You have to give DC Comics credit with this week’s release of Justice League: The New Frontier Special, just a week after the release of the New Frontier movie on DVD. I got my hands on both products this week, affording me the opportunity to review two birds with one stone, so to speak.
Justice League: The New Frontier direct-to-video animated movie
Voice actors: David Boreanaz, Miguel Ferrer, Neil Patrick Harris, John Heard, Lucy Lawless, Kyle MacLachlan, Phil Morris, Kyra Sedgwick, Brooke Shields & Jeremy Sisto
Director: David Bullock
Writers: Stan Berkowitz & Darwyn Cooke
Studio: Warner Bros. Animation
Like just about every other comics enthusiast, I was a big fan of Darwyn Cooke’s DC: The New Frontier. I not only have the original issues in my collection but the oversized, hardcover “Absolute” edition as well. Cooke’s artistry and storytelling is pretty much without equal in the North American comics industry today, so I was eager to see how his colleagues in the world of animation would handle an adaptation. What I discovered was that director David Bullock, Cooke and an extensive team of artists and animators crafted two different films. One of those animated movies serves to satisfy the fans of the original source material. The other is a movie that sacrifices vital information for casual viewers and neophytes, making for some confusing moments.
The story is two-fold. One is about the emergence of a world-ending threat in the form of the Center, a huge, island-like creature of pure malevolence, corruption and violence. The other is about heroes striving to survive an era of fear, paranoia and mistrust. The former really dominates the movie, and it’s too bad, because it’s the socio-political elements that are far more compelling.
The movie looks great. There’s nary a single scene that boasts choppy animation. The action moves fluidly, and there’s a big-budget feel to the “special effects” and action-oriented moments that almost makes one forget this is a cartoon. Furthermore, the voice casting is flawless. This is some of the best casting we’ve seen on any Bruce Timm-produced super-hero cartoon since he and his co-creators started making them in 1992. Jeremy Sisto as Batman stands out as a particularly great choice, as does Lucy Lawless as a harsher vision of Wonder Woman.
Where the movie goes awry — at least when it comes to appealing to a wider audience — is how it assumes every viewer already knows some of the backstory. I watched the movie with my fiancee, and well into the movie, she asked, “Who the hell is this Jordan guy supposed to be?” Comics readers know Hal Jordan well, but thanks to the recent Justice League TV shows, the non-fan knows Green Lantern as a no-nonsense African American man. I also had no problem following the Martian Manhunter’s storyline, since I knew about Dr. Erdel, John Jones and other elements from his Silver Age origin. But the filmmakers could have done more to link the alien with the police detective persona he adopts in order to fit in, at least for the uninitiated.
I also watched the movie with Cooke’s commentary track, and his enthusiasm for the finished product and his candor about minor details that didn’t quite work for him were interesting. His comments also serve to inform those viewers who may not have picked up on all the plot elements and thematic significance of certain moments. He gives great insight into the craft of animation and even comics storytelling.
It’s entirely possible that the goal here was to entertain and dazzle the fans, and in that respect, Bullock and company succeed. They manage to include glancing references to obscure DC characters, from the Losers to Slam Bradley. It’s a real treat for those of us who know the characters and marvel at the notion of them being included in one huge story. But I can’t help but wonder if we fans are a big enough audience to make this movie a commercial success. Ultimately, I think the biggest problem with the movie is something beyond the filmmakers’ control: length. There seems to be this prevalent attitude that animated movies — even with PG-13 ratings — have to be limited in length. An extra 20 or so minutes would have freed the storytellers’ hands and made for a more compelling drama. 6/10
Justice League: The New Frontier Special #1
Writer/Cover artist: Darwyn Cooke
Artists: Darwyn Cooke, David Bullock & Michael Cho, and J. Bone
Colors: Dave Stewart
Letters: Jared Fletcher
Editor: Dan Didio
Publisher: DC Comics
Price: $4.99 US/$5.99 CAN
Now this is more like it. While the film has an accessibility problem, that’s not to be found in this anthology one-shot. Writer Darwyn Cooke has crafted three stories set in the New Frontier continuity that don’t require the reader to have read the original series or watched the animated movie. Also welcome is the fact that the three stories not only feature a diversity of characters, but a diversity of moods. All three short stories, however, celebrate the era in which they’re set and the traditions and appeal of the super-hero genre from the dawn of the Silver Age. The opening page, with Rip Hunter as narrator and something of an emcee for the book, sets the tone perfectly, telling the reader to ignore concerns of continuity. Cooke, through Rip Hunter, makes it clear: this is about having fun, nothing more, nothing less.
The main story fills in the details about an unseen showdown between Superman and Batman that’s referred to only briefly in the original limited series. Cooke offers some amazing illustration for the action-oriented piece, and he gets to the heart of the differences between the two icons as well as the respect they have for one another just as adeptly as Frank Miller did years ago in The Dark Knight Returns. Cooke softens his take on Wonder Woman a bit for the purposes of this story so she can serve as a bridge between the two men. It doesn’t really jibe with the harsher interpretation we see in the movie and the original New Frontier comics, but it works well for this plot.
The second piece features two super-hero sidekicks who got little screen time in the original story. Cooke’s script is clearly built upon the Bob Haney, hip-speak Teen Titans comics of the Silver Age, and it also evokes a Rebel Without a Cause riff that’s just as much a treat. It was just a few weeks ago that DC released its Teen Titans Lost Annual, penned by Haney himself. It was something of a disappointment after such a long wait, but Cooke and artist David Bullock (the director of the afore-mentioned animated movie) make up for it with this short story.
The weirdest of the three stories is the Wonder Woman/Black Canary piece about the emergence of women’s lib, set against the backdrop of the rise of Playboy Clubs in America. While the Superman/Batman piece is played up for drama and action, and the teen hero story is all about adventure, this final piece is pure comedy. J. Bone’s exaggerated approach to the art puts me in mind of Scott (Southpaw) Morse’s style, but the frequent Cooke collaborator also maintains the overall design and feel of the New Frontier look. It’s a great piece of satire, poking fun at the establishment as well as the activist mindset all at once.
This one-shot also includes a section featuring “behind the scenes” looks at the animated movie project, but it’s a superficial look. There’s far more detailed information about the craft of the film and inspirations in the commentary tracks on the DVD itself. Still, these DVD promotional pages boast a strong sense of design and spotlight the strength of Cooke’s art and influence nicely. Overall, this special is a great package and will entertain New Frontier fanatics and casual readers alike. 8/10