Saturday, April 10, 2010

Book-A-Day 2010 # 66 (4/10) -- DC: The New Frontier by Darwyn Cooke with Dave Stewart

I'm finding it hard to decide precisely how to describe DC: The New Frontier -- is it more "nostalgia porn" or "continuity porn?" True, the story it tells isn't in real continuity -- that ever-moving target that takes up so much of the lives of so many sad overgrown boys -- but its pleasures lie almost exclusively in reveling in newly-told adventures of old characters, and in seeing those characters done right, as they say. "Right," in this context, is a complex mix of their original childish simplicity and pseudo-iconic standard traits overlaid with a modern sensibility, writing that doesn't embarrass itself, and art that appears retro without actually aping any of the comics styles from the era it depicts.

New Frontier, most of those underwear-pervert fans would say, does it "right" -- the heroes are suitably heroic, and the obstacles they face seem to have a nodding acquaintance with the real world, though, in the end, it's all about ganging up to fight a giant space lizard. That last, of course, is a feature rather than a bug; superhero stories are supposed to be about a gang of characters -- all of whom those fans already know, though they secretly prefer if they have to figure out the true identity of "Alan" or "Red" or "the Professor" themselves -- putting aside their difference Just This Once to battle something silly and utterly unrealistic.

I'm being harder on New Frontier than it deserves: this is a pleasant, mostly inoffensive piece of modern extruded comics with a look more stylish than most and a story that at least doesn't embarrass an adult to read it (until that giant space lizard appears). But its entire purpose is to showcase Cooke's early-'60s aesthetic in a story with as many DC characters from that era as can be shoehorned into the pages.

The story starts in 1945, in the waning days of WWII, on one of the most dependable of pulp-fiction cliches, an island where dinosaurs still live. But it rapidly moves forward from there, mostly taking place during the late '50s, and focusing primarily on Hal Jordan (mostly before he becomes Green Lantern) and "John Jones," the Martian Manhunter. The Barry Allen Flash is a secondary viewpoint character, as are Batman and Superman -- Wonder Woman shows up nearly as often, but, significantly, she's always seen through the eyes of one of the men, as women usually are in long-underwear comics.

New Frontier is a story about McCarthyism that's demure enough never to mention the word -- or any real-world politics, for that matter. It does take a strong, principled stand against racism, showing supreme political courage...if it had been published in Selma in 1954, which of course it wasn't. The anti-racism material acts to allow the narrative to choke up its voice and to give the reader -- who, presumably, is at least much less of a racist than the KKK in 1959 -- something to pat himself on the back about. When it comes time to battle the giant lizard-island, though, there's no one with even a deep suntan to be seen.

But the real message of New Frontier is that of all modern big-company revisionist superheroes, from Powers to Marvels: that people with miraculous abilities are better than normal people, more moral, stronger, more interesting, and they deserve to be allowed to do whatever they want, because having great powers gives them a great tropism towards good. It's the precise opposite message to The Boys, but equally silly and cliched, but it's been beaten into the Wednesday Crowd by decades of stories that had to bend to the inexorable pressures of characters that simply must continue for as long as they were profitable.

So: this is a good superhero story, as superhero stories go. But it's morally simplistic, and horribly self-indulgent. And I'm glad that Cooke has moved on from the narrow fields of underwear perverts -- though, in his most recent project, he's still retelling someone else's '60s stories, so it's not as if he, or the general comic-shop audience, is willing to stray very far.

Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index
Listening to: Blonde Redhead - Heroine
via FoxyTunes

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