Friday, July 27, 2007

The Unstoppable Force of Progress: Characterization in The New Frontier

Thus, my week-long exploration of Darwyn Cooke's New Frontier and James Robinson and Paul Smith's The Golden Age continues. Check out installments ONE, TWO, and THREE for my previous commentary.

Since both The New Frontier and The Golden Age reimagine comic book chronology through one part actual U.S. history, one part comic book history, and one part imagination, it's not surprising to find both Cooke and Robinson taking liberties with the characterization of these pre-Silver Age heroes. Both creators ask the question asked by any creator attempting to retell stories from the past: Okay, this is how they were portrayed, but what were the characters who did these things REALLY like?

I'll start by looking at The New Frontier. Cooke doesn't focus his story on one dominant point of view the way Robinson does (with Johnny Quick), but he tells his story through a few central characters:

Rick Flagg: Leader of the WWII-era Suicide Squad (and presumably the father, or grandfather, of the Ostrander-penned incarnation). Cooke presents him as a tough guy cliche. He's a Hemingway hero--he does what needs to be done and doesn't whine about it or waver in his determination. In Act III of the narrative, his position in the story is replaced by the similarly-characterized King Faraday, who also does what needs to be done, although he seems to have more internal conflict that Flagg. Faraday is a spy, after all, not a soldier. But both characters represent a government which has the best interests of the country in mind. If they hurt a few individuals along the way, that's a necessary sacrifice for the good of the many.

Hal Jordan: The man who would be Green Lantern is NOT portrayed as a cocky rocket jock, as he usually is in contemporary interpretations. Cooke turns his lack of fear into a self-destructive streak stemming from his face-to-face act of self-defense in Korea. In Cooke's universe, Jordan doesn't immediately become a hero just because an alien handed him a ring. It takes time for Jordan to learn that he deserves to be a hero, and that's a large part of what The New Frontier is about. He doesn't reveal himself in Green Lantern costume until AFTER he risks his life to save the world working as a pilot. The two-page "hero shot" of the characters walking towards camera (a la The Right Stuff) shows some costumed heroes, but Jordan is wearing a flight suit. Cooke seems to be showing that he needed to prove himself TO himself before he could accept his new identity, but his reluctance to use the power of the ring leads to Nathaniel Adam's death. (Adam is later reborn as Captain Atom in the comics, but that doesn't happen in this story, and as far as Jordan should be concerned, Adam is dead.) Cooke doesn't provide Jordan with any time for remorse, though, since he needs to use his ring to kick alien butt. The ring, by the way, is also shown as a symbol of destructive energy. When Jordan first uses it, he cannot control it, and it causes great damage. Cooke, then, seems to indicate that the ring might symbolize nuclear energy, and the subtext would be that Jordan's hesitance to use it led to another hero's death. Ultimately, Jordan is Cooke's symbol of the Kennedy era: conflicted, yet determined to bring forth a positive future--harnessing great powers for the good of the nation (and the world).

John Jones, the Manhunter from Mars: Jones says, "...this is a world where good and evil struggle in all levels of existence. I want to be a force for good." That's a simplistic view of humanity, but it's one seemingly shared by Cooke throughout this work. Good and evil may not be easily discernible on the surface, and Cooke gives us the threatening-looking John Henry (with a hangman's hood) as a hero and a little blonde girl as a villain, but the line between good and evil is absolute (and, in fact, John Jones assumes the role of a film-noirish detective so he can find the evil beneath the surface appearance of the world). Jones defines this ethical stance for the reader, and it represents the code of Golden and Silver Age comic books, which lacked anything but absolutes. Even though Cooke might try to provide some not-so-subtle shades of grey (Jordan as a murderer, Wonder Woman as feminist avenger, an undercurrent of xenophobia), his view of history seems to echo the simplicity of the comic book stories of the era. Individuals may not have always done the right things at all times, but it was an era of progress, and good triumphed over evil. The subtext could also indicate that governmental order triumped over chaotic nature, with the unified heroes, under the leadership of the U.S. government, destroying a threat that wasn't so much malicious as it was animalistic.

Even though Cooke's characterization of some of these characters, Hal Jordan in particular, might not match traditional representations of these individuals, I think it works in the context of the story. The characters serve the story and add a few layers to the text, but it's primarily a historical action spectacle, a celebration of progress over stagnation, and Cooke's characterization unifies the text. I don't think his characters have many hidden depths, but I think their lack of depth matches a story which is primarily about the grand force of history.

As one final observation: Cooke is actually better at small character moments with the minor characters than he is at developing convincing lead characters. The death of Johnny Cloud, Jimmy Olsen's eagerness, the sassiness of Carol Ferris, and several other character bits show Cooke's facility on the small scale, even if his epic narrative doesn't provide the opportunity for subtle nuances with the major characters.

Come back tomorrow for my look at Robinson's revision of the WWII heroes in The Golden Age.

1 comment:

cullen stalin said...

First off, let me first say that i love your blog. I found it googling "Bat-Radia"!

I have seriously enjoyed your examination of these two series. It made me think of an issue i had with New Frontier, which i have been dying to mention to someone, somewhere, who might actually care.

I get that Cooke is very self-consciously trying to place American superheroes within the context of American Liberalism, and in a way draw parallels with their synchronous emergence. This has been done for a long time, at least since the JSA's fall was retconned to be a byproduct of HUAC.

This is all well and good. But my problem comes in when he toes the liberal line on communism and national liberation, and specifically perpetuates myths and propaganda that have been used to justify very atrocious misdeeds on the part of the US, under liberal administrations. The most striking case of this is when Wonder Woman liberates a group of Indochinese women, enslaved by the evil Vietnamese communists.

I have never read any credible source to indicate that the NLF or the Viet Minh held women as sexual slaves. (In fact, don't really think i have read *any* source that states this occurred). Granted, this is a work of fiction, and the author is entitled to creative license. However, much like the Deer Hunter's inversion of historical facts, this story element serves to reinforce the narrative of a 'well-meaning' American intervention that spiraled out of hand, mostly to the detriment of *Americans*. In fact, if more people followed Wonder Woman's lead - and did the 'right' thing, regardless of what the 'bureaucrats who are tying our hands' (a common punching bag) think, the war would have been over speedily, and freedom and justice would have won out in the East too.

There are some other overtones of Americanism in the book that eat at me a little too, but i'm going to cut this rant short in the hopes that we can dialogue on it a bit.