Ricky Church continues his countdown to Justice League with Darwyn Cooke’s DC: The New Frontier…
Over the years there has been a lot of stories that has told how the Justice League first became a team. I already went over Justice League: Origin in my countdown as a modern-day story for the team’s first adventure. This story, however, flashes back to the Silver Age of heroes in the 50s and 60s in a unique and compelling tale by the late and great Darwyn Cooke in DC: The New Frontier.
Taking place in a time period of great division in America, Cooke took inspiration from Alan Moore’s Watchmen where heroes are banned by government when the Red Scare and McCarthyism swept the nation. Only government sanctioned heroes, like Superman and Wonder Woman, operate while Batman does so illegally and many of the other heroes have retired or gone into hiding. As new heroes begin emerging, an ancient threat wakes up and threatens the world, forcing the heroes to band together.
One of the best aspects of The New Frontier is how DC’s trinity only play supporting roles in the story. Outside of a few scenes, Batman isn’t in the story that much and Superman and Wonder Woman mostly remain on the sidelines. This story really belongs to Green Lantern, The Flash and Martian Manhunter, detailing their origins in some very interesting ways. J’onn J’onzz’s arc is very much the heart and soul of the book as he traverses through humanity’s complexities to better adapt. He adopts a human appearance as Detective John Jones, but becomes disillusioned as he witnesses America’s intolerance of masked heroes and systemic racism. There’s a nice payoff where his faith is renewed in an unlikely person, forming a friendship with government agent King Faraday that makes it a highlight of the story.
Cooke delves deep into Hal Jordan’s character, reworking him as a pacifist in the Korean War who was forced to make his first kill just as the armistice was called. The New Frontier chronicles Jordan’s journey as a somewhat disgraced soldier with PTSD to a Green Lantern. The arc is pretty well-thought out as Jordan is made a relatable and easy to root for character. He just wants to do what’s right, though is still a little too arrogant for some people. His talk with fallen Green Lantern Abin Sur is enlightening though, emphasizing the differing ways people can be brave, like his refusal to take life even in the most dangerous of circumstances. It is a very satisfying moment when he finally becomes a fully-fledged Green Lantern.
Flash, meanwhile, is already a superhero at the start, but struggles with being accepted by society and the government since he’s an illegal vigilante. Cooke’s portrayal of Barry is very charismatic and, like J’onn, has a lot of heart. There’s a scene where he makes an impassioned plea to the country over the turn society has taken, becoming so fearful of others who are different when they’re only trying to help. Its one of the book’s best written scenes and focuses on a lot of the story’s themes, also revealing Barry’s development as a superhero. Aside from having an interesting arc, Flash also has some very cool moments, such as his fight with Captain Cold or being the key to the Justice League’s victory in the climax.
Cooke not only wrote The New Frontier, but illustrated it as well. The book, if you couldn’t already tell from the images above, is full of great imagery that brings the style of the Silver Age to life. His work on J’onn’s shape-shifting abilities, as well as his true form, are great to look at, such as the sequence where J’onn transforms into the form of many popular television icons. His depiction of Batman also captures his frightful appearance, but Cooke even makes that part of Batman’s evolution from his first costume to a more ‘acceptable’ one, saying he only wants to frighten criminals, not children.
Cooke’s facial expressions also stand out and he does a good job depicting the style of the 50s and 60s, whether it’s through fashion, buildings or hair. One of the best aspects about his artwork, though, is how he shows off Flash’s speed. You really get the sense of how fast Barry can run and the confidence he has in his abilities. One of the best examples is in the fight with Captain Cold.
There are plenty of ancillary characters and cameos throughout as well. Justice Society heroes have short cameos or small roles, but one of the best side stories comes from John Irons, aka Steel, reimagined as a vigilante in America’s south fighting against the Ku Klux Klan. His is a compelling and heartbreaking tale that reinforces The New Frontiers themes.
Despite some of the dour moments of the story, The New Frontier has a really uplifting message about coming together and putting aside differences. Cooke conveys the sense of heroism in superheroes and ordinary people alike with the hopefulness of creating a better and accepting world. Closing with JFK’s famous ‘New Frontier’ speech, with the backdrop of the next generation of heroes, encapsulates everything Cooke was striving for in this story.
Overall, The New Frontier is another celebration of DC’s Silver Age and a highly entertaining and thought-provoking story with strong character development and themes. The story was also adapted as the animated film Justice League: The New Frontier, recently re-released as a Commemorative Edition. It definitely deserves its Eisner Award winning status and stands as a testament to Cooke’s writing and artistic legacy. This is a book that newcomers and longtime fans will really enjoy for its characters and depth.