WonderCon: Darwyn Cooke: "The New Frontier" and Beyond

"New Frontier" writer and artist Darwyn Cooke held a packed house in the palm of his hand at San Francisco's WonderCon Friday afternoon, taking questions and talking about his life, his influences, and his future plans.

Former Wildstorm editor Scott Dunbier was supposed to moderate the session and interview Cooke, but, owing to laryngitis, almost immediately opened the session to questions from the audience – although not before telling Cooke how surprised he was to learn how old Cooke was when he first met him. "When I met you, I thought you were a kid." Cooke (who is in his late forties) replied, "When I met Art Adams, he told me 'I'm so relived; I thought you were about 20.'"

The first question was about Cooke's influences: "You're a big fan of Alex Toth; did you ever get to meet him?"

"Alex Toth was a big influence on my work," he replied, "and we almost got to work together. Just before he died, he wanted to do 'Bravo for Adventure,' but he wanted to do it in color, and he wanted to hand-color it himself, and he was very adamant about it. I devised a way at the printer to let him do it and wrote him a letter, telling him about it in great detail, and I never heard back. Toth did tell the publisher to 'keep that kid away from me,' though.

"When I was a kid, I thought Neal Adams was the greatest artist who ever walked the earth (and I still feel that way), but Toth put such a level of detail into his work. When I first saw it, I thought, 'What is this? This is like a coloring book!' But it's like a song that you hear on the radio, and when you hear it at first, you hear it over and over and get sick of it really quickly, but if you hear a song that takes a while to grow on you, you start to appreciate it. Toth was able to pull things down to the most simple details. His work is like that song, while Neal is like the first one.

"You talk about what translates and what connects with people on a basic level. It's like an Alex Ross painting of someone smiling. Alex is great artist, of course. He nails every bit of it, every detail, and it's a great painting. Bur you put it next to a yellow circle on a black background, and which will connects with the most people? It's boiling it all down to its simplest, most accessible aspects."

Given that it's probably Cooke's best-known work (and that the animated version of it will have its world premiere at Saturday's WonderCon), it's not surprising that many of the questions asked were about "The New Frontier."

Asked why John Henry was in "The New Frontier," Cooke answered, "'The New Frontier' had to be part of that era (the late '50s and early '60s), and an important part of that era was the civil rights movement, and, let's just say it: in the 50s, DC was a very white company. I needed to deal with that aspect of society, and I kept coming back to Steel," even though the character didn't make his debut until the 1990s. "John Henry wasn't part of the DC Universe in that era (the 50s), but I kept going back to the folk tales and songs wondering about, "well, what if this was in inspiration to someone and there was an interim character between that John Henry and John Henry Irons?" (The Steel of the 90s.) "When I started thinking about it – and the KKK – I knew the whole story: that they'd tried to hang him and he didn't die; so he wore the black mask. And I knew he couldn't win in the end; and that it had to be a little kid who ratted him out; that even the children were part of that mindset. I don't know how to say this, so I'll just say it: I'm white, so I can't even pretend to understand that's what I'm writing about. From what my friends tell me, though, that's what I'm probably proudest of."

"Will we be seeing more of that in the film?" he was asked.

"John Henry is in the film and we had to work really hard to work him in and present him as a character. For those who've read the book, it'll all resonate. It'll still illustrate what's going on – it's the motivation for J'onn J'onzz leaving Earth and the Flash retiring. J'onn sees what happens to John Henry – 'they beat him and burn him to death? I don't want to live here.'"

Someone else wanted to know about "The New Frontier" version of Batman: "I was interested in what you did with Batman; that the Dick Sprang scientist Batman doesn't exist; it's the Bill Finger Batman. Was the Sprang Batman too white bread?"

"It was interesting to see how – let's call them publishing mandates, - how the horrifying avenger of the night became that version. We do see the 'Sprang Batman' (in 'The New Frontier'); at the end of the book, when Robin says to him, 'Wow, you really do know Superman" And Superman says to Batman, 'What happened to you?' [What happened is] the moment in the church when the kid is scared of him that Batman knows he has to pull back. That's what I wanted to do; was to start them in the alpha state that their creators intended and see what happened to them."

Another audience member wanted to know Cooke's feelings about the "controversy" over Wonder Woman's physical appearance in "The New Frontier?"

"She's a big girl, and I wanted my characters to ring true to the original versions, as they had been created, and in that there was a kernel. At that time, DC was publishing a lot of skinny 'Wonder Woman' covers – with her breasts bigger than her head. And I thought about it and thought, 'Hey, she's an Amazon; she's Anita Ekberg.' She should be big"

Was there any pressure from the publisher to change her look?

"Some, but they ultimately decided 'let's just go with it. She's way too big, but it's just for this book.'"

Why did he decide to use Green Lantern as the lynchpin of "The New Frontier?"

"If you look at the book, the trinity (Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman) almost never appears. The book is about getting the Silver Age started. It probably should have been the Challengers [of the Unknown] as the main characters. They were the first big hit DC had in the '50s, but being that it's the Silver Age, it had to be either Flash or Green Lantern, and when I was a kid, Green Lantern was my favorite. In those days, test pilots were the NBA stars of the period. And, face it, I'm a white guy. I'm not a white girl. I'm not a black guy. I'm a smartass, and I looked for a character whose voice would fit comfortably with mine; who I could wrap my head around and sound right."

Why did he start "The New Frontier" with the "Forgotten Heroes?"

"I did get flack from publishers about starting a story with forty pages of characters who no one remembers and who don't survive. (There's a reason the book took four years to get off the ground.) I don't think anyone ever expected it to go anywhere, so I felt 'why not do what I wanted?' I had a goal with the first issue, though. I was going to introduce four unknown characters and kill them off one by one and if I can make the audience care about them within the first four pages, then Superman and the Flash are cake."

Dunbier overcame his laryngitis to note that, "Alan Moore (who has had his troubles with DC management) told me he didn't want any more comps from DC; to just stop sending them. I told him I thought he'd enjoy this one. He said, 'OK, keep this one coming.'" Cooke was flattered.

Was there stuff DC didn't want him to do?

"There was, but we just talked it out. Dan Didio said 'you have more respect for these characters than we do. We know we can trust you with them.' That (darkness) was territory I didn't want to explore. That darkness, grittiness, and hyper-realism is something that other creators will beat me at. I wondered. 'Isn't there a flip side, back when these guys were heroes and did good things? And can't I tell a compelling story about that?'"

One fan wanted to know if two of his favorite scenes from the graphic novel – John Henry getting "ratted out" by the child and Superman confronting Wonder Woman in Vietnam -- were in the animated version. Cooke told the fan he'd get fifty percent of his wishes. The John Henry scene didn't make it, "but Superman and Wonder Woman in Indochina is one of the most electrifying scenes in the movie."

Is he happy with the film?

After laughing, he said "Very happy."

Does any of the movie reflect his personal politics?

"My personal politics are writ large all over it. I'm an independent. And let's go further: I'm Canadian. Something wonderful happened as I was writing the book; after the third book, I had set up some characters to be bad, and I suddenly realized they're not bad; they all think they're doing good; they just draw the line in different places. Once I stopped thinking of the Republican as the bad buy and the Democrat as the good guy, things changed. King Farraday becomes one of the deepest most fascinating characters in the book. He's got a good heart and is trying to do good."

There was also talk about Cooke's recent work on Will Eisner's "The Spirit." Asked, "Did you get what you wanted out of 'The Spirit?' And was there a particular issue you felt you really hit it?," Cooke replied:

"No. There are things I'm proud of, but I don't think we ever got close to Eisner. I did my level best. My favorite was Number Ten, where we took cable news apart and Rush Limbaugh turned out to be Rosie O'Donnell. It wasn't the most profound issue, but it was the most fun.

"Every issue I tried to do something different. I did a list of the types of stories that Eisner did, and I came up with about thirty. That freed us to do anything. The first issue was the chase, the second was the bad girl; there was the girl who's smarter and tougher than him; there was the doppelganger. It's tough when you carry Will Eisner on your back. But I had Scott (Dunbier) and J. Bone, and Dave Stewart – such an a-list team – and they were all committed to doing the best work we could.

"Trying to make sense of a guy running around in a blue suit and a hat; it's something that was easier to do in 1950 than in 2007. Cell phones have killed the thriller; it's too easy to make a call. So one of the only solutions was to give (The Spirit) a phobia about technology."

When he wrote the story for Issue Two, featuring P'Gell, one of Eisner's most fatale femmes, Cooke was "nervous about messing with the character and giving her an 'origin' that Eisner hadn't given her himself." He was still unsure about it until he ran it past Denis Kitchen, who was Eisner's agent and good friend, and Kitchen loved it. But Cooke also feels an obligation to the original creators, and feels "that if you mess around with another creator's character like that, you leave a trapdoor," so that people who want to discard the changes don't feel locked in.

Is he working on Frank Miller's movie version of "The Spirit?"

"I don't know anything more than you do. I know Frank will make it come to life and sing, and it will definitely be a kick-ass movie, but I don't know if it'll be my Spirit; the Eisner version. I think Frank's a little more hardboiled than I am."

Cooke was asked about his Batman story in DC's "Solo" series.

"I read comics as a kid. When I was ten, it was the kind of thing your father would slap you around for doing. I was thirteen and saw an issue of 'The Spectacular Spider-Man' where Norman Osborne flipped out. The second comic I ever bought was the Steve Englehart/Sal Amendola 'Night of the Stalker' story. All I knew of Batman up till then was Adam West, and this blew my mind. Batman doesn't say a word in the story; he just strikes like an avenger, and I thought it would be great to redo, so I did it."

Someone asked about his recent cover for "The Comics Journal" that featured DC's Power Girl.

"I sent them two sketches: one of the Spirit and a Power Girl image that had been sitting around in a drawer. Kim Thompson liked both and asked (TCJ publisher) Gary Groth was which one he wanted to use and got a note back that said simply 'The Broad.' It was a 'Chaykinesque' moment," referring to artist Howard Chaykin's proclivity for sexy covers.

Wrapping things up, Cooke said that there are currently "No books I want to work on; I want to go internal and tell my own stories; do some creator-owned work. I don't have a Hellboy in the drawer." (Meaning he doesn't have a sensational character find he just waiting to use.) "I want to do more introspective stories." And he teased the crowd by saying that "Dan Didio just flipped my lid with some stuff that is almost too good to turn down."

Thinking about other possible projects, though, he mentioned, "The Spectre is someone I'd like; I think he'd be a riot. To take him back to the original; Jim Corrigan, hard-boiled with that gruesome revenge."

"Captain Marvel!" shouted someone from the audience. Cooke looked a little surprised. "Captain Marvel? Everyone says that. I think Jeff Smith did a fabulous job. It wasn't until recently that I saw the charm. And that cape is ridiculous, and you haven't seen how ridiculous that cape is until you've seen Paul Dini in it."

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