Darwyn Cooke, Creator of Justice League: The New Frontier
The Transition from Comics to Screen
Mar 02, 2008 Spring 2008 - Flight of the Conchords
Call it the original supergroup. When DC Comics debuted the Justice League in 1960 it brought together some of its biggest and best names—Superman, Wonder Woman, Batman, The Flash, Green Lantern, Aquaman, and Martian Manhunter—under one banner. Since its formation the Justice League has undergone a number of transformations, but perhaps none so phenomenal as the rebirth given them by writer/artist Darwyn Cooke, the brains behind the animated film Justice League: The New Frontier, which recently premiered on DVD. The movie is based on Cooke’s DC: The New Frontier, a six-issue limited series originally published in 2004 and winner of the Eisner Award, one of comic books’ most prestigious honors. New Frontier finds the Justice League mired in the post-war America of McCarthyism, Communist paranoia, and the Space Race, a time where superheroes are under suspicion and distrusted by much of the world. Working from this historical cocktail, Cooke reimagined the birth of comics’ greatest team.
“New Frontier came about based on the fact that after my first book DC thought maybe a Justice League project would be appropriate,” Cooke says. “I didn’t particularly have a great affinity for superheroes and the more I looked at the characters I realized that I was very interested in who they were before they were superheroes. I began to look at the history of the company and the time the characters were created in. I looked at the America of that era and all of a sudden all of these elements came together in my head really well.”
Cooke was born in Toronto in 1962 and says he began writing comics as a childhood hobby. His first professional piece was published in the mid-’80s, though he only began to publish frequently within the last decade. He spent much of the 1990s working as an animator and storyboard artist on Warner Bros.’ Batman: The Animated Series. Though he has done some work for Marvel, including a short run on Spider-Man, he has primarily worked on titles for DC, including Superman Confidential, Catwoman, and The Spirit.
Cooke says New Frontier was pitched as “The Right Stuff with superheroes,” and that much of his inspiration for the comic came from The Right Stuff (both Tom Wolfe’s book and its film adaptation), as well as the novels of James Ellroy (L.A. Confidential, American Tabloid), and Ellroy’s knack for “taking fictional characters and inserting them into real history.”
“In terms of the visuals a lot of the inspiration is anonymous in that it’s the army of illustrators and painters that made up the advertising art of the era,” Cooke says. He also cites legendary artists Jack Kirby and Alex Toth, who helped create iconic figures for Marvel Comics and animated characters for Hanna-Barbera, respectively. “There’s just such a rich visual feeling for that era, it’s so distinct, and I really got into tapping it and trying to synthesize it all.”
While comics’ early years are generally known as the Golden Age—spanning roughly 1938 through 1951—the so-called Silver Age began in the mid-’50s and served as a renaissance of sorts. Comics found a resurgence in popularity as stories and characters began to be based more on science than fantasy and took on greater psychological complexity.
DC: The New Frontier covers the entire spectrum of the DC Universe, bridging the gap between the Golden and Silver ages. Cooke’s original comic features early Golden Age DC characters such as Hourman, The Suicide Squad, The Challengers of the Unknown, and more. All of them are touched upon in the film, though not with as much detail as in Cooke’s original, which includes a number of subplots that had to be cut in order to successfully adapt a dense six-part graphic novel into a 75-minute film.
“What led to it being able to be condensed the way it is begins with the title itself: Justice League,” Cooke explains. “What we’ve done is kept the focus on those characters. A lot of the tangential stories were the ones regrettably that we had to let go. So once it was focused down to Justice League it became ‘Okay, we’re talking about Barry [Allen, The Flash], we’re talking about Hal [Jordan, Green Lantern]’ and the movie’s focal point became clear.”
Despite economizing much of the story, Cooke and others behind the film still found ways to stay true to the broader concept of the source material.
“When we had the script in place and we were storyboarding and the director was looking at it, it became clear to us that just because Jimmy Olson can’t have any speaking parts doesn’t mean he can’t be in the movie. It all comes down to the design. So everybody took it upon themselves to insert as much of that into the film as they possibly could. You’ll see Adam Strange, the Blackhawk, John Henry—and none of these things made it into the final script, but they were all brought back in and we get a taste for it. So we know that for the people who are familiar with the book they know that whole story and just those touchstones will fill it all out for them.”
To coincide with the release of the film Cooke also produced a special single issue of New Frontier. “When we were looking at the idea of doing a special we tried to look at it in the old-school definition of a comic book special,” Cooke says. “There are three stories. I’ve done what I’m calling a ‘lost chapter’ of New Frontier, which is a story that takes place within the pages of New Frontier, but it’s only alluded to.”
In addition, the special includes stories focused on Wonder Woman and Robin, as well as a section detailing the art of the film itself.
Warner Bros. is releasing the film in two editions, a single-disc edition and a two-disc set including multiple commentaries and special features. Several big names lend their voices to the film, including Kyle MacLachlan (Superman), Jeremy Sisto (Batman), Kyra Sedgwick (Lois Lane), and Neil Patrick Harris (The Flash). But despite such an effort to produce a quality film, many studies find comic book sales continually decreasing despite their cultural prominence over recent years, a trend that understandably distresses Cooke.
“I think we’re at a point in history now where I think most 9-year-olds would think that Spider-Man was a cartoon that they made a movie out of—not that it was ever a comic book…. Even if a kid does find his way into a shop, it’s not that there’s a Spider-Man comic—there are 15 of them, they all interlock, they’re all in the middle of an 8-part story the kid knows nothing about, and it’s completely inaccessible.”
For Cooke, one of the pleasures of New Frontier was the opportunity to set aside much of the history and continuity and start fresh.
“You’re faced with the idea of working on characters you didn’t create,” he says. “With New Frontier I didn’t want to have to look at 30 years of backstory for a character like The Flash. I only wanted to look at what the guys who created him put out there at first, and I wanted to get the energy and the direction and personality before he’s burdened with decades of continuity.”
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