This is not a review of DC: The New Frontier, not really; it’s a Thank You letter to Darwyn Cooke. Since I want to expand on this and say just how much Cooke’s New Frontier has meant to me, itself a perfect love letter to the medium of comics, I need to go back to the beginning.
When I was growing up my mother kept an evolving journal about my school days, updating it every year with highlights or accomplishments from each new grade. Stuff like “Started Playing Hockey” in Kindergarten, or “Went on First Skiing Trip” in Grade 6 would pop up alongside more menial notes like my new height or weight.
When I was in Grade 1, aged six, one of the new entries read: “Started Collecting Marvel Comics”. My heroes were Peter Parker, the Amazing Spider-Man and Charles Xavier’s Uncanny X-Men.
(For the purposes of this story, it’s important to note that I never “got into” the DC comic Universe, entirely. My older brother started following Batman during the very famous “Knightfall” arc and, by proxy, I too fell in love with the Dark Knight. But sadly, that’s where my knowledge of DC began and ended.)
As I grew older, the hobby of collecting comics went on hiatus and those heroes waned in place of things like parties and girls and Bob Dylan and the Ramones. But it was a period of my life, like many childhood memories, that sticks with me like an ember that just won’t ever go out. Nostalgia is a funny thing, like that. It can make you very euphoric and melancholic all at once—pining for youthful innocence often involves a teary smile. Eventually that ember erupted into a blaze once again during my second year of University and I got back into “Collecting Marvel Comics”. I also branched out and picked up more “intellectual” comics like Sandman, Fables, Watchmen and DMZ. While these titles brought me to new horizons, it was having my beloved Spider-Man and X-Men back in my hands that really, truly made me feel like a kid again. But I realized I had missed a lot. I had considered striking up a full relationship with the DC Universe, but there was so much Marvel I had to relearn! Anyone who knows the world of comics knows that even taking one year off means you can fall very far behind in the canon of characters. I became a True Believer once more and like a sponge I dove in and got back my encyclopedic knowledge of the Marvel comic universe. All was well again. Except I didn’t know what I was missing until now.
If you’ve made it through that long-winded intro, let me get on track. A short while ago, as the comic community still reeled from the recent loss of noted legend and visionary Canadian cartoonist Darwyn Cooke, I did what I’m sure many did (with a sharp pang of guilt, I must admit) and bought my first Darwyn Cooke work. I knew Cooke’s artwork from being a comic fan and mildly involved in the community and it was as gorgeous as it was playful and classic. I knew that to get into his stuff I would have to “cross the floor” so to speak and delve into the somewhat unknown DC universe. Aside from the caped crusader, I just didn’t know much about DC as a whole–but Cooke’s DC: The New Frontier is considered a verifiable classic by all accounts, so I figured it was a good place to start with his work. It didn’t just end up being a good place, but the best place.
DC: The New Frontier is more than just a love letter to comics—it’s a study of ideals: courage, determination, persistence in the face of overwhelming adversity…in essence, everything cliché about the Golden Age of Superheroes. But Cooke’s clichés are malleable. He takes these archetypal paragons of virtue and doesn’t pander to what we know about them, that they’re lawful and virtuous, instead he dissects them and shows us that they have conflicts within themselves much larger than the monsters they face. How does a superhero deal with a fellow crime fighter who himself breaks the law to stop crime? Or what is their reaction to violent justice in retaliation to brutal injustice? How one goes about saving the world is never cut and dry. In New Frontier there is constant conflict, both physical and emotional, but it’s not overtly political or politicized—it’s just human. A shape-shifting alien from Mars struggling to understand Earth, an Amazonian goddess struggling to find a country or a Superman struggling to justify what he and his peers do—it’s all just human. This is the shining thread that flows throughout the entirety of New Frontier.
Like I said before, I didn’t know much about the DC Universe. I didn’t have the knowledge of these characters, built up from childhood, to have that familial connection with this story as I read it. But it didn’t matter. Darwyn Cooke’s love brimmed over from every page and infected me like manufactured nostalgia. These characters, familiar DC strangers, became my characters. Their conflicts became my burdens. Their successes became my joys. In short, I felt like that six year old kid again, reveling in a world so new and fragile and full of hope. Yes their world had problems that needed more work, but it was refreshing to see that in a world of superpowers, it’s the human element that often does the best job of fixing things.
And though it’s too late for him to know how I feel, I want to say Thank You to Darwyn Cooke. For making me feel that youthful, nostalgic joy of storytelling heroism, as if I had cracked a comic book for the very first time.