On Darwyn Cooke, Optimism and “The New Frontier”

By: Daniel Reynolds

When you hear of the “good old days”, it’s usually from some middle-aged white man — an uncle, perhaps — who wants to tell you how things were just better back then. I suspect you’ve heard this spiel before, around the kitchen table, in a boardroom, or online. This hypothetical man usually leaves out that it wasn’t such a great time for people of colour, or gay people, or transgendered people. Hell, for 51 percent of the population — the world’s quantity of women — it wasn’t always the best either. White men had their share of hard times too, of course, but it’s important to keep perspective; they were usually given the benefit of the doubt. And yet, how much art, how many books and albums and retrospectives continue to be released that lionize, in some way or another, this alleged golden era?

A couple of week ago the website of writer and artist Darwyn Cooke announced that he was receiving palliative care following a battle with terminal cancer. A few days after that, the site was updated to say he had died. Cooke was 53. As usually happens when a great artist dies — and make no mistake, Cooke was great — many went diving back into his work. The obvious standouts are easy to name: Batman: Ego, Richard Stark’s Parker and, of course, the monument that is DC: The New Frontier.

new frontier

DC: The New Frontier was originally published as a six-issue mini-series in 2004 that can now be found in two trade paperback volumes. All told, the story jumps through a decade plus of post-WWII America right up to the dawn of the 1960s. Like similar works such as Marvel Comics’ MarvelsThe New Frontier concerns itself with aligning the fictional evolution of DC’s comic universe with that of the real world. The landmark conflicts of the era — the waging and end of World War II, the Korean War, the Cold War space race — become the background in which familiar heroes from the DC universe emerge and operate. The book also acts to document the end of an era, when the “Golden Age” characters of DC lore gave way to new incarnations and forms. By its end, the reader is gifted with an understanding of the formation of the “Silver Age” DC universe, as well as a rollicking, alternative take on the history of our own. And while Cooke’s writing and art work in tandem to conjure the feeling of something classic, his ideas and themes are nothing if not progressive.

But first, there is a note of the familiar at the core of The New Frontier. It’s the old “superheroes are a public menace” card, played in books as disparate as Watchmen and Marvel’s Civil War run. In Cooke’s telling, the post-war peacetime situation in America has many people questioning the role of masked vigilantes in their society. The good guys won the war after all, so what problems could be left for them to solve? From that well-worn basis, Cooke constructs his story as a series of rapidly conjoining tales from the mid-50s right up to the dawn of a new decade. We meet the timeless Superman and Wonder Woman as they do the U.S. government’s bidding in Indo-China. We see Batman lurking in the shadows. And we watch as other new or renewed DC characters emerge — test pilot Hal Jordan becomes the Green Lantern, Barry Allen forges on as the Flash, the Martian Manhunter lands on Earth. It’s as if the same engines of industry that powered the U.S. to post-war prominence also urged new superheroes into being.

In the margins of this assembly of good, an evil is developing, something vaguely primordial lurking in the darkness. Its nature is alluded to via a Dr. Suess-like interlude in one of the book’s chapters, while its physical manifestation takes different forms — swarming clouds of monsters, giant dinosaur-esque creatures, and people being driven mad. The one constant: this evil’s source of power seems to flow from the centre of the Earth itself, as if powered by the worst of mankind’s nature, as if, with all the era’s changes, a darkness must rise to counter it. As the book moves toward its final epic confrontation, the main villain, as it were, emerges from the sea looking like nothing else than a giant, irradiated tumour, an ugly cancerous mass to be removed and overcome.

darwyn cooke

Given the existing nature of DC’s Silver Age heroes, the characters in The New Frontier are mostly white and male. The women in the story are, outside of Wonder Woman, mostly adjacent to the action, though they are far from damsels in distress. (There is also one outlying sub-plot that speaks directly to the racism of the age, and invokes the legend of John Henry to dramatize it.) On its surface, it can almost feel like the book is upholding that aforementioned “back in the day” mentality. Men of action and adventure, armed with bravery, science and a can-do attitude rising to meet the challenges of the day. The book even ends with a speech from President John F. Kennedy, patient zero for 60s-era American nostalgia. And in truth, Cooke — on the surface — could embody that stereotype. He was an middle-aged white guy (albeit from Toronto) born into that generation. He could have been that uncle for someone. Instead, the passion that fuels his stories like The New Frontier looks well-beyond the frames of any rose-coloured glasses.

I won’t pretend to have any insight into what Cooke was actually like. I’ve read only that he could be cantankerous and warm in equal measure. My sole personal anecdote comes from a panel I attended at Fan Expo with Cooke, Jimmy Palmiotti, Ty Templeton and Ramon Perez. As Palmiotti and Templeton did most of the talking, and Perez shyly discussed his recent work, it was Cooke who made the strongest impression. He didn’t say much, but when he did drop a one-liner of wizened advice, or raise an incredulous eyebrow, it carried a lot of weight. Cooke may not have been the biggest or most well-known artist at the table, but he knew what he was talking about. To go even further back into American ideology, he spoke softly and carried a big stick.

It’s this confident voice that powers the forward-thinking of The New Frontier. It’s impossible not to feel the optimism coursing through its pages as its heroes discover themselves and then each other in the face of a mounting threat. Throughout the book, the characters grapple with who they are in a changing world, when world conflicts moved from black and white into shades of grey, when civil rights became a bloody struggle in the streets of many American cities, when nuclear arsenals of two sides were pointed at each other, when simple outward red, white and blue patriotism was forced to look inward. The subject matter becomes far more complex than the book’s simple, classic and, in truth, beautiful look.

In an age when comic books (and their movies) appear to be drowning in angst, and we find ourselves in a political season of dystopia, The New Frontier operates in the language of older “golden” times, while also looking to the hope of a new day. That time I saw him from afar, Cooke played the role of cynic, but his work belies a more positive heart. There is profound belief here; and Cooke, even in death-too-soon, had monumental faith in the future.

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