Monday, July 23, 2007

The Tale of Two Texts: The New Frontier and The Golden Age

I'm going to do something a bit different and take a close, week-long look at two major works from the DC Universe: Darwyn Cooke's The New Frontier, and James Robinson and Paul Smith's The Golden Age. If you're playing along at home, the texts I'm using are The Absolute New Frontier from 2006 and The Golden Age trade paperback from 1995.

First a bit of personal context: I didn't enjoy The New Frontier when it first came out, serialized in six quite expensive installments. I loved Cooke's art, I loved the use of some of the more obscure DC war characters, and I loved the characterization of the Martian Manhunter, but the narrative didn't work for me when read in small monthly doses back in 2004. I had read all of the full-length work Cooke had done up until 2004, and none of it had disappointed me at all. But The New Frontier seemed to read more like a tour through the 1950s and 1960s than an actual story. It wasn't until the final issue that I really understood what Cooke was leading up to, but then it was over, and I didn't have the time or the inclination to dig out the back issues and read the whole thing in one sitting. Even when I got the two-volume trade paperback collection a couple of years ago (in an ebay lot of trade paperbacks I bought off of none other than comic book scholar George Khoury), I still didn't bother to read it. To paraphrase Hemingway's Frederic Henry, we don't do the things we want to do.

So I never actually read the entire text of The New Frontier until this past winter, when I was able to sit down with the luxurious Absolute edition and dive into Cooke's illustrated world. I enjoyed it immensely, enough that I wanted to reread it again this summer, which is what I have just done, and now I want to talk about it. But I don't want to talk about it in isolation, and I'm interested in the connection between texts, so I'll also talk about its logical precursor: The Golden Age.

Like The New Frontier, Robinson and Smith's The Golden Age deals with the era between the 1940s and the 1960s. The era in which the comic book Golden Age grew into the comic book Silver Age. The era in which America was undergoing its own transformation, moving from threats abroad to suspicion at home. And just as I had difficulty enjoying The New Frontier as a serialized comic, I couldn't appreciate The Golden Age in that manner either. I only bought the first two issues, actually, back in the early 1990s, and then I lost interest, vaguely thinking that I might buy it as a collected edition some day (even though collections were not guaranteed the way they are today). I did buy it when the trade paperback was released, and because I had never finished it originally, I read the collection immediately. And I liked it. But I thought it was deeply flawed.

I reread The Golden Age yesterday, after thinking about it in regards to The New Frontier. It's not a surprising connection, after all. Cooke himself claims The Golden Age as an inspiration for his own work. But my memory of The Golden Age was a bit hazy, and I recalled it being a much more cynical view of the territory than what Cooke achieved in The New Frontier. My recall was pretty accurate--Robinson and Smith present a quite cynical view of the late Golden Age America.

Now that I've read both works back-to-back, I'm interested in exploring what each says about super-heroes, what each says about America, and how each achieves its (very different) effects. These are the kinds of things I'll be looking at over the next few days.

Come back tomorrow for a close look at how the creators of both works blur historical reality with comic book history to create a new super-hero context.

(On an unrelated note, both books also make me think about how stupid I am to buy these things when they're serialized. I enjoy them so much more as collections, and even though I might plan on reading all of the issues as a whole, I never get around to pulling them all out of the boxes. The trade paperbacks and hardcovers are just so much nicer to have. So why do I keep falling for the monthlies? I'm looking at you, Jeff Smith's Shazam!)


Timothy Callahan said...

and, yes, I'm aware of the irony of complaining about reading things which are serialized as I write a serialized blog entry...

Anonymous said...

Great idea, Tim. Looking forward to reading your thoughts on both books. I had similar first impressions of each one -- but rereading them in collected form gave me a new appreciation, especially for New Frontier.

--Steven Withrow

Anonymous said...

As I prepare to read these posts...

Just thought I'd say that I think of New Frontier not just as AWESOME COMICS, but also as an intelligent/self-knowledgeable homage to Watchmen. And that's some kinda rare bird!

Anonymous said...

Not that Golden Age is no good, or unaware of its situation in a post-Watchmen world...I just mean that New Frontier can be read as containing many specific callbacks to Watchmen, only repurposed (as Cooke repurposes late 50's commercial art, e.g. -- which of course many great comics talents had a hand in too) to show that nostalgia has a utility in modern-day comics which is not just...well, nostalgic. He flirts with it, perhaps; but I don't think he leads it on.

In effect: "These are the times...these are the feelings".

I think New Frontier frays just slightly at the end. Golden Age frays a lot more than that -- though I love it, my affection is partly made of its weaknesses. And in my opinion New Frontier retrieves the more nuanced meanings in Watchmen much more diligently than Golden Age does.