Randy Lander's Reviews > Absolute DC: The New Frontier

Absolute DC by Darwyn Cooke
Rate this book
Clear rating

's review
Feb 05, 2009

it was amazing
bookshelves: graphic-novels, swanky-hardcovers, dc-superheroes

$75, and worth every penny. That’s my short review of Absolute DC: The New Frontier, the oversized, hardcover collection of Darwyn Cooke’s superhero magnum opus set in the DC Universe as the ’50s give way to the ’60s and the human adventurers give way to the Silver Age superheroes. Cooke, an animator by trade, made a quiet impression on the comics fans with Batman: Ego, and a slightly bigger one when he joined Ed Brubaker to relaunch and redefine Catwoman. The New Frontier was by far his biggest project in comics, though, and it shows off Cooke’s authorial voice, which is as informed by noir films in the ’30s and the Rat Pack vibe of the ’50s as it is the Silver Age comics of DC that he grew up on. The result is like a superhero period piece, evoking the truth of the era in a realistic vein while embracing the more simple heroic nobility that makes these heroes work in the first place.

At first glance, and indeed in my first reading of the book as single issues, this tonal clash was a little jarring. How could Superman be a government stooge ala Dark Knight Returns and Wonder Woman be participating in massacres in Indochina (no matter how justified), and yet Hal Jordan could be an air ace in the Korean War who unrealistically never fired his guns? And the story looked scattered, too, basically Cooke playing in the toy box, writing and drawing all these great obscure DC characters without any thought to an overarching plot. The story starts with the obscure war heroes The Losers on Dinosaur Island, for God’s sake!

Interior page from DC New FrontierBut… when you read the whole book, you see it all come together, and you can see that Cooke knew what he was doing from the outset. OK, Hal’s pacifism in the air is still a bit unrealistic, but when you’re writing a world full of Martians, magic space rings, amazons, mystery men and dinosaurs in the modern age, it’s an unrealistic quality that works. Superman may appear to be nothing more than a guy who gets in line with the government, bending his will to corrupt human leadership, but by the end, we see that Cooke has been planning to play up his inspiring qualities all along, even if part of his role is to fail so that he can more effectively pass the heroic icon torch to the next generation. It may seem self-indulgent to start the story with the Losers and the island, but by the end, it’s clear that Cooke was laying the groundwork for his epic final battle, and we never knew it.

As for the tonal contrast? That actually works, too. As Paul Levitz notes in his introduction, Cooke brings real world issues from the period into the story, and that leads to an inevitable darkening of the tone. For all that the ’50s and ’60s represent some of America’s brightest moments, with the post-War boom and the Civil rights movement, they also represent some of its darkest, with the communist witch-hunts, xenophobia and racism. With that as the backdrop, and the government forcing the heroes to retire, it’s easy to view New Frontier as a dark story. It’s comparable to James Robinson’s The Golden Age or Mark Waid’s Kingdom Come, in that there are elements of real darkness, but the heart that guides the book beats with a true love and understanding of the superhero.

Interior page from DC New FrontierCompare New Frontier to Civil War or Identity Crisis, and you can see that for all the darkness of the world, the heroes still shine brightly as an inspiration, rather than being dragged into the muck with the rest of us. That’s a small but important distinction, as it represents a view of the superhero as nobler than us. Some prefer heroes to be just like us, with all the faults and foibles, but I’d rather that heroes have an innate nobility, and in Cooke’s hands, they do.

Covering all the moments or the characters in New Frontier would both spoil the book entirely and take up pages and pages of material. So instead, I’ll offer up a few highlights, which are hopefully indicative of the work as a whole. Johnny Cloud, the Navajo Ace, taking on a dinosaur with only two hand grenades and a strong will. A young Hal Jordan sneaking onto Edwards Air Force base to meet Chuck Yeager. John Jones, the Martian Manhunter, learning about Earth from TV, deciding to be a good guy, and working alongside Slam Bradley and the Bat-Man. Ted Grant KO’ing an upcoming challenger named Cassius Clay. The Flash creating a snowfall in Las Vegas. A little girl betraying a hero in his darkest hour. The last flight of the Suicide Squad. Every single panel with King Faraday. A battered and bloody Wonder Woman flying her Invisible Jet to get help. And the rise of the Silver Age heroes, alongside adventurers like the Challengers of the Unknown, to battle the greatest threat the Earth has seen. J’onn J’onzz revealing his true power for the first time. And there are dozens more.

Interior page from DC New FrontierCooke’s epic encompasses a cast of dozens, showing the early days of heroism from Barry Allen (The Flash), Hal Jordan (Green Lantern) and Martian Manhunter (J’onn J’onzz) but also featuring Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, The Challengers of the Unknown, King Faraday, Green Arrow and Adam Strange. It is a read that will be most rewarding for those who know the DC Universe fairly well, but as with “Easter Egg”-laden stories like Kingdom Come or Marvels, it works even for the relative neophyte because of the sense of wonder that the creator infuses the book with at its core. If you know who all these characters are, you’ll thrill when you realize who the pilot is that is mentoring Hal Jordan, or who John Jones’ partner is, or what’s going on when “Red” Ryan starts getting restless and drives out to the site of his recent air crash. If you don’t, the central story, of heroes trying to rise out of a time of corruption and despair, will still resonate.

Interior page from DC New FrontierThen there’s the art. Cooke has a fresh authorial voice, but he also has an art style that is instantly recognizable and distinctive. It has a lot in common with the Batman Animated style popularized by Bruce Timm (appropriate enough, given Cooke’s background), but it also draws heavily on his early art influences, from Joe Kubert to Jack Kirby to various EC guys. Cooke’s characters have a period look to them, with the normal world and the superheroic world alike filtered through a late ’50s sensibility. The men wear suits and hats, the architecture is early art deco and the most common hairstyle is a bob for women and a flat-top for men. There are some inks on this book by J. Bone, a frequent collaborator of Cooke’s, and the colors are by the amazing Dave Stewart. Both of these guys bring their A-game as well, which means that in just about every respect, this book looks about as good as comics can. Cooke and Stewart together, in particular, draws comparison to legendary artist/colorist team-ups like Frank Miller and Lynn Varley.

In terms of storytelling and structure, Cooke mostly uses a three-panel per page layout that allows for a long, almost widescreen effect and tightly controlled storytelling. However, he breaks this layout for effect several times, and every time he does, it’s all the more effective. There are splash pages, both single and double page, throughout this book, that are just jaw-dropping. The “Right Stuff” moment when the heroes stride out to meet the big villain of the piece is one of the most visually inspiring moments I’ve ever seen in my twenty plus years of reading comics. There’s also a creepy part of the story that combines one part Dr. Seuss with the mind-bending effects of HP Lovecraft’s Cthulhu, and Cooke evokes Seuss’s art and style in that sequence to great effect.

Interior page from DC New FrontierThis is an enjoyable read in DC’s two-volume, beautifully-designed trade paperback format. But I can’t recommend the Absolute format highly enough. In addition to the convenience of having the whole story in one place and the stirring effect the artwork has when viewed in this oversized format, the extras are terrific. For starters, every cover, front and back, from the original series, is reprinted in the back. But that really is just for starters.

Probably the gem of these extras are the 12 pages of annotations by Darwyn Cooke, relating his influences and some of the “Easter Eggs” that he put into the work. These are illustrated by images from the classic comics that influenced him, which is but one of the many examples of perfect design on this volume. These annotations offer everything from historical notes on settings, recommendations for books that influenced Cooke like The Right Stuff and Vietnam: A History and little notes about which pages are Cooke’s particular favorites to cute revelations like “Captain Cold is actually… Grant Morrison!” Beyond that, there are 18 pages of full color sketches and design work, an 8-page “behind the scenes” feature in which Cooke lays out his process and shows off thumbnail pages, color guides, rough page layouts and a step-by-step look at his design for the trade paperback cover and 2-page featurettes with action figure design sketches and a look at Cooke’s own promo work for the series, done for the Las Vegas Retailer show.

It’s not out of the realm of possibility for me to call Absolute DC: The New Frontier my favorite graphic novel publication of the year. To quote John F. Kennedy, as Cooke does in the moving final section of his comic, “If you have the means, I highly recommend it.”

Wait… that was Ferris Bueller. Well, I stand behind the sentiment, at any rate.

Sign into Goodreads to see if any of your friends have read Absolute DC.
Sign In »

No comments have been added yet.