I thoroughly enjoyed the animated version of New Frontier, so picked up the original, collected edition graphic novel as soon as I could. It then took me about six years to actually read it, but it's the thought that counts, right 😂 Still, the wait was worth it: New Frontier is one of those rare stories that puts a new spin on multiple beloved heroes without changing them in any meaningful way. These are absolutely the DC legends that have existed since the '50s and '60s, just at the start of their journeys. If anything, it's a clever retcon of their origin stories to mesh the wider DC universe together more consistently with our own world. Basically, it's clever and I love it.
What I will say is that I didn't pick up on just how clever this was until I read the appendices, which offer a behind-the-scenes look into the creative process that went into the story. I think big DC fans – particularly those that were reading the comics in the '60s or '70s, who grew up with this cast of heroes – will likely twig what Cooke is doing, but I almost wish it was more clearly signposted for those of us coming at the tale with greener eyes. The New Frontier is, in many ways, a standalone story. It introduces each character (some a little more deeply or cleanly than others, admittedly) and takes its time to set the stage without throwing the reader in at the deep end. But, once you understand that this is supposed to be the story that literally transitions the Golden Age of comics into the Silver Age – for DC, at least – then so many more plot points suddenly gain additional meaning and context. The whole "superhero act" style arc about the original Justice Society; the meeting of the "aspects" heroes (Shazam, the Stranger, Zatanna, Spectre, Doctor Fate); the focus on non-super acts of bravery and courage; John Henry versus the KKK; and, of course, the Wonder Woman/Superman thread, where on hero realises that America lacks a perfect moral compass, whilst the other struggles with patriotic duty versus their own idealism. These are all interesting plot threads in their own right, but when taken into the context of the transition from Justice Society to Justice League, they're incredibly clever. It means that TNF stands on its own two feet, but also slots into the broader DC narrative with barely a ruffled feather. It develops characters that are decades old, and does so without having to (seriously) retcon or rework any aspect of their story or nature.
As for the core premise itself, it's okay. Honestly, the whole "alien island organic doomsday device" feels a little dull. I like that it ties into a sort of Savage Land motif and the excuse for dinosaurs versus superheroes is always a worthy conceit, but its seemingly infinite power and actual purpose are not entirely clear. The text indicates that it evolved on Earth, but from what? And that it saved the dinosaurs for their "cold-blooded kinship" (ignoring the fact that dinosaurs were likely not truly cold-blooded) but then later also appears to be creating them at whim in any form it wants and/or using them as a food source? I'd have liked to spend a little more time getting to understand the creature. On the other hand, I enjoyed how they wove the mythology of the Centre into our world and thought the mass hysteria concept was a nice touch. Similarly, having Abun Sur coming to Earth because of the threat the Centre poses was cool (as was linking his death to prior actions in the story, just thought that was clever) and made it feel somehow more interconnected and realistic.
Plus, ultimately, the Centre is the MacGuffin around which the story spins, but it doesn't really matter all that much. The more interesting point the tale is making revolves around a meta-narrative concerning the concept of heroism, and this is done artfully. Everything from the consistent mashing together of human daring and superhero morality; the deliberate juxtapositions our various heroes wind up with, from the obvious like King and J'on going from hunter/hunted to friends or the dialogue between Superman and Wonder Woman, to the less transparent but just as important look at how individuals like the Losers and John Henry are at once placed on pedestals whilst society does nothing meaningful to help them; to the underlying analysis of the distinction between political motivation, ethical motivation, and social motivation; and even the way the story unfolds, with small one-shot chapters, news articles, and all manner of different framing devices to ensure that the reader sees things unfolding in sections which slowly weave together. It's all very cleverly done and is something which I feel the film missed out on. Being able to jump between different narrative voices and different storytelling mediums, it makes the wider world feel so much larger, and the stakes so much greater as a result.
All of which is held together by some excellent pacing, brilliant artwork, and a consistent sense of aesthetic and style that roots the story deeply in the period it takes place. Throw in some fairly progressive social commentary and more than a little historical criticism of our own world, and the result is a compelling, nuanced, and rich narrative that uses well-established characters in novel and intriguing new ways. It keeps the reader on their toes, highlights many lesser-known aspects of the wider DC canon, and yet never feels either overwhelming or rushed. There are a couple of moments where I lost track of who some of the human characters were, but that was more due to my expectations of a linear storyline, rather than this slightly fragmented mosaic that Cooke creates.
And so my biggest criticism is that the dinosaurs are woefully inaccurate for a comic written in the 21st century, and that I'd have loved just a little bit more explanation of the Centre. Oh, and much like the film, Aquaman feels like an afterthought. His appearance is less confusing than the animated version, but it still feels weirdly tacked on and unnecessary 🤷♂️ Other than that, it's an absolute classic; a masterpiece of the DC literature.