Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Darwyn Cooke at DC: The New Frontier JLA

My recent read of Darwyn Cooke’s The Hunter left me wanting more — a lot more — so I skipped over to Amazon and scrolled through his back catalog with DC Comics. Cooke is apparently one of the visionaries who has shaped the animated Batman series, as well as other DC franchises that have crossed over to television, including The Justice League of America. The JLA has never appealed to me — “action team” comics strike me as being especially superficial, in a medium that’s had trouble plumbing emotional depth at the best of times — but Cooke’s signature ’63 aesthetic splashed boldly across the book covers persuaded me to plonk down the cash. Even if the books’ pleasures were strictly visual, I figured it was probably money well spent.

In the end, the visuals were in fact the bulk of the books’ bounty. Cooke has cultivated and explored an aesthetic similar to television’s Mad Men. Looking for characters who wake up to a drink and a cigarette? Check. Drive shiny cars with fins? Check. Pursue buxom babes with bulletproof coifs? That’s a big checkeroo. In fact, some of the underlying narrative tensions — political, social, sexual — are similar enough to the critically lauded television series that it’s worth pointing out that Cooke got there first.

Cooke’s approach to the superhero “look” has a similar vintage charm: the juiced-up-gymnast physique is replaced with bods of varying shape and size — Wonder Woman has an especially muscular chunkiness to her (which I loved) while the Flash could almost be described as scrawny — and all the costumes fit with some room in them to allow for drapery folds and wrinkles.

I enjoyed the subplots involving characters I previously hadn’t given much consideration to, particularly the conflicted pacifist/military man, Hal Jordan/The Green Lantern. All the men seemed to want a purpose nobler than Danny Ocean’s insouciant pillaging, but were variously hobbled by limited, self-serving perspectives. This being a franchise book, the characters are pre-required to unite against a very large common enemy, which turned out to be the books’ least compelling aspect. The villain was vague, and driven by a remarkably impersonal motivation, so the final confrontation was a ho-hum by-the-numbers barn-burner. The fact that I was disappointed at all, however, is testament to Cooke’s ability as an explorer of comic book characters. The peril might have been a bore, but I'd grown keen to know more about the men and women who gathered to fight it.

Darn it, I’m back where I started: hungry for more of what Cooke’s been cookin’.

LINKS: The artwork above is Cooke's own (natch), and I cadged it all from this site. The work as rendered in the books is fabulously colored by Dave Stewart. There is a good sampling of it, as well as a typically candid Comics Journal interview with Cooke over here. And here are the Amazon links for DC: The New Frontier Vols 1 & 2.


Joel said...

Interesting. I saw the movie, but never read the comic book.

Although the movie wasn't great, I'd be curious to hear your thoughts on it just for the sake of comparision with the book.

Whisky Prajer said...

I have to admit it'd be a struggle to generate the interest. I've seen some DC-issue animated movies (usually Batman related) and there's usually a fair bit to appreciate, but I just don't get emotionally drawn in. I'm guessing it's a byproduct of my childhood hours devoted to Road Runner cartoons.

Did you read the CJ interview? Cooke pussy-foots a bit, but it sounds like they did a real Reader's Digest job on his material. ("Brevity is ... wit.")

Joel said...

Just checked out the interview now. Skimmed it rather than read the whole thing, but that plus your write up got me interested in reading the original comic book.

I guess the question is, am I interested enough to pay those outrageous graphic novel prices, plus international shipping? I might hold off on this one till I'm back home.

Whisky Prajer said...

"International shipping"? Oof. I'd be hard-pressed to name any graphic novel worth that. You might just want to put this on your "to do" list for the next time you're holidaying in Sydney.