Darwin Cooke’s most impressive achievement with The New Frontier isn’t the art, which is a mix of sublime, grandiose, muted, and bombastic, or keeping track of all the characters (there have to be hundreds), but the voice he finds for characters. He starts big, with Losers member Johnny Cloud narrating the team’s adventures on Dinosaur Island. New Frontier is heavier with the science heroes and war heroes than with the superheroes. The Losers, Task Force X (the Suicide Squad), the Blackhawks show up, there’s a bunch with the Challengers of the Unknown—all of the mask-free, government sanctioned hero types, they play the biggest part in the New Frontier’s main plot, figuring into both Hal Jordan and John Jones’s plot lines and then consuming them. Though everyone’s plot is consumed by the finale.
Cloud’s memoir sets up the comic both in terms of Cooke’s approach—it’s going to be fantastical comic book action, but with a lot of heart in its heroes (New Frontier doesn’t have much in the way of human villains, as it turns out, just heroes who aren’t being heroic yet and then the politicians… they’re all bad), so awesome art and simple, sincere narration—as well as the main plot. Dinosaur Island’s going to figure in a lot.
After Cloud, Cooke cycles through the same main “leads”—Green Lantern-to-be Jordan and not yet Martian Manhunter Jones. There are tangents, but it’s their story for most of the comic. The big three—Batman, Wonder Woman, Superman—figure in a little. Wonder Woman and Superman more because they become government stooges and head off to Southeast Asia when tasked, which has long lasting ramifications and figures into their (scant) character development arcs. Cooke’s not telling a Wonder Woman or Superman story—despite showing up every issue, Superman’s basic ground situation still comes as a bit of a surprise at the end. Batman’s just there to support other characters, whether Superman or Martian Manhunter (without knowing he’s a Martian).
There’s also a possible plot hole with Wonder Woman knowing Eisenhower from the war but it’s unclear in what capacity because the superheroes weren’t involved in World War II (because “Spear of Destiny,” which means B.J. Blazkowicz failed his mission in New Frontier-verse). Cooke is cagey with the ground situation, which is fine when it works and he’s able to have a surprise reveal or little plot twist, but he’s intentionally manipulating. So when it doesn’t work, it’s real obvious.
As present as Wonder Woman and Superman is Lois Lane. She comes in early and stays to the end, often getting onto a soapbox to rant about the government wanting to control all the superheroes. See, the Red Scare goes to them too, not for being communists but for wearing the masks. Cooke does a fantastic job with the science heroes and how they exist in the world, but there’s nothing about how the regular folk regard the superheroes anymore. Tying them into McCarthyism when they would’ve been fresh in the public’s mind for do-gooding (presumably). It’s weird.
Of course, there’s not a lot of opportunity for Cooke to expound recent history because—outside the various narrations—the only expository device he’s got is the occasional article from some in-world reporter, Lois, Vicki Vale, Iris West, and they wouldn’t be appropriate for too much historical exposition.
The big fight at the end—will the United States’s earnest heroes be able to get over their fears and band together to stop an unimaginable threat, leveraging their individual abilities and the latest in Silver Age technology? Of course, it’s a superhero. It’s rather well executed, even if some of the details—Cooke’s design of the final boss seems like the physiology-free sketches of a child (in the Fifties, natch) and, well, something out of Max Shea’s imagination (obligatory Watchmen mention)… because New Frontier very much feels like Watchmen only with the DC Universe heroes. The Wonder Woman and Superman stuff… it does not exist in a vacuum. Cooke is showing off the potential for the regular stock of DC characters but does it too well.
The Flash, who gets less than stars Hal Jordan and John Jones but definitely more than Superman or Wonder Woman, fits really well in the 1960s context. Ditto Hal Jordan. In proving the characters relevance to their original historical context, Cooke makes everything else seem, well, second best. Again, with the caveat he’s very much gearing their characterizations—as expressed in their narrations—to fit his story. But you don’t get done with New Frontier and want to hunt down the latest Flash or Green Lantern issue. It’s interesting see these guys—and the comic definitely leans almost all male (it passes Bechdel because Wonder Woman chastises another Amazon’s fighting ability and a woman compliments another on her blouse)—as they struggle with their internalized jingoism and so forth. Cooke’s subplots often are just texture to promote this internal turmoil, like Hooded Justice—sorry, sorry, John Henry—who fights to KKK in Tennessee to national acclaim but is a local criminal. Cooke talks around the vigilantism stuff; he doesn’t have a character who can really get into it. John Jones does a little because he’s a cop in Gotham City, but supervillains aren’t really a thing yet.
Cooke takes huge bites and thoughtful chews.
The epilogue, set to John F. Kennedy’s “New Frontier” speech (get it, get it), is clearly a labor of love for Cooke but also unnecessary if not wholly unsuccessful. Kennedy and speechwriter Ted Sorensen were not writing for DC Comics and Cooke’s juxtaposition of text about social injustices with the corresponding comic book images… it comes off a combination of callous, opportunistic, and forced. New Frontier reaches, which is just right, it ought to reach, but Cooke reaches a little too far in the end. He ends up derivative instead of innovatory, which is exactly what the comic shouldn’t do.
But it’s still a masterpiece of superhero comics, setting an insurmountable bar because—even with plot holes and pitfalls and rushed subplots and epilogue problems—Cooke’s four or five hundred pages of art aren’t ever going to be surpassed. It’s a gorgeous, affecting tribute, homage, and eulogy to the Silver Age of DC Comics.