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Everything Old Is New Again

DC: The New Frontier #1
story and art: Darwyn Cooke

Darwyn Cooke's latest dabbling in the playpen of the DC Universe works on many levels.

From its title, the book hearkens back to a time when DC was absolutely, unquestionably, top dog in the comics game. (Never mind the Steely Dan soundtrack that is inexplicably running in the back of my head.) National Periodicals was the new frontier in comics. Sure, in the sixties Marvel captured the imaginations of college students, but it was DC that set those imaginations free in the first place, with what, in hindsight, was the beginning of the Silver Age.

Since those days, storytelling styles have flip-flopped a few times, and Cooke fuses a few together. His art betrays his time working on Batman: The Animated Series (itself a callback to the Fleischer Superman cartoons), but that just helps set the mood. Surprisingly, realism stands side by side with the optimism and heart-on-its-sleeve nobility that characterized fifties' pop culture. And like James Robinson's classic The Golden Age, DC: The New Frontier makes a few nods to continuity pre- and post-eighties rewrites.

Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman all exist in their Golden Age incarnations, with, predictably enough, the brightly-costumed ones having sworn loyalty oaths to the government. The rest of the so-called "Mystery Men" disappeared in the face of HUAC, with hints of dark fates for a couple. But they're all really just window dressing, nods to what the fans expect while Cooke accomplishes his apparent goal with this issue: drawing a bridge between the mystery men and the later superheroes with the characters and features that should have held readers' interests.

Subtitling this first issue "Our Fighting Forces" (a classic DC war title), Cooke offers up a final fate for The Losers far more satisfying than the bizarre one-shot of the mid-eighties. From this comes the seeds of Task Force X, which eventually morphs into the Suicide Squad, in an adventure set on a prehistoric island. Dinosaurs and army men, such stuff as young boys' dreams are made on, collide with great splendor and pathos. In recent years, writers (okay, mostly Chuck Dixon) have revisited "The War That Time Forgot," but it hasn't been this fun in quite a while.

Though not yet making a clear connection to his first chapter, Cooke shifts to a vignette with a young boy hoping to meet real-life test pilot Chuck Yeager. If you can't figure out who the kid is, you may not belong here, but trust that the character Cooke builds here has a more palatable motivation than he has been allowed in the past two decades.

In fact, all the characterization has snap to it. A little older than we're used to seeing, Lois Lane shows up, confident and a bit brassy. No longer a "girl reporter," she carries herself like Rosalind Russell, accompanied by a Jimmy Olsen on his way to being a veteran war photographer.

It may strike some as too coincidental that their paths cross with a character destined for big things, but it works in context. Heck, they even end up being only two degrees away from one of the future Challengers of the Unknown. Too closely entwined? Nah. It's just fun.

Yet Cooke throws in a heartbreaking ending, withheld from critics in advance and forcing us to buy a final copy on the stands. (Not only did the ploy work, but …no regrets here about it, except maybe a perhaps too high $6.95 cover price.) Those last few moments again serve as great motivations for characters we think we know, without any fantastical moments. Cooke may not yet be at the "super" part, but he definitely has respect for the heroes.

With that respect is also a healthy dose of wonder, something we don't get enough of in comics anymore. And like Marvel's Ultimate Fantastic Four, it almost seems a shame that this will lead into costumes and superpowers, because the story of these ordinary people doing extraordinary things is compelling enough.

And if I haven't made it clear, it's also just fun.


Derek McCaw

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