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“Here they come now! It’s going to be okay”…
(Soundtrack: New Kingdon — Paradise Don’t Come Cheap)

I just read Darwyn Cooke’s New Frontier… Jesus! Is this really what the pundits want from their superhero narratives? A drawn-out origin story (if I had my way origin stories would be forbidden!) that smoothes all of the most interesting properties out of the genre in favor of a straight-ahead Star Wars-style charge at the fuckin’ Death-Star, or island, or center, or whatever? With good cinematography?

This series gives up where Squadron Supreme begins. It’s all well and good to jump into the maw of the dinosaur, but it’s pretty stupid too, no? Is there anything admirable in these acts, unless you’re the kind of person who believes that human life is worthless until that big moment where all doubt can be cast out of the mind in favor of “pure action”. Is that what the vaunted “sense of wonder” is all about? Not from my standpoint, anyway. The real wonder is in the fact that no frontier can ever be crossed, no challenge can ever be met, and that, as I think Gruenwald and Morrison’s work demonstrates most perfectly (but they are very much in the tradition of Marvel’s Silver/Bronze ages, as I read these texts, at any rate!), no decision can ever be made–at least, not with the kind of orgasmic certainty that Cooke’s figures radiate.

The superhero narrative isn’t about mustering the “courage” to accept the dictum that “with great power comes great responsibility”, it’s about the Hamlet-style consequences of embracing such a motto, in a world in which our “responsibilities” are so radically unclear!

Cooke’s work is incorrigibly golden age in its orientation–longing for an “axis of evil” to combat, on autopilot… Those Nazis had a “wonderfully” tonic effect upon the existential drama, didn’t they? Is it any wonder we’re still so obsessed with them? Awful. And I’m sure this was not Cooke’s intention, but the fact remains that he presents a great (pragmatic) argument in favor of the current Bushite construction of world politics as a struggle against “Islamofascism”. Don’t you think?



Good Afternoon Friends!

Dave

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21 comments

  1. In other words, isn’t grouchily dismissing the import of the Nazis, and while you’re at it dismissing the possibility of the emergence of a similarly, straightforwardly evil ideology, just as much of a “construction” as that which places ALL enemies in their category? We gain nothing from fixating on the Nazis, but what do we gain from writing them off?

  2. what i’m saying is that, sure, Nazis existed–and they did have to be dealt with–but that this “dealing” can easily become an escape, can’t it? An easy way out of thinking about basic human alienation? And something we can become dependent upon! In any event, it’s never a good idea when we, as a community, or even as a species, begin to pat ourselves on the backs for the decisions we’ve made…you know? The only “wrong” decision is to embrace the delusion that you have made anything like a “final decision”… life just isn’t that conclusive…that’s what’s so wonderful about! It’s got nothing to do with the “sublimity” of the human will in action!

    Dave

  3. i’m not sure if I was being too subtle for my own good–but my title (which is the last line of the book) is a sort of nod to the possibility that Jimmy is actually referring to Starro–or the villains in general… as in, “yeah, bring it on! I’m stressed! Give me someone I can beat up!”

    this is always a big part of the superhero mix–but it usually isn’t treated in such a straightforward (and uncritical) manner! Where’s the intersubjective in this book? Where’s the imperative to balance the “superheroic” and “civilian”? Without that, you’ve got nothing but a bunch of nice drawings. And if this is what “wonder” means, I don’t want any part of it!

    Dave

  4. Dave:

    Far be in from me to try to keep up with your thoughts, but haven’t we just gotten over rending Identity Crisis and its moral ambiguity limb from limb? Haven’t many of us expressed a desire to turn back the clock and revisit straightforward superhero stories, where there’s a threat and it’s dealt with, with no dark subtext? I’m not saying your criticisms have no merit, I just wonder if you want too much out of New Frontier. I read it has a rather simplistic “let’s go blow stuff up” kind of story — and a well done one at that. Sure, there’s a dab of McCarthyism, but is Cooke at fault for writing a 1950s-style story in a time when we have evolved beyond that? If we all come to it with our jaded minds, is the work to blame? I don’t know, I’m just asking.

    Sorry to plug my own blog, but over there at http://delendaestcarthago.blogspot.com I have started trying to critically analyze certain comics (as well as review them). Today’s entry is Frank Miller’s 300. If you have the time, I’d enjoy hearing what you have to say about it.

  5. Dave, Dave, Dave…

    I think you’re perhaps trying a bit too hard to read some sort of subtext or metatext in New Frontier, which is pretty much a retro-style superhero yarn, with a few nods to modern sensibilities (the fiestier Wonder Woman, for example).

    Sometimes works of fiction can be just what they seem, y’know…

  6. hey guys, I’m not trying to tell anyone what they should enjoy reading (nor, contra ADD, is this blog a bid for “serious” acceptance! you know how I feel about “legitimization” anyway! the last thing I want, frankly, is to be taken “seriously”)

    on the other hand, NF is pretty much the distillation of everything I dislike about the superhero genre–that is to say, it’s a pure action movie… it’s Jerry Bruckheimer, basically. I understand that this can be fun for people, but since I’m, you know, making my pitch for a completely different way of reading the silver age, I’m not about to ignore a counterargument like Cooke’s, if it comes into my radar!

    The idea that meaning in life can be found through the opposition to anything makes me queasy, and NF sent me into the interpretive equivalent of convulsions!

    I agree with Steven–there’s no way that thinking of anything as “straightforwardly evil” is going to do the planet any good at all!

    And Greg–I’ve got your blog up on another screen (nice header by the way: “why not delve into a twisted mind?”–sounds like fun!), gonna take a look at it now–you’re definitely right to point up the NF-IC link. I think these two series–and the abyss between them–pretty much demonstrate everything that’s wrong with the genre right now! My problem with IC certainly had nothing to do with its “moral ambiguity”–it was a problem with stupidity, and faux gestures toward moral complexity… the whole “mindwipe” thing legitimates the need to pretend that there are such things as “straightforward” heroism and villainy… really man, that’s not ambiguous enough! And then the pendulum swings and we get these “returns” to an “innocence” that never existed which are armed to the teeth and ready to bomb us all back to the Garden of Eden… it’s a grotesque situation, frankly…

    Dave

  7. one more thing–I think that NF demonstrates pretty conclusively what happens when you divorce that iconic silver age action art that we all recognize from the ironizing agents (the much-derided Lee/Thomas/Conway/Englehart/Gruenwald-style narrator, the thought balloons/soliloquies, treadmill continuity, letters pages, etc.) that once were consubstantial with it. This is a Jekyll-and-Hyde job, man. Don’t people read R.L. Stevenson anymore? You can’t cut the gordian knots between “good” and “evil”, “innocence” and “experience”, the sordid and the appealing, the “ontic” and the “ontological”!!!!

    When you try it with superheroes, you get a portrait of a silver age comic as it appeared to a three-year old–with some weird “mature” rhetorical gestures toward some kind of (there’s no other way to put it, really) neocon theory of heroism as the glorious moment of the decision to plunge into the battle against monolithic “evil”, for the greater good of community. It’s a fantasy that relieves human beings of the necessity to confront their inner demons, which are never going away… This is a parody of what critics of the genre usually deride it for… And the amazing thing is that, paradoxically, this is all that many of these same people seem prepared to accept from the genre! Bravo Darwyn Cooke! Pass the ammunition!

    Meanwhile, Grant Morrison continues to thread the needle between the poles of stupidity represented by NF and Ic, and even he has to couch all of his wonderful ideas in terms of a “return to innocence and fun”… That’s not really what he’s doing, y’know… not in the way it is generally interpreted, at any rate.

    Dave

  8. “Where’s the intersubjective in this book? Where’s the imperative to balance the “superheroic” and “civilian”? Without that, you’ve got nothing but a bunch of nice drawings.”

    That sounds like a necessary condition. I thought everything was how we choose to take it, thus no book can rob us of the intersubjective.

    Charles

  9. I’m not sure where you’re going with that Charles… I mean, yes, I have a particular, subjective relationship with this text, but that doesn’t mean that I find whatever I want to find in it; it means I find what I find! (and this is why I write about some books and not others–surely this makes sense to you!) In the case of New Frontier, I find lameness of a very high order–a sort of Time Life Coffee Table look at a weird amalgam of our very own fifties and the decade as seen through a particularly unimaginative reconstruction of DC’s publications from that era, as drawn by Milton Caniff… I like the drawings as drawings… but I don’t find this narrative interesting in the least. On the other hand, there are many people who seem to love the book, and they clearly see things in it that I don’t… That’s where the subjectivity comes in, you see…

    Dave

  10. Well, Dave, are you finding it or making it? Because if it’s the former, you need to retool your reader-response theorizing. If it’s the latter, arguing is pointless.

    Charles

  11. That is, “finding” means the text is structuring your relationship with it to some degree. Assuming a set of texts has similarities and are identified under a particular name, that of the author, means that there’s more to the act of reading than merely what the reader brings to the table.

  12. you forgot the third option–that I’m participating in the transformation of something (a text) into something else (a personal reading, which then becomes a text in its own right–if I publish it in a lettercol, or a blog, or an academic journal!) Not only that, but the text can never just be the text–it cannot “materialize” except through a reading, which is also, of course, fed by a knowledge of other, associated (for whatever reason, in the reader’s mind) texts–both “primary” and “critical”! Is this really a point of contention for you?

    Dave

  13. just saw the second part of your comment Charles–I think I cleared that up no? I don’t think readers just “make up” their readings out of thin air, any more than they can have meaningful conversations with “imaginary friends”… the text itself is crucial to the process, of course! But that doesn’t mean that the text can ever make itself known to us, as itself… It needs me! It needs you! It’s beautiful!

    Dave

  14. If I had to guess (and I do) I think NF is successful for two possible reasons.

    I admit that my appreciation of it is mainly as a technically superior piece of work. It’s simply put together better than most everything else on the stands. I know this means nothing to you, but we’re not talking about you now.

    Secondly, NF is– I think you agree– reactionary. But to the people who like it, its primary reaction is against *other comics*– which are crap for wholly different reasons.

    What’s a/effective about the book, for me, is the whole-heartedness, the sincerity with which Cooke dives in. He means what he says. What he says may be horrible to you– but a look at the lyrics of the most successful hip hop is all you need to prove that conviction counts for a lot.

    I’m afraid that, because the book doesn’t mean that much to me, I haven’t bothered to give it much thought. You’re not the only person to voice philosophical problems with it, but you’re part of a definite minority.

    But hell, now you’ve given me a reason to go read it again.

    –jamesmith3

  15. James,

    I can certainly see the point of your “argument from design”–New Frontier is stylishly put together, no question. But then, so are a lot of catalogues! All I know is that if this is what I thought superhero comics were all about, I wouldn’t read superhero comics…

    What perplexes me is how anyone could argue that this book is “moving comics forward”. Forward? Forward to where? The coffetables of the nostalgic upper-middle classes? (once it’s collected into even more stylish volumes, natch!)

    Talk about advancing to the rear!

    As for Cooke’s sincerity–well, I’ll grant you that too, and I’m all for wearing your heart on your sleeve (can’t ya tell?), but if your heart is a quirkily rendered pink valentine to Jerry Bruckheimer and the Kennedy administration, I’m not likely to be impressed!

    The real source of the book’s lameness is in the “writing”. I don’t mean the actual words on the pages… What comic book writer is a master prose stylist? none that I can think of–although Dave Sim writes some brilliant dialogue…we won’t discuss his monologues–they wouldn’t be writing comics if they truly believed in the power of the unaided word! And they don’t have to be prose stylists, because the art takes care of the tactical scintillation (which is very important!)–what they ought to be, of course, is adept in the construction of complex narratives! When I praise comic book writers, this is what I’m praising them for (oh sure, a Grant Morrison will pop a word-balloon nifty every once in a while too!). Basically what I’m saying is that Darwyn Cooke didn’t give me anything to “read”. I know that’s a pretty mean thing to say about a story, but that’s how I feel… They should’ve called this thing “The Icons Cometh”. There’s no story at all–not to speak of (or write about!), at any rate…

    Dave

  16. for me, the pleasures of new frontier aren’t thematic pleasures– thematically, i didn’t get much more than a “They Were the Greatest Generation” sop that … it wasn’t why i read it, no (though i remember he executed on that nicely at least in terms of that last bit from kennedy)

    its a question of craft. so i would defend “moving comics forward” in that it exhibited a level of craft, style and … INTENTION that most comics still painfully lack. (Identity Crisis is a great example in that it lacked both– or at least I certainly hope what I was taking away from the bits i saw was unintentional).

    its a visual medium ultimately, so i think a response to craft is pretty defensible. though even there– i wasn’t sure how i felt about the three panel grid. but awe as a result of a calculated visual strategy– i’m fine with that. i think one can’t help appreciate it because the water level is so often so low with respect to craft.

    (though even there i think it cut against him where– the three panel grid and the bigness of everything, it does rob it of a certain … kind of disreputable “hey, drawings in boxes next to each other” fun that i’m more in the mood for tonight anyway, if not usually…)

    theme, plot, character– i can’t speak much to those. i liked that the early chapters were brought into focus by the later chapters, but again i’d define that as style, so… thematically, the “i will fight evil even though i’m disillusioned by my government” thing– its been done elsewhere, better (i’ve revisited englehart and gruenwald captain america comics while home that have been as effective so…)

    but that wasn’t the dissapointment of new frontier for me so much as … its attempts at having those things (a) by unseemly attempts at history-inspired plot points and (b) the obsessive geekiness of including waaaay too many dc characters i’d never heard of into the mix at the cost of any single character having much of an arc at all…
    -abhay

    (here’s a reaction to the last two issues– usually wouldn’t cite myself but i’m not really in the mood tonight, sorry:
    http://www.comicscommunity.com/boards/pop/?read=26915)

  17. Dave:

    What a misguided dick you are. New Frontier is a big shoot ’em up- nothing more or less.

    Think about how much of your life you’re wasting here.
    Please write about something relevant.

    Anyway, thanks for the laugh, professor.

    Darwyn Cooke

  18. like the “big shoot ’em up” in Iraq? what could be more relevant to our present situation than a look at why artists feel the need to construct these narratives? (you did choose to do this, didn’t you?) I agree that New Frontier isn’t worthy of much serious critical engagement–but it seems to me that, as an artist, you might benefit from allowing a little complexity to seep into the stories you tell…

    I don’t suppose Mr. Cooke will be back this way, but really, I don’t think that was a very helpful response! (and how much time do you think I spend on these entries anyway? they are hardly my life’s work y’know!)

    Dave

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