Tuesday, 3 September 2013

DC: New Frontier, Volume 1 by Darwyn Cooke Review

Darwyn Cooke imagines the DC heroes back in the Silver Age, the late 1950s and early 1960s, in the first of two volumes called DC: New Frontier. Cooke works in real life events into the superhero story such as the Korean war, Eisenhower, fears over the bomb and McCarthyism. And while the book generally works quite well on the whole, it feels like a lot of heroes are underused - maybe that's the intention - and as a result the book becomes less interesting as it goes on.

The characters who get the most focus are the old Suicide Squad (not the New 52 idiots currently cast in that awful title), a group of tough soldiers sent on suicide missions. The book opens strangely with some soldiers shipwrecked upon an island that contains dinosaurs, kind of like DC's version of the Savage Land, as they struggle to survive. It's never clear what the dinosaurs have to do with the rest of the book but it's still a great opening sequence that's exciting, fun and pretty darn tense too.

Other, more familiar characters appear - Bruce Wayne shows up at some fancy dinners playing the part of louche millionaire while his alter-ego Batman investigates a series of cult murders with John Jones, a human detective who is really the alien J'onn J'onzz the Martian Manhunter (one of MM's powers is shape-shifting). It's delightful seeing J'onn become John as he learns by watching pulpy crime serials on TV how to act human but comes off as a cheesy fictional character.

Batman meanwhile is in the early days of his career and people aren't sure what to make of him - is he a criminal or a hero? But he does terrify people, unfortunately both criminals and the public, making kids cry after he saves them! We're also introduced to a young and idealistic Hal Jordan whose plane gets shot down in Korea and has to survive with a handgun, all the time with an eye towards space. Wonder Woman and Superman are both tools of the government, used to help the US in their international wars. And that's basically the whole gang.

All of which is great - the setting, the way Cooke writes and draws the characters, it's all done really, really well and I was loving the heck out of it. But the final third of the book underlines something I hadn't noticed (or cared about) before - the book has no plot. Things just happen because that's the era. The space race is on, various wars in the East are going on, the 50s are turning to the 60s and a new, youthful president is on his way into the Oval Office... throw in a few superheroes reacting to those events and that's fine. But by the end, I was scratching my head wondering what exactly the book was driving at. Is it really just a book that's all about the conceit rather than the story? It seems like it, though I have Volume 2 and haven't read it yet, maybe it'll explain more in that?

And while it's great seeing the superheroes in this context, they're really underused. Batman and Martian Manhunter are in maybe 10 pages tops. Same for Wonder Woman and even less for Superman. More time is devoted to guys out of costume and connected to the military in some way, and if I can't name them it's because they just weren't memorable enough. That and the way Cooke draws the men out of costume makes them all look the same. I'm not sure why Cooke chose this route but I'm not convinced the gamble worked. In the end, the lack of story, the exclusion of interesting, colourful characters in favour of blander characters, made New Frontier a bit of a bust.

Putting aside the same-y character designs, I love everything about Cooke's art. It's clean, it's crisp, it's wonderfully expressive, and Dave Stewart's colours really bring the pages to life. I like that Cooke chose to present the story in four wide panels per page, giving the story a cinematic quality and showing a lot of detail in the background besides the focus on the characters. It showcases Cooke's clearly extensive research as well as draws the reader more closely into this era.

New Frontier Volume 1 starts well but the lack of direction and final third of the book - which seems to be nothing but lengthy exposition - makes me wary to call it a masterpiece though I'll read the second book and see where it goes. Cooke would go on to write more successful books set in this time with his adaptations of Richard Stark's Parker books, and New Frontier is certainly no failure, but it's also not that great.

DC The New Frontier Volume 1

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