22 January, 2012

Review: DC: The New Frontier

DC: The New Frontier
By Darwyn Cooke with Dave Stewart.
Published by DC Comics.

Cooke's New Frontier is quite a good comic, but it's not as great as it should have been, nor as great as I think everyone wants it to be. I read the two volume collection of this story, and the first volume was very disjointed. The overall impression, especially from this first half of New Frontier, was that Cooke had a great idea, a wonderful love and knowledge of the oeuvre of 40s/50s America and what that felt and looked like, but either didn't have the writing skills, was too lazy, or simply didn't want to, weave a smoothly flowing story from everything he wanted to include in it. Instead, it feels more like a series of character sketches and story ideas for an alternate DC history. In all honesty, I could almost see the change in writing style when Cooke decided to really get the main driving plot more involved with the story. Generally, I think it would have benefitted from a more focussed narrative, possibly from fewer, or even a single, point of view.

The saving grace? These 'character sketches', as disjointed as they may be, are really cool and a very interesting take on the familiar heroes.

The art is perfectly suited to the story and the period that it's set, with a loose, brushy feel reminiscent of some illustration styles of the time it's set. The colouring by Dave Stewart is the icing on the cake, also leaning towards the same styles of illustration. It all looks really lovely, and is probably the most alluring part of the whole package.

Cooke's page layout choices are interesting. I would estimate that 90% of all pages are approached with the same layout; three wide panels stacked on top of each other. My assumption here is that Cooke was going for a "cinematic" feel with almost every image having a Cinemascope-like presentation. This has it's good and bad points. I think it certainly helps serve the overall feel of the period piece, but surely it gets in the way of pacing. Luckily, Cooke isn't completely slavish to it and decides on several occasions that the pace of the story does indeed require more than three panels on a page or just one panel per tier. Of course, there's also a liberal use of splash pages and double-page spreads.

Despite my misgivings about the choppy nature of the story and page design decisions, finishing the first volume had me really eager to see what happened next, and that's an obvious sign of a narrative that has engaged me. The second volume/second half is a lot more story-driven, bringing the loose threads together into a more cohesive narrative, picking up a significant amount of speed while it's at it. The epic nature of the challenge faced by our heroes is here to dwarf the political and personal issues that have been faced throughout the preceding pages. I'm not entirely sure that's a good thing, considering that it seemed to be what Cooke had been most interested in as the storyteller, and for us the main reason to want to continue following the disjointed narrative. Regardless, I guess that as the mandatory villain/threat of the story, it serves the purpose of not only fulfilling the super-powered punch-up quota, but also gives the plentiful heroes a focus and a hopeless-odds situation to throw themselves at. In this predicament at least, we see the bravery and selflessness of the heroic characters in their desperate attempts to stop a seemingly unstoppable force of nature.

Throughout, the characters, while appealing and interesting, aren't really given the time and space to be greatly fleshed out. Cooke is (I hesitate to say "shoehorning" but it may be appropriate) trying to include so many characters into his overall worldview and story, that most of them tend towards one and two dimensional cartoon personalities. Hal Jordan/Green Lantern is the biggest exception to this, and if there was a single character that the book was "about", it would be him. He's certainly the most interesting character in the book, with a nicely realised backstory, origin and first adventure. The Martian Manhunter gets a generous number of pages as well, and as such is also more three dimensional and interesting. To Cooke's credit though, the glimpses he gave me of Superman, Wonder Woman, Batman, and especially The Flash, make me wish I could see much more of his take on all of them.

Similarly, the same holds true for the whole milieu. If this had been an ongoing series, running to 50 issues, and taking it's time with all of it's ideas, I probably would have been happy to be along for the whole, satisfying ride.

One last point regarding this being a "re-imagining" of DC history. The fact that this is not "canon" continuity frees the writer to not only present a different take on the standard material, but also means he is no longer beholden to the editorially mandated status quo. This charges the story with more tension and suspense than might otherwise be present as it becomes clear that maybe not all the characters are going to survive till the end. An added bonus in my eyes.

This is definitely a love letter from Cooke to the Silver Age of DC Comics, and as such is lovingly crafted. His fondness for the subject matter is evident throughout the art, writing and research for this 400 page story. I believe it does fall a little disappointingly short of being fully realised, though. That being said, it's still worth picking up for the very interesting take on DC's Silver Age heroes, and the beautiful artwork that presents it.

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