Review by Woodrow Phoenix
Darwyn Cooke’s work is rooted in a deep appreciation for the styles and methods of storytelling from the 1950s and 1960s. It’s almost impossible for any modern reader who picks up Justice League, Flash or Green Lantern comics from those decades to get past the basic plots, the corny attitudes and the often very dated visuals to see what a step forward they were for superheroes. So Cooke decided to revisit that period and show us. The New Frontier retells the origins of those heroes who form the Justice League in a kind of alternate history of the DC Universe, from the so-called Golden Age in 1945 to the birth of the Silver Age which officially starts with the introduction of The Flash in 1956. This history weaves in a lot of real world events to contextualise the heroes and show how they all come into being as a response to their times, and elements of the various origin stories are revised to make them all parts of a bigger narrative. The New Frontier is a standalone story that requires no knowledge of old superhero comics at all. It’s a new parallel universe in Elseworlds style with its own versions of classic heroes.
In 1945, the US Army sends four men from a special unit known as The Losers to a remote pacific island to retrieve some vital intel. The team lives up to their name as they battle savage dinosaurs to complete their mission.Then in short episodes through the 1950s we find the hero Hourman arrested for being a masked vigilante; the US government cracks down on ‘subversive influences’, forcing the Justice Society of America to disband; Superman and Wonder Woman work as covert agents of the military, and only Batman continues to operate on his own terms while evading the law; a Martian is accidentally teleported to Earth; Barry Allen, a police scientist, is hit by lightning and becomes the Fastest Man Alive; Hal Jordan, ex-Korean War veteran, becomes a test pilot; in Tennessee, John Wilson, a Black man who survives a lynching by the Ku Klux Klan becomes a hooded symbol to exact his own justice.
All these and more are delivered in a fast-paced, hard-edged, dynamic series of widescreen panels stretching three to each page, giving the action room to unfold in deep compositions, drawn in a style that has echoes of Jack Kirby, Milton Caniff, and Alex Toth making it all feel authentically period-specific. But where the original stories skated over the uglier political and social realities of that era, Cooke folds those in too. A nationwide paranoid suspicion of ‘the other’ makes life wretched for anyone not white and male. Women have few options, immigrants even fewer. Racist murders are commonplace. Inequality is everywhere but it’s communism and unAmerican to notice it. Acknowledging these things fleshes out his heroes into more nuanced characters than their original conceptions because they have a lot more to overcome. Wonder Woman towers over Superman, but she still can’t escape his paternal, sexist ideas about how she should behave. Volume one of two ends with all the story strands merging to reveal a terrifying threat to all human existence. How can anyone defeat it?
DC: The New Frontier has been reprinted in a confusing number of slightly different forms. Two separate volumes; a single collected Deluxe edition featuring over 100 pages of extras; the same collected material in a ‘Black Label’ edition; and an oversized, hardcover Absolute Edition. Whichever version you choose, it’s top work, with multiple Eisner and Harvey awards to prove it. If you like superheroes, read this.