Shiny Shelf


DC: The New Frontier

By Mark Clapham on 20 February 2004

WARNING! Contains spoilers!

Some ideas are as good or as bad as the execution. So much of ‘New Frontier’ sounds terrible in abstract – but in the hands of writer/artist/genius Darwyn Cooke, this may well be the superhero series of the year.

In synopsis form, this is a deeply unpromising concept. The Golden Age generation of DC heroes – the Justice Society of America, the Losers, all those other WWII heroes – ceases to exist after the war is over. Some die, some are persecuted by HUAC, others choose to disappear. A decade later, test pilot Hal Jordan represents a new age of heroism, trying to do the right thing in the Korean war, long before he inherited the Green Lantern ring.

Doesn’t sound good, does it? The stuff of fanboy continuity, the kind of thing you would expect from John Byrne’s ‘Generations’ books, or numerous poor Elseworlds comics. The details of the issue make it sound even worse; the first half is entirely occupied with the fall of war comic non-entities the Losers, while an iconic punch-up between Superman and Batman is illustrated with one picture and a newspaper article. In fact, the only costumed heroes in the entire book turn up in those news articles – the rest is about soldiers and pilots, with the exception of a couple of glimpses of (of all people!) the Golden Age Hourman. As comic books go, this is hardly capitalising on DC’s biggest, most recognisable brands.

But here’s where the talent shines through – in Cooke’s hands, what could so easily be incomprehensible fanfic is iconic and brilliant. The Losers’ final mission is surprisingly poignant, channelling the authentic spirit of the best war comics. I’d hate to spoil the surprise, but the story does drift into fantasy territory – and when it does, the result is a perfect ’sense of wonder’ moment. The climax to the Losers’ story has a breathtaking page, and the feeling of an era ending. After a brief interlude marking the end of the Golden Age, the next section evokes a different kind of wonder altogether, as a young Hal Jordan meets a real-life hero. The issue ends with an adult Hal in Korea, his innocence lost in an unfortunate incident after hostilities are supposed to have ended.

All this may seem, in abstract, a bit hit and miss, a mess of thrown-together references and obscure characters, but if Cooke has one key quality as a creator, it’s a gift for precision. The storytelling is precisely paced, the themes solidly laid out. Each line of dialogue and detail in the art is perfectly placed. Cooke’s art has been controversial with fans overly enamoured with more ‘realistic’ or ‘detailed’ art styles, as if quality is based on the level of cross-hatching on a page. Frankly, these people are a waste of good optic nerves, so lacking are they in visual appreciation and basic good taste. Cooke’s linework is pared down but with an elegance that belies its apparent simplicity.

Cooke’s art is as far from the blockbusting style of Hitch or Quitely as you can get, but nonetheless translates cinematic techniques to the page. His basic layout is three horizontal panels a page, each panel a ‘widescreen’ type image. Sometimes the central panel is broken up, a flurry of smaller boxes indicating frantic action. Occasionally, very occasionally, there’s a full page image, and then it’s always either a big set-up or payoff shot. The page that provides the big climax to the Losers’ story is particularly breathtaking. Structurally it’s a break from the frantic interlocking panels of his ‘Catwoman’ work, but it’s a style that gives the story breathing space and a unique pace. The combination of a writer/artist in perfect control of both sides of his craft is reminiscent of Frank Miller, even though the type of story Miller and Cooke choose to tell couldn’t be more different.

At this stage, it’s a little hard to see where ‘New Frontier’ is going. It’s about one era fading and another beginning, but it’s currently hard to tell whether there are real life parallels to be drawn, or whether Cooke’s story is concerned entirely with the interior logic of superhero comics. Either way, this issue shows a remarkable ability to produce moving, engaging stories about the least likely of subjects. After a debut like this, it’s hard to see the rest of ‘New Frontier’ being anything less than one of the standout series of 2004.


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By Mark Clapham

Mark Clapham is a Devon-based writer and editor. You can find out more about him at the egotistically named markclapham.com.




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