Darwyn Cooke

Justice League: The New Frontier Special (2008) #1

Justice League The New Frontier Special  2008  1It would be wrong to describe Justice League: The New Frontier Special as hack work. Darywn Cooke’s art on the feature, even his plotting of it, is not hacky. Neither is the Robin and Kid Flash story’s art, courtesy Dave Bullock and Michael Cho. Even the Wonder Woman and Black Canary go to a Playboy Club art by J. Bone isn’t… hack work. Bone’s cartoonish style does what it’s supposed to do.

Now, the writing on that last story might be hack work. Cooke opens with a gentle jab at political correctness, confirms Bruce Wayne is a pig in his off time, and then has Wonder Woman slut shame. It’s not quite cringe because it’s six pages, but it’s definitely eye-roll.

And the Robin and Kid Flash story is more just annoying. Between Robin’s hep cat narration and the proto-groovy dialogue (and the “commie” villains?), it’s tiresome. But gorgeous art. Arguably better looking than Cooke’s feature, which is… something.

The feature tells the untold tale from the original New Frontier (this not at all special Special tied into the release of the lousy New Frontier animated movie)—Batman v Superman: Dawn of the Greater Good. Besides getting some insight into how Cooke would write Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman if he’d written them more in the original comic (good thing he didn’t), it also has more of dickhead Dwight D. Eisenhower, who sends Supes after Bats. I remember reading something about (Canadian) Cooke thinking we needed Eisenhower back—when asked about his politics during Iraq War II, where there was only one right answer—which adds a layer to the comic.

If Cooke liked Ike… it’s hard to imagine how he’d have written him if he didn’t like him. Killing a puppy maybe?

The feature’s twenty-four interminable pages, with Cooke clearly not spending a lot of time on the art. The Batman and Superman fight itself is pretty good, rather drawn out, but with a goony resolution. It’s also one hell of a retcon of the original series.

Overall the most successful thing in the comic is the one page prologue with Rip Hunter telling everyone not to take it seriously.

All of a sudden, I’m real glad I don’t have one of the New Frontier collected editions with the Special included. If I’d read it on publication, I forgot about it. I hope I can forget about it again.

DC: The New Frontier (2004)d

DC The New Frontier  2004Darwin Cooke’s most impressive achievement with The New Frontier isn’t the art, which is a mix of sublime, grandiose, muted, and bombastic, or keeping track of all the characters (there have to be hundreds), but the voice he finds for characters. He starts big, with Losers member Johnny Cloud narrating the team’s adventures on Dinosaur Island. New Frontier is heavier with the science heroes and war heroes than with the superheroes. The Losers, Task Force X (the Suicide Squad), the Blackhawks show up, there’s a bunch with the Challengers of the Unknown—all of the mask-free, government sanctioned hero types, they play the biggest part in the New Frontier’s main plot, figuring into both Hal Jordan and John Jones’s plot lines and then consuming them. Though everyone’s plot is consumed by the finale.

Cloud’s memoir sets up the comic both in terms of Cooke’s approach—it’s going to be fantastical comic book action, but with a lot of heart in its heroes (New Frontier doesn’t have much in the way of human villains, as it turns out, just heroes who aren’t being heroic yet and then the politicians… they’re all bad), so awesome art and simple, sincere narration—as well as the main plot. Dinosaur Island’s going to figure in a lot.

After Cloud, Cooke cycles through the same main “leads”—Green Lantern-to-be Jordan and not yet Martian Manhunter Jones. There are tangents, but it’s their story for most of the comic. The big three—Batman, Wonder Woman, Superman—figure in a little. Wonder Woman and Superman more because they become government stooges and head off to Southeast Asia when tasked, which has long lasting ramifications and figures into their (scant) character development arcs. Cooke’s not telling a Wonder Woman or Superman story—despite showing up every issue, Superman’s basic ground situation still comes as a bit of a surprise at the end. Batman’s just there to support other characters, whether Superman or Martian Manhunter (without knowing he’s a Martian).

There’s also a possible plot hole with Wonder Woman knowing Eisenhower from the war but it’s unclear in what capacity because the superheroes weren’t involved in World War II (because “Spear of Destiny,” which means B.J. Blazkowicz failed his mission in New Frontier-verse). Cooke is cagey with the ground situation, which is fine when it works and he’s able to have a surprise reveal or little plot twist, but he’s intentionally manipulating. So when it doesn’t work, it’s real obvious.

As present as Wonder Woman and Superman is Lois Lane. She comes in early and stays to the end, often getting onto a soapbox to rant about the government wanting to control all the superheroes. See, the Red Scare goes to them too, not for being communists but for wearing the masks. Cooke does a fantastic job with the science heroes and how they exist in the world, but there’s nothing about how the regular folk regard the superheroes anymore. Tying them into McCarthyism when they would’ve been fresh in the public’s mind for do-gooding (presumably). It’s weird.

Of course, there’s not a lot of opportunity for Cooke to expound recent history because—outside the various narrations—the only expository device he’s got is the occasional article from some in-world reporter, Lois, Vicki Vale, Iris West, and they wouldn’t be appropriate for too much historical exposition.

The big fight at the end—will the United States’s earnest heroes be able to get over their fears and band together to stop an unimaginable threat, leveraging their individual abilities and the latest in Silver Age technology? Of course, it’s a superhero. It’s rather well executed, even if some of the details—Cooke’s design of the final boss seems like the physiology-free sketches of a child (in the Fifties, natch) and, well, something out of Max Shea’s imagination (obligatory Watchmen mention)… because New Frontier very much feels like Watchmen only with the DC Universe heroes. The Wonder Woman and Superman stuff… it does not exist in a vacuum. Cooke is showing off the potential for the regular stock of DC characters but does it too well.

The Flash, who gets less than stars Hal Jordan and John Jones but definitely more than Superman or Wonder Woman, fits really well in the 1960s context. Ditto Hal Jordan. In proving the characters relevance to their original historical context, Cooke makes everything else seem, well, second best. Again, with the caveat he’s very much gearing their characterizations—as expressed in their narrations—to fit his story. But you don’t get done with New Frontier and want to hunt down the latest Flash or Green Lantern issue. It’s interesting see these guys—and the comic definitely leans almost all male (it passes Bechdel because Wonder Woman chastises another Amazon’s fighting ability and a woman compliments another on her blouse)—as they struggle with their internalized jingoism and so forth. Cooke’s subplots often are just texture to promote this internal turmoil, like Hooded Justice—sorry, sorry, John Henry—who fights to KKK in Tennessee to national acclaim but is a local criminal. Cooke talks around the vigilantism stuff; he doesn’t have a character who can really get into it. John Jones does a little because he’s a cop in Gotham City, but supervillains aren’t really a thing yet.

Cooke takes huge bites and thoughtful chews.

The epilogue, set to John F. Kennedy’s “New Frontier” speech (get it, get it), is clearly a labor of love for Cooke but also unnecessary if not wholly unsuccessful. Kennedy and speechwriter Ted Sorensen were not writing for DC Comics and Cooke’s juxtaposition of text about social injustices with the corresponding comic book images… it comes off a combination of callous, opportunistic, and forced. New Frontier reaches, which is just right, it ought to reach, but Cooke reaches a little too far in the end. He ends up derivative instead of innovatory, which is exactly what the comic shouldn’t do.

But it’s still a masterpiece of superhero comics, setting an insurmountable bar because—even with plot holes and pitfalls and rushed subplots and epilogue problems—Cooke’s four or five hundred pages of art aren’t ever going to be surpassed. It’s a gorgeous, affecting tribute, homage, and eulogy to the Silver Age of DC Comics.

Catwoman 4 (April 2002)

Catwoman #4How does noir work when the villain is a Clayface rip-off. I say rip-off because Catwoman is a Batman spin-off and Clayface is a Batman villain. Brubaker knew the similarity. It also gives Cooke something fantastic to draw. Selina in this gross pink muck–the leftover transformative flesh of the villain? Great stuff. Lots of movement in the art.

The villain does have something of a noir origin though. G.I. injured, army docs turn him into a monster, it’s like a film noir with shades of fifties sci-fi. It’s really cool.

But Brubaker relies on it almost too much. The script tries to showcase the art, which is fine and dandy and marvelous. Only it makes for some rushed scenes. One less page of the fight and one more page with Selina and Leslie would have been awesome.

The issue starts fast and rushes. The last few pages seem so short because of the action sequence pacing. Those last few pages are exceptional. Brubaker and Cooke figure out how to give noir a superhero. It’s great comic book storytelling.

Even if the fight goes long.

CREDITS

Anodyne, Conclusion; writer, Ed Brubaker; penciller, Darwyn Cooke; inker, Mike Allred; colorist, Matt Hollingsworth; letterer, Sean Konot; editors, Nachie Castro and Matt Idelson; publisher, DC Comics.

Catwoman 3 (March 2002)

Catwoman #3It’s a strange issue. It’s a good issue–though it’s certainly the least ambitious so far–but it’s also a strange issue. Selina doesn’t have as much narration as she had before and now she’s doing much different things. She’s the star of a Bronze Age Batman comic, where Batman dresses up as Matches Malone and investigates on the wharf.

It’s a successful issue. Cooke’s in on the Bronze Age vibe of the issue and the art feels very seventies. The content Cooke’s illustrating, anyway. There’s even a sixties thing with a used car dealer. A lot of thought went into the visual presentation of the book. I just wish Brubaker hadn’t been so quiet.

So far, this series has been about Selina evolving into a do-gooder. This issue continues that evolution, but with the exception of the narration in the first few pages, Selina’s experience is absent from the comic. Even when Brubaker brings back the narration later, it’s to establish that Matches Malone sequence.

Like I said, strange. Expertly, enthusiastically done, but with too much confidence in the narrative effect of the comic to worry about the narrative itself. It’s showy.

CREDITS

Anodyne, Part Three of Four; writer, Ed Brubaker; penciller, Darwyn Cooke; inker, Mike Allred; colorist, Matt Hollingsworth; letterer, Sean Konot; editors, Nachie Castro and Matt Idelson; publisher, DC Comics.

Catwoman 2 (February 2002)

Catwoman #2Cooke mixes a lot of styles in this issue. Selina lives her non-costumed life in a more angular city, one with more art deco designs than when she’s got the costume on at night. But Cooke also finds this mixed style for Selina herself. She’s got the modern look, but he also goes for Silver Ago influences to make her more sympathetic.

And then there’s what Brubaker’s narration does for her character. This series of Catwoman integrates whatever history the character had since Batman: Year One, so the Jim Balent stuff and whatever else, with a continuation of the character from Year One. Or at least something closer to that characterization. Including the history of prostitution.

The prostitution angle–with Holly, Selina’s sidekick from her Year One days–figures into the story, with Gotham’s dirty cops ignoring a serial killer preying on girls on the street. Selina ends up investigating it. There’s no humor in the comic. Not a moment. Not even when Cooke and Brubaker take the time and care to show Selina’s pure joy in running around the rooftops. It’s serious stuff; Brubaker’s very deliberate in how he works through Selina’s thoughts in the narration too.

Again, it’s noir. It’s a noir comic masquerading as a superhero comic (masquerading as a noir comic). Brubaker juggles the mainstream and more artistically ambitious beautifully. What Cooke does is just as important, but it only works because of how well Brubaker does his bit.

CREDITS

Anodyne, Part Two of Four; writer, Ed Brubaker; penciller, Darwyn Cooke; inker, Mike Allred; colorist, Matt Hollingsworth; letterer, Sean Konot; editor, Nachie Castro and Matt Idelson; publisher, DC Comics.

Catwoman 1 (January 2002)

Catwoman #1In his ★★ review of Batman Returns, Roger Ebert said, “no matter how hard you try, superheroes and film noir don’t go together; the very essence of noir is that there are no more heroes.” I disagree about the film, but not all of the quote. I agree with the first part, not so much the second. Because it’s a closed vision of heroes.

It oddly doesn’t seem to occur to Ebert how the “junkies and masochists and hookers and those who have squandered everything… [can be] the ring of brightest angels around heaven.” Because a review of a single comic book from 2002 needs this long of a preamble. One with the only time I’ll agree with Ebert this year and a great Rick Moody quote.

But Ed Brubaker and Darwyn Cooke’s Catwoman requires a significant preamble. Because Brubaker and Cooke crack Ebert’s problem. How do film noir and superheroes go together? Well, the superhero can’t be the hero. Batman shows up in this first issue of Catwoman for two reasons.

First, regardless of how progressive DC was being with a non-objectified characterization of Catwoman, they weren’t being so progressive they didn’t want to sell the comic. There’s an exceptionally tasteful, but sexy, suiting up sequence. Cooke can do that kind of thing, thanks to Brubaker selling Selina’s excitement. It’s believable.

That scene is so well-executed, one might just skip over it as a commercialist detail. But Batman is all commercial. You launch a spin-off of a Batman comic, Batman better guest star, especially in the early aughts, especially going from Chuck Dixon and Jim Balent to Ed Brubaker and Darwyn Cooke. You need Batman. And this issue delivers. A full-on Batman action sequence–it’s hard to remember when Brubaker’s mainstream writing was a DC staple, not how he brought the same thing to Marvel to better sales–then Batman shows up for character stuff.

And that character stuff is the second reason Batman shows up. He’s essential to Brubaker’s characterization of Selina. Selina has an informed but seemingly simplistic view of Batman; he’s her dark blue boy scout. It gives Selina better possession over the shared setting, she belongs.

Brubaker and Cooke visualize that setting as a noir. They start with the already noir-ish David Mazzuchelli Year One visuals then develop it, creating a Technicolor film noir. Brubaker’s script follows Selina–the comic’s narrator as well as protagonist–through her last few days of sabbatical. She doesn’t know it, but she’s going to get suited up again.

There’s a lot of noir framing in the flashbacks and so on. The narrative construction is special stuff. It’s meticulous. Meticulously written, then meticulously illustrated.

By the time the most noir element comes into the comic–in its last pages–Brubaker and Cooke have already delivered an awesome read. The way the last two pages and the soft cliffhanger? It’s the chocolate sprinkles on the frosting.

CREDITS

Anodyne, Part One of Four; writer, Ed Brubaker; penciller, Darwyn Cooke; inker, Mike Allred; colorist, Matt Hollingsworth; letterer, Sean Konot; editor, Nachie Castro and Matt Idelson; publisher, DC Comics.

Before Watchmen: Silk Spectre 4 (January 2013)

884070Looks like Conner rushed a bit with the art. The issue opens fine and closes okay, but there are some definite rough patches.

The ending is atrocious, when Cooke and Conner tie it directly into a scene from Watchmen, only now we get to hear Laurie’s take on the scene. Guess what? Neither Cooke nor Conner–whoever wrote the scene–are as good of writers as Alan Moore. Shocker.

Otherwise, the issue’s not terrible. Instead of letting her be a hippie superhero, which was interesting and fun, the writers wrap everything up neatly for the finish. And the writing between Laurie and Sally is terrible, which doesn’t help things.

Hollis Mason shows up for a little bit and he should’ve been the narrator of the whole series, given where it goes.

Again, it could be worse–like as bad as Higgins’s pirate story–but it could be a lot better.

CREDITS

The End of the Rainbow; writers, Darwyn Cooke and Amanda Conner; artist, Conner; colorist, Paul Mounts; letterer, Carlos M. Mangual. The Curse of the Crimson Corsair, Wide Were His Dragon Wings, Part Three; writer, artist and colorist, John Higgins; letterer, Sal Cipriano. Editors, Chris Conroy, Camilla Zhang and Mark Chiarello; publisher, DC Comics.

Before Watchmen: Silk Spectre 3 (November 2012)

875223The mystery of the smiley face button is solved! Finally, now everyone can sleep at night. The addition of said button does make one wonder if Cooke’s flipping off Moore a little (as the button is what started Moore’s disputes with DC).

This issue features a lot of things Cooke and Conner should have covered in the previous one, with Sally worrying about her kid instead of just ignoring it (from the reader’s point of view). The ending isn’t great, but it’s whole.

It’s a bridging issue without any memorable scenes. Even Laurie tripping on bad acid turns out to be a red herring.

The comic’s not bad, however. Conner’s art is still a nice mix of straightforward and sixties–not quite indie, but definitely not mainstream vanilla–and the scenes are well-written.

Laurie just isn’t enough of a character this issue.

The crappy backup has a terrible cliffhanger.

C 

CREDITS

No Illusion; writers, Darwyn Cooke and Amanda Conner; artist, Conner; colorist, Paul Mounts; letterer, Carlos M. Mangual. The Curse of the Crimson Corsair, The Evil That Men Do, Part Four; writer, artist and colorist, John Higgins; letterer, Sal Cipriano. Editors, Chris Conroy, Camilla Zhang and Mark Chiarello; publisher, DC Comics.

Before Watchmen: Silk Spectre 2 (September 2012)

872691Cooke and Conner set up Laurie as a hippie superhero; it’s kind of cool and definitely a decent look at sixties San Francisco. What’s interesting–and something I don’t think the original series ever established–is Laurie goes the “with great power” route. She turns into Silk Spectre because she can help people if she does. It deepens the character quite a bit.

And she needs it, because Cooke and Conner spend almost half the issue on the supervillains plotting to get kids tripping and consuming. It’s an incredibly boring scene and it goes on forever and ever.

Her boyfriend’s not much of a character either. I haven’t determined if they’re supposed to be teen runaways, but one would think his parents might be concerned.

The ending cliffhanger’s either going to be awesome or some terrible way to be grim and gritty.

Shockingly, Wein writes an okay pirate backup too.

CREDITS

Getting Into the World; writers, Darwyn Cooke and Amanda Conner; artist, Conner; colorist, Paul Mounts; letterer, Carlos M. Mangual. The Curse of the Crimson Corsair, The Devil in the Deep, Part Seven; writer, Len Wein; artist and colorist, John Higgins; letterer, Sal Cipriano. Editors, Chris Conroy, Camilla Zhang and Mark Chiarello; publisher, DC Comics.

Before Watchmen: Silk Spectre 1 (August 2012)

869319For Silk Spectre, Darwyn Cooke and Amanda Conner go the romance comic route. Or at least closer to it than I was expecting, but it makes sense given Laurie’s age during the high adventuring days of Watchmen.

She’s got her teen story going while Sally deals with aging and raising a kid to be a costumed adventurer. Cooke and Conner make both women utterly sympathetic, but it only works on Sally’s side because the reader knows her story.

Without it, she’d come across as a tiger mom. Except maybe the phone call to Hollis, which is as close as the comic gets to self-indulgence. It needs a little more, but it’s quite good as is.

Conner’s art never gets too cute, but always maintains the romance comic tone. It’s rather good and hard to imagine Spectre without it.

Higgins’s backup art, however, is severely lacking. It’s a muddled mess.

CREDITS

Means Goodbye; writers, Darwyn Cooke and Amanda Conner; artist, Conner; colorist, Paul Mounts; letterer, Carlos M. Mangual. The Curse of the Crimson Corsair, The Devil in the Deep, Part Two; writer, Len Wein; artist and colorist, John Higgins; letterer, Sal Cipriano. Editors, Chris Conroy, Camilla Zhang and Mark Chiarello; publisher, DC Comics.

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