Comic book writer and artist Darwyn Cooke passed away at the age of 53 after a battle with cancer on May 14, 2016, leaving behind a legacy of brilliant art, highly influential stories, and countless joyful memories in the hearts of fans worldwide. While no artist can be summed up by a single creation, Cooke’s 2004 miniseries DC: The New Frontier stands as his seminal work. A comic that quickly worked its way into the pantheon of classic comic books and one that truly captures the spirit of what makes superheroes and DC Comics so special.
Set in the 1950s, The New Frontier takes place in a world where DC Comics superheroes like Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, and The Justice Society began fighting crime in the ‘40s, just like their original comic book versions. During the course of post-World War II rebuilding and the beginnings of The Cold War, new heroes like The Flash, Green Lantern, and more spring into action around the world. But these new heroes must contend with a society that is undergoing massive changes, a government that fears any potential new threat, and a lurking alien menace that could destroy this inexperienced and disjointed band of heroes.
Through the course of a more than 400-page epic that he both wrote and drew, Cooke captured the look and feel of classic 1950s DC Comics while also underpinning the aesthetic with a socially, politically, and morally conscious mind that took into account the real world issues of the time. Yes, these are bright and shining heroes that reflect the best of classic DC Comics, but they also grapple with issues of The Cold War, racism, The Space Race, and much more within the turbulent era that spans from 1945 through 1960.
While that may seem like far too much to stuff into a single miniseries primarily focused on superheroics, Cooke created a narrative that incorporated these many disparate themes naturally while also giving its dozens of characters well-rounded and ultimately satisfying narrative arcs. The fact that this extraordinary artist also put just as much thought and effort into the creation of the thousands of panels of artwork that comprise DC: The New Frontier just goes to show how explosively talented Cooke was and how deeply invested he was in this one-of-a-kind story.
The New Age of Heroes
Comprised of a cast of dozens of characters, Cooke focuses the main thrust of the narrative on Hal Jordan (aka Green Lantern), J’onn J’onzz (aka The Martian Manhunter), and Barry Allen (aka The Flash), each of whom take up the call to heroism during the course of the ‘50s. But Cooke allows the first half of the six issue series to be comprised largely of vignettes that jump between the many heroes of the era, with each hero having his or her own arc throughout the series, which range from the inspiring to the tragic.
Cooke’s artwork is evocative of the time period in which The New Frontier is set. And while his drawing style worked well for any narrative (and the artist often fought against being pigeonholed), his Jack Kirby-esque clean lines, squared angles, and kinetic sense of movement pair perfectly with this age of heroes. And while Cooke’s art casts everyone from the burnt-out journalist to the shining Superman in an iconic, timeless light, his characters still feel real and human. Cooke was equally talented at bringing both static scenes of conversation and massive battles to vibrant life. The scenes which fill The New Frontier can shift from light and whimsical to dark and violent, with both ends of the spectrum and the transitions between feeling just as valid within this era of both hope and tragedy. Just as crucially, Cooke’s writing and narrative hooks are just as powerful as his drawings. They elevate one another and work in tandem to show an artist using the full breadth of his powers.
Beginning at the close of World War II, The New Frontier tracks the doomed mission of The Losers, a military squad sent to a mysterious island populated by dinosaurs in an effort to save the stranded Colonel Rick Flagg. Their deaths and Flagg’s survival mark the end of the WWII era and the beginning of a post-war America that abandoned its heroes, both through an evolving culture and a McCarthyism that accused heroes like The Justice Society of being communists due to their secret identities. The hunt for caped heroes makes some like Superman and Wonder Woman work for the government and some like Batman continue fighting crime in the shadows. The group known as The Challengers of The Unknown arises in the wake of a mysterious plane crash and explores the mysteries of the world. African-American John Henry survives a KKK-led lynching in Knoxville, Tennessee, and begins fighting back against the forces of hatred in the south. The government group known as Task Force X dies one by one over the years in a series of tragedies. Government agent King Faraday captures any alien life or metahumans that he sees as being a threat to national security. And real life historical figures of the time like Dwight Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy. Joseph McCarthy, Cassius Clay, and Edward R. Murrow bounce off the heroes and inform the greater cultural landscape of this tumultuous time.
Following a traumatic end to The Korean War as a pilot, Jordan becomes a test pilot and eventually discovers a Green Lantern power ring, which gives him the power to not only explore the world, but overcome his fears as a hero. Called to Earth by a scientist, J’onn J’onnz is the last Martian following a planet-wide disaster. Using his shape-changing powers, he masquerades as a detective until his capture by the government, where he helps to change the worldview of Faraday before becoming a hero. Fighting crime as The Flash, Barry Allen struggles with persecution and fear during The Red Scare and grapples with the decision to continue being a hero. These main characters exemplify the ideals of heroism within the confines of a troubled and complex world. But rather than succumb to the darkness, they shine bright as beacons of hope.
When reflecting back on the core of his ideas that informed The Justice League and other heroes of DC: The New Frontier, Cooke had this to say. “The world will always have dark corners, and black and white come in thousands of shades of grey, but here are seven people, good and true, come what may. They have the power to enslave the world, but work tirelessly to keep it free. They don’t succumb to envy, greed, or jealousy, and their sense of purpose is driven by an unshakeable faith in mankind’s basic good. They are, in the best sense of the word, childlike. It is the very essence of the word Super-hero.”
Although the integration of real world issues may lead many comic books to upend the ideal of the superhero (with Alan Moore’s Watchmen being the epitome), Cooke embraced the idea of heroism that rose above when facing true challenges. Yes, our heroes are eventually united in the face of an alien threat that seeks to destroy the world, but this is preceded by a far more realistic set of challenges integrated within the superheroics that are seen. Cooke’s integration of actual societal issues means that the choices made by the heroes are far more inspiring and understandable than what would be felt in a comic simply focused on fighting “the bad guys.”
The New Frontier Is Here
A crucial aspect of The New Frontier’s message is the reembracing of hope and idealism, not in a manner that sends people back to the ways of the past, but in a way that has us embrace the future. It’s no mistake that Cooke chooses to end his story in 1960, with the inauguration of President Kennedy. By tracking the course of the decade leading up to this, readers are privy to massive shifts in the culture of the United States and the community of heroes that stand as its representatives. By pushing through the dark times, the characters of The New Frontier have found a brighter and better world waiting.
Closing out the story is a transcription of Kennedy’s real life inaugural speech, in which he discusses “The New Frontier” and what it means for America and the world. While the new band of heroes has succeeded in stopping the alien threat that could have destroyed the world, this is only the beginning of what “The New Frontier” truly is.
As scenes displaying our evolving heroes and the formation of The Justice League play out, so do scenes depicting the rise of new villains, segregation against African Americans, and the doomsday clock of The Cold War. Over it all, Kennedy speaks about how the world now faces new challenges and opportunities on all fronts. Men and women have a choice to make, embrace courage and lead the world into a better tomorrow or choose complacency and fear and let the world slip into destruction. The stakes of failure are higher than they have ever been, but true success means a better world than ever before.
Closing on a final moment where The Justice League springs into action to stop the monster known as Starro, Cooke’s stance on humanity is made clear. Hope is real and the future is a brighter place for us all.
That ideal goes beyond the span of any single comic book and lives on in the legacy of Darwyn Cooke.