I’m embarrassed to admit that I’m a Darwyn Cooke fan.
Now, before you get out the pitchforks, let me explain. I’m not the least bit ashamed about being a fan of Darwyn Cooke’s art and writing. The man was one of the all-time greats, and I’ve loved his work since I first discovered it in the pages of Catwoman fourteen years ago (inked by no less than Mike Allred, another artist who’s since become an all-time favorite of mine). I ate up his now-iconic contributions to that book, along with SELINA’S BIG SCORE, one of the best Catwoman graphic novels ever produced. I loved Cooke’s work on Richard Stark’s Parker, even though I had very little familiarity with the character prior to that. I think BEFORE WATCHMEN: MINUTEMEN was among the best of the Before Watchmen books and that Cooke’s recent Vertigo series with Gilbert Hernandez, THE TWILIGHT CHILDREN, is one of the greatest comics of last year. And yet, I’m embarrassed to admit that I’m a fan for one little reason—I’ve never read DC: THE NEW FRONTIER.
I know, I know. I should probably be ashamed to call myself a DC fan, let alone a Cooke one. But it’s one of those books that I’ve never quite gotten around to. (I’ve also never seen the animated movie, in part because I wanted to read the book first.) In fairness, DC: The New Frontier is a pretty daunting work. It’s over 400 often dense pages in length, so it wasn’t something I was going to get through in a night. But I think the main reason I’ve never read it is that I wanted to save it for a time where I could really savor it and enjoy it. You can only experience a great story for the first time once in your life, and when you know something is truly great, the masterwork by a creator you rank among your favorites… Well, you only get those sort of first-time experiences a handful of times in your life.
This was going to be one of those experiences for me. In fact, I knew it would be so moving and profound, especially in light of Cooke’s recent passing, that I didn’t want to experience it alone. So I invited my fellow DCComics.com contributor Amy Ratcliffe to read it along with me. Amy and I recently read Vertigo’s PREACHER for the very first time together, and collaborated on an issue-by-issue readthrough of the fourth volume (you should check it out on the Vertigo site, along with the rest of Amy’s excellent articles on Preacher). Amy is new to The New Frontier as well, so this would be a first for both of us.
Below, you’ll find our thoughts as we make our way through each chapter—raw, unfiltered and completely unaware of what’s happening next. Since The New Frontier is such a lengthy book, we decided to split this feature into two parts. Look for Part 2 here on DCComics.com tomorrow.
Amy: When I opened The New Frontier, I couldn't help but be dazzled by Darwyn Cooke's art. Hundreds of people have written about the unique look of his characters and done so eloquently, but I'm adding my words to the pile. His vision of comic book characters is one of the styles I like best. It defines the world in a fantastical way, and he infuses so much information into each line.
Tim: I’m not sure what I expected when I first started reading, but I have to admit—it really wasn’t this. All the art I’ve seen from The New Frontier has focused on Cooke’s super heroes that I expected to see Superman, Wonder Woman and Green Lantern driving the action from the very beginning. Instead, this starts off in full-on war comic mode, reintroducing the Losers against the backdrop of World War II. And man, it’s good stuff, isn’t it? This opening is gripping drama all the way through.
Amy: I could tell right away this was a book to be read carefully. I tried to keep that in mind, but then I got distracted by dinosaurs and action. The story throws you into prehistoric times without a ton of explanation, which I like. I also like how Cooke balanced the cool "Whoa, dinosaurs!" aspect with high stakes by killing most of the characters we met first in the book.
And I thought the first pages took a bleak turn... The world is not in good shape. We're in the 1940s now, and Cooke's words and art communicate the problems at hand. The imagery screams frustration, sadness, and even a little desperation – until we get a glimpse of the superheroes still fighting for what's good and right. It's only a page, but already, the images of Batman, Task Force X, and especially Superman and Wonder Woman are beacons of hope. There's something so powerful and calming about Wonder Woman's stance, and I'm floored by how much Cooke communicates with a single panel.
Tim: His storytelling is top-notch, both in finding the one perfect image to communicate what would take a prose writer paragraphs and pacing the action of the Losers’ fateful last battle perfectly. Honestly, after reading this first chapter, I’m sad we’ll never get to see Cooke write and illustrate a full-on war comic.
That said, I’m glad to see the timeline progress. I love the reveal here of the nuclear test site, and of course, our introduction to a young Hal Jordan! It’s always fun to see fictional characters mingle with real people, and his exchange with Chuck Yeager is perfection.
Amy: Slightly related, right as I was reading this part of The New Frontier, I realized Chuck Yeager uses Twitter. What a world.
Amy: Providing details about the state of affairs through articles by Iris West is a clever move. It keeps you in the story and allows for more context and background than word bubbles. I like having the panels broken up in this way, and I hope there are more of her articles throughout the book.
Tim: Yeah, it’s really starting to become clear how ambitious this story is… and along with that, how painfully little I really know about it. I guess that’s good because it means I have no clue what I’m in for here, but as a DC fan, I’m more than a little ashamed!
Amy: On to 1953. I realize I'm going to have to roll with the switches in time; I can do that. After encountering a younger Hal in the first chapter, it's sort of rewarding to see him already accomplishing his pilot goals. His conflict is at the heart of these few pages, as he was put in a high-pressure situation and reacted according to survival instincts. I wouldn't say he lost control, but I think Hal might view it that way. Cooke clearly illustrated how the events in the trench impacted the young ace, and it struck a chord with me. And so did Lois Lane's reporter instincts. I want to say she was pushy with Hal – maybe it wasn't the time to ask him questions – but it's her job, so...
Tim: Strong stuff here and I think a great use of the super hero genre to illustrate the awful decisions men and women have to make in times of war. There’s no doubt that Hal did what he needed to do. No one on earth would say he was a bad or evil person for it. It doesn’t cast any doubts on his heroism. Yet, you know it’s something that will haunt him for the rest of his life. He’ll see it as a failure, even if no one else does. All of this sets up an interesting question. In an alternate version of our history where super heroes are real, is that what sets them apart from everyday people like us? Do they need to see good and evil in such clear, unwavering terms? What do you think?
Amy: That's a great and tough question. I do think super heroes need to operate with a defined moral code to keep themselves in check, but thinking in such absolutes isn't realistic. The world's too nuanced. But a hard and fast rule about not killing people? I can understand that and why Hal can't see what he had to do was necessary.
Amy: What a whiz-bang (technical term) of a chapter with J'onn J'onzz and Wonder Woman allowing/encouraging women to take a stand against the men who harmed them. Maybe, like Superman, I should be disturbed at her approach, but for better or worse, I found myself supporting her and the women who chose to pick up arms. What did you think about Wonder Woman and Superman's conversation, Tim?
Tim: I was thinking that this scene gets to the root of what I’ve always seen as the core difference between Superman and Wonder Woman. They’re often placed side by side as being roughly gender equivalents of each other, and while that may be true as far as their strength and invulnerability goes, they have different worldviews. Superman, as we see here, sees things in black and white. There’s good and there’s evil and killing definitely falls in the latter group. On the other hand, Wonder Woman is from a race of warriors. She may be an ambassador for peace who sees war as an absolute last resort, but I think she also sees it as necessary at times. She may try to avoid killing, but she doesn’t see it in the same was as Superman. I’ve always felt that she’s a much “greyer” hero than Superman.
And I guess because I live in the same world that you do, I tend to agree with her and with you. Life is rarely so black and white and in a war like this, I can’t blame any of these women for rising against the men who enslaved them. Rebellion against oppression is one of those times where war is necessary.
Amy: And then J'onn J'onzz. I didn't know I needed to see him transform into Bugs Bunny, but I did. I found so much about J'onn's arrival remarkable – particularly his decision to be a force of good on our planet.
Tim: Yeah, and his John Jones persona fits so perfectly into this comic, doesn’t it? I have to admit, I loved this story, though a big part of that is probably due to Slam Bradley. I’ve been a huge fan of the character ever since Ed Brubaker and our man Darwyn Cooke reintroduced him in Catwoman. Plus, it’s our first time seeing Batman in action. Of course the kid is afraid of him and Slam thinks he’s a freak!
It makes you wonder what he’d think of J’onn if he knew what he really is.
Tim: Cooke starts this chapter off by once again blending historical figures with fictional ones, and to brilliant effect. I love this opening sequence with Ted “Wildcat” Grant taking on “Clay”—who we know is Muhammad Ali early in his career. This is some of Cooke’s strongest art in the series so far in my opinion. We get two amazing splash pages—first with Grant going down for the count and then later on after he’s won the fight as roses rain down on him. I tell you, I’d happily frame that second one and hang it up on the wall.
There are also some amazing crowd panels here. Cooke packs a ridiculous amount of detail into his crowds. Every visible face is reacting in a clear, believable way. It’s clear he put thought into all of them, even the ones who ultimately wound up obscured by word balloons.
All of which is to say nothing about the Flash!
Amy: Yes! Watching Barry in action, and more specifically, the way Cooke illustrated his incredible speed was exciting. The panel showing him racing around Vegas to locate Captain Cold's bombs was both cartoony and urgent and dangerous at the same time. It's a remarkable combination, and you can feel Flash's desperation jump off the page.
Tim: I got so excited when I realized Cooke was reintroducing the Challengers of the Unknown! I’ve always felt like they were an underappreciated team. Only problem is that once again now I want a full Challengers series written and drawn by Cooke. Sadly, it’s another could-have-been-amazing comic that will only exist in my imagination.
We also see the beginning of Hal Jordan’s relationship with Carol Ferris, see the Suicide Squad in action, witness the shockingly different birth of Steel and discover that the strange island from the beginning of the story has gotten even stranger, and may harbor a potential world-destroying threat. A lot happens in this chapter, Amy!
I’m curious. What did you think of Steel’s origin story? It’s true to history, but so much darker, sadder and more disturbing than his traditional origin. It’s basically a story about vengeance, which you don’t typically see with Steel, and which completely lacks the optimism that underlies much of the rest of the book. And yet, that’s probably appropriate considering that racism and segregation were still very much alive in the ‘50s and African-Americans did NOT have the opportunities for success that whites did in America.
Amy: It was a packed chapter, for sure, and featured my favorite ever description of Rick Flagg from Hal: "Even this guy's hair stands at attention." Ha!
On a more serious note, Steel's origin surprised me. Like you said, it's darker and so close to our past (and sometimes our present) that it hits you in a different way. What happened to him sort of balanced the optimism. It made me realize that no matter what positive steps are being taken in the world that the whole planet isn't on board yet; the work is never done.
Tim: And now we start to see the cracks hidden by America’s shiny exterior. While the nation is thriving and its potential literally cannot be contained, we have a real distrust of outsiders. I can’t help but think that this chapter, both the Martian Manhunter and the Wonder Woman segments, seem to have taken on even greater relevance today and the attitude we’re seeing towards immigration in our country and others.
Of course, it’s not all heavy. We also have the great Hal Jordan sequence. We’re going to Mars! Or, uh, we are in the comic…
Amy: J'onn attending the cinema to share emotions with the humans also watching the show really struck me. It was a sweet way to connect with the people of Earth. And him cracking up at the portrayal of the Martians? Just priceless.