In other ways, it's very reminiscent of Watchmen. It plays on twee nostalgia for the golden age of comics – all beefcake heroes and gee-golly earnest dialogue. The wheeze here – as with Watchmen – is that, as well as super villains, our heroes get entangled in real historical events. That makes the familiar archetypes problematic. The civil rights movement and the Cold War muddy up simple gradations of “good” and “bad”. Our heroes are faced with – and commit - “necessary” evils, the moments of bloody violence all the more shocking for being side-by-side with the cheesy clichés.
Like Watchmen, we reappraise the characters as we go, learning about them, seeing them change – getting the kind of development that's still pretty rare in the medium. Like Watchmen, the heroes must unite to stop the world being destroyed by a vast monster from hell, an End of Level Baddie that doesn't talk back and they have just have to Kill.
What this ostensibly has over Watchmen, though, is that it's not specially invented heroes here. It's Superman fighting in Korea, Batman being charged of UnAmerican Activities, Wonder Woman stitched up by Nixon. New Frontiers is a radical new origins story for the Justice League – that is, the gang of space heroes comprising Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and a whole bunch of their less-famous friends.
And that's where I found it difficult. There are a hell of a lot of less-famous friends crammed in here, and it's kind of assumed you know who they all are. One whole plotline revolves around a guy whose dad flew with Chuck Yeager but who keeps being cut out of the action. Only late on – when he gains super powers – did it occur to me that all the stalling would seem more clever had I recognised his name. He introduces himself early on as Hal Jordan – real name of Superman's less-famous friend, Green Lantern.
The comic is playing, probably cleverly, on the expectation of readers who already know Hal's name. But I didn't, so it kind of whooshed me by. Likewise, I assume the hero John Henry is some other DC character I'd just never heard of, or he’s related to one or somehow cleverly mirroring someone else... No, I didn't need anyone to explain.
This is something that Neil Gaiman's 1602 could have floundered on. The wheeze there is packing all Marvel’s famous characters into Elizabethan England – so the X-Men are hunted as witches, and so on. Gaiman wisely chose to focus on the more famous Marvel heroes. A gag of a spider not biting Peter Parker works because even relative comic-book dunces know the basic premise of Spider-Man.
New Frontiers works well at mixing the complex comic continuity with real and complex history. The bizarre clash of black and white heroism with murky politics gives the story real frisson. But often the clashes are just too bizarre. When the vicious thug Batman suddenly reveals that he didn't fall out with Superman, it works as a nice character thing. But when that about-turn also shows him teamed up with a mad-keen, cart-wheeling Boy Wonder, even Superman boggles:
Superman: “Bruce, you're such a cynic. Which begs the question, what's with the new look and the sidekick?”Okay, so he didn’t beat up on Superman, but we’ve seen him terrorising criminals and breaking a guy’s wrists. Having bedded the story in complex history, Robin feels a glibly, awkwardly shoehorned in.
Batman: “I set out to scare criminals, not children. As for the boy... Well, I guess we're just two lost souls who found each other.”
Darwyn Cooke, DC: The New Frontier, Volume II, chapter 11.
I suspect my problem is that I'm less impressed by this squeezing in of so much continuity, though I can see it would reward more DC's faithful readers. New Frontiers is reminiscent of Watchmen, but it's not quite as smart and lacks the moments of meekness and humour that counterpoint all the muscular hero stuff. More than that, by creating its own superheroes and history, Watchmen need only refer to continuity when it suits the story.
New Frontiers is great in places and a very involving read. But its very selling point – that it uses DC’s own canon of heroes – is what makes it not quite work.