Friday, June 8, 2007

Book Review: Darwyn Cooke's The New Frontier - The Absolute Edition

October 2006 saw the re-release of Darwyn Cooke's six issue comic book series, The New Frontier, in one giant, gorgeous hardbound volume. Cooke, a former storyboard artist on 'Batman The Animated Series,' had long been lauded for the unique blend of elegance and dynamo that he achieved in his artwork. What folks rarely seemed to mention, though, was how damn good of a writer he also was. Cooke's film noir-inspired Catwoman series and his one-shot fill-in issues on Spiderman's Tangled Web and X-Statix remain some of my favorite comics from the past ten years. Still, even these did not prepare me for the scope and skill he would show in his first limited series, The New Frontier.
Essentially a re-telling of the Justice League's formation, The New Frontier also manages to blend 1950's race politics, the Red Scare, and a dinosaur-populated monster island into one awe inspiring, epic superstory. Where most comics today tend to try to deconstruct the medium, Cooke seems more interested in re-constructing many of the 'silver age' elements that had been discarded over the years -- space age science, pulp heroics, sweeping romance and an overall sense of wonder. Costume clad heroes both familiar and obscure pop up throughout. Some only appear briefly, in 10-20 page solo stories. Others weave in and out of the main mystery in an almost Altman-esque manner, finally converging en masse at the end of the book for a 'We Are The World'-of-superfriends battle to save the planet. A few of the standout story lines are the Martian Manhunter's arrival on Earth and his awkward assimilation of its culture, Hal Jordan's transformation into the Green Lantern, and the Challengers of the Unknown's beginning and (spoiler alert!) end.
Oh, and then there's the art. Ignore the word bubbles, and the book feels like a collection of long-lost pre-production art to some never-made superhero extravaganza from the glory days of the Hollywood studio system. Cooke's biggest artistic influence is clearly Bruce Timm (the mastermind behind the aforementioned Batman cartoon), but also evident in his work are the stylistic touches of Jack Kirby, Gil Kane and Carmine Infantino. In The New Frontier, Cooke uses bits of all these classic cartoonists' styles, blended with a bit of streamline moderne design and googie architecture, to perfectly capture the 'anything is possible' essence of the post-WWII United States. The over-sized, prestige format that DC has re-released the series in only adds to one's appreciation of the drawings. Instead of the awkward-looking inking that sometimes ruins the enlargement of comic book pages, the simple grace of Cooke's lines is actually enhanced by the blow up. Not only an engaging yarn, it also makes for a great coffee table conversation piece...if you trust your friends not to spill their drinks on it.

Included below are a couple of links to interviews with Darwyn Cooke from the around the time of The New Frontier's initial release. In them, Cooke details the inspirations for the series, as well as some of the hidden 'Easter eggs' readers might not have caught during their first read through.

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