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DC: The New Frontier - Volumes One and Two
Words by Darwyn Cooke - Art by Darwyn Cooke, Dave Stewart - Published by DC Comics (US), Titan Books (UK) - First published 2004 - Originally published as DC: The New Frontier 1-3
If you're a student of the history of superhero comics you may be aware that they're considered to have had a golden and a silver age: the golden age was before World War II; the silver age started in the fifties. In the intervening years, when the world was wracked by war, superheroes lost their popularity. Comics were cancelled and other genres took their place, arguably because no-one needs to read about fictional superheroes when an entire generation of young men are being sent to their deaths in foreign fields.
If this is all new to you then you're not going to get much out of The New Frontier. But the kind of comic fan with a passion for the quirky history of comics, and specifically the long and illustrious history of characters in the DC Comics stable like Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman, this should be a rare treat.
The New Frontier sets out to bridge the real-time chronological gap between the golden and silver ages, pulling the superheroes back into the perspective of their time. As a result we start in 1945 with the end of World War II and work our way through to the late fifties and the start of the space race.
If anything, this makes for quite a confusing state of affairs. Are we reading comics history? Is it a reworking or a reimagining of the superheroes in question? What does it mean for the general continuity of the current comics? It's an interesting exercise but is in danger of creating a paradox too far.
The story is disjointed. Large chunks of it are focused on Hal Jordan, the Green Lantern, though you have to wait a long time to see his transformation from talented fighter pilot to superhero, making it a bit of a Green Lantern: Year One. The pace accelerates once the second volume gets under way and the heroes come together to tackle a common foe, but the preamble is verging on torturous.
Personalities are shoe-horned into ill-fitting situations - that Superman and Wonder Woman are keeping low profiles, working on behalf of the US government during the Korean war is brushed aside with talk of vague humanitarian missions; while pre-superhero fighter pilot Jordan puts himself in the line of fire to draw the enemy into the guns of his fellow pilots, so unwilling is he to harm another human directly. A plethora of other characters are marched on and off, almost for the sake of having a complete set. It's the kind of completist fanboy school of plot creation that turned us off Kingdom Come (and in turn made it so wildly popular with DC's hardcore fans).
The artwork is amazing, with a real period feel: the men have square jaws and a middle distance gaze; the women have hourglass figures and immaculate mascara. But a casual passer-by attracted by the style of the piece needs fair warning that, when it comes down to it, this is an exercise in rewriting a block of history long past. It's a neat trick to try but no-one is going to get as much out of this as the DC Comic historian, with an encyclopaedic knowledge of their subject. And even they might find its attempt at sophisticated characterisation somewhat inauthentic. But if you count yourself amongst that crowd, go ahead - these books are for you. The rest of us would be better off staying in the present for our superhero fixes.
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