DC: The New Frontier – Absolute Edition


Superman lays down his shit

DC – The New Frontier is a comic lover’s dream comic, a daring project that reinterprets the unchecked ambition and four-colour inventiveness of the 1950s.

That DC chose to make this tale available in its premier Absolute format is no surprise; it’s one of the best comics of the last two decades, effortlessly tweaks the origins of the DC Universe and built up so much word-of-mouth momentum from its unheralded release as a six-part mini-series that its over-sized slipbound re-release was a formality.

What a cover!

For those of you not aware of what the Absolute format is, it’s quite simply as good as it gets; the finest stories printed on the finest paper. The sky-high price, around £70, means that comic book creators need a career-defining performance to be included, and that is precisely what writer-artist Darwyn Cooke delivered.

Filtered through a Technicolor baby-boomer nostalgia, it becomes a biting and gorgeous social commentary that saddles itself between high art and mainstream emotion.

Cooke has taken a dead genre and reinvigorated it, crafting a delightfully seminal comic, a pitch-perfect homage to the work of Julie Schwartz, Gardner Fox and the rest of those luminaries.

What a Super guy!

Those simplistic and ultimately idealistic yarns are bathed in a Time-Life gloss, Eisenhower-era relics as quaintly distant as bobby socks and tail-fin Chevrolets. Cooke lovingly recreates the idiosyncrasies within those battered old pages with his Sprang-isms but underneath there lies a sly and subversive work.

He deconstructs the perfect facade of optimism that fuelled 50s America, and approaches the artwork with an antiquated style, all the time burying underneath it with subtle insinuation. This is a vastly entertaining masterpiece that is intimate, accessible, and passionate.

That's social commentary that is. In a comic

The best time frame for these character, the era where they belong, is the Silver Age. Obviously as modern readers we are past the whizz-bangery of heroes like Adam Strange and the Atom. The fantastic situations that Superman and Batman found themselves in made for a wacky cover shot, but seem dated now. The maniacal gimmickiness of the villains gave us a buzz when we were kids, but who wants to see the Flash outpace a freeze ray in 2007?

I took this picture dontchaknowBut what Cooke does is take the crisp enthusiasm that DC editor Julie Scwartz had for a new decade, that unerring ability to make the familiar seem vibrant, and dazzles us with his historical perspective. This is a time when heroes like Hal Jordan and the Challengers of the Unknown had the Right Stuff, but it’s also the time of McCarthyism and racial prejudice – and the way the Martian J’onn J’onzz needs to hide himself among us evokes thoughts of Reds under the bed and hatred of another just because of the colour of his skin.

This was the best of times and the worst of times for America and Cooke captures that. The country had seemed so certain about it’s place in the world after WWII as the defender of truth and justice, and that’s the mantle Superman usually takes up. Yet the Superman we see here isn’t the one we are used to, he is questioning his role, we see him in a Third World Asian country wondering what he is doing there.

The New Frontier looks at the 1950s from a contemporary perspective and as we are sucked into those supposedly outdated social mores, it asks whether things have changed that much.

Superman and Wonder Woman

This is a parameter-pushing modern classic. A comics buff will appreciate the way Cooke recreates the period but you don’t need to be steeped in 50s comics lore to feel the emotional depth of the work. The closing pages where Cooke simply quotes John F Kennedy’s New Frontier speech in full, set to some stirring visuals, is incredibly poignant.

The New Frontier

This is an audacious triumph of style, and Cooke deserves enormous credit for resuscitating a long-ago laughed-off era. He is trying to see now what guys like Schwartz and Fox saw then but were unable to fully realise because of the time, respecting the artifice but tearing it away to reveal the grand passion but also the small-minded prejudice that nurtured in a conflicting climate of repression and optimism.


About bobmitchellinthe21stcentury

i am a mild-mannered reporter and a part-time bar man. guinness is my drink. john wayne is my hero. i am kind to animals
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7 Responses to DC: The New Frontier – Absolute Edition

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  5. Rick says:

    Too bad you’re utterly wrong. The art is wonderful; the writing, unfortunately, is utter crap. The story goes nowhere. And the revisionist portrayals of Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman merely repeat the modern tropes which conveniently ignore the personalities that these characters displayed for the first 20-40 years of their careers before fanboys became writers and had to try to legitimize their interest in superheroes by pretending to make “realistic” stories about me who can fly and wear tights in the street.

  6. bobmitchellinthe21stcentury says:

    It’s clear to me you haven’t a clue about comics Rick. Revisionist portrayals of Superman and Batman that conveniently ignore the personalities they displayed for the first 20 or 40 years? That would take us to that late 1950s or late 1970s. Do you really not know that the characters’ personalities had changed many times by then? Revisionism didn’t start in the 1980s Rick. Superman started off as a chauvanist who would slap women ande couldn’t fly. Batman thought nothing of shooting bad guys and tossing them in vats of acid. What you mistakenly think of as the definitive versions of those characters are entirely revisionist. Anyone who understands the history of comics, and I don’t include yourself in this, knows the essence of these characters is that they are continually in flux. By the time we get to the 1970s, the era that you bizarrely seem to think revisionism started in, Superman had already been a cold-hearted bastard who would toss bad guys out windows and threaten them with torture; he had been the socialist crusader of the 1930s; the patriot of the 1940s; the sci-fi dad of the 1950s; the troubled cosmic seeker of the 1970s. The lone dark knight of the 1930s is nothing like the space-borne, time-travelling extended family Batman of the 1950s or the high-camp of the mid-1960s.
    I suspect you simply haven’t understood what Darwyn Cooke was doing. You’ve not been able to place it in the context of Silver Age comics or even contemporary American history. And he gets to the very essence of Superman, how he is the ultimate immigrant, someone who finds meaning in the American tradition of welcoming a hotpot of cultures to those shores, somone who goes on to defend the traditions of that country. Superman isn’t about flying and wearing tights.
    All I can suggest is you read it again, go a bit slower and try to understand it.

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