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.
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.
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.
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?
But 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.
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.
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.