I would argue that Darwyn Cooke’s The New Frontier (2004) is probably the best thing DC Comics has published in the last twenty or so years. Set in the gray area between the Golden and Silver Age of comics, after an opening preamble set in 1945 involving The Losers and a suicide mission on Dinosaur Island, the majority of the tale takes place in the martini-soaked, jet-set and space age of the 1950s as the Cold War and McCarthyism sees the disbanding of the JSA and the forced retirement of masked vigilantes, making way for non-superhero groups like the original Task Force-X / Suicide Squad and the Challengers of the Unknown.
Still, a brand new generation of costumed crime-fighters and caped crusaders are starting to appear, some terrestrial, others not so much as Kryptonians, Martians and alien power rings find their way to Earth. But in this age of paranoia and conspiracy the government does their best to shut these heroes down -- with a few exceptions. And not to over-simplify things but there is a paradigm shift in this attitude when a crisis with extinction-level ramifications hits and all these new heroes unite under government sanction to take out the threat and usher in a new age of heroes; a new frontier, if you will.
Whenever I reread The New Frontier it’s always a slow go because I tend to savor every panel and every minute detail Cooke sticks into each panel to just soak it all in. It's pure alchemy. And as I get toward the end there is always a pang of regret because I do not want this adventure to end. I had always hoped Cooke had more vintage Challengers of the Unknown tales to tell -- easily the best and my most favorite part of the book. Alas, Cooke passed away last year so this will never be but at least we got this and for that (-- and his Catwoman run, and those Parker adaptations --) I will always be eternally grateful to him.
Now, one of the most amazing and refreshing things about the plot of The New Frontier, in my experience, is how the Batman essentially disappears for the climax, realizing he can actually do more good in this cosmic fight against something like ‘The Center’ as Bruce Wayne (-- established in one throwaway panel). Given the nature of DC’s ‘All Batman All the Time’ attitude it was a ballsy movie and I’m kinda surprised they let Cooke get away with it. Of course, Superman gets knocked out of the final battle as well. As does Wonder Woman, though less so, leaving it up to the likes of the Flash, a brand new Green Lantern, the Martian Manhunter, the Challengers, Adam Strange and several more familiar faces -- including the Blackhawks and a scientific brain trust that includes Will Magnus, Niles Caulder and Ray Palmer, to end the threat.
Which brings us to the animated version of The New Frontier (2008), which gets to the root of my point here. In the adaptation, of course, the Batman was brought out front and center to prove once again that he is the smartest man in the room and only he and he alone has the smarts and know-how to save the day like he always does and they always do -- sorry, but, *yawn* and *yawn* again, while everyone else is pushed way back into the background because god forbid they actually do something that ISN’T Bat-Centric in the DC animated universe.
So, in this version there are no Losers, no Rick Flagg, no Suicide Squad, no Adam Strange, and no Challengers of the Unknown (-- that glorified cameo does not count, sorry), which, to me, is unconscionable. And if the supplemental materials on the DVD are to be believed, the main reason all of that happened is because Bruce Timm thought it would be “cool” to see the vintage Bat-Plane in action during the climax. Well, screw that noise as far as I’m concerned. Next thing you know Batman will be screwing Batgirl.
Alright, fine. That’s a little harsh. The cartoon is actually pretty good at capturing the spirit of Cooke’s epic saga and is entertaining enough. But as an adaption of the story, it @#%*ing sucks. And so, if you’ve seen that and haven’t read The New Frontier comics I encourage you to do so to get the real picture of what the creator had intended. And if you’ve read the comics but haven’t seen the feature version yet brace yourselves for some drastic changes. It kinda takes a massive dump on it but at least there was some effort to clean it up before presenting the finished result. And you’ll still recognize it for what it is but also for what it isn’t, and so, you may just want to skip it altogether. I kinda wish I did.