By Steve Morris
Spoilers below, of course: we’re talking about the last issue of the run!
“At what price freedom? America’s protectors had gone about their duty of preserving the American way with such zeal, the price seemed to be the very freedom they vowed to defend. How free is a nation that forces its citizens to subscribe to a governmental definition of proper thought? Where would Americans find the spark to rekindle the spirit that had created the world’s first free nation?”
So begins the final issue of Darwyn Cooke’s New Frontier, a six-part story which went back in time to the 1950s to tell the origin story of the Justice League, and the silver age of heroes in the DC Universe. Touching on a vast group of characters including Wonder Woman, Flash, Green Lantern and more, the story acts as a reset for heroism in comic books, although ultimately one which the industry largely ignored.
If the 1980s brought about darker and edgier comics from the likes of Frank Miller and Alan Moore, then The New Frontier marked Cooke’s attempt to go lighter, brighter, and harder. Influenced most strongly by Jack Kirby, whose distinctive artistic style Cooke originally considered directly referencing before moving back towards his own signature pencilling, the story also immerses itself in the promise of President John F. Kennedy’s 1960 speech “The New Frontier”, which he delivered upon receiving the Democratic nomination to run for President.
Cooke, an intensely political artist, paraphrases the speech through the series’ epilogue, which runs for twelve pages. With all the famous superheroes now assembled across the prior course of his narrative, Cooke pivots Kennedy’s speech about the opportunities of tomorrow into the possibilities of comics fiction. He weaves fantastical images of new, as-yet-unmet superheroes like The Atom into a fictionalised America he champions as a free and exciting nation. Despite being a comic rooted in the 1950s, it’s also a comic which flies far into our own future. While our very human social struggles continue on, Cooke shows us a world which has spacemen and robots, men who can run faster than the speed of light, and new and unexplored mysteries still left to be solved.
All rather lovely, delivered in Cooke’s unmistakable style and given a wonderful sense of scale through Dave Stewart’s colours. Electing not to bother with the restrictive concept of “a palette”, Stewart instead switches through every kind of colouring style imaginable just in these twelve pages. He offers silver-age colours for a panel with an oversized Joker marauding across Gotham City, then mutes the tone for a splash page of two alien immigrants, Superman and Martian Manhunter, staring out across the American farmlands of Kansas. He offers black-and-white panels on one page before dazzling with the above vivid cosmic display of the fantastic. Stewart’s approach displays the core concept of Cooke’s political goal with the series: that humanity needs to work beyond their current petty social divides, unite, and work to form a cohesive whole.
Which is, y’know, broadly idealistic and never going to happen. Whenever someone writes about America as the great hope of the world, the world looks at it for a second and then goes back to their own troubles. Cooke’s vision of Americana is pure schmaltz, foreseeing a country which will never exist despite a shared collective vision from its citizens that they’re “the good guys”. Previous issues of the series travelled the world, often in a somewhat patronising fashion, before deciding that all the heroes should make their stand on American soil. While he’s aware of the troubles of America, symbolised through panels depicting Lex Luthor enjoying the wealth of industry and capitalism; a shot of the doomsday clock ticking closer to midnight, or reminders of the very real and lawful racial segregation that existed during the time period, ultimately the book wants the reader to believe that the inspiring nature of superheroes can lead us together into a better future.
Idealistic in a way white creators and readers can believe in, delivered with legitimate heart and gusto which helps push past the unlikeliness of his vision of what America is. Whilst comics have chosen to champion the hard edges of The Dark Knight Returns in search of a dwindling audience of people stuck deeply in their edgelord origins, there remains something irresistible about Cooke’s hoo-rah approach to what superheroes could be. His male characters are all head-straight chaps who open doors for women, and his women drink hard, ride motorcycles, and beat up everyone in sight. The rose-tinted view of the 1950s doesn’t mean Cooke shies away from racism and prejudice, although his big splash page of superheroes only shows white faces.
In other words, The New Frontier mirrors Kennedy’s speech of the same name, having great ideals and progressive ambitions striving towards something better, although with an inherent understanding that things likely won’t ever change. Just like Kennedy, however, Cooke’s story sets its dream up as something to be surpassed. Although it asks readers to swallow just as much of the American lie as any other superhero comic tends to, by tying itself to Kennedy’s vision he marks out the DC Universe of heroes as something which heralds a better future.
That future doesn’t – and shouldn’t – stop with the familiar faces of the JLA, and in the epilogue he reinforces this by making the characters consistently look forwards, rather than backwards. Cooke shows the world leaders looking ahead to see superheroes standing onstage at the United Nations, for example, rather than the reverse view. John Henry reads a comic book, his back to us, his future infinite. Superman; Martian Manhunter; Green Lantern; the JLA; they all look ahead of the reader and past them, flying towards a future which progresses rather than regresses or roots itself in one spot.
Kennedy’s famous speech spoke of the old frontier of America, the old standards and borders, and how the 60s would lead the nation to new and different things, ever-improving. As is the case for America (and, let’s be especially clear, my crappy conservative country as well), DC Comics will never be able to follow through on that progress, unless you count twenty different Robins as being progress. Subsequently Cooke got to do a few other stories set in this world, but DC pretty firmly stamped a big red MULTIVERSE sticker over the completed project and went back to publishing misreadings of Alan Moore and Frank Miller. The New Frontier didn’t end up getting to redefine what DC and superhero comics could be, leaving it as an open-ended promise we may one day return to.
The unfulfilled potential left by the final issue of The New Frontier is irresistible, sweet, and bitter. Darwyn Cooke was a creator who put courage into his convictions, and drew a world and medium he wanted to read about. With this early part of his canon, he gave us something to hope and dream about, and he finishes things by summing up Kennedy’s speech in a definitive and rousing fashion. Through the eyes of Jimmy Olsen, the epilogue finishes with the arrival of the Justice League to save the day once more. “Here they come now…” he shouts in glee, “it’s going to be okay!”
DC: The New Frontier #6
Written and drawn by Darwyn Cooke
Coloured by Dave Stewart
Lettered by Jared K. Fletcher
Steve Morris runs this site! Having previously written for sites including The Beat, ComicsAlliance, CBR and The MNT, he can be found on Twitter here. He’s a bunny.
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