Saturday, March 15, 2008

The comic book permeates all levels of popular culture. This sporadic feature reviews some recent examples from the world of DVDs. It also includes a recommended sequential-art reading list to extend the multimedia adventures.

Justice League: The New Frontier (Warner Home Video, compatible with Blu-ray-enabled computers and home entertainment centers, rated PG-13, $24.98).

Somebody finally got it right. After recently enduring a steady stream of mediocre direct-to-DVD releases that either adapted or extended the comic book in an animated format, I almost had given up hope that any company could give older fans of both forms a masterpiece.

It took animator-turned-comic-book-creator Darwyn Cooke’s 2004 DC Comics sequential-art opus “The New Frontier” to achieve transformation into the near-perfect amalgam. His six-issue miniseries about the evolution of the golden-age superheroes, set in a time when blatant racism, the communist threat and nuclear annihilation were all too real, was a refreshing, award-winning treat for fans of the genre.

Bruce Timm, architect of the DC Comics animation revolution, produced the cartoon and along with writer Stan Berkowitz and director David Bullock treats the original work with the utmost respect. Mr. Timm even brought Mr. Cooke aboard for hands-on help with the project.

A single Blu-ray disc delivers the fantastic story in high-definition splendor. For 75 minutes, viewers are taken back to the Cold War propagated by misunderstood superbeings. Distrusted by the world, abused by governments and hunted by law enforcement, these new champions of Earth are tasked with taking on a primordial force wishing to eradicate the human race.

The battles and internal struggles waged here by stalwarts such as Superman, Wonder Woman, Batman, the Martian Manhunter, Green Lantern and the Flash lay the groundwork for the formation of the Justice League.

For me, in any animated adaptation of sacred comics works, the translation of drawn hero to cartoon character really must tap into a sequential artist’s vision and is crucial for the toon’s success.

Lions Gate’s “Ultimate Avengers” and “Invincible Iron Man,” Anchor Bay’s animated “Hellboy” and even Warner Premiere’s “Superman: Doomsday” all failed, as they didn’t offer enough respect to the original material.

In “New Frontier,” fans get a beautiful imaging of Mr. Cooke’s colorful world and character choices, so much so that it’s dizzying for fans — backgrounds look as if they were ripped from the pages of his work, and moments from the books abound. Flash confronting Captain Cold, Wonder Woman dressing down a sanctimonious Superman, Batman unintentionally scaring a child and Hal Jordan desperately struggling with a North Korean soldier are just a few of the scenes wonderfully duplicated from the miniseries.

Also, let’s not forget the incredible character models. Take the case of Mr. Cooke’s Batman. He pays tribute to Bob Kane’s original design and, now animated, also adds just a touch of Mr. Timm’s revision of the character. With Superman, Mr. Cooke’s homage to a Fleishman now looks so right on the screen.

“New Frontier” is not perfect, and I could have used more of the subplots and moments that made the miniseries so great. Some of the story has been stripped, and that lessens the impact of the cartoon. The movie needed to be at least twice as long to really capture the author’s full complement of subplots and heroic relationships.

I’ll gladly take this animated masterpiece, however, and gleefully reread “New Frontier” for any missed nuances while I switch to its beautiful on-screen translation.

Best Extras: Viewers get a wonderful immersion into the making of the cartoon and the mythologies surrounding its heroes through a generous number of extras.

Led by a pair of commentary tracks, one with the main production staff (writer, director and producers) and a solo narrative from Mr. Cooke, each is worth a listen, but the staff track is most informative.

Next, a 40-minute documentary “Super Heroes United: The Complete Justice League History” offers an overview of the team from its golden-age roots through its silver-age re-emergence to its current angst-ridden alliances.

Top creators and editors, including Stan Lee, Roy Thomas, Mark Waid, Marv Wolfman and Len Wein, reflect on the league with talk devoted to the architect of the silver age, Julius Schwartz, and writer Gardner Fox’s important contributions to the molding of the Justice League of America mythos.

Another welcome bonus is the addition of three episodes from the Cartoon Network series “Justice League Unlimited,” picked by Mr. Timm. Viewers will be glad to know the difference in quality between the high-res “New Frontier” and lower-res cartoons is not enough to the hinder the enjoyment of the trio, one of which was written by Warren Ellis.

Read All About It: First, any supposed fan of the comic-book medium must own the “DC: New Frontier Absolute Edition” ($75) which pays major reverence to the work through an oversized (12.5-by-8.5-inch) hardcover format slipcased for protection.

Second, DC Comics, in honor of the animated release, has asked Mr. Cooke to offer more on his famed story line with “Justice League: The New Frontier Special” ($4.99) featuring a nasty battle between Batman and Superman.

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