Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Darwyn Cooke takes a new look at DC Comics Silver Age in DC:The New Frontier

DC Comics has a rich history of characters to pull stories from. Probably none more than from the Silver Age(There are 4 ages in comics, Golden Age 1938-1955, Silver Age 1956-1970, Bronze Age 1970-75 and Modern Age 1976-Present).

It is with these characters that writer/illustrator Darwyn Cooke writes and illustrates the New Frontier. Originally a six-issue Award winning(Eisner Award, Harvey Award, & a Joe Shuster Award) mini series published between 2003-2004. Then in 2004-2005 it was released in a two trade paper back volumes. Then in 2006 it was released in an Absolute Edition. It is this Absolute Edition that I am reviewing here There also was an adaptation into a direct to DVD animated movie in 2008.

The story begins in last days of World War II when a four man team called the Losers, attached to the Office of Strategic Services(O.S.S. the forerunner to the C.I.A.) are sent to find one of the many German Scientist captured near the end of the war by the Americans(it should also be noted that many of these scientist fell into the hands of the Russian to which would begin the race to the stars between America and Russia) and the soldiers that were suppose to bring him back to America This Brings them to an unnamed and unknown island in the Pacific. One filled with dinosaurs. It is this island that was featured on the DC Comic's Star Spangled War Stories(1952-77) in which soldiers(and not always American soldiers) of WWII would find themselves on this island and battling dinosaurs. At the cost of the lives of the Losers(the full splash page of Loser, Flying Cloud jumping in the mouth of a T-Rex with grenades is eye candy for sure). The only survivor a Colonel Flagg of the original team sent to get the scientist gets off the island with the information the American sorely need.

From there we jump to the beginning the of the Red Scare were the heroes of the Golden Age have been accused of having communist sympathies and have been ask to report to congress and unmask. Though most choose retirement some risk Federal jail time since President Eisenhower has officially outlawed vigilantes. The choice is either sign an loyalty oath or jail. Of the Golden Age Heroes only Superman and Wonder Woman sign these oaths. Batman refuse and is branded a federal criminal(Superman attempts capture him but fails). But is the death of hero Hourman that causes even more fear.

Not only is the Red Scare integrated into this story of the Silver Age but so is the issue of Race. To do that Cooke has brilliantly introduced the one character that was not introduced in the Silver but the Modern Age(during the Death of Superman story line), John Wilson. Wilson was a vet of the Korean War who after the war worked in a local machine shop, married when him and his family was attacked by the Ku Klux Klan. Wilson was hanged by the Klan as he watched his wife and daughter burn to death in their house. But he survived to become the vigilante "John Henry" who took his name after John Henry an American Folk Hero. Wearing a black hood and the noose that he was hung with around his neck and with a large sledge hammer as a weapon made war on the Klan

It also is in this period we see the introduction and origins of DC's Silver Age greatest known characters like Hal Jordan aka The Green Lantern, Barry Allen aka The Flash, J'onn J'onnz aka The Martian Manhunter, The Challengers of the Unknown, The Suicide Squad, and finally The Justice League of America.

It is among these introduction that all over the world cults are arising to worship something called the Centre. This includes psychic assaults on people especially those people with high I.Q's(scientists and the like), imaginations(artists, writers) and those with telepathic abilities(the most accessible) bringing a threat that could wipe out the entire human race.

A threat that will take the combined efforts of these heroes and more. But before they can face this threat they must first deal with a government that fears them so much that they want to capture and study them or imprison them(One attempt is made to capture the Flash).

With New Frontier Darwyn has done more than re imagine the Silver Age characters here. He in injected a realism that the real Silver Age Comics never had by adding in the Red Scare(though heroes did fight spies back then it was simple, if you weren't American or for democracy you were the bad guy plain and simple) and race issue(if race was ever brought up aliens were used but never blacks) and not only making it apply to communists and blacks but to heroes, both human and non-human.

It is also a story of the courage of convictions. Staying true who you are and standing up for what you believe despite the personal costs. And that is why this story would not have the same effect it does set in any other era. In the backdrop of the Red Scare and race issue it brings these values forward in way that could not be done or done as well in the Modern Age of comics.

On the surface the fifties were an idealize time. A time when the American dream meant any one could achieve their dreams. But in reality the U.S. even the world was fighting to find it's place in the world in the post war era. Man has harnessed the atom making the world a dangerous place with ideologies that were just has dangerous. Were a person could be persecuted for their believes either by what the said or who they associated with or both. Even though the world mostly at peace it was a fragile peace that could be broken over ideologies more than ever.

We see here the beginning of some of DC greatest characters in a new light. Each characters gets there moment to shine in this 406 page story. Darwyn has fleshed out these characters beautifully. With each one we see their fears, strengths and weaknesses. And not just the major characters but the minor ones as well. Thankfully Darwyn was giving the room to to tell this story and to give each and every character a voice all their own. And those voices sound just like they are in the fifties. Watch any old show from the fifties and then read this. It would be hard to believe that this story wasn't actually written in the same time. And that is an amazing feat considering Darwyn was born until 1962. But his love of the comics of that time period come through. You can tell he must have read this old comics as a kid. With each character you are truly invested in their outcome even though we know where these characters end(especially if your an comic geek like me)and that isn't easy to do.

Then there is the art. Darwyn has again captured the time period down to a tee(in one scene early on we see a young Hal Jordan wearing a Hop Harrigan watch as he meets Chuck Yeager). The cars, the clothes, the hair styles, the entire era is drawn so damn beautifully. The amount of research must have been amazing. Each panel is an piece of art on to itself but put it together you have one the most it creates a story so vivid words are almost not needed to tell the story.

Also should take the time to mention the colorist Dave Stewert. His colors bring alive Darwyn's art.

New Frontier is probably one of my favorite graphic novels from the last 10 years. I am a huge fan of the Silver Age(as well as the Golden, Bronze and Modern) of comics. It is the Silver Age the re-introduced The Flash and Green Lantern two of my favorite characters from DC. Not just re-introduced them but gave them an all new look and new secret identities(The Golden Age GL was Alan Scott and the Flash was Jay Garrick both with entirely different look. Also should note that of all the Golden Age characters Superman, Wonder Woman, Batman, Aquaman and Green Arrow are the only heroes that did not get a make over in the Silver Age except maybe a slight change in costumes.).

Not only does the Absolute Edition have the entire 406 page graphic novel but shows both front and back covers of the original mini series, gives complete annotations to every character, place and other things, character sketches which includes art never seen in the original mini. And finally some behind the scenes stuff which includes thumbnail sketches, pencil layouts with inked pages to final colored page and unpublished sequences and more. Also has a black tassel to use as a book mark.

This is a graphic novel I highly recommend to any one is a fan of 1)comics, 2)DC Comics and 3)in particular the Silver Age of DC. This is a graphic novel that I have read and re-read over and over. And between the first and last page I still am drawn into this story as if I am reading it for the first time. I can watch the animated movie(by the way they did a wonderful job of adapting this massive graphic novel) and immediately want to pick up the novel. It is that good. There aren't many books(though I tend to reread comics more than books) that I will read over and over like that. And now after typing this I want to reread it again. Go figure.

1 comment:

  1. I hear Darwyn Cooke did justice to Eisner's Spirit recently.

    It's nice that superhero fiction mirrors politics/history of the age.

    It's fun reading.