Where No One Has Gone Before: Darwyn Cooke talks 'DCU: The New Frontier'

Last December, CBR News brought comic book fans everywhere an extensive preview of DC Comics' "DCU: The New Frontier" (then known as "New Frontier") and writer/artist Darwyn Cooke offered a thorough analysis of the series.

Let's hope you didn't miss it (or the link up there).

With the Comic-Con International in San Diego almost here and Darwyn Cooke set to attend to promote the January launch of "DCU: New Frontier," CBR News once again discussed the six issue mini-series with Cooke and got a few more details out of the Canadian phenom.

"'New Frontier' is a six issue limited series from DC that takes a look at the core characters of the DC Universe, back in the time they were created, so that's the original Justice League and the characters around them at the time," explains Cooke. "At 380 pages, there's more than one goal, but I think at this point, it can be summed up succinctly. The goal is to try to successfully reflect the essence of what it means to be a hero. How's that for boiling it down?"

With a project of this size, it takes some time to finish all the work when you're writing, pencilling and inking all three hundred and eighty pages, but Cooke says he's progressing quite well. "I have 200 pages of it in what I call rough story stage, which means it's all been laid out, and of that, 145 pages of that are finished pencilled pages. I just started inking the first book and I'm about a dozen pages into that. I'm about half way throughit in terms of my storytelling and I'm finishing it up. January 2004 is the scheduled date and it's apparently a firm date."

After the extensive discussion with Cooke last year regarding "New Frontier," there was a lot of positive fan reaction on the internet, especially on CBR's own DCU message boards, and the creator says he isn't surprised, but that's not ego speaking. "I wasn't really surprised," he admits. "But let me qualify that: I don't think it has anything to do with me, but I think there's such an inherent interest and affection for these characters that any project of this size dealing with these icons are bound to get that kind of fan attention."

[Superman]It's also been previously mentioned that Hal Jordan, a childhood favorite of Darwyn Cooke, would be playing a major role in the story and it's led some to wonder if other characters would get as much spotlight. Cooke assures fans that all the characters will be shown respect and with a project of this scale, you have to approach the storytelling differently. "It was a trick at first for me to structure the story because it is so large and I've never really tried to tell something so big before. It's basically telling several stories at once... cross cutting from story to story and the cutting gets tighter as you go, as all the threads of these stories come together as you get to the head of it. So, the first few books tend to look at our cast, characters and environment in which they're acting on separate levels, and as the story progresses we see how things that don't seem related at all come together at the end. I know as I'm constructing the book, I'm looking at it as several separate stories that are feeding into one big story."

Another creative challenge that Cooke faces is whether to portray these iconic DC characters as, for lack of a better term, icons or as the fallible characters that are so popular today. "It's a mix. Basically we have two types of characters that we're dealing with here- players like Superman and Wonder Woman are established at the time the story opens, so they have a very iconic nature to them in the story, but the Flash is brand new. When we meet Barry Allen, he's been at it for three weeks and so he's not iconic atall. He's still very much a police scientist who discovered he's got this fantastic power and I don't think he's had the time to even consider what it means to be the Flash. Part of what I'm doing with this story is showing some growth on his part as a person which maybe helps us understand how he came to be the man we know him as."

But isn't Barry the same guy that Cooke was having a difficulty isolating as a character last time? He is and Cooke says it's gotten easier, adding, "Yeah, as a matter of fact and I think this is why, but I don't know about other people's processes, but when I have a plot, that's when I draw my story. When I'm drawing the characters, I begin to understand them better and know how I perceive them, I think I've got something with Barry here that I'm happy with. I think that there's something very interesting and logical that's come up with him. One of the ones that I'm having the most fun with is Martian Manhunter and he's got one of the most interesting journeys. It's one of the most fascinating stories that unfolds in 'New Frontier.' Blah blah blah [laughs]"

When dealing with the characters of the sixties, who are seen as lacking the perceived characterization of modern superheroes, it can be difficult to provide a new take on each character because often stories were short and not much was said about the characters. When is change not just change for the sake of it? "Well I think that what you do is when you look at the Silver Age stories they're rarely a full issue- Martian Manhunter was in a back up strip. So the stories didn't have the room to get into a great deal of characterization nor were they in a market that demanded it. What I've tried to do is boil it down to what is there and if other people have come up with notes that have added depth to it, I'm all for folding that in. The best example was Martian Manhunter I guess- he's a Martian, he decides he'll fight crime while he's waiting for his homeland to find he's there and it's simple on the level that appeals to a child. I know that in all the research I did, someone added- and I'm sorry, I don't know who to credit for this- he decided to become a detective because he used television to learn about the Earth and his favorite things were the cop shows- Mike Hammer, Peter Gunn, etc. They logic-ed this out pretty beautifully and the reason he has the flat top is because he thinks Mike Hammer is the coolest guy on Earth, so he decides that's what he's gonna do, he'll become a cop and adopt that tough guy look. I ran with that. All of a sudden you've got this wealth of fun you can have because here's this Martian learning everything he can about Earth from 1950's American television. It's an interesting angle to the character that you can explore, if you have the room. He's also kind of the Science Fiction allegory thing- it's your basic allegory of an alien in America and paralleling that to what was going on with civil rights, without banging everyone on the head regarding racism."

[Batman]The Toronto based writer's skills have allowed him to surprise people with his work on a lot of characters, including Catwoman in the "Selina's Big Score" graphic novel that was released last year to critical acclaim. In "New Frontier," he says that he thinks his take on another well-known female heroine will be the surprise hit of the series. "Well, I might biased, but I put my money on Wonder Woman," smiles Cooke. "She doesn't have what I call a ton of face time in the book, but I think my approach to her has a few interesting wrinkles that I think people are going to appreciate. She'll come off in a way that's somewhat different from how she's been portrayed before, but will seem very natural in the context of the story and I think the relationship I'm constructing between her and Superman has a lot do with that."

For a project that is set in the 50's and draws upon the original continuity of the DC Universe, one would imagine that research would be needed and the former "Catwoman" penciller says he did more than his fair share. "Good god," laughs Cooke. "It's definitely the most daunting thing I've undertaken because there's so much material that you could kill yourself with the multitude of choices you have, so the first thing I did was figurewas the area I working in. I made the decision that if the characters were being published in the same time that the Flash (Barry Allen) was introduced (1956) and the first Justice League came out (1961) then they would be included. So there's no Doom Patrol , Atom, Metamorpho etc., because they hadn't appeared yet. Once I narrowed it down it came to a lot of research of what DC had to offer and there were some gems there, things I didn't know were there, and I probably read a couple thousand pages of DC silver age stuff in preparation for this from the most remote and obscure stuff to the easy to find stuff. That's only one prong of the research, because the story's taking place against a real time back drop, I had to look into the politics of the era, the style of era, architecture andclothing. I had to research the vehicles and manned spaceflights, jetfighters and pilots, a lot of research went into that.

"This isn't a political book in the 'hey, here's a political statement' and there won't be any big buttons pointing to that kind of statement, but there definitely will be politics motivating story. The politics of the 1950's, if you want to boil it down quite simply, came down to the communists versus the free world and those politics motivated a lot of what goes on. The race to the moon. The wars in southeast Asia. These were monumental things at the time and the politics were the framework driving these situations."

With the use of the old DC timeline as part of that framework too, many die-hard comic book fans will no doubt be looking for strict adherence to the way things were and some newer fans will wonder why the current timeline wasn't chosen, both being matters that Cooke is happy to address. "There was a hell of a lot of conversation about continuity and one of the reasons the project's taken almost four years to get going. In the end, it was decided that what you call 'present day continuity' wasn't something we couldn't strictly observe. What we decided to do and what I think is best in the long term, and I hate to frustrate a regular reader who sees a discrepancy, but what we decided to do was work with the continuity in what I think fans would refer to as 'the pre-Crisis era,' which is to say before DC collapsed all their time and universes. I'm going with the continuity that existed during the time period I'm writing about and at that point, continuity was kept open. We all knew that Barry Allen had an Iris West in his life, but that life went on from episode to episode and it wasn't a convoluted thing. "But that doesn't mean this is an 'anything goes' book. Absolutely not. I think that would be wrong as well and I think that's where a lot of mistakes get made these days, because guys think they gotta make a left turn because a left turn hasn't been made yet. I thought it was very important for me to have as much respect for the original creators as I could and what I did was try to embrace everything that the guys who created these characters put on paper. Unfortunately, there's no way you absorb everything, everyone's ever done continuity wise and expect it to work, so 'New Frontier' follows the basic continuity that was set by DC in the 50's and 60's."

[Wonder Woman]There's a lot of talk these days about comic books not being accessible for people outside the comic book collective and the idea that there are too many "Comic Bookisms" for the real world to really care about comics. But don't expect "DCU: New Frontier" to be anything like that. "Well, I think that there's probably a market for the self referential stuff and there's dyed in the wool fans who appreciate it," explains Cooke. "If I know a property well enough, I can appreciate the in jokes, but on the same level, if I read 'League of Extraordinary Gentlemen,' Alan Moore can be referencing tons of things that aren't comic related because they add texture and tone to what he's saying. So, as an issue, I don't see it as comic book specific, I like it when literate people refer to something that helps me appreciate or understand a story better. How much of that will there be in 'New Frontier?' Some, but it's not driving the bus. The idea here is definitely is that anyone can pick it up and read it, and it starts on such a human level it will hopefully be an accessible tale for any type of reader. I am going to sidestep certain things because I figure it's common knowledge to anybody who reads the thing- for example, the Flash's origin is handled in a very brief and succinct way. I don't feel I have to go into that- it's been done, it's been done, and done- everyone knows it. So I find a way to establish it quickly and not worry about it. The facts are there for the novice, and the seasoned DC reader doesn't have to wade through another Flash origin retake. I don't want to spend a lot of time telling stories that have already been told. This is a new story and the trick was to make sure that who everyone is and their motivations gets revealed quickly and easily without sucking up huge chunks of story."

It's no secret that Darwyn Cooke is a fan of fun comics and comics with a message, elements that he hopes fans find prevalent in "New Frontier," but some might say that it's gotta be hard for a reader to take comic book seriously when people run around in spandex and resolve most problems with fisticuffs. "Speaking to you as a guy who works on a lot of licensed characters, you'll see I've done very little of the bright stuff. Even with 'Wolverine/Doop,' I managed to get Marvel to go along with design that was based on 'what if Wolverine was a real guy?' and 'what if he was cool?' With Catwoman, my big redesign there, the idea was to create something that could be real and in 'New Frontier,' to a great degree, the characters become who they are over the course of the story, so there's areas where we're dealing with them as people and not as superheroes, and that'll help set it up. It'll authenticate it and make it real for a lot of people. When it happens,when these people put on the colors, I'm trying to create a logic for why they would do this to the best of my ability. On the other hand, if you can't buy a guy in blue tights with a red cape, you're not going to buy the ride and that's all part of the ride. I don't think I can defeat that for anybody. But for people who think superheroes are okay and would like to see a book that has more to it, this book is filled with situations that are incredibly exciting but don't involved super powered people. Oh, and it's the 50's-Spandex hasn't been invented yet, so our heroes are all wearing cotton.

"One of the stronger themes in the book is that America gets to a point where it's resistant of the idea of super powered people. I spent a lot of time looking at the Challengers of the Unknown and the Suicide Squad, groups that were made of flesh and blood people who had daring, courage and resources with tech and intelligence, creating some big set pieces that involve them. So the people in New Frontier are at least as important as the powers."

But would Canada be as resistant of super heroes? Cooke managed to squeeze in a cameo of the T-Dot (the rap nickname for Toronto) in "Wolverine/Doop" and readers shouldn't be surprised if the world famous city makes an appearance in this DC comic series. "I wouldn't be surprised if something ends up happening up here," laughs Cooke. "It would be nice. I'm sure out of 380 pages, I can devote one or two to something up here."

[Green Arrow]It's fair to ask if Cooke might consider tackling a different time period in DC history (he could call the sequel "Used Frontier") or even the Marvel Universe, but the upcoming "Witchblade Animated" artist says that isn't likely. "Y'know, it's unlikely, the only reason I say that is because it's such a big thing. The companies have a lot to consider, it takes so much thing to get things sorted out to a point where you can go and do something like this. Again, I've got to hand it to Paul Levitz for supporting what Mark Chiarello (my ever-lovin' editor) and I are doing here and being able to see that we needed certain things cleared out of the way for us to do this right. Frankly, I think after I'm done 'New Frontier' I'm going to want to tell smaller stories about individual characters. There's a few of my own concepts I'd like to explore and y'know, there's something Axel [Alonso, editor at Marvel Comics] and I talk about every time we see each other, but who knows? [laughs]"

Something that Cooke can mention as a possible upcoming project is a Superman graphic novel with Dave Bullock and while it isn't set in stone, that strong fan support that brought "New Frontier" into reality earlier than might have occurred could help with this GN. "DC's looking at a presentation for a Superman book that'd be drawn by Dave Bullock, who's doing those great 'Action Comics' covers, and written by myself. Theresponse has been good and we're waiting to get a word. I don't want to talk about what it's about yet and it may not happen at all, so we'll have to see. The only other thing coming up is the 'Witchblade Animated' baby from Top Cow with J. Bone, Dave Bullock and Paul Dini. Oooh yeah! The book launches at the Wizard Chicago Con. When I do wrap New Frontier, I'll be concentrating on my issue of 'Solo,' Mark C's new book at DC. That'll be a fun way to decompress after this massive project"

If you want to meet the friendly Canuck, who also has one high tolerance for alcohol (and remains mum on the Labatts versus Molson taste debate), he'll be at the Comic-Con International in San Diego this week. "As far as places we can talk about on the record [laugh], y'know I usually do a stint in the afternoons at the DC booth and I'm usually there for a couple hours doing autographs and sketches. If fans- or the police- need to find me, I'm the 'swarthy' looking guy [laughs]. I look like every other dickhead in this business- short thinning hair and goatee [laughs]."

There's a lot of talk out of Cooke about the heroic ideal, and the notion that comics can be both exciting and character-driven. He's been vocal about his distaste for books like "Ultimates" for what he calls "the salacious take they bring to classic characters." So how does he justify his frequent collaborations with the crew on X-Statix? "If people say I'm a hypocrite for working on 'X-Statix,' it's simple, really simple. In case anyone thinks I'm Mark Millar bashing- I think what he did was fine in 'Authority' and Milligan's fine in 'X-Statix,' because they're new creations meant to express these new ideas. 'X-Statix' didn't take some of the most iconic characters in the business and do. that. to them. I think 'X-Statix' is fair game because Peter [Milligan, writer] and Mike [Allred, artist] have createdthis world to tell this story and they're not imposing it on anyone."

And Darwyn Cooke isn't about to impose "New Frontier" on anyone, but he's got a final recommendation for interested readers: "I really hope they dig it. I don't know what to say because it's going on so long now and any objectivity I had is gone now. I can say I'm striving to tell a story that is both character-driven and visually exciting-something that seems in short supply these days. I hope people dig it and people are looking forward to seeing these heroes in a great & positive light."

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