Welcome back! If you were to ask me: “Hey Danno, you’re not only a cartoonist, but life-long fan of comics, so what ‘graphic novel’ would you recommend I run out and buy?” My two automatic responses (cause I can’t decide which is my favorite, so read BOTH!) would be “HICKSVILLE” by Dylan Horrocks and “BOX OFFICE POISON” by Alex Robinson.
After a brief and uncomfortable moment of silence you’d then probably say, “So…which one of those has Superman? I want to read something with Superman before Man of Steel comes out.” Oh. That’s right. Thanks to the last decade or so of summer films, comics are only guys in underwear fighting. Fine. Those guys built the industry and how I got into comics in the first place, too. In fact, when I hear online or through friends there is an exceptional “run” (multi-issue storyline within a monthly title) or mini-series or stand-alone graphic novel that’s great I wait patiently until my favorite American Socialist Institution—THE LIBRARY!!!—gets in the collected edition and read it with great delight (usually). But getting back to your Superman question, there is in my mind only answer:
“Oh, the Justice League! Yeah, I’ve heard of them. It’s the Super Friends, right? Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Spider-Man, and all those guys?” After restraining myself for you only being 3/4th right, and that last quarter percent was sooo far off a Nerd-Rage blood vessel would pop in my brain, I would say, “Yes, Superman and all those guys.”
“DC: The New Frontier” by Darwyn Cooke takes place primarily in the 1950s, and depicts the Golden Age superheroes Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman meeting Silver Age characters the Flash, Green Lantern, and Martian Manhunter. The story bridges the gap from the end of the Golden Age to the beginning of the Silver Age in the DC Universe (thanks, Wikipedia!). It also includes many popular characters of that era including THE SUICIDE SQUAD, THE BLACKHAWKS, CHALLENEGRS OF THE UNKNOWN, ADAM STRANGE and many more. Darwyn Cooke’s art is lush and era-specific despite its cartoony Jack Kirby meets Bruce Timm style. It’s brilliantly written and tells a story as full as any non-graphiced novel. And at 450 pages you could not ask for a more fulfilling read!
“Four…450 pages? Ummm….isn’t there anything shorter, Danno?”
Okay, dammit! What if I told you that you could watch an animated adaption of those award-winning 450 pages of sequential storytelling, it’s called “JUSTICE LEAGUE: The New Frontier”, it’s only 75 minutes, and you can get it for only literally a couple bucks on Amazon?
“Sure, that sounds good! But, seriously Danno, another animated film review? Anyway how well does a 450 story adapt into a 75 minute animated film? And why have I never heard of it before?”
Well to answer your last question first, after BATMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES became a huge hit with both kids and nerdy middle-aged men back in ’92, it was decided by Warner Brothers studio heads that BTAS planned Direct-To-Home-Video THE MASK OF THE PHANTASM animated film could possibly be the start of a huge theatrical animated revival with DC Universe of characters, and having a budget of only $6 million dollars vs BATMAN RETURNS budget of $80 million, WB smelled a potential goldmine. BATMAN: THE MASK OF THE PHANTASM was released Christmas Day 1993 in 1,500 theaters…but only managed to reel in the $5.6 million, losing money for the studio. However, it’s later video release earned WB all their money back, plus much more. From that moment on, the subsequent 19(so far) DC animated films have all been direct-to-market releases. Lesson learned.
These 19 DC home releases have either been direct adaptions (like “New Frontier”), or based on several older stories combined with new ideas, or all-new original content. These animated films, like all films, are either Hit or Miss. BATMAN BEYOND: RETURN OF THE JOKER and BATMAN: YEAR ONE are both genius (and I very much look forward to getting to see the 2-part THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS adaption). Others, SUPERMAN: DOOMSDAY immediately springs to mind, is total garbage (writing wise, the animation is always solid). Luckily, these DC Animateds pop-up often on Netflix and so I watch them there. For the most part they are pretty ‘Meh’, but like I said, surprises like YEAR ONE will pop up and blow you away.
Anyway, I think I was reviewing “JUSTICE LEAGUE: The New Frontier” so I’ll just go back to that now. So… how does it hold up in comparison to the book and iffy track record of DCs Animated films? Well, as a superfan of the book, I find it to be a breezy, fun retelling that hits every key moment in the book and still leaves room for genuine character growth and emotion. But as an experiment for the sake of this article, I made sure my pre-writing rewatch was with a friend who only knows what they know about these characters from the live-action films they’ve seen them in. While my friend was able to follow the jist and did genuinely enjoy New Frontier, we did have to pause several times whenever a random character would briefly show up and deliver some key dialogue and my friend would ask “Who was that?” and I’d have to explain who they were and how their presence ties importantly into the story, specifically in context to the book. So if you’re willing to shut off the “Clearly Missing Back Story Information” part of your brain you are guaranteed a fun ride!
The animation is, of course, beautiful, not only because it’s based on Darwyn Cooke’s source material, but because Cooke was visual and story consultant on the project. Why was he, a creator whose work would usually just be taken without consent wholesale since it belongs to Warner Brothers, given such input? Because Cooke cut his teeth on being a storyboard artist and writer for several of the DC animated television series’ before moving onto comics only, and everyone working on this project was an old friend who respects and admires his work.
Not only that, but, for the most part, the voice work on ‘New Frontier’ is top-notch! Often these DC films will rely on bringing back voice actors they have been using since the 90’s (Kevin Conroy, Tim Daly, etc), but for special films like this WB goes all-out and gets what it hopes is the best ‘real actor’ voice talent it can. Voice acting highlights include: Kyle MacLachlan as SUPERMAN, Lucy Lawless as WONDER WOMAN (the role she was born to play, baby!), Miguel Ferrer as THE MARTIAN MANHUNTER (in a performance that is possibly the most pathos heavy performance Ferrer has ever given, and he deserved an award for his work on this project), and finally Jeremy freaking Sisto as BATMAN! Why has it taken Hollywood this long to figure out Jeremy Sisto was BORN to play Batman. My advice Hollywood, if you do go thru with what I’m sure to be a debacle JUSTICE LEAGUE film, ditch Joey-Gordo Levitt ASAP and bring in Sisto. He will blow that performance out of the water!!! Other notable names in the cast are David Boreanaz as GREEN LANTERN, Neil Patrick Harris as THE FLASH, and Kyra Segwick as LOIS LANE. All do a passable job, but clearly their acting instrument requires the use of their whole body, not just their voice. But a paycheck is a paycheck, so I can’t begrudge them there.
Finally, I’d like to note if you do decide to watch “JUSTICE LEAGUE: The New Frontier”, don’t just stream it from Amazon or where ever. The prices for the 2-disc DVD set and Blu are comparable to the Amazons $3 download charge, and both include some great special features including an audio commentary track by Darwyn Cooke (YES, I’ve listened to it!) and a “Homage to New Frontier” featurette where Cooke goes deeply into the story and scene elements that had to be compromised for the making of the animated film, and if you’re not going to plunk down a few bones to get the graphic novel after watching the film (and FOR SHAME!), at least watch that feature.
*Danno Klonowski is a cartoonist and co-host of the Wayne Gale Variety Hour podcast. Both of which you can see/find links to at his site*