standing alongside the super heroes (and Faraday helping to hold up J'onn) was strong because it showcased their bravery. After seeing how divisive it was between the government and super heroes, this image screamed, "We are unified against this terrible threat. Together, we can do anything."
Tim: You know, I completely missed that Faraday was holding up J’onn! It goes back to what I was saying earlier—there are so many amazing details in this book that you probably have to read it multiple times to pick up on all of them. Nice catch, Amy.
Tim: I love that in spite of how massive the Centre is, it’s still largely taken down by the efforts (and one major sacrifice) of four individuals—two super-powered and two not—and that Hal Jordan strikes the final blow. I think it’s absolutely perfect that the first time he gets to see space, it’s as he throws the imploding Centre into it. He’s always wanted to see the stars—now he’s finally found purpose in them.
This is an emotional ending, but it’s not manipulative. Cooke finds the heart in both great actions and small. I found Captain Adam’s ultimate sacrifice just as poignant as the Flash’s need to see that he wasn’t alone. Heck, even Hal and Ace’s final exchange within the green sphere was the perfect amount of humor. And in the end, another “outsider” emerges and is greeted not with fear, but embraces. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that he’d saved Superman.
Amy: Getting inside the Centre and seeing the completely alien environment heightened every action and made them more incredible. This was exactly the kind of otherworldly setting I wanted to see
As you said, Tim, everyone played a part. You have scenes like Wonder Woman and J'onn flying the skies in epic poses and then quieter majestic moments, too. Flash and Green Lantern both have strong scenes that serve their characters and development flawlessly. Their mettle was tested, and they both rose to the occasion. In fact, Earth rose to the occasion
Seeing Aquaman made me want more underwater combat action though!
Tim: The words of Kennedy probably resonate even more strongly now than when he first spoke them, but as we’ve said, that’s true for this entire work.
Amy, I can’t believe it’s taken me this long to read The New Frontier. It really is a masterwork. It works so well both as an Elseworlds-type alternate universe comic, but also as a commentary on the real world. It looks at how far we’ve come, and how much farther we still have to go. It examines heroism of all types, both human and superhuman. And it does this while telling a story that never fails to be exciting, thought-provoking and often emotional. All of which now has a real overlay of sadness since Darwyn Cooke is no longer with us. But if people continue to read this comic, and if anyone takes inspiration from it, well, I can’t think of a better way to honor him and his legacy as an artist.
I know for me, this is one that I’m going to be processing and likely rereading for some time to come.
Amy: The New Frontier is a work of art. The craft behind the storytelling with both the words and the illustrations is knock-you-down impressive. Cooke went larger than life with an enemy set on defeating mankind, but still made the story personal and intimate. He used themes we can all relate to—fear, hope, love—to center the narrative in a timeless way. I agree that it's a lot to digest. I have no doubt I'll pick up new tidbits every time I read this book.
Tim: It’s powerful stuff, but it’s also very hopeful. And let’s be real, that probably something we need now more than ever. While I may not believe how long it’s taken me to get to this comic, I’m pretty glad I experienced it now. In fact, I’d say if there are any other readers out there who are really dismayed over how things are going in the world, they might want to give DC: The New Frontier a look. Obviously, it’s not pure escapism—it deals with some very real problems. But it also suggests that the way to overcome those problems is by coming together. Considering how divided the world and particularly our country feels at times, I think that’s an amazing message.
And if it doesn’t resonate with you…well, at least there are dinosaurs!
This is the second installment of our two-part readthrough of DC: The New Frontier. Click here to read part one.