Comics lost a great talent earlier this year with the passing of Darwyn Cooke. He was an impeccable storyteller with an art style that may have appeared to be rooted in another era, yet effortlessly tapped into the iconic nature of whatever he was drawing. For a lot of people, “The New Frontier” is his masterwork. A re-imagining of the dawn of the Silver Age for DC’s superheroes, it’s a sprawling epic featuring every major and minor hero of the era. It starts off with the last mission of The Losers on Monster Island and culminates with a battle against a giant alien monster. In between, there’s the story of Korean War veteran and failed pacifist Hal Jordan trying to make it work as a test pilot, the martian who was accidentally brought to Earth and now tries to fit in as Detective J’onn J’onzz, and forensic scientist Barry Allen who is having the time of his life after an accident gave him super-speed. This is their story as well as those of the Challengers of the Unknown, an African-American superhero going by the name of John Henry and fighting for his people, intelligence operative and master gamesman Faraday, and a few others by the names of Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman. All of this is cast against the turbulent political times of the late 50’s and early 60’s as our heroes find that the only things tougher than taking down a supervillain are dealing with public opinion and a government that doesn’t quite trust them.
I said a lot of people consider this story to be Cooke’s masterwork, but I’m not one of them. For me, his best work would be his adaptations of Richard Stark’s “Parker” novels and it still depresses me to think that we’ll never see another one of them. “The New Frontier” is still pretty good as it’s hard not to find yourself drawn in by page after page of Cooke’s spectacular art (with colors from the exemplary Dave Stewart) as he gets to draw everything from dinosaur attacks, to Batman taking down a cult with J’onzz and Slam Bradley, to a psychedelic assault on an alien consciousness. Where it loses me is in the sheer sprawl of characters and plotlines throughout its 500-plus pages. Most of the focus is on B and C-tier characters, and there’s not enough development devoted to those in the latter group to make me feel that the time devoted to them was worth it. Except for Faraday who has a nice little “doing the right thing the wrong way” arc to his character. I also don’t have the overwhelming nostalgia for DC’s Silver Age that Cooke clearly does, so your mileage may vary here depending on how you feel about the era. It’s still easy to appreciate the level of craft and story being told in “The New Frontier,” but I’m left not feeling too bad that I waited this long to pick it up in this handy one-volume edition.