Wednesday, July 25, 2007

The New Frontier and Camelot

This is part 3 of my week-long look at The New Frontier and The Golden Age. If you're interested in getting up to speed, part one is here and part two is here.

While The Golden Age used the historical subtext to evoke currents of paranoia and doom in a super-hero story, The New Frontier approaches history with a different agenda. As Ultimate Matt pointed out in response to yesterday's post, The Golden Age is labelled an "Elseworlds" title, which not only grants it an exemption from DC continuity, but it allows more freedom for the creators to take the characters and setting in a fresh direction.

The New Frontier, however, is not labelled as an "Elseworlds." And yet, it strays far more from the currently accepted version of continuity than The Golden Age does. The key word there is "accepted." Darwyn Cooke, in his annotations, states that he approached The New Frontier with a set of rules:

1. The timeline is real and covers 1945 to 1960. Silver Age characters appear at the time DC started publishing them.

2. Retcons haven't happened yet.

3. No New Frontier retcons could contradict original continuity--they had to complement existing continuity or show a fresh point of view.

4. When the story ended, everything had to be as it was when the JLA debutes in Brave and the Bold #28.

5. Snapper Carr does not exist.

In other words, you should be able to pull out your original comics from that era (or the Archive editions) and read them concurrently with The New Frontier and nothing Cooke does should contradict what happens in those old comics.

The problem with the continuity is that the comics from that era didn't have any continuity. It was never explained how a character could be on the moon in one issue of his own comic, and under the ocean in the same month in his Justice League adventure. All Golden and Silver Age DC continuity is a retcon. So what Cooke did was create his own continuity--he made his own sense out of the various adventures as they were originally published, although the bulk of the book deals with the time between major events. Just like The Golden Age, The New Frontier is about filling in the gaps.

While James Robinson filled the pre-Silver Age gap with an almost allegorical tale of Cold War paranoia and corruption, Darwyn Cooke fills the gap with a sense of wonder and idealism, and he uses his attitude toward history to solidify that tone.

Cooke's approach takes three strands: (1) The Right Stuff-inspired history of that era, embodied by the test pilots and early astronauts, (2) The early promise of the Kennedy administration, and (3) The strange DC comics history as seen in the stories published during that time. Cooke uses the first two strands to illuminate the latter. He puts the Silver Age ascention into perspective as part of a generation of hope and achievement. He shows that the formation of the Justice League was not a random incident, but part of a larger historical movement which led (in our reality) to things like the Peace Corps and Apollo 11.

Cooke ties together such disparate elements as The War that Time Forgot, The Challengers of the Unknown, Dr. Seuss, and all of the characters who would join the initial incarnation of the JLA into a single narrative. And although it takes quite a while before the villain emerges and the heroes band together, the narrative is structured around the real historical forces that would have shaped the creation of these characters. John Broome doesn't wax poetically about the symbolism of Hal Jordan's career as a test pilot in the original Green Lantern run from the Silver Age, but Cooke takes the fact that he was a test pilot and places him in the actual context of such a man. He even includes a scene where the young Jordan meets Chuck Yeager.

That's quite a different approach to history than we saw in The Golden Age, which covers a very similar time frame.

Although Cooke didn't intend (according to his "rules") to change any of the original stories, his interpretation of "fresh point of view," allows him to add things which would have been more historically true even if they weren't addressed in the comics of the time. For example, he not only changes Wonder Woman into an almost plump, hawkish, zestful character (to signify her Greek origins and Amazon heritage), but he creates an entirely new character to illuminate the civil rights struggle of the time. Since he had no black DC characters to draw upon, he created a Silver Age analogue to Steel, the black Superman ally. The Silver Age Steel, unlike his modern equivalent, isn't a technological marvel. Instead, this earlier incarnation of John Henry suffers at the hands of the KKK before taking vengeance, and ultimately dying when he's betrayed by an uncaring white America (symbolized by a blonde little girl, who points out his location to his pursuers). John Henry never meets the Justice League or teams up with any heroes. His death doesn't affect them at all, really, since they didn't know him. But Cooke includes a scene where Edward R. Murrow mourns the fallen hero and laments the state of the country, bringing an actual historical personage into the DC story.

The civil rights subplot, although powerful, is overwhelmed by the exceeding optimism of the other plot threads. Cooke's America, as full of conflict as it might have been, is one of scientific progress and movement toward a brighter future. His villain, ultimately revealed to be Dinosaur Island itself--a sentient being who has unleashed monster after monster, is even more absurd than the Hitler-brain-transplant nemesis in The Golden Age, but because Cooke accentuates the fun and spectacle of the super-heroes (and, to be clear, his emphasis is on the men and women in the costumes, and the risks they take for their heroism), the absudity of the villain doesn't detract from the story.

Both The Golden Age and The New Frontier end with similar images (the first appearance of the Justice League banded together) and similar sentiments (hope for the future), but where James Robinson built that hope out of the wreckage of the 1940s, Darwyn Cooke builds it out of the dreams of the men and women who sacrificed for the promise of tomorrow.

Both books end with optimism for comic books and optimism for our country, but they took starkly different approaches to get there.

Come back tomorrow for my look at the portrayal of the characters in both works.


Anonymous said...

Nicely done, Tim.

One of the things that's always bothered me about trying to map comic-book timelines onto actual history is the idea that each issue of a monthly comics series might be meant to represent a month of time. For example, if Green Arrow's series has been published for 48 issues, he must have aged four years in that time. Or if a character was 20 when he first appeared in 1980, say, and it's now 2007, then he must be 47 years old.

A writer can imply that this is true, but, generally, it's the equivalent of saying that each daily installment of Peanuts represents an entire day, which is silly and butchers the idea of "fictional time".

Fictional time is one of comics greatest tools -- a single day can take place over dozens of issues, or eons can elapse between panels. Or the whole thing can be reversed or made nonlinear completely (a la Grant Morrison).

Internal consistency is important, but any claim to a correlation with actual events can only be done on a metaphorical level. The JFK who appears in a comics series is a fictional JFK who exists in ficitonal time.

(See Diana Sasse's Kennedy Tales for an interesting take on this:

--Steven Withrow

Anonymous said...

Just wanted to add one note to my post above:

I do realize that DC's "grand narrative" depends on the vague idea that all of its "regular" series are existing in parallel chronologically and share a consistent "history".

And on a very limited basis, the "grand narrative" idea seems reasonable and manageable, but it has grown over the decades (for both DC and Marvel) to be more of a liability than an asset. And all the assorted "crises" and event comics and "revamps" have done is muck it up even further.

What do I suggest: Embrace macro-level inconsistency (expect it, in fact) and focus more (as creators and readers) on the independent nature of individual storylines (story arcs in an ongoing title). Examine metaphorical connections between stories without the need to manufacture "literal" or "temporal" connections between them where no such connections naturally belong.

--Steven Withrow

Timothy Callahan said...

I think your advice is sound, especially at this late stage of each "Grand Narrative," where it's impossible for a human to have read and remembered every single chapter ever published.

I wonder, though, if it's possible to evaluate super-hero comics on a slightly larger scale than just a creator's run or limited story arc. Could we base our expectations about narrative unity around the tenure of an editor (or an EIC)?

This is and off-topic train of thought, but I'm thinking that it would be okay to expect internal consistency during, say the Shooter era at Marvel. So what about the Quesada era? Does the contemporary DC Universe have a similar consistency under a single leader. Is there a consistent DiDio era?

Just some ideas I've been tossing around.