Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Review - The New Frontier

The New Frontier
by Darwyn Cooke
Colored by Dave Stewart
2005 Eisner Winner for Best Limited Series
2005 Eisner Winner for Best Coloring
2007 Eisner Winner for Best Graphic Album - Reprint
2007 Eisner Winner for Best Graphic Design

I can't hide the fact that I enjoy superhero comics. But even as I like them I recognize that they are extremely hostile to someone who has not read them all their life. There's an awful lot of things that exist only because of genre conventions and history that were established fifty years ago when the target audience was ten year olds. The New Frontier is a book designed to appeal specifically to people like myself; people who know and accept the rules of superhero comics. It's a nostalgia piece for comic fans and that limits its effectiveness for anyone else.

In the early 1950's the government has banned superheroes. A few such as Batman have continued on despite the law. Others like Superman and Wonder Woman have started working for the government to enforce their policies. In this environment new heroes start to emerge such as the Martian Manhunter, the Challengers of the Unknown, and the Flash. While these heroes are fighting the occasional prehistoric giant monster or supervillain a test pilot named Hal Jordan is grounded from a space flight. And tying them together is the growing threat of a monstrous entity known only as “the center” that wants to wipe the upstart human race off its planet.

I did a fair bit of name dropping in that synopsis and that's because name dropping is just about the entire plot of The New Frontier. It opens with the Losers stumbling into the War that Time Forgot to rescue the Suicide Squad, jumps over to the retirement of most of the Justice Society of America and the death of Hourman, and over to a pre-superpowers Green Lantern fighting in the Korean War. I feel like I should be peppering my review with trademark symbols. All of this is absolutely meaningless if you're not already a fan of superhero comics, particularly the DC comics of the silver age. The New Frontier is a book designed specifically for comic book fans and if you're not in the club then you aren't invited.

Not that Darwyn Cooke doesn't do an admirable job of keeping the basic story elements clear. If you don't know the Losers then all you need to know is that they're an oddly named commando team and the rest can just go over your head. If you don't know who the Challengers of the Unknown are then their basic story is completely spelled out in the pages for you. The problem is that he doesn't really give someone not familiar with the characters a reason to care about them. Cooke gives the characters big moments that depend on the reader already having a connection to a version of that character outside of The New Frontier.

A good example of this is the Hal Jordan plot which is one of the longest in the book. There's a lot of plotting and events early on the story that play off the fact that he'll become Green Lantern, a straight laced space cop. Without that connection a reader is just going to get a weak drama; with it the nuances emerge.

It doesn't help The New Frontier that the central plot is dragged out for a long time mainly for the sake of referencing as many comics from the fifties and sixties as possible. It's a slow, lazy thing for the first two thirds of the book when suddenly the big reveal is dropped. Then just as it looks like it is dovetailing and building to a conclusion the brakes get slammed again for some extended sequences of showing off old characters. This book could have easily been half the length with the exact same amount of story.

By far the best aspect of The New Frontier is Cooke's art. Cooke is from the school of comic artists who use fewer, cleaner lines and have a terrific sense of motion. It will come as no surprise that he is another comic book artist who worked in animation. Also his visual aesthetic is very reminiscent of the 1950's and that compliments the story he is telling very well.

A facinating design choice that Cooke used in his layouts is that almost every page is built around a standard three panels. He almost never uses vertical breaks in the flow and only rarely blurs two of the rows into one larger panel. This formatting has two effects on the story. First, it gives the whole book a movie-like feel. Especially in the large format Absolute Edition (and I'll get to that in a moment) the eye can focus in one panel so that it fills your point of view entirely. It's a stunning effect when coupled with how it breaks the story into clean prose-like lines. It's the best of all worlds when it comes to this formatting. While I appreciate it when artists use more dynamic layouts this method of pacing his action worked wonderfully here.

The New Frontier wasn't the only book Dave Stewart colored for that 2005 Eisner but I don't think any of the other ones showed his skill as much as The New Frontier. Much as Cooke used a fifties style with his penciling Stewart chose to continue that effect in his coloring. In addition Stewart took his visual cues from the four color comics of the day and used a similarly bright palette. I cannot discount his work in helping create the impressive visuals.

The Absolute Edition of The New Frontier adds to the impressive visual style. By printing the book on pages twice as large as normal it makes it into a more absorbing experience. The effect of blowing up the artwork cannot be understated; it took what was a terrific looking comic before and turns it into something that is breathtaking. The only downside is that by being so large and heavy it makes the book a bit unwieldy to read.

If you're already a fan of DC comics, the kind of fan who picks up their Showcase Presents line to get some of the off-the-wall stories from the fifties and sixties, then The New Frontier will be an enjoyable book. Cooke knew his target audience and plays off them well. On the other hand if you don't know DC comics then you'll probably be left yawning at the story despite the stunning artwork. I liked the art, didn't care for the actual plot, and the moments were aimed right at me so my overall experience was positive but I'd never recommend it to someone who wasn't already a comic book fan.