Spoilers ahead for the DC comic The New Frontier!
What makes a hero heroic? From generation to generation, does the definition of a hero change? As the culture shifts and morphs, do heroes move with it?
These questions arose in my mind after reading the late Darwyn Cooke's The New Frontier. The massive storyline follows the transition of DC's heroes from the Golden Age (the 1940s) to the Silver Age ('50s and '60s). As America struggled with racial segregation and Communist fears, the old guard of heroes were forced into retirement. The stage is set for the next generation of champions to take the reins when a new threat arises and shows the world the worth of these masked men and women.
The epic scope of the story and the large cast of characters allows Cooke to explore what a hero looks like from generation to generation and how they change.
If you break down what the two generations did, you would find they're not all that different. In The New Frontier, the early heroes fought for truth and justice and weren't outlaws until the government deemed them as such. Even then, they still persisted in doing good.
The new wave of heroes, led by Wonder Woman, Superman, and Batman, also fight for the good of all humankind, but the era in which they fight is different from what their predecessors endured.
A snippet of this dichotomy comes in a scene between President Eisenhower and Wonder Woman, a.k.a. Diana Prince. After a ceremony in which Diana is honored, the President comments on the nice afternoon they had. As Wonder Woman replies by calling him "General," he reminisces about World War II. He says:
General. For a minute there my child, it felt like 1944 again. Has it really been 13 years since we beat the Hun? Horrible days. But glorious as well. Good. Evil. Clear paths of action. Not like today.
Eisenhower's generation had a black-and-white view of the world. But with the '50s came shades of grey. Wonder Woman and her fellow heroes find themselves embroiled in the mist, trying to regain a moral compass. It was no longer as easy to define who was "good" and "evil." The lines were blurring and the natural definitions were fading away.
To navigate the murkier waters, Cooke extends some hope in the character of the Martian Manhunter, a.k.a. John Jones. Working undercover as a detective, Jones eventually loses faith in humanity and tries to stow away on a rocket ship to Mars. He's confronted by government agent King Faraday and must save him from incineration by the jet's boosters.
Jones is captured and Faraday wonders why the Martian would forsake freedom to save him. Jones responds in a heroic way:
You are not...evil. Within your mind, I can see that your struggle is in the name of good. You believe it is a struggle that will end. In your heart, you honestly believe there will be a better day, when all of this [secrecy, government control] won't be needed.
This insight filled the Martian Manhunter with hope and caused him to stay and help humanity. Jones's example, in turn, gives Faraday something to fight for.
If the '50s and '60s were a gray period, our new millennium must look like a Picasso painting. We've grown to demand a right to define anything as we want it. No matter what centuries of history have taught us, we feel like we can change the foundation. This constant cultural shift may produce some good change, but it's like flirting with an unstable fault line; one good roll and the continents are adrift.
The brave heroes of The New Frontier, who would go on to form the Justice League of America, can teach us something about what it means to be a hero. There is a natural good we must strive for, no matter how governments, administrations, or culture define it. A hero knows the right thing to do and cuts through the fog to do it.
If you'd like to read The New Frontier, you can pick it up wherever good comics are sold. You can also watch the animated movie adaption Justice League: The New Frontier.
In addition to fighting on behalf of our country, check out some other awesome facts you might not have known about Diana in the video below:
How do you define a superhero?