Creators are always looking for fresh ways to reinterpret the classic superheroes from both the Marvel and DC Comics universes, with the hopes of recapturing a magic similar to what was once created decades ago and exciting readers in an industry where many fans seem hopelessly jaded. It often seems that the most popular choice with fans, and the route chosen by most creators, is to deconstruct these classic superheroes, bringing them "down" to the level of the common man and interpreting in a way that shows the character's many faults. One creator who is sick of seeing this is Darwyn Cooke, writer/artist of the critically acclaimed graphic novel "Selina's Big Score" from DC Comics, and his next big project, slated for release in the third quarter of 2003, is the six-issue prestige format mini-series "New Frontier," which takes a look at DC's classic characters as heroes. The industry veteran explained to CBR News that he feels it is about time that fans were reminded that the super in "Super Hero" doesn't just apply to the powers of the individual- it can apply to their moral fiber and integrity as well.
"'New Frontier' is going to be a 380-page story, over 6 issues," explains Cooke. "DC had asked me to do it way back when I did 'Batman: EGO' and then they asked me to take a look at doing the Justice League characters. The more research I did, the more I realized that if I had to deal with these characters, I wanted to deal with the alpha versions of these characters and it's the original versions of these characters who called out to me creatively. Again, you start doing the research in regards to all the things that have been covered and there's this one little time period before the Justice League had been formed where there hadn't been a lot of examination. 'New Frontier' will concern itself with what we understand to be the beginning of the Silver Age of comics. The story begins with the Flash premiering in 'Showcase' and ends with the premier of the Justice League, so it's a look at all of the prime versions of the DC Silver Age characters as they became the heroes we know."
However, while Cooke is right in observing that there is a pretty important time period in the lives of DC's classic heroes that hasn't been covered, it doesn't explain why that is the area he chose to focus on and why the "alpha" versions of the JLA appealed to him. "It seemed like the only way to do the story properly, after a year of revising and editing it with DC's editors," explains Cooke. "It became impossible to tell the story within continuity as it's understood today and I know a lot of fans are concerned about things like that, regarding if it's happening in continuity. What ended up happening is that the only place the story ended up fitting is at the beginning of their careers and frankly, emotionally, I keep coming back to those characters at that time. I don't think of Hal Jordan as a character of the 70's or the 80's or even the 90's: he was a product of the 50's that came of age in the 60's. I think that one of the biggest problems with our industry is our inability to generate new characters for new times: we should be able to appreciate the fact that a character is great and tell his stories in what would have been his life span. For example, if I was going to start doing a comic book about Wyatt Earp, sure there's the conceit of modernizing an old thing, but that's not what most people would do- you'd make a period piece, a western, if there was something you wanted to say about Wyatt Earp, instead of trying to retrofit him into the present.
"With characters like Hal Jordan, I think that's basically where we're at- the idea of a test pilot was the most glamorous, hottest job imaginable in 1958, 1959 & 1960 when you had the space race going on. The character was created for the time he existed and he was perfect for that time- as time marches on, I think the reason that so many of these characters become tired and shopworn is because they're taken so far away from what they originally were. Here's a guy who was originally a test pilot and 8 or 9 YEARS later, for a myriad or reasons, he's a toys salesman. He's selling insurance! For goodness sake, they made him an insurance salesman! I don't even want to get into the idea of him murdering everybody after Coast City and where everything went. Whether that made for good storytelling or bad is not for me to judge, but I certainly do know that the character was not created with those extensions in mind. In order to honestly examine him as a character, it has to be done in the time that he was meant to exist and in the circumstances he would face: it's the only way I can get to the core of who he really is. And for someone who's going to update him for today, if you can make it work, that's great: I'm just trying to define the character within in a compelling storyline.
"I think that is how this project got approved, because every stumbling block we hit revolved around the ultimate irony that if you wanted to do a story that respected the original continuity for the Justice League characters, it would have to be an Elseworlds story. They've convoluted it to a point where it can't be any other way! It came to Paul Levitz actually, after we had revised the original outline where it fit continuity, he read it and said, 'This story's completely lost it's way, so we have to abandon the idea of worrying about continuity and concentrate on the idea that this is a great story. Let's worry about how we're going to market it later- let's worry about the story first.' I'll tell ya, in terms of closed stories, etc, if you took a poll, I bet you that 95% of the creative guys our there wish you could throw out this idea of interlocking continuity and tell great, stand alone stories. I remember when I was a young lad and I got comics every month, that's how it was- the emphasis was on the villains, the victims, the situation and the plot. The hero's character would shine through in that situation and while there might be a page or two of subplot that might carry on, each issue was a complete story by itself, but now it's become this incredible mess where everything is 'to be continued.' You have books of subplots and I do think that it's incredible that our industry's got to the point that two costumed superheroes sit on a roof and then spend 18 pages sitting there talking about their feelings. Whatever value that has, that's certainly not the type of work that I want to do and 'New Frontier' is abandoning that whole idea of an interlocking continuity: it's more of a superhero fable. Or, the way I prefer to look at it, it's like 'L.A Confidential' or 'Saving Private Ryan,' or if you'll allow me, the film version of the 'Ten Commandments:' it's like a period piece with epic overtones and strong heroes."
It's probably obvious that Cooke has an affinity for Green Lantern Hal Jordan, wielder of the powerful ring that allows him to do almost anything he can imagine, so it should come as no surprise that Hal Jordan is the lead character of "New Frontier," a choice that just seemed natural to the Canadian writer/artist. "I've decided that 'New Frontier' is going to play in real time so in '55 and in '56, when Barry Allen gets hit by lightning, that's when things kick off. There are some scenes that deal with World War Two in the prologue, but basically we start with Barry getting hit by lightning and then move our story in real time up to 1961, which is when 'Justice League #1' was published. Out of all the characters that were available to me in that six-year time frame, Hal Jordan is clearly the most compelling and whom you can take on the most interesting journey. He represents the leading edge of what I'd call a new pioneer spirit or romantic notion that swept through America: it wasn't just space, it was a new way to live together and a whole bunch of things. Hal's the perfect vessel for that because he's in the middle of things and he is involved with jets, it's part of who he is and what he wants to be: he typifies the best of what America had to offer at that point.
"As for my personal interest in Hal, it's really simple and it's really childish, but I'm 40 years old and 1967 or '68, I can remember my mother letting me stay home so I could watch the Apollo landings. As a kid, there was no one cooler than a jet pilot or an astronaut- I imagine that these days, NBA players or film stars have taken over the zenith of consideration for a hero or idol. But as a kid, I remember saying that I was going to be an astronaut, so the character of Hal Jordan had instant appeal for me and he was everything I wanted to be. If you read enough about test pilots, Tom Wolfe's 'The Right Stuff' is probably the greatest book about it in terms of trying to understand the spirit, you see that there's something about a guy like Hal Jordan that sets him apart from other people, not necessarily above other people, but it does set him apart from them. He has a willingness to risk death in what seems likes a very irrational way. I think we're in awe of people like that because they're able to do something we're not sure we can- I'm not sure if DC in the Silver Age capitalized on that as much as they could, but I will try to, I promise."
Though you might expect Cooke to think otherwise, he explains that just because he sees Hal Jordan in such a positive light, he doesn't expect everyone else to: he knows that people develop their tastes differently. "I think that's a matter of what you grow up with and what you're used to," contends Cooke. "If you were introduced to Hal through 'Emerald Dawn' for example, I don't know what he'd mean to you, because he's a nut in that story- he's a drunk driver who cripples one of his friends and is then rewarded with one of the most powerful weapons in the universe. That story sort of muddied the waters and from thereon in, looking at how the character was yanked around and all the things he's not, it's hard to see how one could care about him the same way I do. He's the Spectre, he's Parallax, he's changed time. Who knows what they'll do to him next? Kyle Rayner? I'll be honest; I've never read any of the comics with him as Green Lantern and it's not because I think there's anything wrong with them, but I don't read monthly books. I also don't see any need to read the new version of the Green Lantern. I've read the version that was meant for me when I was younger and at this point I can't keep up with all this stuff."
The choice to use original DC continuity, as the basis of "New Frontier," was a conscious decision by Cooke in order to make 'New Frontier' something that would last longer. "I had to sit and ask myself what my problem was going with what was there," explains Cooke. "I think it comes down to the fact that this is such a big project that five years from now, for my own sake and for DC's, that this project is still relevant and doesn't get swept away by a retcon as something imaginary or something that didn't happen. I thought the only way to do that is to use the first generation continuity, the stuff they're archiving. It's also being true to the guys who created the characters in the first place and capture the essence of the characters."
So many current comic book fans have grown up reading Modern Age comics, but Cooke isn't worried about fans of current comics being turned away by the Silver Age themes and characters in "New Frontier." "I think the first thing is that a good story is a good story," says Cooke. "Compelling characters motivated by highly-charged situations: that kind of story could be told at any time and people will respond to it. But what I think 'New Frontier' really offers, especially to the younger readers, is a look at the bedrock foundation of everything that they read and know now. This is the framework and architecture of everything they read and know now: it's a really good introduction to the explosion of these characters in their original incarnation. If you're keenly interested in these characters and the universe they exist in, you'll get a glimpse of it in their primary form in addition to, I hope, a compelling story. The other thing is, unlike a lot of stuff that DC does, this story is going to graft and parallel a lot of the stuff that was going on in America when the story was playing out: the Communist menace, the race for space, the Cold War and etc. All of these aspects will be important to the story and will be great for a lot of younger readers to get a little insight into this period in history.
"You know, I'm really hoping that everybody will at least give 'New Frontier' a chance and the only people who should avoid it are the people who think I'm going to tear these characters down, which seems really fashionable these days, finding different ways to show their weaknesses or their foibles, I think that 'Ultimates' is guilty of this to a degree. I'm not doing any of that- I'll find interesting ways to explain why they're heroes and why they're unique because it takes more than a power or a costume. We're talking about a handful of people with the moral compass to be super heroes, so these are really special individuals and I want to find a way to make that cool. It sounds like a cliché or an old fashioned idea, so perhaps my biggest challenge is to make that interesting to audiences without making them alcoholics or drug addicts. The term 'Silver Age' isn't one that I'm going to use too often because it implies a certain tone, that things will be goofy, but 'New Frontier' isn't like that at all, even if it does take place in that time. If there's one thing that's for sure, I want to use every present day storytelling technique that I've got in my arsenal to tell one big badass story that happens to be set in that time. I'm not going to try and duplicate the feel of that era's comics or those comics' wacky premises, I'm just using the time period to tell some, hopefully, great stories."
Even with Cooke's passion for "New Frontier," it has been said by some that this project does represent DC Comics' continual commitment to looking backwards and not looking forwards, refusing to develop new projects. These critics of "New Frontier" contend that the use of the Justice League is a short term money making tool and that criticism is something Cooke responds to by saying, "To a great degree, that has a lot of value, but it's the type of criticism that seems easy if you're looking at one project here or one project there. But when you look at the overall, there's so many factors that bear down on the overall and make it not be the case. This is a 380-page project, more than a single series worth of comics and DC has to pay for this upfront- they're buying it without knowing if it'll work or not to a degree, so there's an element of risk there. Now obviously DC and I are confident, so it's a calculated risk, but there's an incredible budget attached to it, so it's very important for them that their marquee players are involved because they wanted to generate sales on the project so the Justice League have to be involved. So at that point it gets into what I have to offer as a creator and I know I'm not the best guy to tell today's story the best way, guys like Morrison are far better suited for that, but what I could offer DC was a story that hadn't been done the way I wanted to do it. I could sum up their classic characters in way that I thought captured their essence and it could be a good starting point for who knows what, but they consider it important that this story get told right now too. I think that the spirit of what this story is and what it's trying to communicate can be carried on through many of their comics, even with it being an out of continuity comic.
"One more thing I want to add, and it's an obvious one from a creative standpoint, the big companies that can finance something like this are wary of doing this with an unknown property or something untried, or the creator would have to be a much bigger name than me. Most creators, at this point, aren't willing to give their own creations over without some ownership and participation, which is really the biggest reason. If it was different in that regard, if a guy could keep what he created, then Marvel and DC could have a flood of new ideas and things would change. Imagine if 'New Frontier' was all new characters: it was a story that revolved around what was going on right now and was a huge hit, then there's a movie option bought and it rolls out into eight other books, this is best case scenario. And I don't own any of it. It'd be a horrible situation and I'd deserve every bit of it, because I went in eyes wide open."
As Cooke mentioned before, "New Frontier" is in many ways his answer to what he feels is the needless deconstruction of classic comic heroes and one comic he cites as being particularly guilty of this is Marvel Comics' "Ultimates," which has been quite controversial for it's dark interpretation of the popular Avengers super team. The sometimes artist on "X-Statix" explains that in many ways "New Frontier" will be the other side of the coin when it comes to reinterpreting heroes, as it will reinforce the strong character and integrity of the Justice League heroes, not bring them down to their most base levels. "I think that the tone, the approach and the characterizations that 'Ultimates' takes are perfect for right now, the sales reflect that. too, but that should be a cast of new characters for a new time," says Cooke. "The problem I have is the way they're taking iconic characters and destroying parts of what they are while amplifying other aspects, just to generate sales. I think it's a shame and I really don't know that it's the thing to do with Giant Man and Wasp [referencing the events in issue #6 that saw the couple in a brutal fight with each other]. Bruce Banner has always been characterized as a man with a certain moral compass and a certain responsibility for what the Hulk has been, but the 'Ultimates' portrays him as a sex crazed monster running down the street destroying innocent lives because his ex is dating a movie star. Then there's Captain America's reaction, which is kicking Bruce Banner in the teeth while he is lying on the ground- these are all relevant situations and reactions, but I think that they should involve new characters. Everyone these days will say, 'oh, but that's another interpretation' and that really makes me question why we want to see these icons like this- what is it about us as people that want to bring these icons down to this level? Is it because we can't even believe in the notion of people better than us who aren't so weak and will make the right decisions when push comes to shove? That seems to be the message and that's the part I have the problem with in the end. I think you also have to show some respect for the original creators and what they were trying to put across in their original work with these characters.
"I think 'Authority' is more valid than 'Ultimates' because it's a brand new group of characters. Hey, bombs away! I think that Millar and Hitch are talented men- if they were just doing new characters, I'd be so much more into what they're doing right now.
"In terms of that good old kind of comic book heroism, I would have to go with the first arc of the JMS/JRJr 'Amazing Spider-Man' stories- I thought that was fucking A-one comics! I wasn't reading that saying 'oh this is blowing my mind,' I was thinking that if I were 14, I would totally be grooving on this. I think that is a really good example of good old-fashioned heroism in modern superhero comics. I really don't read a lot of monthly comics- I find that Batman's become impenetrable to me. It's like Batman and his pals- it's a funny thing, but I seem to recall that Batman was a loner. I think they've all got club cards. If you're a part of Batman's gang, you get a discount at Chapters now. [laughs]"
It's Cooke's concept of heroism and his own belief that it does have an important place in the real world that played such a vital role in inspiring "New Frontier," which he hopes will touch people. "The series is pushing the idea forward again, believe it or not, if certain people had the opportunity and power to change things, they would try to change them for the better, sincerely, and not manipulate things. The world's seen so little of that notion, so it can be hard to believe that it can exist and I think that's a horrible way to think. I'm also not sure if these characters were ever made to be thought of as real- they're mythic archetypes that were created to give children a broad, moral playing field to live in. As ridiculous as the stories were, there was a good and bad, the stories focused on doing the right thing and it wasn't because of personal gain- these heroes fought for justice because it was the right thing to do. They didn't need to have extremely complex motivations- they had an innate sense of justice inside them. To a lot of people, the idea of this pure altruism is a ridiculous notion and trying to be this way in the real world gets you trampled."
When asked why he thinks the idea of heroism has become a lost concept in the superhero market for the most part, Cooke says he isn't sure, but he has a theory. "I think it's like a weird paradox because the market's continuing to age and contract, sales may jump now and then because the same guys buy more stuff, but it's funny that the people fell in love with the same heroic ideal that they're trying to get rid of in order to keep things interesting. That's the market now- it's more adult and it's more introspective, because ironically they grew up loving superheroes for what they were and now they're changing them into something else in order to keep loving them. So I'm wondering if maybe everybody needs a blazing story with some decent people wielding the power and if maybe that won't be seen as refreshing after all this time. The superhero genre is tired and it's been asked to fulfill a need it shouldn't have to- it should be a much smaller part of the overall market and give you the good, evil, secret identity, blah blah blah. But they're having to carry this other segment of thought that should be in other genres- there should be more books like 'Love & Rockets' for all the soap opera stuff in super hero comics. It's a shame there aren't more genre books like that to help fill out the market because now the story you want to tell has to be force fed into the superhero genre in order to guarantee any sales."
With "New Frontier" being Cooke's most ambitious and large-scale comic book venture to date, one would think it would be safe to say that the former "Batman Beyond" animator sees the project as his personal "Watchmen." But that isn't a comparison he wants to make on any level. "No, no no [laughs]. I think it's funny, but it's probably important to make it clear that I'm not capable of that depth of thought. [laughs] I think that 'New Frontier' will be my magnum opus regarding this type of work but I'm not able to layer or create as much internal depth as Alan or Dave did on 'Watchmen.' I won't even compare myself. I'm trying to do the other side of the coin- a lot of people, including the creators, will say that the combination of 'Watchmen' and 'Dark Knight Returns' ushered in an era where the hero was deconstructed to the point where the hero is at the point where he is right now. I know that thematically and spiritually I'm trying to do the opposite with 'New Frontier'- and I think my story will be more action oriented because I like exciting set pieces. I don't think of it as a big statement in that regard, I just want to do a really balls out great story."
In creating this potentially "balls out great story," Cooke says that he's been having a lot of fun and faced some challenges, but that overall he rose above them. "The easiest part was seeing that part of American history and that part of DC's history interlocking in my head- I can just visualize the project perfectly in my head. I'm also having a blast putting it all down on paper- the most fun for me has been constructing all the set pieces on which the characters will interact. For example, I know I'm doing a Gotham City and it's gonna have a lot to do with J'onn J'ones, because he's the key to it, and I've got to advance my plot slightly as well as find a place to have Batman appear in the story. Before I know it, I've constructed this set piece that involved an abandoned church, this cult, a kidnapped kid, J'onn and Slam Bradley racing to save the kidnapped kid, Batman's arrival, all hell breaking loose, etc. There's a lot of character in what's going on and all of a sudden I've got this wonderful twenty-page bit where I can do this ultimate Batman fight, with J'onn plus his hat, the crew cut and the .45 and then Slam Bradley. I needed a scene to show how completely fucking cool the Challengers are and coming up with that is so fun! I'm in control of everything- there'll be a big scene on the moon with Spectre, Dr. Fate and Phantom Stranger and it'll be a Dahli-esque sorta fantasy.
"The hardest part, from a writing or developing standpoint, was finding compelling ways to characterize what were really some cardboard characters. Like with Barry Allen, I had no way in on this guy, and what occurred to me about this guy was that Superman was kinda like his idol. So we have Barry, who can do all these things, the fastest man in the worlds, but what's he doing? Stopping the Pied Piper from robbing the jewelry store. What dawned on me was that his rogue's gallery was such a goofy bunch and that if he saw Superman on the news realigning the moon or something, Barry would have to develop some kind of inferiority complex. In a way, making a little fun of the Silver Age rogues gallery and making Barry aware too, because he feels he's not doing everything he could do yet. He wants to do more and wants to be more like his role model Superman. It gave me a great opportunity, at the end of this story, to have Barry fulfill his need and feel like a player. That, to me, is a ripple in a character and the about face of turning him into, let's say, a spousal abuser. That'd be way out of character, out of line and completely disrespectful. But the hardest thing overall was just getting the damned thing approved! It was almost three years from the time is was pitched!"
One aspect of "New Frontier" that hasn't been discussed in great detail thus far is the artistic approach that Cooke will take to illustrate the 6-issue series, and just as with the writing, the creator is passionate about doing things right. "If you were to look at the things I've done recently, like 'Selina's Big Score' and the Slam Bradley stuff in 'Detective Comics,' that's a way I like to work, but 'New Frontier' is going to be somewhat different. It's going to be a widescreen type of book and the art will be more crafted- it'll have a more classic look to it and I don't want to make comparisons in regards to that. It'll have more of a crafted, dare I say romantic look to it and there's a lot of people I admire in regards to that like Dave Stevens, he's the king of that type of thing."
Besides the time and effort being spent on "New Frontier," Cooke is making sure to spread his wings and explore other options too, playing with some of the competition's characters. "I'd done a Valentine's Day story in the Spider-Man series 'Tangled Web' last year, it was well-received, and this year, with J. Bone, I'm doing a Christmas one and it'll be out in December. Hopefully it's fun for everyone- our notion has always been what if Archie was Spider-Man, to a degree of course, and then you have your makeshift Riverdale gang, so from then on hilarity ensues. It's a lot of fun and I hope there's room to note that this time J and I co-wrote this story, with him doing the pencils and myself on the inks. He's done some great stuff and it's been a lot of fun. We're hoping, that if all goes well, next one will be Halloween and then Spring Break. I've also got Wolverine/Doop' coming out in May 2003, which is in a two issue, bi weekly series and I don't know what to say about this, but I love it. I'd love to put in a plug for Peter Milligan- he's fucking great! He's at the top of his form and his scripts knock me out. It's not the most serious book we'll ever do and it's a send up of the old noir mysteries, with the titular duo searching for the Pink Mink, which is hilarious. I never thought in my wildest dreams that I'd do a Wolverine book, but that was before Axel introduced me to those X-Statix psychos, Allred and Milligan."
Another person who's impacted Cooke immensely is DC editorial art director Mark Chiarello (who spoke extensively with CBR News recently about "Solo"). "THE MAN!" exclaims Cooke at the mere mention of Chiarello's name. "It's impossible to know if I'd be in comics right now if it wasn't for him. A quick history lesson, 'Batman: Ego' was pitched to DC and sat in DC's offices for 4 1/2 years before Mark was made art director and came into his office, found my submission while disposing of others and called me up to see if I'd still be interested in producing 'Ego' for DC. Since then, we've worked together on a variety of things and Mark is a very rare individual at this point in DC's history- he's an artist, so he understands the creative side of it and brings that to all the projects he puts together. He seems to have a really keen insight into what's good and what's right- look at 'Dark Victory,' 'Batman: Black & White' and, dare I say, 'Selina's Big Score.' [laughs] Everything Mark does is always in that top strata of what this industry seems capable of putting together, so I'm always feeling lucky that he's my editor and he's the guy looking out for me, watching over my projects- over the course of our work relationship we've become good friends. We've got the synergy and the trust that we can talk all the time and I want, no, I need his input- it helps to shape and refine my work. Mark's had faith in me and he's stuck by me, even when it'd be easier not to, just so I could get out the best project possible. He cares about creating the best project and the best comic- he's looking out for the reader and I can't say enough good things about Mark Chiarello. Except the SOB should paint more often."
When all is said and done, Darwyn Cooke is one big comic book fan and thanks all those who have allowed this fan to be paid to work in the very medium he loves so dearly.
"Thanks a lot, to all of you. I've been really lucky to have such great fans and people seem to have responded to my work- I'm blessed. Things are going well and thanks to everyone. If you see me at a con, say hi and I'll draw you a head.of your choice! [laughs]"