0. Looking Back in order to Move Forward
One of the more interesting developments in superhero comics has been the growing popularity of comics that take familiar characters and transplant them into unfamiliar historical contexts. Though this type of postmodern speculative exercise has been around in one form or another since the Silver Age, the current vogue has its roots in Brian Augustyn and Mike Mignola’s Gotham by Gaslight (1989), an ‘elseworld’ that took Batman and reinvented him as a steampunk vigilante battling Jack the Ripper in a turn of the Century Gotham City. Other attempts at historical re-potting include Superman’s reinvention as a Soviet tyrant in Mark Millar’s Superman: Red Son (2003) and Neil Gaiman’s Marvel 1602 (2003), which transplanted the entire Marvel universe to Elizabethan England.
As Gaiman’s comic ably demonstrates, these sorts of comic generally balance on a knife-edge between genuine insight and embarrassing self-indulgence. Indeed, while Millar’s Red Son showed us the darker side of Superman’s alien desire to ‘fix’ humanity, Gaiman’s 1602 amounted to nothing more than an extended piece of fan service in which Doctor Strange donned a ruffled collar while Magneto battled the inquisition. At their best, historical elseworlds function by taking a familiar character and placing them in a familiar historical context. However, while these historical contexts may be familiar to us, the placement of superheroes in them is not and so the unfamiliar collision of familiar characters and familiar settings sheds new light on those characters. For example, Gotham by Gaslight would not work half as well if we were not aware of the Victorian fondness for moral entrepreneurship while Red Son makes a lot less sense to those who are not aware of the Soviet belief that human nature could be changed for the better by top-down state intervention. At their best, historical elseworlds force us to think again about characters we know and love and at their very best, they force us to see these characters in an entirely new light. Darwyn Cooke’s two-volume series DC: The New Frontier (2003) is one of the most ambitious historical elseworlds to appear in mainstream superhero comics. Cooke’s series takes us back to a historically substantial version of the 1940s and chronicles the triumphant emergence of the Justice League from a political culture mired in fear and mistrust. Blending elements of Gold and Silver Age comics with the heightened realism of Alan Moore’s Watchmen (1986), New Frontier is far more than a highly effective act of historical repotting, it is an attempt to forge a new path for superhero comics, a path that takes the very best of the past and the very best of the present and forces them to coexist.
1. A Historical Tension
New Frontier begins by juxtaposing of two very different approaches to mainstream US comics.
New Frontier’s opening vignette is an unapologetic homage to the heroism of old-fashioned war comics. Sent to investigate a mysterious island in the South Pacific, a group of OSS commandos soon find themselves being attacked by an enormous dinosaur. Using a Native American as his viewpoint character, Cooke muses on the spiritual rewards of self-sacrifice and heroism as his team of howlin’ commandos are hunted into oblivion. Despite being an obvious homage to the comics of the 1940s, Cooke’s choice of a non-traditional viewpoint character signals his intension to reclaim and deconstruct the myth of the American hero by recognising the need to ground comic book heroism in something approaching psychological realism. Clearly, if old-fashioned heroism is to return then it must return in a more intellectually substantial form. This desire for greater intellectual substance is mirrored in Cooke’s second choice of homage.
New Frontier’s second vignette moves things forward to the late-1940s and lays out the comic’s political context using pages of text supposedly culled from a magazine article.
The article depicts America as a nation in the grip of an identity crisis. During the Second World War, America’s battles against Germany and Japan offered not only opportunities for individual heroism but also a shared sense of national purpose. With the Axis powers defeated and Soviet Russia not yet ready to assume the role of credible rival, America enters a period of cultural retrenchment that sends political elites scurrying to find a convenient scapegoat. Using Senator Joseph McCarthy as their cat’s paw, the post-War political elites bully, co-opt and silence an entire generation of superheroes, replacing them with branded ‘suicide squads’ and a network of sinister intelligence agencies with ties to a looming military-industrial complex.
Cooke’s ambition is evident in the way that this second vignette not only pays homage to the visual style of Alan Moore’s Watchmen, but also develops many of Moore’s political ideas by casting superheroes as cogs in the machinery of America’s morally questionable post-War foreign policy. In Watchmen, Doctor Manhattan goes to Vietnam. In Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns (1986), Superman does the Reagan government’s dirty work. In DC: The New Frontier, Superman and Wonder Woman are sent to fight in Vietnam.
By opening his comic with references to two very different styles of superhero comic, Cooke is signalling his desire for reconciliation. DC: The New Frontier can be seen as an attempt to present old-fashioned comic book heroism in a way that is consistent with the post-Watchmen trend for increased political and psychological realism. By reconciling these two very different forms of comic book writing, Cooke is trying to find a place for heroes in a world that is decidedly hostile to heroism.
2. The Challenge of Being a Hero
Cooke’s desire to reinvent traditional comics is evident in his use of sophisticated narrative techniques: Most comics tend to stick quite closely to a small number of characters with their own more-or-less overlapping plotlines. New Frontier moves beyond this type of narrative framing in order to embrace a more mosaic-like structure that hops back and forth between different characters and timeframes without ever tying them together. This mosaic effect results in a narrative that is harder to follow but a good deal more atmospheric as all the hopping back and forth allows Cooke to give us an overview of an entire culture. However, while the comic functions very much as an ensemble piece, it does seem to have a particular interest in the character of Hal Jordan, best known as the Green Lantern.
Jordan is a man caught in the jaw of a psychological paradox. Jordan grew up having never known his father. Indeed, all he knew of dear old dad was that he was a superlative fighter pilot. Desperate to fill in the gaps, Jordan transforms his father into a physical and moral ideal, a man simply too good to be true. However, despite being faintly aware that this image is entirely the product of his own childhood imagination, Jordan devotes himself utterly to following in his father’s footsteps resulting in a psychological paradox: On the one hand, Jordan cannot help but imitate his father, on the other hand, the person he is imitating never existed and so Jordan is trapped chasing after a phantom. The absurdity of Jordan’s principles is made abundantly clear when he joins the air force in order to become a fighter pilot. Aspiring to his image of fatherly perfection, Jordan becomes a brilliant pilot but this image of fatherly perfection also extends to Jordan’s morals meaning that while Jordan is a brilliant fighter pilot, he also refuses to kill for his country:
When Jordan is forced to kill in self-defence, the tension between his idealised vision of his father and the realities of warfare send him into a spiral of self-doubt and depression. Jordan desperately wants to be a hero but he cannot both be a hero and be a good man as heroism requires a level of moral simplicity that Jordan simply cannot abide.
Though Jordan cannot be said to be the comic’s viewpoint character, his personal struggle closely corresponds with Cooke’s desire to reclaim traditional heroism. Watchmen showed that heroism has a dark side when looked at in the cold light of day, because Cooke’s Jordan is a deeply moral and deeply intelligent man, he knows that the world’s problems simply cannot be solved with a punch to the jaw. Jordan knows this and yet he still wants to be a hero… New Frontier can be read as an attempt to solve this problem and Cooke explores different potential solutions in his treatment of different DC characters.
For example, when J’onn J’onzz (The Martian Manhunter) is stranded on Earth as a result of an experimental teleportation device, he takes a job in the Gotham City police force and models himself after the detectives that appear on TV. Working in a police department that was filled with police corruption even in the 1940s, the Manhunter’s idealism only passes professional muster because his colleagues consider him to be a naïve simpleton who has watched way too much television. Equally charming is New Frontier’s treatment of Batman that sees Bruce Wayne begin the comic as a brutal psychopath only to later change his mind and adopt a softer image on the grounds that people seem to prefer child-friendly heroes. While New Frontier’s treatment of both Batman and The Martian Manhunter show a desire to find a place for modern-day heroism, it is telling that both accounts ultimately end in failure as either their heroism or their modernity are showed to be mere affectations. Indeed, while Batman is decidedly modern, he is no hero and while J’onn J’onzz is undoubtedly a hero, his public persona is only a crude imitation of a real life detective.
3. It’s a Cynical World Out There
Though all the masked characters in New Frontier are striving to find a place for themselves in the real world, the real world is emphatic in its refusal to make room for them. Embodying the real world is a politico-military-industrial complex mired in cynicism and paranoia. This distrust of heroism starts at the very top in a beautiful scene where Wonder Woman is awarded a medal for her role in subduing Vietnamese communism. However, the second Wonder Woman tries to make a speech about women’s rights, Nixon emerges and ushers her off the stage and into early retirement. Clearly, while the post-War political elites have their uses for superheroes, they cannot allow a definition of heroism that differs from their narrow conception of the national interest.
The political class’s moral bankruptcy and hostility to true heroism is particularly evident from the fact that, while the government does not hesitate to send the CIA after The Flash, they do not lift a finger to combat the Ku Klux Klan’s domestic terrorism. When the actions of the KKK prompt the rise of a masked avenger, the local police turn a blind eye to his eventual assassination, dismissing claims of KKK involvement as “darkey lies”.
The government’s refusal to tolerate heroism is also evident in Hal Jordan’s attempts at becoming an astronaut. Denied a transfer to NASA on the grounds that he is politically compromised, Jordan’s moral principles and lack of fear clash with the culture of political expediency and caution that pervades the CIA-administered mission to Mars.
Though the sheer size of the military-industrial complex intimidates the superheroes into submission (as in the case of Superman) and subversion (as in the case of Batman), the hypocrisy and incompetence of the post-War political elites serve to create a culture where heroism cannot help but re-emerge. Switching back and forth between characters, places and timeframes, Cooke conveys an image of a body-politic that is tearing itself apart under the strain of cognitive dissonance. A TV programme here, a botched rescue attempt there and an all-encompassing but utterly misguided belief in the omnipotence of its own intelligence services create a culture where heroism is forced to return lest the world be destroyed by government incompetence.
4. An Island of Fear
The comic’s climax revolves around a confrontation between America and a supernatural being of immense power. After throwing all of its mundane forces into a futile all-out assault, the American government is forced to rely upon the superheroes that it had oppressed for the best part of a decade.
New Frontier’s final battle is a dramatic triumph. The comic’s repeated depictions of heroes oppressed by cynical government officials lends real pathos to the moment where everyone comes together in order to fight a common foe. Particularly stunning is the moment where Superman steps forward to assume a position of leadership, silencing argument and preventing a steep descent into finger pointing and backbiting. However, while these moments of old-fashioned heroism stir the blood and remind us why it is that we read comics, I cannot help but feel that they are also a fundamental betrayal of Cooke’s mission.
DC: The New Frontier begins by presenting itself as an attempt at reconciling old-fashioned heroism with new-fangled cynical realism. In order to accomplish this act of reconciliation, Cooke needed to find a place for heroism in a morally complex and politically fractious world. Though Cooke does indeed find a place for heroism that place is battling a vast supernatural entity composed of pure and unalloyed evil. But how does this square with Cooke’s desire for real-world heroism?
The problem with traditional comic book heroism is that in a world that really is morally complex and politically fractious, there are no sources of pure and unalloyed evil. In fact, it is precisely because there are no sources of pure and unalloyed evil that the world is morally complex to begin with! If we could all agree on what is right and what is wrong then there would be no need for disagreement or politics, we could simply punch the evildoers in the face and sleep the sleep of the just. By having his heroes unite in order to combat a morally simplistic foe, Cooke is not only betraying his comic’s rules of engagement, he is also displaying a fundamental misunderstanding of Watchmen’s legacy.
While Alan Moore is often ‘blamed’ for the rise of the tormented antihero in superhero comics, his true legacy to contemporary comics is the desire to make superhero characters seem a bit more human. Indeed, while Gold and Silver Age superheroes were undeniably heroic, they were also quite poorly written and so the likes of Batman and Superman tended to do heroic things simply because those were the types of things that Batman and Superman did. It was a conceit of the superhero genre that its protagonists existed in a world where evil people cackled and problems were solved by a punch to the jaw or a blast or eldritch energy. What made Watchmen so remarkable was Moore’s decision to step back from genre expectations and unpack why it was that superheroes did the things they did. For example, while the demented Rorschach battled evil because of childhood trauma, the supremely rational Doctor Manhattan decided to intervene in human affairs only after a lengthy series of debates about the value of individual human life.
New Frontier certainly succeeds in presenting us with psychologically complex characters that are free from the angst and darkness of Watchmen, but Cooke fails in his attempt to reconcile simple comic book heroism with complex real world morality. Moore’s characters engage in acts of traditional heroism but do so either after lengthy bouts of soul-searching or for entirely the wrong reasons and even when they do decide to ‘do the right thing’, the thing they do turns out to have disastrous and unexpected consequences. According to Moore, there are no unambiguously moral courses of action and so there can never be an act of unambiguously moral heroism.
By setting the rise of the JLA in a time and place that demands an act of unambiguously moral heroism, Cooke is stacking the deck and by stacking the deck his commitment to political realism is revealed to be nothing more than a sham. One made all the more evident by the moment where Superman assumes a position of leadership by telling everyone to shut up. Unfortunately for Superman and Cooke, the only way of reconciling political realism with having people shut up and do as they are told is by having the person issuing the order be a tyrant because, as Millar’s Red Son suggested, there is nothing heroic, selfless or moral about shutting down debate and bending people to your will.
5. Escaping Cynicism Requires Realism
Cooke’s failure to navigate a path out of cynicism and towards heroism highlights a challenge that affects all forms of escapist media. Indeed, while the popularity of escapist media derives from a deep-seated need to immerse ourselves in a world that makes sense to us, the kind of world that ‘makes sense’ to a popular audience is in a constant state of flux meaning that some worlds are easier to escape to than others. For example, while most people are familiar with the fairy stories of the Brothers Grimm, it is clear that relatively few people spend their days thinking about what life might be like in the world of Cinderella and the Frog Prince. We know these stories because they have been told and re-told and yet they cannot support the demands of an adult fantasy life because they are too removed from our day-to-day lives.
In contrast, the world of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings supports the escapist fantasies of millions of adults because though Tolkien’s world is a world where magic exists and good triumphs over evil, Tolkien also infused his world with more ‘realistic’ thematic concerns such as the cost that the good must pay in order to rid themselves of evil. The departure of the elves and the scouring of the Shire echo with the losses of the Second World War and so make Middle Earth seem that much more real. By keeping one foot in the real world, Tolkien ensured his creation remained relevant to modern audiences in a way that Cinderella simply is not. Thus Tolkien’s work demonstrates the balancing act that modern myths must perform: Make a story simplistic and you make it irrelevant but make a story realistic and you run the risk that it will no longer provide a means of escape.
The last thirty years has seen a drive to re-invent traditional heroes as darker and more realistic figures. Moore’s reinvention of the superhero as a vigilante mired in psychological trauma and political compromise is no different to the re-invention of King Arthur as a Roman Centurion or an Iron-age Chieftain. The world has changed and though we can no longer believe in a campy middle-aged Batman, we can believe in a tortured psychopath who acts upon his own flawed sense of justice. Humans have always and will always yearn for escape from the prison of their lives but the vehicle they choose for that escape is determined by the nature of the lives they are escaping. Because of this, stories must be retold and heroes must be reborn. Even modern day myths are subject to these evolutionary pressures, in order to survive stories must change to suit the demands of their audience.
6. All-Star Failure and The Need for Mythical Mutation
People who are more knowledgeable about DC comics than I am might well be able to make the case for New Frontier’s lasting legacy. Indeed, there is no denying that Hal Jordan’s profile has increased massively along with the expansion of the Green Lantern mythos into practically all corners of the DC universe. However, from what I know of contemporary depictions of Green Lantern, Batman and Superman, it seems unlikely that Cooke’s visions of 1950s DC Heroes have transformed how people think of these characters.
A similar attempt at mutating a character in order to help him flourish in the current cultural climate is Grant Morrison’s All-Star Superman (2008). Much like Cooke, Morrison’s reinterpretation of Superman looks beyond Miller’s fascist stooge in order to seek reconciliation with the values and tropes of the Silver Age.
Both Morrison and Cooke’s visions of Superman (like those of Frank Miller, Mark Waid and Bryan Singer before them) are part of the slow evolutionary process through which myths battle for survival. If Morrison’s vision of Superman proves influential and popular then Superman may find a new audience, one inspired by Morrison’s more fantastical and whimsical take on the character. Similarly, if modern comic audiences fail to be engaged by Morrison’s ‘mutation’ then those cultural genes will die out or lie dormant as with Frank Miller’s take on Batman in All-Star Batman and Robin the Boy Wonder (2008). Ostensibly an attempt to create a ‘mutated’ Batman to mirror Morrison’s ‘mutated’ Superman, All-Star Batman simply echoed Miller’s increasingly hidebound vision of Batman as broodingly intense psychopath with a bottomless capacity for cruelty. Critics reacted to Miller’s attempted re-imagining of the character with howls of derision… this was not the Batman they were looking for. Times have changed since the 1990s and brooding sociopathy has been run into the ground by far too many hacks with far too little imagination.
Though DC: The New Frontier must ultimately be considered an artistic failure, its vision of psychologically complex heroes who struggle to find a place in the real world is a compelling one. It certainly seems more promising than Morrison’s use of postmodernism to turn the clock back in a way that seems both gimmicky and unsustainable (can you imagine a 300 issue run of All-Star Superman?). I was also hugely impressed with the way in which Cooke seemed ready to engage with the American public’s need for both heroes and villains. While there is a clear cultural line between Nazism, Communism and Terrorism, Cooke’s depiction of an aging political class desperately searching for a convenient villain highlights the absurdities of this sort of national identity. How many pointless wars and ruined lives will Americans put up with before they realise that there are other ways to structure a society than being on the side of morally superlative ‘Heroes’ who battle evil ‘Villains’?
New Frontier is a beautifully drawn and exquisitely conceived series of comics that pushes the boundaries of what can be achieved in mainstream superhero comics. Though a failure both on its own terms and in terms of its wider cultural impact, New Frontier boasts an intelligence that is unrivalled in the dozens of unambitious titles that grace the shelves of your local comics emporium. New Frontier is undoubtedly a failure but it is a beautiful and tragic one that is entirely deserving of both your time and your money.
– originally published 10/30/2011
Jonathan McCalmont is a critic whose work has been published at Strange Horizons, The SF Site, The New York Review of Science Fiction, Vector and The Escapist. He maintains a film and literary blog entitled Ruthless Culture and he writes a monthly gaming column at Futurismic entitled Blasphemous Geometries.