America. The mid-50s. A time of uncertainty, Government abusing its authority while at the same time seemingly unable or unconcerned with protecting the people that bestow it the power it has. Yet, a force urges America and its citizens onward. Something compels them to look up, and away, and ahead of their troubles.But what is that force?
Much is made about Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ superhero deconstructionist Watchmen and how it strips the superhero of any power or initiative and leaves him naked and impotent. Unsurprising since it was created and published in the middle of the 1980s, a dark time the world over for numerous reasons. Anyone looking back could only find lies and deceit and looking ahead just promised deeper depths to sink to. It was a time when the Superhero could only fight on in spite of failing its purpose.
Flash forward to 2004. America had been reminded of its vulnerability not unlike during Pearl Harbor. She was fighting battles on several fights against terror and Civil Rights disputes. The only natural instinct was to look back, in order to know what to do next. This is possibly what birthed Cooke’s The New Frontier(TNF), a love letter to DC’s wide library of characters and it’s Silver Age boom.
I brought up Watchmen because although its a landmark work in its examination and reinvention of the Superhero, alternate take on global history, and deals with paranoia and the threat of complete destruction; The New Frontier has all of that and yet is criminally under appreciated. Because its heroes smile? Because they’re the same heroes we fell in love with as children? Because they remind us of how it felt to be young and want to believe that good triumphs over all?
Maybe its all of those, or none. Maybe not enough people have read The New Frontier. Those people have another 12 issue series to read.
Cooke’s premise is simple, following a more accurate and historical timeline where Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman worked alongside the JSA heroes in World War II and beyond, the burgeoning other heroes like the rest of the JLA and other more obscure heroes move out of the dark times (the collapse and constriction of comics when only the Trinity survived to publication) into the Silver Age (when DC expanded with dozens upon dozens of titles and creative bursts).
As heroes like the Challengers of the Unknown, Green Lantern, Martian Manhunter and others begin their journey to the characters we know them as, the World of The New Frontier changes and not always for the better. Wars are fought and ended, leaving their mark on good men and women trying to do the right thing. Fearing the march of progress, others take to wanton death and destruction in order to preserve an unjust system. Although Cooke touches on these, and sometimes not as long as readers would like, they’re part of the mosaic that he builds emphasizing “things will get better. We will come through this to a brighter tomorrow.” Indeed, the book ends with JFK’s speech about America entering a new era thanks to Space travel.
This force that compels the heroes of TNF to act, this optimism and determination, is part of the American ideal. It’s carried people across a vast ocean to an uncharted territory, convinced us to fight an enemy that was once our motherland and sole source of authority and win, to join nations in Europe falling under the hands of a power mad dictator, so on and so forth. There were many stumbles along the way, too numerous to count although they must be in order to comprehend our failure.
As times again darken in America, a new disease spreads like wildfire ruining lives, our political system seemingly more inept than ever with leaders who feel like afterthoughts of bygone eras holding empty promises and the conversations of Civil Rights once again reach a fervor pitch, it would be easy to give up. Too easy I say, no one ever accomplished anything by giving up.
This is what The New Frontier has to teach us, that we need to press on and endure because the alternative is too unthinkable. America has seen these problems before and will again, but it will take her people to overcome them.
Cooke states in his afterword to volume 2 that he wished to leave the analysis of The New Frontier to readers in the future to assign context and meaning. He tells of being inspired as a child and wanting that feeling to spread and endure in the next generation. While it may seem ambitious to consider that feeling the American ideal, is it really that ridiculous?
Sometimes we need reminders of the past to remember what we’re fighting for, that the future means as much as the past did but only if we’re willing to give it 110%.
The man who created this work, an antithesis of Watchmen blending art like that of Will Eisner and Jack Kirby into one glorious vision, has passed. He truly has passed too soon. He leaves an impressive legacy for future generations, partially like The New Frontier.
It’s only up to us to look back on this work and remember what it means to be a hero, the difference between right and wrong, and what it means to be an American…