Justice League: The New Frontier Special
Darwyn Cooke, writer
Cooke, David Bullock, J. Bone, artists
DC Comics, March 2008
I’ve long been a skeptic with regards to writer-artist Darwyn Cooke’s nostalgia-tinged approach to superheroes in titles like The Spirit and DC: The New Frontier (the antecedent to this one-shot and the basis of the animated feature to which its release is tied). What’s interesting about Cooke’s take on the topic is that it dodges many of the usual pitfalls of “they don’t make ‘em like they used to”-ism by acknowledging that these are not products of a more innocent era–the era they come from, like all eras, was actually pretty fucked up. Rather, he slips up by insisting that the classic superheroes themselves are viable moral exemplars. To me this is very weird and a little icky. I don’t think we can really derive any kind of meaningful ethical guidelines from the career of Green Lantern–I mostly just think characters who dress up in cool costumes and use awesome powers to fight crime and tyranny and killer aliens can make for some fun stories with some powerful emotional beats. Now, the specific flaw of the New Frontier project of depciting the Silver Age DC icons as active in the actual time period that spawned them is that it takes Cooke’s problematic approach to superheroes and applies it to the Kennedy era itself, even though, given the actual historical record, viewing JFK in this hagiographical manner is almost as dubious as treating Batman that way. At any rate, as symbols of a brave new world of muscular Camelot progressivism, I’m not sure masked vigilantes make a whole lot of sense.
But to its great credit, JL:TNFS largely eschews the more heavy-handed philosophical elements of its predecessor, instead focusing on telling a ripping mid-’50s period yarn about Batman and Superman fighting, Dark Knight Returns-style. Frankly I’ll never get tired of Batman handing Superman’s ass to him with Kryptonite weapons, and seeing him do so via the effortlessly dynamic, feet-kicked-up-on-the-desk casual, retro-cool art of Cooke is all the better. Moreover, the short-story length mitigates against Cooke’s tendency toward bloat–there’s no room to cram in any multi-page paeans to Adam Strange! Instead, the special is rounded out by a pair of shorter, humor-oriented stories illustrated by Cooke collaborators Bullock (a Robin/Kid Flash team-up involving an unholy union between drag-racing delinquents and Communist saboteurs, which is a pretty fabulous idea) and Bone (a raid on a Playboy club by Wonder Woman and Black Canary which ends with Gloria Steinem in bunny regalia winking at the viewer; I’m still trying to figure out what was going on with this one other than Cooke riffing on the fact that Wondy was on the cover of the first issue of Ms. and that women look good in fishnet stockings).
I suppose what I would like New Frontier to be is a Watchmen-esque application of superheroes to a specific political and temporal milieu, whereby we can sit back and watch how things play out for these icons in a setting a lot more constrained than their usual anything-goes shared universe without the material telling us how to feel about what happens. In other words I don’t want the reverence to go any deeper than Cooke’s gorgeous throwback art. That’s not really what we’re getting here, but it’s brief enough and cool enough that I can pretend.