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cic2008-03-14.jpgFrom time to time in this column I’ve written about a new school of writing superhero comics that sets itself in opposition to the preponderance of “grim and gritty,” dank and depressing work that seems to dominate the Big Two comics companies nowadays. This new movement is really attempting to revive the positive heroic spirit of the genre from the Silver Age of the late 1950s and 1960s in terms appropriate to the arguably more sophisticated standards of comics of the early 21st century. One of the members of this school, Kurt Busiek, refers to it as the “reconstructionist” movement, as opposed to the “deconstructionist” superhero comics that arose in the 1980s. I’ve called it the “neo-Silver” movement, since it seems to take its inspiration from the classic comics of the Silver Age.

One of the flagships of the “Neo-Silver” movement is writer/artist Darwyn Cooke’s DC Comics miniseries, DC: The New Frontier, which takes the birth of the Silver Age as its subject. At the end of February Warner Brothers Home Video released Justice League: The New Frontier, a direct-to-video animated film adaptation of Cooke’s book.

On one of the DVD’s commentary tracks, Cooke seems understandably ecstatic to witness his creation so faithfully and handsomely translated to the cinematic medium. I’m pleased that so much of the miniseries is now up on screen, but I found myself nonetheless disappointed with this new video version.

As Cooke explains on the commentary track, the requirement of compressing his series into a seventy-minute film meant jettisoning many scenes and characters from the New Frontier comics. As a consultant on the film, Cooke apparently battled to retain certain elements of his original story: for example, if not for his efforts, it seems, Lois Lane wouldn’t have turned up in the film. Still, I think that some of the cuts struck at the heart of what The New Frontier is really all about.

It seems to me that, whether in comics or in animated form, The New Frontier works best for an audience that already has a basic knowledge of the sweep of superhero comics history. People with little knowledge of superhero comics can still follow and appreciate either version, but they won’t fully grasp the underlying backstory. For those who don’t know, let me tell you about it.

In brief, The New Frontier is about the fall and rise of the superhero genre between the late 1940s and the start of the 1960s. In the real world, the superhero genre began with the debut of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s Superman in Action Comics #1 in 1938, as the Great Depression lingered and Europe was about to plunge into World War II. The Man of Steel was an immediate and extraordinary success, and the new genre grew with explosive speed. In 1939 came Batman, at the company now known as DC Comics, the original Captain Marvel at Fawcett, and the Sub-Mariner and the original Human Torch in Marvel Comics #1 at the company then known as Timely. Scores of other new superheroes followed in the early 1940s. At DC Comics there was Wonder Woman, the original versions of the Flash, Green Lantern, Hawkman, and the Atom, as well as Doctor Fate, the Spectre, Wildcat, Hourman, and many more. DC teamed its leading superheroes up as the Justice Society of America in its aptly titled All Star Comics.

The comics industry boomed: in those dark times, the country needed new heroes, in fiction as well as real life, and superhero comics were read not only by the little kids they were presumably aimed at, but also by the young soldiers going off to war. Superman leapt with a mighty bound from the comic books to the comic strips, radio, animated cartoons and live action movie serials. The 1940s was indeed the “Golden Age” of superhero comics, when they achieved a mass popularity that has never been matched since.

But after the war ended, the superheroes’ popularity began to fade quickly. Comics publishers turned to other genres, and one by one the newly created superheroes vanished from print. The Justice Society’s adventures came to an end in 1951, as All Star Comics metamorphosed into All Star Western. The only superheroes at any comics company who survived as the stars of their own comic books throughout the 1950s were DC’s Big Three: Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman.

Meanwhile, having defeated the Axis powers in World War II, America now faced a new threat from its wartime ally, Josef Stalin’s Soviet Union, newly armed with atomic weapons. After spending years fighting enemies abroad, it was as if the United States couldn’t stop itself from looking for yet still more enemies. So in the late 1940s people in government began hunting for subversives and Communists who, they feared, were in league with the Soviets to topple or destroy American democracy. Thus began the era of Senator Joseph McCarthy, his and other Congressional “witch hunts” of Americans who might be secret Soviet sympathizers.

While much of 1950s America was in this inquisitorial frame of mind, Dr. Fredric Wertham wrote his notorious book Seduction of the Innocent, blaming comic books for inspiring juvenile delinquency and even questioning the sexuality of Batman, Robin and Wonder Woman. There were Congressional hearings into the charges against comic books, with the result that most of EC’s line, the most innovative and artistically advanced comic books of the early 1950s, went under, and the comics industry submitted to its own form of self-censorship, the Comics Code, to prevent the government from imposing its own restrictions.

It was Paul Levitz, who is now DC’s president and publisher, who did the first comics story that linked the real life Congressional investigations of the late 1940s and 1950s to the near-extinction of the superhero genre during that same period. In “The Defeat of the Justice Society,” a story Levitz wrote in Adventure Comics #466 (April 1979), the superheroes of the Justice Society appeared before a Congressional committee which demanded that they unmask and reveal their true identities to prove to the American public that they were not subversives. Rather than comply, the members of the Justice Society retired from their superheroic careers. So there was the explanation, in comics continuity, as to why most of DC’s Golden Age superheroes had vanished by the end of 1951.

It might have seemed back then that superheroes were merely a passing fad. But DC editor Julius Schwartz successfully launched a new version of the Flash in Showcase #4 (1956), thereby initiating the great superhero revival of the late 1950s and 1960s, which comics aficionados know as the Silver Age.

Arguably, however, the first Silver Age superhero was really J’onn J’onzz, the Manhunter from Mars, who debuted the year before in a backup story in Detective Comics #225 (November 1955). But J’onn was not originally portrayed as a superhero. Inadvertently transported to Earth by the experimental ray of Dr. Erdel, J’onn (who was not the “little green man” of UFO legend, but a big green humanoid) utilized his shapeshifting abilities to masquerade as an Earthman, John Jones. In his human guise, Jones worked as a detective, turning invisible in order to use his Martian super-powers covertly. Hence, the Manhunter from Mars series was originally a combination of science fiction and the mystery genre. Since the superhero genre, apart from the Big Three, was dead, it seems unlikely that J’onn was originally intended to be a superhero. Only in 1959, after Schwartz had successfully relaunched the superhero genre, did J’onn begin publicly operating as a superhero (see J’onn’s history here).

I’m going to make yet another reference to Danny Fingeroth’s book Disguised as Clark Kent here. Danny shows how the superhero’s secret identity served as a metaphor for Jewish-American comic creators’ efforts to assimilate into American society. So Clark Kent (an alien like J’onn) conceals his Kryptonian ethnicity by posing as an ordinary American-born “mild-mannered reporter.” J’onn went much further literally altering his outward appearance in order to “pass” as a normal Earth human. While Superman would publicly display his Kryptonian powers in his costumed identity, J’onn would initially only employ his Martian powers when he turned invisible, literally out of sight of the majority, who would fear a “Martian invader” in their midst. In New Frontier Cooke showed his recognition of how J’onn J’onzz, hiding his true self so completely from the rest of society, fit into the paranoid, repressed, conformist atmosphere if the 1950s.

In Showcase #4 police scientist Barry Allen was depicted as a fan of the 1940s Flash comics; upon gaining the power of super-speed, he named himself the new Flash after his fictional hero. Years later, Schwartz and writer Gardner Fox had the new Flash travel to a parallel world, “Earth-2,” where the original Flash, Jay Garrick, was a real person. In time they established that the superheroes of the Golden Age lived on Earth-2, while the Silver Age heroes lived on Earth-1. The new versions of the Flash, Green Lantern, Atom and Hawkman joined the Justice League, Earth-1’s counterpart of the Justice Society; Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman were among the founding members of the JLA.

In 1986 DC revised its continuity through the series Crisis on Infinite Earths, which did away with the concept of multiple Earths and established that the Golden Age heroes lived on the same Earth as DC’s modern heroes.

Something else to consider is that, traditionally, comics characters age very slowly or not at all. Superman was introduced in 1938, and yet he remains a young man in the comics today. The Silver Age Green Lantern, Hal Jordan, first appeared in Showcase #22, cover-dated October 1959, and yet he is not depicted in today’s comics as as the senior citizen he would be had he aged in real time. To make Jordan’s youth more credible, no one in contemporary comics stories makes reference to the fact that his origin as a superhero took place during the Eisenhower Administration. Similarly, in a early 1960s story Superman met President John F. Kennedy, but in current continuity, Superman would not even arrive on Earth as a baby until decades later.

In the real world Superman first appeared in comics in 1938, Batman in 1939, and Wonder Woman in 1941, and all three were members of the Justice Society. In current DC continuity, though, they did not begin their superhero careers until roughly a half century later.

This may all have begun to make your heads hurt, but there is still one more step to consider. In New Frontier Darywn Cooke devised his own alternate version of DC Comics continuity. In this version, DC’s Golden and Silver Age heroes all exist on the same Earth. But, with only one exception I can think of offhand, each superhero debuted in the New Frontier timeline at the same time that he or she did in the comics in the real world. Hence, Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman did start their superhero careers in 1938, 1939, and 1941, respectively, in the word of The New Frontier. Arguably, Superman and Wonder Woman’s super-powers keep them from aging normally. But when the story of The New Frontier concludes in 1961, Batman and Lois Lane must be in their forties (though they certainly still look youthful). That one exception, by the way, is Robin, who does not appear in The New Frontier comics or DVD until sometime in the 1950s. If he had debuted in the New Frontier timeline in 1940, as he did in the comics, he would be an adult by the 1950s, and Cooke obviously wanted to use the traditional image of Robin as a “boy wonder” instead.

But the focus of The New Frontier is not on the Big Three, but on the new superheroes who arose during the Silver Age. (Indeed, Cooke’s commentary track on the DVD points out that Superman is kayoed early in the climactic battle at the film’s end so that the Silver Age heroes can take center stage.)

Cooke’s greatest conceptual innovation in The New Frontier is explicitly to turn the Silver Age into a period piece. Instead of presenting the Silver Age heroes as existing in a permanent present day, as comics traditionally have, he instead explicitly sets them in the time period in which their stories first appeared: the 1950s. Cooke presents the Silver Age characters as products of their time. With the perspective that comes with looking back a half century in history, Cooke is able to see how these characters reflect the times of their creation more clearly than, perhaps, their own creators could at the time.

For example, the creators of the Martian Manhunter may not have consciously been aware of how the character–a green-skinned alien disguised as a human in order to live on Earth–was a response to the racism and paranoia of 1950s American society, but Cooke sees it and consciously works with the theme.

So the premise of The New Frontier is fairly complicated for a casual reader of comics, or a viewer of the video whose knowledge of DC superheroes may be restricted to the movie versions, to understand.

Let’s turn now to the video. Watching the opening, I was immediately delighted by the use of a familiar old device–an animated artist’s brush, seemingly wielded by an offscreen artist, which creates the pictures onscreen. One sees something similar at the start of Max and Dave Fleischer’s Out of the Inkwell cartoons, but New Frontier’s animated brush specifically evokes the artist’s brush that appears onscreen in various classic Disney animated films. (I describe one example, All the Cats Join In, in “Comics in Context” #136: “Before There Were Cars”). It’s a lovely homage to a grand tradition.

In the context of The New Frontier DVD, though, the animated brush doesn’t belong to the artists creating the film, but to an offscreen character in the story, a children’s illustrator who has undergone mental possession by the film’s principal menace, a primeval intelligence called the Center (or The Centre, since the film also employs the British spelling). The offscreen illustrator sets down a warning about the Center in his book, and then, still off camera, shoots himself. This is presumably meant to be a shock effect, but I was only a wee bit startled. Not having gotten to know or even see the illustrator within these first few moments of the film, it was hard to feel anything for him.

As for the Center, I’m afraid he leaves a gaping hole where the story’s ultimate villain should be. In the opening of the film we hear the Center’s voice drone on ominously about how he has existed for millions upon millions of years and is determined to eliminate these human newcomers to the planet. But we’ve seen this sort of thing before: for example, H. P. Lovecraft’s elder gods. There’s nothing distinctive about the Center, whether in his motivation, his powers, his personality–or, rather, lack of same–or even his visual representation. when the center finally appears towards the end of the film, he looks like a gigantic and rather drab floating rock with giant pterodactyls, of all things, roosting on top.

In The New Frontier, it is in order to combat the Center that the new Silver Age heroes team up with the Big Three to become the Justice League. Subsequently, the film shows us a shot of the JLA battling Starro the Conqueror, which aficionados will recognize as based on the cover of the comic with the Justice League’s first published adventure, The Brave and the Bold #28 in 1960. You may think of Starro as silly: after all, he looks like a gigantic alien starfish. But that cover shot of the JLA struggling against the monstrous Starro is both memorable and iconic. (And it suddenly strikes me that the cover for Fantastic Four #1, with its heroes struggling against another huge monster, which appeared the following year, is very much like it! Why not, since the FF were allegedly created as Marvel’s response to the Justice League?) In the Silver Age Julie Schwartz and his artists had a knack for concocting just such amazing visual imagery. The Center just isn’t in the same league. The Center does not hold.

During the opening credits for the New Frontier video, we see a newspaper headline announcing the retirement of the Golden Age superheroes and see an image of them trudging away in defeat. We then see a shot of the police pursuing Hourman. Readers of the original comics version will recall that superheroes became outlaws unless they revealed their true identities to the government and took loyalty oaths. Hourman refused either to comply or to retire, and this police chase ended in his untimely death. (This is sharply different from the canonical DC continuity, in which the original Hourman also retired at the end of the Golden Age and resumed his superhero career when the Justice Society reemerged during the Silver Age. But do people who watch the DVD without having read the comics recognize Hourman or understand that he was killed before Superman says so later in the film? )

All of this is treated at greater length in the comics version, primarily through text pieces, like newspaper coverage of the events. Darwyn Cooke explains on the DVD that due to time limitations the filmmakers covered these events through these images in the credit sequence and through a subsequent scene which Cooke wrote in which Superman and Lois Lane discuss the Justice Society’s enforced retirement. But these brief images and references to the end of the Golden Age heroes are not the same as dramatizing it onscreen.

The New Frontier comics series begins at the end of World War II, with DC’s team of military heroes, the Losers, on “Dinosaur Island,” the setting of one of DC’s wackiest war series, The War That Time Forgot. There is a reference to Dinosaur Island in the video, and I suppose that’s where the pterodactyls at the end came from, but I don’t mind that this opening sequence from the comics is missing from the film.

But I think that the film needed a sequence, however brief, to establish that there had been a Golden Age of superheroes. Those who are unacquainted with comics history needed to know a little more about it, and, indeed, need to know that that’s when Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman debuted. (If you don’t know superhero comics history, you might think from the film that Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman first appeared in the 1950s, just as the Barry Allen Flash did.) Moreover, in dramatic terms, if the story begins with the fall of the superheroes and the end of the Golden Age, then we should see a glimpse of that Golden Age and its glories onscreen, in order to feel the sense of loss when it comes to an end. Perhaps the precredit sequence would have better been devoted to showing the Justice Society in action.

Perhaps because the graphic novel devotes more space to the fall of the Golden Age, it takes on resonances that are absent from the DVD. Today, a situation in which superheroes are outlaws unless they reveal their true identities to the government not only harkens back to the McCarthy era but becomes an echo of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ landmark series Watchmen. Superman, who is allowed to continue to operate because he submitted to the government’s demands, is in the position of Moore and Gibbons’ Dr. Manhattan, while Batman, who daringly defies the law by acting as a vigilante, mirrors Watchmen’s Rorschach. In The New Frontier DVD it’s not clear that Batman is operating outside the law; indeed, he shows up at the end to aid the government and no one even mentions he’s a lawbreaker.

Furthermore, in reading the New Frontier comics’ account of what Batman and Superman did when the government lowered the boom on superheroes, I was inevitably reminded of Frank Miller’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, another tale in which superheroes have been banned. In The New Frontier DVD Superman mentions that he had to take a “loyalty oath” to continue his superheroic career in America. The DVD does not examine or even seem to notice the moral ambiguity of Superman’s decision. Readers of The Dark Knight Returns know that Batman–and Miller-regard Superman as a sellout for working with a federal government that had driven the other superheroes into enforced retirement. In The New Frontier DVD there is only an oblique reference to the fact that Batman and Superman are on opposite sides of this issue, when Batman ominously notes that he keeps kryptonite on hand in case he needs to use it against the Kryptonian.

Watching the DVD, I realized that The New Frontier is the direct opposite of Marvel’s Civil War. New Frontier clearly indicates that the government is wrong to attempt to control or outlaw the superheroes, who become representatives of individual freedom. The suppression of the superheroes becomes a metaphor for the blacklisting of the McCarthy era. Superman is one of the few “scabs.” In Civil War half of America’s superheroes are not only scabs, siding with the government in its insistence on officially registering superheroes and learning their true identities; they are also strikebreakers, battling their former comrades. Captain America leads the other superheroes in opposing the government’s demands. But in the concluding issue we are led to believe that the public sides with the government; majority rule overrides individual freedom, and Cap and his faction surrender, effectively acquiescing in the idea that they were wrong. (And then Cap gets shot.) With the triumphal emergence of a new generation of superheroes. At the end of the story, The New Frontier extols the superhero as symbol of individual liberty. In contrast, Civil War has an ending that would make McCarthy and the 1950s House Un-American Activities Committee happy.

Perhaps in the DVD when Superman is encouraged to take a leadership role, it is intended as a subtle reproach to his acquiescence to the government, and he indeed rises to the occasion later in the film. As for the rest of the Big Three, I concur with Cooke in his praise (on the commentary track) of the animation of a sequence in which a particularly spooky Batman singlehandedly and believably overcomes a gang of sinister Center cultists, one by one.

The big scene with Superman encountering Wonder Woman in 1950s Indochina, adapted from the graphic novel, is another matter. Wonder Woman has encouraged a group of oppressed Indochinese women to kill their tormentors, celebrates with them afterwards, and defiantly defends her actions to the disapproving Superman. This reminds me of the man-hating Wonder Woman of Frank Miller’s All Star Batman and Wonder Woman recently killing the traitorous Maxwell Lord in canonical continuity. These stories’ writers are presumably drawing on the fact that Wonder Woman is a member of an ancient warrior culture of Amazons. But traditionally Wonder Woman has always been an advocate of peace, even if she has to use force to stop wrongdoers. How can she object to the violence and brutality of “man’s world” when she applauds women who resort to blood vengeance? Wonder Woman is not Xena or Red Sonja. I recognize Superman and Batman in New Frontier, but not Cooke’s version of Wonder Woman.

And I just do not comprehend why Cooke put the Flash’s longtime foe, Captain Cold, in such an uninspired costume, which makes him look like a medieval monk wearing 3-D glasses. You can’t beat Carmine Infantino’s classic costume design for Captain Cold. If Cooke has the Flash wear his sleek and stylish Infantino-designed costume, why couldn’t he let the Captain wear his? Ah well, at least the Captain got to wear his proper costume when he turned up in the Justice League unlimited animated series. And despite the fashion victimization, Cooke’s battle between the Flash and Captain Cold in Las Vegas is even better in the animated film. Iris, well, quite a rush to see the Flash moving at super-speed directly at the Captain, only to be halted at the last second when the Captain shouts “Stop!” in warning. It’s lucky for the members of Flash’s Rogues Gallery that in comics the writers and artists can manipulate time: otherwise they would be hard pressed to pull the trigger before the onrushing Flash got to them.

As in the graphic novel, the DVD’s initial sequence with Hal Jordan, who is to become the Silver Age Green Lantern, is set on the final day of the Korean War. Though the war is over, Jordan finds himself forced to kill an attacking Korean soldier in order to save his own life. The purpose of the scene is much clearly and much more strongly conveyed in the comics, however. In Cooke’s graphic novel Jordan is adamantly opposed to killing for any reason. I find it hard to believe that a man with such an attitude would be assigned to fly a combat plane. Shouldn’t Jordan have been a conscientious objector and been assigned some duty in which he was not expected to kill the enemy? In the comics presumably Jordan’s killing of the North Korean in self-defense is to show him learning that violence can be necessary. However, in the film Jordan is not clearly established as a pacifist, so the point of the sequence is blunted. I’m still puzzled as to why Cooke wanted to make Jordan a pacifist and why he felt the need to put this future hero through such a brutal killing, as if it were an initiation into the use of violence. Other heroes in the series, like the Flash, don’t go through this sort of bloody initiation into violence.

Another thing I like about The New Frontier comics is that Cooke presents Hal Jordan as a representative of the daring, pioneering test pilots and astronauts that Tom Wolfe wrote about in his book The Right Stuff. Again, presumably because of the necessity of condensing Cooke’s books, this comes across more explicitly in the comics. In the DVD Jordan seems to be more of a lone star, not a member of a generation of heroic pioneers in air and space.

But it is just wonderful for a Silver Age fan like myself to see the iconic origin of Green Lantern, as the dying alien Abin Sur passes his power ring on to the man he has singled out to be his successor, Hal Jordan, animated on screen: a classic scene from the comics that retains its power today.

The characters who make the biggest impression in The New Frontier DVD are Jordan and the Martian Manhunter. I like nearly everything that Cooke and the animation team do with J’onn J’onnz in the book and the film, portraying him as a humane alien forced to hide his true identity from a hostile world. In both versions there is an entertaining scene in which J’onn watches television to learn about his new world, shapeshifting into doubles of the personalities he sees on the tube, including Bugs Bunny and Groucho Marx, as if trying out identities. Eventually he settles on becoming a detective like those he sees on TV. It’s a perceptive acknowledgment that in the comics of the 1950s J’onn J’onzz was not so much acting as a real detective as adopting the media image of a detective from TV and the movies. Thus we can now see that the early Manhunter from Mars stories of the 1950s reflected the genre now known as film noir, which expressed the anxieties and fears of that decade. The literal darkness of the scenes involving the Martian Manhunter in both versions of New Frontier thus likewise reflects the noir visual style.

The plight of the green-skinned Martian Manhunter is a metaphor for racism in 1950s American society. In the comics Cooke devised a subplot to reinforce that theme, depicting an African-American superhero named John Henry (after the hero of folklore) who is eventually murdered by bigots. On the DVD John Henry’s saga is briefly recapped in a television news report. It’s good that the filmmakers included this, but once again, I wish there had been the time and budget to dramatize it. This is yet another reason why anyone who sees and enjoys the New Frontier DVD should make a point of reading the original comics to find out the whole story.

Cooke titled his series The New Frontier after the celebrated line in John F. Kennedy’s speech accepting the Democratic nomination for President in 1960. The first member of his new generation who would become President, Kennedy declared that “We stand at the edge of a New Frontier—the frontier of unfulfilled hopes and dreams. It will deal with unsolved problems of peace and war, unconquered pockets of ignorance and prejudice, unanswered questions of poverty and surplus.” “The New Frontier” was the name given to the programs that Kennedy proposed to deal with these problems, just as President Franklin D. Roosevelt had put forth “the New Deal” to combat the effects of the Great Depression.

In his original comics series, Cooke ran Kennedy’s “New Frontier” speech alongside images of the newly formed Justice League and the myriad new superheroes who arose to populate DC’s Silver Age in the late 1950s and 1960s. It is a triumphant, inspirational coda to Cooke’s epic tale, and the film heightens its impact by putting Kennedy himself (or someone doing a masterful impression of him) delivering his “New Frontier” speech on the soundtrack while the montage of Silver Age superheroes fills the screen. Thus Cooke makes the key point of his series: that the rebirth of the superhero genre in the Silver Age reflects, and acts as a metaphor for the birth of a new idealistic, activist spirit in American politics and culture in the 1960s.

At one point in his DVD commentary track, Cooke remarks that the events depicted in the film (obviously aside from the presence of superheroes) resemble those if the present day. I wish that he had gone into detail about this. It has been said that any movie that is set in a period of the past is really also about the period in which it was made. (Hence, Gone with the Wind, though set during the Civil War and Reconstruction, also reflects the racial and sexual attitudes of 1939.) Cooke is acknowledging that this is true about The New Frontier.

The Golden Age of Comics was born during the Great Depression, with the world on the brink of World War II. These first superheroes seem to embody the positive, can-do American spirit that lay behind FDR’s New Deal, that enabled the nation to rise out of economic misery, to defeat the Axis threat abroad, and to become, yes, one of the world’s postwar “superpowers.”

As Cooke shows, the New Frontier and the Silver Age also emerged from a dark, troubled time in American politics and society, involving a war (in Korea) and restrictions on civil liberties, and embodied the will and desire to bring about change.

It was during these two periods–the late 1930s and 1940s, and the late 1950s and 1960s–that the superhero genre experienced its most explosive growth, giving rise to pantheons of characters who have now achieved classic status. In the forty years since we have not witnessed any comparable burst of creativity. For example, it has been said that the last truly iconic superhero created at Marvel was Wolverine, back in 1974! There was a great period for the genre in the mid-1980s, but in the “deconstructionist” mode of Watchmen and Dark Knight.

Now, America is again in a dark period, mired in an endless war, plunging into recession, headed by an administration that employs torture and violates civil liberties. Yet in 2008 Presidential candidates, both Democratic and Republican, have been promising “change,” a passion to reform what has gone wrong in our society. At this point the two remaining Democratic contenders each represent an element of society–women and African-Americans–who were previously barred by prejudice from holding positions as powerful as the Presidency. And one if them, Barack Obama, has taken as his theme “the audacity of hope,” representing a new spirit of optimism and liberal activism.

Is this another time, like the 1940s and 1960s, that could revitalize the superhero genre? Indeed, has this rebirth already happened in the movies, with the ceaseless wave of superhero movies during this first decade of a new century? But what path will the superhero genre take in the comics? Will it remained stuck in the grim and gritty, the dismal and despairing, with series like Identity Crisis and Civil War, undercutting the heroic spirit, siding with oppression, unable to advance into a new, brighter day? Or will comics creators follow Darwyn Cooke on the path he sets out in The New Frontier: into a newer frontier for the 21st century?

LINKS IN THE GREAT CYBERCHAIN OF BEING

If Darwyn Cooke is a practitioner of the Neo-Silver Age school of comics, then Dave Stevens created a Neo-Golden Age masterpiece in The Rocketeer, his gorgeously illustrated adventure series set in the late 1930s. Stevens passed away this week, and you should read the tribute to him by his friend Mark Evanier.

There have also been remarkable tributes online to the late Steve Gerber, and I encourage you to read those by his former Marvel colleagues and friends Peter Gillis and Steven Grant and Heidi MacDonald’s reminiscences about the man and his work.

-Copyright 2008 Peter Sanderson

Comments:

2 Responses to “Comics in Context #217: The Next Frontier”

  1. winterteeth Says:

    Great work, as usual, I just have a couple of comments: I believe Capt. Cold’s costume was meant to reflect The Center’s control over him. It looks like the outfit the cultists were wearing when Batman fought them. At least, that was the impression I got.
    I felt the unkindest cut from the comics was the exclusion of the Challengers of the Unknown. They already had Ace set up as GL’s buddy and the others appear in the big fight sequences but they are not given any backstory. Unless you know comics, you don’t know who these guys are. I thought I remembered them playing a bigger role in the comic (but I could be wrong, I read it a couple of years ago). Also, did Hourman die in the comic or did they fake his death and hold him in that facility where J’onn ended up? I honestly can’t recall if the latter happened or if I just kept expecting it to happen.
    I could be misremembering but isn’t there a scene in which the hunted heroes (represented by Flash) show up to help the army and they have a standoff with Faraday until Supes gives his speech? I think that was meant to resolve any lingering government vs. capes action so that Batman was arriving after the heroes had been deemed “okay to help.” That was why no one mentioned he was wanted, I think.

  2. RW Says:

    Why does this symbol “ keep showing up instead of quotation marks and apostrophes?

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