Darwyn Cooke & the New Frontier

The comic book-related internet is awash with reports of the sad passing of creator Darwyn Cooke, who just died of some form of aggressive cancer in the last day or so at the far too young age of 53 (only 8 years older than me!)  I’m far from the best person to write any sort of eulogy for the man, who I didn’t know at all aside from a brief fan-meeting in the artist’s alley at the New York Comic-Con in 2010.  There, Mr. Cooke was gracious enough to indulge my request for an autograph in my little book and even favored me with a 15 second free sketch of Green Lantern, after I mentioned how much of a fan I was of his DC:  The New Frontier.

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Are you familiar with New Frontier?  It’s not at all the only comic work that Darwyn Cooke has ever produced (not by a long shot), but if it had been, it would be enough to put him on the map in the comic-book world.  Like if Spielberg had never made another movie after Raiders of the Lost of Ark, we’d all remember the guy.

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New Frontier is a massive (nearly 400 pages!) retelling of the origins of the Justice League, and in a way, the entire DC Universe, all set mostly in the 1950’s.  It’s illustrated in Cooke’s trademark style which is somehow classic & retro and completely modern at the same time, and employs a grand “widescreen” approach which gives the story a huge sense of scope without ever sacrificing effective story pacing.  Only rarely are there more than three panels on a page, but the visuals are so rich you never feel cheated out of actual story content.

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One of Cooke’s  rules for the story was that every character had to have debuted in the story-world in the same year that they were first published.  Thus, people like Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman all show up before World War II (and before the story takes place), while the Flash, Green Lantern, J’Onn J’Onzz and others all appear in the 1950’s, in the story’s “current day.”  There wasn’t any external reason for this limitation, as far as I know.  It’s just a self-imposed boundary that reveals a category of geekiness in Darwyn Cooke that I resonate with and really appreciate.

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Working under that constraint, Cooke managed to produce a gripping and expansive that does not shy away from facing some tough issues.  It’s a story about heroism, but painted on a tableau of cold war-era paranoia, racism, war, and clashing political ideologies. Of course, on that troubled backdrop, the light shines all the more brightly.
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Cooke does some outstanding character work, delivering compelling versions of DC’s heroes.  His take on Hal Jordan (essentially the series’ star), Barry Allen, the Losers, Batman, Wonder Woman and more are all excellent.  It’s a pity that he never did any significant work on most of these guys after this (as far as I know).  I would have definitely been into the ongoing adventures of this version of J’Onn J’Onzz, and his Challengers of the Unknown is the most compelling version of the concept that I have encountered.  I can imagine it as an awesome TV series, and I certainly wish Cooke had written and drawn an ongoing series. .

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So, so long Darwyn Cooke, prayers and condolences to your family and friends, and thanks so much for your incredible work.

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