Last week, we lost a true genius and my favorite comic book artist of all time, Darwyn Cooke. Darwyn was one of my personal inspirations and hearing of his passing was incredibly depressing. But it made me realize that I wanted to talk about one of Darwyn's best works, the DC Comics masterpiece known as The New Frontier. I'd also argue that New Frontier is the best Justice League story ever, with JLA Year One coming in as a close second. And what makes New Frontier so goshdarn great? Let's take a look, shall we?
PS: Even though we're talking about the comic book and not the animated movie based on it, I want to clarify that I really love the animated movie as well, it's just not as detailed or in depth as the book for obvious reasons.
10. Martian Manhunter
Martian Manhunter has always been a character I had trouble caring about. No matter how many comics I read about him, I just could not form an attachment to him. And then I read New Frontier and I realized, "Oh my god, why isn't J'onn J'onzz ALWAYS this interesting?"
The New Frontier version of Manhunter is a noble soul trapped in a world he never wanted to visit, who decides to go out and do good in that world. He absorbs all of earth’s media and decides that he wants to be a detective so he can catch bad guys. That's fantastic.
And his relationship with King Faraday is incredibly nuanced. Watching J'onn shape himself over the course of the book is fascinating and wonderful.
One could argue that he's the most developed character in the work. Or at least the second most developed, after"¦
9. War Over
Hal Jordan isn't exactly the most nuanced character in most stories. But New Frontier is not most stories.
Hal is arguably the main character of the piece, and it shows from his first scenes. A pilot in the Korean War known for his pacifism (he'll draw enemy planes into his allies’ sights, but would never shoot at them himself), Hal suffers a traumatic event when he's forced to shoot a young Korean soldier who doesn't know that the war ended two hours previously.
It's easily one of the best scenes in the book, as you can feel Hal's desperation to end the situation non-violently. And the end of the scene, in which Hal is found lying beside the man he killed repeating "War Over" in Korean,over and over again (the very words he was trying to remember during the struggle), is powerful and heartbreaking.
Hal's natural arc through the book, of overcoming his trauma and becoming a real hero as the Green Lantern, is incredibly well-realized. If someone asked me for the best Hal Jordan story I'd ever read, I'd hand them New Frontier in a heartbeat.
8. Analog Heroes
Recently, I've been reading my way through the Showcase Presents collection of The War That Time Forgot, which was a long-running feature about WWII soldiers stumbling across an island that’s mysteriously full of dinosaurs. I love comic books. But New Frontier's first chapter, the story of how WW2 team The Losers met their end on the island is legitimately heartbreaking.
Darwyn Cooke is able to create an immediate sense of attachment to these characters we've just met, especially Cloud, who is the last Loser standing by the end.
If you told me there was a way to make Dinosaur Island the setting of a heartbreaking story of brotherhood and friendship, I would have laughed in your face. But by god, Cooke does it. It also gives Rick Flagg excellent motivation for his actions throughout the rest of the book. Plus, his insistence on naming the Mars mission be named Project Flying Cloud makes me choke up.
Oh, and the last page of the dinosaur island segment is absolutely beautiful on every single level possible. Perfection.
7. Challengers and Losers
While I'm talking about New Frontier as the best Justice League story, it does wonders for the rest of the DCU as well.
The Challengers of the Unknown are a major part of the book, especially Ace, who is arguably more important as a character than most of the actual Justice Leaguers in the book. I usually like the IDEA of the Challengers more than I like them in practice, but again, New Frontier changes that. The men living on borrowed time come off as real heroes who may lack powers but will still hit the front lines to fight for the safety of the world.
And it's not just them. As I previously mentioned, the Losers get a pitch perfect tribute in this. But so does a group I never thought I'd see realized in the modern age: the Suicide Squad. No, not THAT Suicide Squad, I mean the original. The OSS military unit composed mostly of crazies and war criminals who predate the supervillain one by about 20 years.
The original Suicide Squad are integral to this book and get incredibly fitting sendoffs. Again, Cooke seems to have real love for every corner of the fifties and sixties DC universe, even the ones most people have forgotten about.
Source: The New Frontier
6. A Graphic Novel in the Literal Sense
New Frontier is a novel in every way. In scope. In quality. But especially in terms of structure.
If the chapter headings weren't enough to prove that point, the constant shifts in perspective and multi-layered stories should be. There are so many storylines in New Frontier that I could do a top ten list of just those.
The story of John Henry is incredibly powerful and is there to remind the reader that the time period of the story was hardly idealistic. Racial prejudice was at horrifying levels and the battle for civil rights was still being fought. It's a necessary thing to address, but the John Henry story goes farther and becomes a moving piece on its own, with a suitably tragic ending.
The Adam Strange subplot consists of two moments in the entire book but it's still fascinating, and I kinda want more of it. The Flash is pitch perfect and his arc of accepting his role as a hero is inspiring. Superman coming to terms with the fact his morals might not always line up with the government’s, Wonder Woman's role as a protector of all, Wildcat's last fight, it's all here.
There's an apocryphal story that New Frontier was the only DC Comic that Alan Moore liked reading at the time of its release, and that makes sense. New Frontier is the only comic I can think of besides Watchmen that has that true novelistic structure to it. And that's good company to be in.
5. The Lightening of the Dark Knight
Batman is barely in New Frontier. He pops up a couple of times, and each time it's clear that Darwyn absolutely gets the character.
Batman telling J'onn J'onzz that, to beat him, all he needs is "a penny for a book of matches" is sooooooo good. One of my personal favorite Batman lines. But more important is the way New Frontier shows the transition from "˜40s Batman to "˜50s and "˜60s Batman.
Why would the dark avenger of the night get a brighter costume and a kid sidekick so out of nowhere? One line absolutely nails the reasoning. "I set out to scare criminals, not children."
Perfection. Of course Batman would be crushed at the revelation that his appearance and demeanor was terrifying to children. Bruce Wayne's journey started as a scared kid in an alley, so of course he'd want to be a comforting presence to that scared kid sitting in the darkness. It's a perfect explanation for a change in character that holds true to the first moments of the character's origin.
Darwyn has worked with the Dark Knight before, and it's obvious from New Frontier just how much he gets the character, to his very core.
4. All Things Lead To The Centre
I already mentioned the opening chapter on Dinosaur Island, but I wanted to talk about how THE VILLAIN OF THE BOOK IS DINOSAUR ISLAND.
I love this.
Dinosaur Island, actually an alien creature called The Centre, decides that humans, having harnessed the power of atomic weapons, should no longer be tolerated. So, it realizes it needs to kill them all and leave the planet.
The best thing about The Centre is the ominous threat it poses throughout the first half of the piece. I have the first trade release, which split the series into two books, the first of which ends with the revelation that The Centre is A: real, and B: already on earth. It's a great villain, and one who doesn't start to trickle into the book until the universe is well established. A creepy villain with a wonderfully threatening atmosphere.
3.Embodies the Era
New Frontier is not just a story about the DC Universe, it's also a story about the fifties and sixties.
It's a story about the space race and about the red scare and about racism. Let's cover those one by one, shall we?
The space race stuff is clearly the most important, as it relates most strongly to the main plot. The secret of Ferris Aircraft and Operation: Flying Cloud are both steeped in pulp sci-fi imagery, and the flight of the Flying Cloud is beautiful, even when it all goes tragically wrong. The Red Scare influences the government paranoia that drives characters like Faraday and Flagg to their actions. The anti-communist sentiment haunts New Frontier from a looming distance. The evils of racism are mostly contained to the John Henry plotline, but they are what gives the plot such a strong impact.
It's weird how a handful of scenes can be so moving, but then New Frontier is an unparalleled work in its field.
Source: The New Frontier
2. The Epilogue
The Ending of New Frontier is emblematic of the entire preceding book. The epilogue consists of selected scenes from around the DC Universe, while JFK's famous New Frontier speech (from which the title for the book was taken) is printed over the events.
It's the perfect representation of every DC character it covers. It shows what is to come, from the good to the bad. Horrors like the Joker and Luthor, new heroes like Steel and Rick Flagg Jr. We see Superman welcoming Martian Manhunter to earth, but we also see how much progression was still remaining.
Segregation, the doomsday clock, corporate America's rise, but we also see the heroes who will guide us through that time, from Metamorpho to the Metal Men.
Also, the panel with Rick Flagg Jr. legit makes me tear up every single damn time.
1. Darwyn Cooke
Darwyn Cooke will be remembered as one of the greatest talents of our time. His art was inspiring and beautiful and his writing was by turns thrilling and novelistic,but always rooted in a love of comic books.
An astounding visual storyteller, he knew how to put together a page like no one else. I read New Frontier again, just wanting to remember Darwyn, but I came away from it with so much more respect for Cooke's capabilities as a writer and an artist than I had before.
I don't even think New Frontier is his best work (his Parker series is absolutely incredible) and doesn't that say it all? He wrote and drew what I consider to be the best Justice League story of all time and it wasn't even the best he had to offer.
New Frontier is one of my favorite comics of all time, and Darwyn's artwork and writing meant a lot to me. When I first heard the news of Cooke's illness, I tweeted out something that I felt was the best way I could put my feelings: "When I close my eyes and picture the DC Universe, I see it the way Darwyn Cooke drew it." Tons of people have written about Cooke in the last few days, but I wanted to add my voice to the chorus.
Thank you for what you gave us, Darwyn, you will be sorely missed.