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‘Justice League: The New Frontier’ Redux

There are a number of reasons why a project like DC’s Justice League: The New Frontier is such a gift for those of us who love comics.

To start with, it’s just good. In any artistic medium, there is a portion of work that showcases that particular combination of talent and genius that we recognize instinctively as great art. The New Frontier is one such offering. Its storytelling is both accomplished and attractive, and importantly it is very modern. It is a fine example of the strength of comics as a true artistic form, after more than a century of history.

But more than that, the entire point of The New Frontier is to celebrate that history, specifically one important chapter of it. In the process it transforms an entire period of pulp fiction gusto into a fresh and totally unique piece of artistry.

The result is simply wonderful.

For the uninitiated, The New Frontier, originally published in 2002, now available in a collected edition, is a six-volume tour-de-force by the late author-artist Darwyn Cooke. It attempts the clever conceit of bringing the heroes of the Justice League together for the first time, in a story which predates the first episodes of their book’s original run when it was launched in 1960.

No doubt you’ve heard of the Silver Age of comics. It followed the Golden Age, naturally enough. What separated them was the contentious period of American history marked by the red scare paranoia of our Cold War with Russia, and the McCarthy hearings of the 1950’s. In response to this reactionary conservative movement against ‘un-American’ influences in the news and entertainment industries, comics publishers adopted the first regulatory Comics Code in 1954, and publishing houses began shifting away from lurid genres such as horror and crime, to stories considered less controversial. Stories like science fiction and… superheroes.

Comic adventure stories had featured such mystery men before of course. They helped to populate the aforementioned Golden Age. Superman was a popular staple throughout the 40’s and 50’s, as was Batman. And Wonder Woman has been around herself since World War II. (And now, it seems, since World War I.)

But with the inception of this new Silver Age of comics, the publishing house of Detective Comics embraced superhero stories with equal parts enthusiasm and desperation, reviving and retooling old characters, trying out new concepts, and gradually building a universe of characters that positively exploded into the 1960’s. (As did newly formed publishing juggernaut, Marvel Comics). Before this though, the initial flush of creativity culminated in the formation of a new team of DC’s most popular characters, the team we know today as the Justice League.

This is the historical backdrop against which The New Frontier is played. The 1950’s were a time of transition and change for comics, a changing of the guard, and to capture the scope of that in the industry, Darwyn Cooke weaves together an ambitious breadth of storylines into something of a feat of storytelling. It is not just the heroes of the Justice League he showcases. He calls upon an array of popular DC characters from throughout the decade. Notably featured are the Challengers of the Unknown, as well The Blackhawks, and there are a variety of supporting characters and other helpful cameos throughout. He even kicks things off with a nod to the old WWII pulps, with an opening story that features a team, known to a relative few, as The Losers.

In each case every character is introduced into the larger storyline in the same chronological order as they first were featured in their own publications. It’s a clever device, and it is wholly satisfying to watch Cooke pull it off. Long time readers of DC comics, familiar with this era of comics will be in for a treat. For the rest of us, it is a snapshot into a time of which we will only ever have a partial and imperfect view.

Thankfully for us, Mr. Cooke’s illustrative style is more than up to that challenge. Prior to turning to comics, his career spanned both graphics and product design, and a stint as a magazine art director. It shows. His design sensibilities are clearly evident, with a flair for background detail and landscapes that deftly combines the clean mod look of the late 50s with the burgeoning weirdness of the 60s. It’s remarkably like a mix of Tintin comics and the art of Jack Kirby, and what can I say, it just works. The result is cool and stylish, and just ideally suited for comic storytelling.

Thankfully his writing is just as well-fashioned. Cooke understands comics. He understands the theater of it, and the importance of wonder. He understands how to craft emotional moments that inspire the heroic aspirations that are the bread and butter of the medium. His narrative arc moves along with short, tightly written chapters, that are like odes to the form. Each is a gem, and his take on favorite characters are both imaginative and satisfying. It is wonderful to see a Wonder Woman large enough to fill the role, and a Batman who evolves accurately in both his appearance and his tone, to say nothing of a young Barry Allen handling himself admirably with determination and flair as the era’s newly-minted Flash. What a joy.

And unlike most superhero comics of that period, Cooke does not shy away from complexity. These are characters struggling to find their place in a rapidly changing world, and Cooke draws on the societal tensions of the time to bring a certain gravitas to that difficulty. The final conflict is pure science fiction spectacle, but the greater enemy, one that is played on throughout, are the polarizing demons of bigotry, intolerance and paranoia.

The story of Jon J’onzz, Martian Manhunter, DC’s other wayward alien superhero, becomes a central take on how these forces looked in the 50s. As does Cooke’s original creation of a new John Henry character, the only African-American hero in the mix. It’s an attempt, however narrow and grim, to comment on the dire realities of racism during a time in our history when the industry itself catered to a predominantly white male readership.

The ultimate victory of the book, in the end, is as much a vindication of how we are able to come together in the times of our greatest need, to triumph over the forces that seek to alienate and divide us. As all great hero stories do.

I have to say though, that as much as all this is simply gratifying in itself, there’s another, more personal, reason I like The New Frontier so much. It is rooted in an affection I have for one member of the Justice League in particular, a fondness it appears I share with Mr. Cooke. Because, of all the colorful characters he memorializes here, there is one man whose story runs as something of a through-line throughout the project, almost from start to finish. A hero who seems to embody Cooke’s purpose in the story he is telling, more than any other.

A man known to us, as Hal Jordan.

All the others are there as well, of course. Kal, Diana, Bruce, and Arthur. Barry, Jon J’onzz, Ollie. Selina, and Dinah. Lois too. But it’s Hal who really shines. And that’s exactly as it should be. Because it is Hal, more than any of the others, who represents the true spirit of The New Frontier.

Hal Jordan, as any kid knows, is Green Lantern. Fearless ace test pilot becomes intergalactic peacekeeping cop when entrusted with a ring of pure emerald willpower by a dying alien… and the sky is literally no longer the limit. Most every kid knows that origin story, it’s as fantastic and silly as the giant green boxing gloves and catcher mitts GL was forever conjuring in the early issues of his career. But just as Cooke is determined to elevate the genre of that time to a new level through his revisionist lens, he takes the opportunity to do something that no one before has ever done quite so well with Hal Jordan.

Throughout The New Frontier, Cooke weaves a history for Hal, a backstory that fixes him firmly in the newly fresh sensibility and spirit of the times. Told through brief vignettes of Jordan’s youth, and smart, evocative snapshots of the 1950s, Cooke explicitly ties Hal to the wartime heroes of his father’s generation, tempers him through a war of his own generation, and launches him straight into the thick of the great new U.S. space craze. By the time the ring shows up, and Hal dons the colors, we have come to appreciate him in a new and surprisingly original way.

Young Hal Jordan is the Boy Who Would Fly. And fly he does. As the new Green Lantern he is the wish-fulfillment of every kid who grew up in the 50’s with stories of Superman, World War fighter pilots, and the new, unfathomable promise of space travel, to fuel their imagination. Cooke calls on all of these elements to tell Hal’s story, and in the process he paints a picture that confirms Green Lantern as the defining superhero of the era.

And what a hero. The power of the Green Lantern, for all its practical silliness, is simply the coolest power set around. It’s the power of pure imagination, wielded with the fearless resolve of the one man ideally suited to realize it as the force for good it is intended to be. Green Lantern’s oath transformed Hal Jordan into the protector of our planet. More, his duty encompassed the whole corner of our galaxy. And so, with one brilliant stroke, and the vast power of imagination, the comics of the Silver Age broke free into the newest frontier of their time – outer space.

Cooke builds that story to a climax that drives the point home, and we are left to bask in the new-found glory of a young man no longer bound as mortal men, and a victory that binds our heroes together, forging the heart of a team that will become legendary, transcending the separations of a world too easily warped, as all ages seem to be, by prejudice and ideology and fear.

What’s not to like about that? It’s as good as storytelling gets, and pure comic book gold.

Or, you know, silver.

Or emerald green.

 

 

 

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