DC Comics' sales soared in 2011 with their New 52 reboot, but the best reworking of the DC Universe in recent years may be Darwyn Cooke's thought-provoking reimagining of comicdom's Silver Age. It's a tale nostalgic for a past that looked to the future with hope. So mix a Tom Collins, kick back in your space age egg chair, cue Sinatra, and fly yourself to the Utopia Casino in Vegas, where Bruce Wayne, a hawkish Lois Lane, Carol Ferris, Hal Jordan, Selina Kyle, Oliver Queen, Richard Flagg, and "Ace" Morgan find Ted "Wildcat" Grant's post-title-bout party interrupted by a supervillain– and the new Flash. It's Supermen meet Mad Men as the 1950s roll into the 1960s. People look to tomorrow while an ancient menace threatens the planet.
A prologue takes place during the dying days of the Second World War. Soldiers find themselves on an island inhabited by prehistoric beasts. These remote "lost worlds," so common to comics and cheesy pop culture, never really made sense. Why don't the pterodactyls ever fly elsewhere? How do creatures from so many different ecosystems and eras coexist in a small space? The author actually comes up with an explanation. Chilling in its implications, it connects the decade-spanning, disparate plot threads, and provides the threat that will bring heroes together.
With the end of the war, many of those heroes have retired. Boy scout Superman and an Amazon-sized Wonder Woman have made an uneasy agreement with the American government, so that "U.S. foreign policy" is "being covertly enforced by an immortal and an alien." Batman has returned to the shadows, while an alien stranger arrives in Gotham and becomes a detective who hopes to avoid detection. New heroes face McCarthyist attitudes, racism pervades the society, and 1950s movies do extra-terrestrials no favors. However, our strange visitor becomes aware of a menace to our world, and he understands that he must act. Gotham's most famous detective, meanwhile, is arriving at the same conclusion. Disparate individuals, super-powered and not (DC's second-string characters, many of them non-powered, play key roles in this tale), must join forces against the rising threat.
The New Frontier writes postcards to postwar dreams, heroic aspirations, and childhood fantasies, while remembering that the Silver Age of comics also occurred against a backdrop of world tensions, political and racial hysteria, and uncomfortable changes. Its characters are at once familiar and fresh, and the fantasy coexists with and reflects upon real-world concerns.
Despite the vast number of characters, some strong instances of characterization may be found. Few writers have better understood Wonder Woman, here a warrior both radical and conservative. Her friendship with Superman remains genuine and strong, strained though it may be by their differing world views. These characters have too much in common not to like each other.
The highly stylized artwork captures exactly the feel of this story. Perfect cartoon images fill the pages: finned rockets in space, police chases in Gotham, racist rednecks in Mayberryesque backwaters, a vengeful Wonder Woman in Indo-China, cocktails and cigars in stylish lounges. Hal Jordan lies low in an Art Deco motel in the desert, an aging Wildcat exchanges punches with the young Cassius Clay in 1950s Vegas, Superman punches out a toy-like giant robot in Tokyo Bay. No matter how far-fetched the fantasy, this world looks like something that should have existed.
Certainly, the sprawling plot has its flaws. The story goes to great lengths, for example, to explain why DC's powerful magical heroes have no part to play. While a certain gathering of mages on the moon is not without its charm, these interludes feel forced and overly ridiculous, and they clutter an already complicated story. Many of DC's magic characters did not interact with their superheroes back in the 1940s, while Captain Marvel's original adventures happened at another company altogether. I really wish Cooke would have left these characters out altogether. Elsewhere, he shows no qualms about raiding elements from other comic-book eras or rewriting history when it serves his story.
Nevertheless, the story's center holds. At its heart is a mystery worthy of H.P. Lovecraft, crossed with mid-twentieth-century pop SF and fantasy. This is a work of heartbreaking nostalgia for postwar dreams and an inspirational reconstruction of four-color heroism. The series demonstrates why heroes were so popular in that supposedly more innocent time, while questioning the reality of that innocence. The idea that, whatever our flaws, we can still reach for the stars, lives large in The New Frontier.
Title: DC: The New Frontier
Writer: Darwyn Cooke
Artists: Darwyn Cooke and Dave Stewart
First Published: 2004
Available as a limited-run comics series, a two-volume graphic novel set, and in an Absolute Edition.
The series was adapted into a direct-to-video animated film, Justice League: The New Frontier. It features an all-star voice cast and some fine moments, but it falls short of its source material.