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DC: The New Frontier
DAJB at 1:00AM, June 18, 2010
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Abt_Nihil
I've been meaning to ask you, what was your major gripe with Darwyn Cooke's The New Frontier? I remember liking the comic, although the time that has passed since reading it may have clouded my memory :P
Oooh, lots of little niggly things! Overall, it seemed to me like someone had been to a screen-writing class and then tried to make a comic out of a script designed for a movie. I don't know whether TNF was first conceived as a movie or a GN but, to me, it certainly read like the movie came first and the GN was an adaptation. Like one of those “novelisations” of a Hollywood movie! This is probably not the case and maybe the GN did come first, but that's how it seemed to me.

Some of the things I couldn't help noticing were:

Number of panels per page

Often there were three or even fewer. This can be fine if that's what the story needs. In my view, large panels are necessary if you have a lot of detail to put into them, or if you have a lot of text, or if the panel is framing an important, dramatic moment. If a third of a page is used for a panel which is basically empty, has little text and carries no special significance, then it suggests the writer and/or artist hasn't really understood how to use the medium. Or he just wants to pad out the length so he can package his book as two volumes!

Zooms

This is a long-standing bugbear of mine. In a movie, the camera often zooms slowly in on something. This is great, especially for an establishing shot. Because most script-writing advice is geared towards screen-writing, a lot of people think they can replicate that zoom effect in a comic by having a series of silent panels that progressively focus in on an object. For me, that just doesn't work.

In a movie zoom, the music, sound effects and the very movement of the camera all help to draw you in. Since you don't have any of those in a comic, I believe you need to replace them with some kind of narrative, otherwise you just have a series of static and almost identical shots. Like someone's holiday snaps of a place you've never been to, featuring no one you've ever met, it results in a number of pages in which there is absolutely nothing to engage the reader. Again, it suggests to me (a) that the writer hasn't appreciated the differences between the two mediums or (b) that it's just padding. Or both.

In this case, I definitely felt (a) was the case but, by the end of TNF, I also felt the story had been padded out. It was as if Cooke believed that, to make it feel as “epic” as the subject matter, he also had to bump up the number of pages.

Lettering

I remember on a number of pages noticing that there were large speech balloons with very little text in them. As I wrote in my notes on lettering, this always suggests to me that the panel and balloon were designed without any thought for how they would interact with the dialogue.

Characters

This is my single biggest complaint. After God knows how many pages, at the end of TNF I still had no feel for any of the characters. As his pet project that he'd wanted to write for many, many years, Cooke was obviously desperate to cram in every single character from the DCU that he possibly could. Unfortunately for him, it takes a certain skill to handle a large cast and still make every character seem like an individual. On the strength of TNF, Cooke doesn't seem to have that skill (although, to be fair, with a cast that large, I'm not sure anyone does!)

The book relied on every reader already being familiar with the characters which is not only poor writing but, when the characters you're using are as obscure as some of these were, it's also a huge gamble. I'd never heard of the Losers, for example. I knew the name but nothing else about the Challengers of the Unknown. Heaven knows what a casual reader with no prior knowledge of the Golden Age would have made of it all!

The Golden Age characters swarmed all over the book and I can still barely remember their names, let alone what they did. In fact, in some cases I can barely even remember the names of their teams! The iconic characters like Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman were reduced to cameos and the only thing I remember about WW was the scene of her revelling with a group of women she'd just freed in the jungle. A nice scene visually, but the fact that she'd just been complicit in the murder of the women's former guards was completely out of character.

In general, none of DC's “premier league” were - with the exception of J'onn J'onzz and Hal Jordan - given any kind of introduction at all. For example, considering the vital role that the Flash was due to play in the big finale, his background was reduced to one scene where he retired and one where he returned. That really wasn't enough to create any feeling of whether or not we should care if he died in the final battle.

In short, there were too many characters with too little personality. Again, this may be partly a function of the script having been written for the screen. In the movie (which I must admit I haven't seen) I can imagine that the voice acting will give the characters some degree of personality. In a GN, however, the writer obviously doesn't have the luxury of being able to rely on voice actors to help him out and must ensure that the characters are clearly defined by their words and actions on the page. I'm sure many will disagree but, in my opinion, TNF failed to do that.

I will make one exception. There was one character who stuck in my mind: Lois Lane. If I didn't already have an interest in super heroes, there was nothing in TNF that would have made me want to read more about Superman or Batman or the Flash, but I'd have happily read more about Lois! That woman deserves a spin-off series!

Story

The central story was okay. When you have a huge cast of heroes, you pretty much have to put the entire universe in peril and so that was a given. I liked the idea that the island at the beginning was, in fact, the monster at the end but, on first reading, I didn't think that was explained very clearly. And it wasn't until I'd read it several times that I understood how some of the other elements (e.g. the cult confronted by Batman) were supposed to tie into that. The story felt “fractured” to me. Scrappy. The central idea was fine but a lot of the other things happening throughout the book felt as if they were “tacked on”; like they could be stripped away without affecting the story at all.

Artwork

Like a lot of books with a very distinctive style to the artwork, there's a danger that the art can detract from the story. Dave McKean's work on Arkham Asylum is a classic example. Bill Sienkiewicz's artwork in Elektra: Assassin is another. The artwork is lovely on a stand alone basis but, as the main style for conveying a narrative, they hinder rather than help, making it more difficult to read than it needs to be.

This isn't a major problem in TNF but the artwork is very stylised and, although many of the individual panels look gorgeous, I found there were a number of occasions when I had to look at a panel two or three times to understand what was going on. It didn't help that the male characters not wearing a superhero costume tended to look very similar with the same jutting, square jaw and heavy features. I understand completely why this style of art was chosen for this particular story, but there's a reason why Jack Kirby's art is so widely imitated in super hero comics today - in this medium, that just happens to be the style that works best!


Okay - that's my two-penn'orth on The New Frontier. Written down like this, it looks as if I absolutely hated it. I didn't! In fact, I quite liked it - but only “quite”! I always look at everything I read (or watch) with a fairly critical eye and, in this case, I just felt a little … disappointed. Here was a super hero story which - unlike most of DC's regular monthly output - was epic in its scope, had an interesting theme and was written as a complete story rather than the next instalment in a continuing series. I did, therefore, enjoy it … but just not as much as I wanted to!
last edited on July 18, 2011 10:23AM
Abt_Nihil at 3:53AM, June 18, 2010
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I see, it's a cumulative argument! :P

Well, lot's of little disappointing things can ruin an epic comic like this one too. I have to admit that I did not notice most of these, but I'll keep them in the back of my head if I ever re-read it (- not going to happen with my current flood of new comics… and work! Yes, work! Ahem).

I didn't (and still don't) know most of the characters either. The J'onn J'onzz part really stood out for me, some of the Batman stuff was cool, but I also remember I liked the Challengers of the Unknown and Losers parts, despite not knowing the characters. I didn't care much for the Flash, but I usually never care much for the Flash, so I honestly didn't notice that that might have been Cooke's fault.

And I can assure you, making an actual movie out of it was definitely an afterthought. Maybe Cooke did approach the graphic novel as if he were making a movie, but I'm sure he did not even consider the actual possibility that it might be made at some point.

That said, I liked the comic much more than I liked the movie. The comic book seemed full of ideas (what you might call fragmented :P), whereas the movie has been so straightened out that it's flat-out boring. The movie basically just consists of presenting the threat (which is pretty stupid if you don't build it up over the course of a hundred or so pages), then rallying all these heroes I don't care about (with some nice historical references, which might be the only thing that sets this movie apart from an average Justice League episode), then neutralizing the threat, which again I didn't care about. Definitely one of my least favorite DCU movies…

Also, since I'm very much a visual person, I have to say that the comic looks absolutely gorgeous to me. The compositions, the line weights, the abstract characters, the colors. (I'm not saying that it might fail regarding some pragmatic storytelling aspects, I'm just referring to the art as art.) The movie looks average. That's a huge difference.
last edited on July 18, 2011 10:23AM

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