I read a lot of comic books as a kid. This series of posts is about the comics I read, and, occasionally, the comics that I should have read.

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In my estimation, 2004 was a pretty lousy year for superhero comic books from the big two publishers, DC and Marvel. Sales were in their extended descent, leading writers, artists, and editors to consistently resort to the desperation of cheap sensationalism. DC was building their major event comic for the year around the rape and murder of a character who belonged to a more innocent time, and Marvel was operating with a similarly eager bloodlust, building nonsensical storylines designed to do little more than stir internet ire. Any sense of wonder that once existed in those colorful pages was almost entirely obscured by the cynical marauding across the shared universes by creators whose prevailing attitude toward characters and readers alike was pure disdain. Amongst all this printed misery came a little miracle called DC: The New Frontier.

Darwyn Cooke, the writer and artist on the series, had dipped his toe in comics briefly during the nineteen-eighties, but he really made his name working on the various acclaimed Warner Bros. animation series featuring iconic DC superheroes. That was enough to revive the publisher’s interest in Cooke as a comic book creator, and they came to him with one of his old pitches, a nice reversal of the usual process. From there, Cooke was off, delivering distinctive, visually resplendent work. At that time, writer Grant Morrison’s run on JLA had revived the classic DC concept the Justice League of America. Following their standard strategy off relentlessly striking upon the iron that has experienced even the mildest temperature increase, DC asked Cooke if he wanted to do his own take on the characters. After considering it, Cooke decided the only way he could approach such a project was by looking to the past, explaining to The Comics Journal, “We were…at a point where a lot of the characters had been dragged through the mud, and I realized that I didn’t want to deal with all the continuity that had been heaped on them. I thought, well one way to do that is to tell a story in the past, before all that shit happened.” The result is nothing less than the best superhero comic book story of at least the past fifteen years.

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More specifically, DC: The New Frontier is uniquely successful because it’s one of the rare instances of a comic book story created by someone who understands the core appeal of the characters and the resonant fictional universe in which they reside. Taking place in a roughly decade-and-a-half span following World War II, the story is jointly shaded by the booming technological leaps of the Space Age and the spooked angst of the Cold War. Mostly, though, it is defined by its embrace of the comparative simplicity of the comic sagas of the distant era, before Marvel came along and introduced multi-part stories, complicated continuity, and layers of psychological fretting. Those are all worthy contributions, but once Marvel became the dominant commercial force in the field, DC frantically tried to graft those qualities onto their own comics, often without really thinking about whether or not the transplant would take. There’s a directness to most of the DC Comics characters — an archetypal simplicity, even — that causes the stylistic dressing of Marvel to sit awkwardly. The DC heroes are built for adventure, not wounded stewing.

Cooke understood that, and structured his tale accordingly. That doesn’t mean it’s overly nostalgic, basic, or childish. Instead, it moves with purpose and clarity, finding nuance within the the pillars of truth, justice, and the American way, just as the best Westerns of old Hollywood cut countless appealingly different paths across the same landscape of good guys versus bad guys. Cooke’s storytelling feels appealingly modern with offering a clucking implicit commentary on the hokiness of the characters’ past exploits, a common affliction of comics similarly reflecting back across the eras. Grant Morrison will expound on his love of the wild imagination to be found in Silver Age DC Comics stories, but in practice his writing intended to serve as a celebration of those bygone periodicals too often suffers from a helpless, insistent declaration of intellectual superiority that undercuts the affection. In DC: The New Frontier, Cooke doesn’t pander or condescend. He meets his inspiration with a commitment to his own voice and sensibility, but also a genuine respect for the foundation of the characters. In doing so, he rediscovered what was special about them in the first place. Plenty of writers have taken cracks at making Wonder Woman more relevant, usually through trying to save her from her own past by applying misunderstood feminism, but Cooke makes the task look effortless by focusing on the goddess strength that was built right in from panel one.

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To their credit, DC clearly understood that Cooke was a singular talent and gave him ample opportunity to careen through their playground, including a marvelous issue of the late, lamented series Solo. Unfortunately, they didn’t seem to grasp that he was providing them with the blueprint for their entire line and indeed their attempts to carry the characters into the cutthroat media galaxy outside of the printed page. There are recent descendants — the revamped Batgirl, as written by Cameron Stewart and Brenden Fletcher, and the recent television crossover of the Flash and Supergirl — but they usually seem to have escaped unnoticed by DC Entertainment overlords, or were at least produced with no more than begrudging approval while fiscal resources were steam-shovelled into the preferred murky mayhem. There was only one Darwyn Cooke, and his talent was majestic. But there were lessons to be learned from his finest work. With any luck, they may be learned yet.

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Previous entries in this series (and there are a LOT of them) can be found by clicking on the “My Misspent Youth” tag.

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