Absolute DC: The New Frontier

Absolute DC: The New Frontier cover

Darwyn Cooke’s DC: The New Frontier is a lusciously illustrated paean to the Silver Age of American superheroes. The Absolute Edition shows off the art even better with its oversized pages and upscale slipcased presentation. This is not a book for casual reading. (There are two trade paperback collections for that.) This is a book for poring over, with it well-supported on a desk or table so you don’t hurt yourself.

The slipcase gives an introduction to the material, with heroes from the obvious (Superman, Flash) to the obscure (the Challengers of the Unknown, Capt. Storm) all racing towards the future. If you look closely at the back of the box, you’ll even notice a sense of whimsy, as Billy Batson is perched on a flying carpet eating a bowl of ice cream. The dot-pattern overlays that color them in evoke the printing methods of a previous era, contributing to the sense of nostalgia.

New Frontier looks back at the stories of Cooke’s childhood (and the childhood of so many other readers), placing them in the cultural context of the era in which they were published. Cooke loves his heroes and his history, but he also acknowledges that post-War America had its flaws, including racism and forced conformity, not to mention the Cold War with its looming fear of nuclear warfare.

Absolute DC: The New Frontier cover

A new world demands a new group of heroes, and Cooke’s vision starts with Hal Jordan, fighter pilot, danger junkie, and future Green Lantern. He’s trying to stick by his ideals during tough times: first, the Korean War, and then while the government is demanding vigilante registration (an oxymoronic concept). He misses the adrenaline and moral clarity of wartime, even if it led him to make a decision he’ll always regret.

Superman and Wonder Woman are working for the government, assisting with secret missions in Indochina but disagreeing on the best methods to use. Batman’s operating by his own rules, as always. The alien Martian Manhunter is the ultimate stranger in a strange land, learning heroism from television. The Flash gains superspeed through a chemical accident; his day job, as a police scientist, combines respect for both authority and technology in one character. The supporting characters are also tougher: Slam Bradley, an old-fashioned fists-first private eye, partners with the Manhunter, while Lois Lane is a war correspondent.

Cooke combines a wide variety of characters, expanding beyond the superpowered to include the more rugged adventure heroes such as the Losers, a doomed group of four military men and their dog. In the chapter that opens the book, they’re sent to rescue a scientist who’s crashed on a deserted island that turns out to be populated by dinosaurs. This kind of storytelling, taking everything the writer loves and mixing it altogether, is the dream of many readers. In lesser hands, it would be dismissed as “fan fiction”, but Cooke’s art makes it more. His animation experience results in powerful storytelling and panels that become iconic moments. The larger-than-life sacrifices of these heroes hit hard, and the opening sequence is one of the best in comics from the last decade.

For the first half, this book is a collection of revamped origin stories with stunning art and more attention paid to psychology, but knowing the characters in depth makes the ultimate battle more meaningful. There are lots of government conspiracies and a growing sense of what’s called mass hysteria, premonitions of a coming evil. When the giant creature appears, Superman rallies all the heroes in a battle for freedom.

As Wonder Woman puts it to Superman, “My America… Our America is an ideal, not an administration. During World War 2, we knew we were right, and we’ve always just assumed we were right ever since.” It’s a shame that the plot keeps her out of the final fight, because the inspiring double-page spread of the heroes walking to battle winds up being a Martian, a woman holding his hand, and a whole bunch of macho white men. (Earlier in the book, Cooke adds a version of Steel, a black man fighting the KKK, but his story ends realistically badly.) Still, that’s faithful to the era, and I appreciate Cooke’s argument for humanity’s grit and stubbornness over magical solutions from outer space or mystical realms. It’s his love letter to the American fighting man.

This deluxe edition contains additional story pages, improving the flow of certain sequences and filling in character details and motivations, and annotated character sketches. There are notes from Cooke about his influences, illustrated by some of the images he homages, as well as the story rules he followed and identifications of some of the lesser known characters. Overall, an impressive package for a significant story.

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