Sunday, July 29, 2007

The Finale: The Golden Age vs The New Frontier

My week-long exploration of Darwyn Cooke's New Frontier and James Robinson and Paul Smith's The Golden Age finally CONCLUDES with a look at the artwork in both stories as I reach my final verdict about these two graphic novels. Check out installments ONE, TWO, THREE, FOUR, and FIVE for my previous commentary.

The best way to comment about the artwork in these two books is to look at two equivalent pages side-by-side and discuss the techniques each artist uses to tell the story. So here we go, a quiet scene from The Golden Age illustrated by Paul Smith and colored by Richard Ory on the left, and a quiet scene from The New Frontier illustrated by Darwyn Cooke and colored by Dave Stewart on the right (click on the image for an enlargement if you wish):

The first thing you'll probably notice, seeing the pages side-by-side like this is how similarly the pages are laid out. Both artists use a three tier structure and both artists alternate camera distance to create a visual rhythm (by the way, I'll use cinema-related terms like "camera distance" and mis-en-scene as a critical shorthand today, I hope you don't mind). One major difference that these two particular pages don't identify is that Cooke (on the right) uses the three-tier layout almost exclusively throughout the story, maintaining this three widescreen panel look on nearly every page of the book, while Smith (on the left) returns to the three-tiers regularly, but he changes the layout on many, many pages, sometimes going with two or four tiers per page. He also uses more panels to break up the tiers, as you can cleary see in the example above. The effect of the smaller panels is an overhwelming sense of constraint, of visual claustrophobia, perfectly suited for the story. In Cooke's case, his widescreen panels match his boundlessly optimistic tone and the panoramic scale of his narrative.

Also notice that Smith may vary the camera distance from medium-long-close up-medium-close up-medium (with background action in the last panel), but he maintains the same camera angle. Our point of view is waist high (to Johnny Chambers), or the level of the seated and haggard Ted Knight. It never changes , allowing us to stare into the eyes of the lost scientist and see Johnny as a heroic, looming figure. Cooke, on the other hand, radically shifts from a top down establishing shot, to a close up, back to a long shot. The establishing shot-to close up panel transition is rare in comics (and such a transition is rare in cinema, but it reminds us of Sergio Leone, who mastered the technique). The effect on the page of such a rapid shift in narrative distance is to speed up a relatively slow scene. It's just two guys standing and talking, but Cooke makes it dynamic with that transition. His story is literally about acceleration, and his two characters here, Ace and Hall, are two of the most fearless test pilots in the world.

Smith's mise-en-scene seems to be all about texture. The wrinkled, stubbled face of Ted Knight. The folds of the clothes, the sheet hanging over the chalkboard in panel two, the stacks of random papers in panel six. All of this adds to the grunginess of the story, capturing that sense of human-level drama and despair. Cooke's mise-en-scene is all about geometric shapes. The nearly perfect 45% angle of the plane in panel one, the straight lines on the character's faces, the stark, relatively empty background in panel three. Cooke's world is an orderly universe, and only Ace's trail of smoke seems unwilling to fit into a rigid pattern. Cooke's powerful graphic style is simple on the surface, but his compositions give his pages amazing weight and energy. And this story, about technological and social progress, about the machinery of man and the order of the world, belongs as a widescreen, geometric story.

Before I move on to the other sample pages, I need to point out the drastic difference in the use (and quality) of the color. In The Golden Age, Richard Ory was using a relatively new (for the time), hand painted technique, and either the reproduction is absolutely horrible or his color choices are absolutely rotten. Either way, the garish use of yellow, not only on this page, but throughout, and the attempt to provide surface highlights (like on Ted's face in panel three), distract terribly from Paul Smith's solid storytelling and fine linework. Ory seems to want to use the color to add to the book's ground-level "realism," but it just looks sickly. I would love to see this book recolored without all the fussy yellow highlights everywhere.

Dave Stewart is the best colorist in the business, so anyone would look bad next to him, but see how pleasant the colors are in the page on the right compared to the Ory atrocity on the left. And Stewart perfectly captures both the melancholy mood of the scene and the geometric design of Cooke's page. Everything in Stewart's work is balanced, clear, and beautiful, even the painted texture of the runway and the mottled sky.

Here we have two more pages, this time from the climax of each story, and, once again the three-tiered structure remains consistent between both. Even the camera angles are very similar in the top and bottom panels on each page. The major difference in page layout is that Smith (on the left) breaks up the middle action into a before-and-after sequence, while Cooke (on the right) shows us on simple action. In fact, Smith tells more story in his panels, with Dynaman smashing of Green Lantern with a tree, then punching him as GL is trying to get up, then recognizing the arrival of more heroes behind him. Three distinct actions. One per tier, with that extra panel in the middle thrown in to show the evil of kicking a man when he's down. Cooke only shows two actions: Martian Manhunter flying, and Martian Manhunter tearing a beast apart. Once again, Cooke story (both in content and style) is about acceleration, and this page is no exception. Smith's story (with writer James Robinson) is about brutality and "reality."

Which ties into the look of the violence on these pages. Smith makes the violence look painful! His villains stagger and have swollen features and slices on their faces. His heroes are torn ragged and punched into the ground. Cooke, alternately, makes the violence seem heroic. Martian Manhunter is covered in far more blood in that last panel than Dynaman is on his, but the blood pouring over Martian Manhunter seems like more "action-shapes," that the insides of the creature. Note we don't actually see where the blood is coming from, although we can assume it's from that flying dinosaur thing from panel two. But Cooke keeps the focus on Martian Manhunter's face (and notice how he did that establishing shot-to close up thing again), and we see the struggle of the hero (THEMATIC!), not the suffering of the monster. Smith shows us EVERYONE suffering--everyone pays the price for the actions of evil men in The Golden Age.

Ory's color (left) is less of a problem on this page, but it still muddies the image a bit too much for my taste, especially in panel one, which shows a brown tree in front of a brown background. The darker hues on the costumed characters works for the tone of the story, which is fine, but I much prefer the bright hues of Stewart's palette (right) as the Martian Manhunter's red eyes seem ready to burst some heat vision right out of the page. Also, Stewart's blue sky is much prettier. Which is nice.

Paul Smith and Darwyn Cooke are both fantastic artists. Smith, as proven over his long and varied career, is capable of a wide range of styles and artistic approaches, while Cooke sticks to what he does extraordinarily well, a bold, deceptively simple style that somehow combines the best of Jack Kirby and Alex Toth and then makes it even better. I think Smith does an excellent job with the material he's given by James Robinson, and I think Cooke is one of the greatest comic book artists in history. So even though both artists approach their stories with different illustrative techniques, they both do so fittingly.

So the art (at least the linework) is not enough to declare one work clearly superior (although the coloring might be--and The New Frontier wins that one hands down), but I do prefer Cooke's style, personally. He is one of the most exciting artists working in the industry.

So, the final verdict, after looking at The Golden Age and The New Frontier for a week: Not much different than my initial assessment after reading them both last weekend. The Golden Age is flawed because of its inconsistent narrative point of view and it's cheap, brain-swapping revelations. Robinson and Smith capture the disillusionment and paranoia of the time quite well, but it all amounts to nothing except a superhero slugfest in the end. It's 80% of a great work, and 20% of stuff that doesn't quite fit (including the optimistic ending, which seems unearned). As part of a larger, genre-wide trend to make super-heroes more "realistic," violent, and depressing, I'm not a huge fan of its influence.

The New Frontier is flawed, but it's a flawed masterpiece, and I can imagine revisiting the story many times in the future (and I can't say the same about The Golden Age). Cooke tries to include too much in the narrative, and the main threat of Monster Island isn't presented as well as it needs to be, but the book contains dozens of amazing sequences, and it features sharp, engaging characters who flash in and out of the story. The speed of the narrative demands that the book be read quickly, and it works best when read this way, not because it allows the reader to gloss over the weak parts of the story, but because The New Frontier is an overture, and can be best appreciated when all of its notes are heard in rapid sequence. I didn't love it when it first came out, in the completely inappropraite floppy installments, but I loved it after reading the Absolute version a week ago, and I love it just as much after studying it closely all week.

As one final thought: Both The Golden Age and The New Frontier tap so deeply into comic book lore, and I am so deeply imbedded in it myself, that I wonder if either of these works has any merit for a "civilian" reader. And I wonder if, perhaps, the darker, more "realistic" tone would be appealing to a non-comics fan, more so, perhaps, than the wide-eyed optimism (tinged with bits of darkness) seen in Cooke's work. Or would the non-comics fan find both stories completely useless and without merit? Are both works examples of the snake swallowing its own tail? I've already been swallowed by the snake of comic book geekery, so I can't answer that one.


Johnny Bacardi said...

Out of curiosity, have you read Twilight, the Howard Chaykin rethink of DC 's Silver Age outer space characters like Tommy Tommorow, Space Cabbie, and so on?

Matt Jacobson said...

Interesting analysis. I've never read The New Frontier for the specific reason that those sort of intentionally naval gazing "delving into comic book history" stories never interest me, and is one of many reasons I didn't enjoy The Golden Age (along with a lot of the reasons you mentioned). Plus, Golden Age, as a story (to me), was just boring and unengaging.

In answer to your final question: no, these cannibalistic stories are definetly not good "gateway" stories for non-comic fans. The subject matter is essentially comic book history, and without that context, they read as incomplete stories. Even Watchmen, without the comparison and context of other superhero stories (since the story basically subverts the expectations of the superhero genre), is a severely incomplete and unsatisfying story.

Timothy Callahan said...

Yes, I absolutely LOVE Twilight (or at least I loved it when it first came out). It's my favorite Garcia Lopez work, and I've always been a Chaykin guy.

Matt: You should read New Frontier, unless you hate Cooke's art. His depiction of Johnny Cloud's final moments is wonderful, and Cooke draws so much pretty stuff. It's not "boring" like Golden Age.

Yonatan said...

An interesting comparison that could be made is the fact that the main character in both is really the Green Lantern at the time.
In the Golden Age it is the story of Alan Scott coming to terms with the man that he is an more importantly the man that everyone thinks he should be.
New Frontier's GL arc is just about Hal figuring out who is... but not in any sort of deep way.
The end of issue...3...I believe of the Golden Age..with Alan standing on his own...cut off and realizing that the Green Lantern must be reborn is one of my favorite GL scenes and the return to grace arc, is much better than New Frontiers tale..which is at its core one of building up and not of a return to anything in particular. In NF nothing had changed from the Golden to the silver GA alot and changed and alot needed to be done before the silver age could occur.

At least that is how I see it

(oh and the Golden Age was my Gateway comic into the Golden Age characters)