I have a very complicated set of feelings about comics, especially comics from the Big 2. There are elements I like, characters I like, authors & artists I like…but there are vast swaths and some essential natures I don’t like. Super-teams like The Justice League leave me cold, at least in their comic form. In cartoons and films they can work better, but in the comics, I don’t know. I could go on at length about how the combined universes of DC Comics and/or Marvel Comics don’t work from a storytelling point of view, how the X-Men don’t make sense in a universe with The Fantastic 4, how Batman doesn’t belong in a universe with Martian Manhunter, etc. I guess I won’t do that here, but it’s a place I come from when I sit down to read a book like The New Frontier.
This book is the late, great Darwin Cooke’s love letter to the so-called Golden Age of comics. Taking us from World War II up to I think the early 60s, it reimagines various famous and obscure DC characters to tell a larger story about what it means to be a hero and why we look to heroes. Where Alan Moore’s deconstruction of comics and superheroes seems to fundamentally condemn the whole endeavor, Darwin Cooke looks at stories of heroes as a way to pull ourselves up, to find aspirations. I like that with this book, Cooke seems to say the reality is messy and complicated, but the myths we build up around that ugly reality still have value.
The book works in tons of references and draws from the vastness of the DC Universe, but you don’t really need to be well versed on the subject to understand. You get enough info to follow the story, but if you do know some of their comics, you’ll recognize some stuff. I’d read a bunch of Challengers of the Unknown, for example, and picked up on elements of their story right away. It wasn’t integral to the overall work, though. You could read this like Kurt Busiek & Alex Ross’s Marvels or Godzilla: Half Century War (https://matthewjconstantine.com/2017/03/14/comic-review-godzilla-the-half-century-war/). It works as a story on its own, without the need for vast reading lists to prepare you.
Cooke wrote and drew the book (with Dave Stewart doing colors), and it drips with his particular style. His work had a retro-vibe anyway, making him a great choice to do this mid-20th Century storytelling. Admittedly, some of his characters start to blend and there were a few times when I couldn’t keep the various strong-jawed Bob Dobbs looking dudes separate. Every dude looking like he should be played by Frank Lovejoy or Marshall Thompson. That might also be because DC Comics’s roster of male heroes got a bit samey.
The Absolute Edition is a very nice presentation. There’s lots of supplementary material. It was done before Cooke’s untimely death so he was actually involved and has interesting commentary on the work. My only complaint is that the binding feels iffy. Considering how hefty a tome it is, I don’t love hearing a lot of cracking every time I pick it up. So far, it’s held together, but it makes me worry about the book’s long term survival. I haven’t noticed this in other Absolute Editions that I’ve handled, so maybe I got a bad one.