NOTE: This article contains SPOILERS for "DC: The New Frontier" & "Superman" #8
We can't say for certain that comic book fans had grown tired of seeing Superman battle Doomsday (again), or take on otherworldly monsters so soon into DC's "Rebirth". Either way, the publisher saw fit to embrace the insanity before it was needed, sending the Man of Steel back to the hidden vacation spot that that time forgot in "Superman" #8. That's right, Superman's spending some time on Dinosaur Island - and he's bringing his son with him.
As obvious as the entertainment factor of that sojourn might be, the truth is, this story is a love letter from storytellers Patrick Gleason, Peter J. Tomasi, Doug Mahnke and every other member of the team to the late, great, Darwyn Cooke. The mastermind of "DC: New Frontier" passed suddenly in May of 2016, and with this issue of their "Rebirth" series, Gleason and Tomasi deliver a fitting tribute, having Superman quite literally walk through the pages of one of Cooke's most memorable stories.
Welcome to Dinosaur Island
If comic book readers were to do some sleuthing online, they would find that 'Dinosaur Island' has enjoyed a long and illustrious history in the pages of DC Comics. The premise is simple enough, with an isolated island in the Pacific somehow home to ancient dinosaurs and creatures (immortal, suspended, or artificially created, depending on the story). In the pages of "Superman" #8, the Man of Steel, his son, and Krypto the Superdog wind up on the island by coincidence, when Jonathan's science project drone winds up interacting with Kryptonian crystals, and teleporting the group to the mystery location.
That journey is probably going to be a subject of further investigation in the future, but for the meantime, seeing the Superman family battling giant fish, pterodactyls and tyrannosaurs is worth the price of admission. If not, then seeing the many tanks, planes and weaponry of various nations and eras should, implicitly confirming that this island is the same one upon which "The War That Time Forgot" took place. Readers don't need to dive into the history, simply know that even the Suicide Squad has tackled a mission to the mystery island over the years.
Rewind: DC's New Frontier
For the purposes of this story, it's important for readers to know of one of the more recent, more somber, and more memorable tales told using the island as backdrop. It appeared as the opening story in Darwyn Cooke's "DC: New Frontier", a series focused on the nostalgia of the Golden Age, bridging the heroes of the era with those of the Silver Age heroes introduced in the 1950s and '60s. As a fan of the original team of "Losers" (the WWII-era ragtag squad, not the Vertigo version that came years later), Cooke offered a new ending to the team's adventures... having them fall one by one in a mission to the island (sent to rescue Rick Flagg and his men, leader of the original Suicide Squad).
While they have a surplus of personality and courage, the World War II weaponry proves no match for the dinosaurs. Told from the perspective of John Cloud, the Navajo member of "The Losers", readers were heartbroken to see Captain Storm, Sarge, Gunner and even their trusted dog Pooch fall in combat before Flagg was found. But Cloud wasn't ready to retreat, sending Flagg to safety, and returning to the jungle to avenge his fallen friends (and being claimed himself, albeit while holding live grenades, leaping into the belly of the offending T-rex). It was as sentimental, proud, and old-fashioned a story as Cooke ever told, and thanks to "Superman: Rebirth", Cloud's last message was finally received, loud and clear.
Superman Follows The Losers' Footsteps
It doesn't get much more "meta" than seeing a modern comic book character literally discover a story told years earlier (and set decades earlier). But from the first panels showing a navy vessel torn in half and embedded in the beach - the same ship the Losers saw torn out from under them in "New Frontier" - it's evident that this walk down memory lane is a very, very intentional one. After a brief encounter with some deadly flying dinos, Supes realizes that something has frightened the creatures from a forest surrounding a familiar-looking mountain. And while Clark knows a makeshift burial site for an American soldier when he sees it, those who've read Darwyn Cooke's work know that Doug Mahnke has perfectly recreated the same crosses of the original story.
Things get a bit more literal after that point, with the discovery of a human skeleton inside the massive ribcage of a fallen tyrannosaur. Even before he discerns the soldier to have been 'John Cloud' thanks to intact dog tags, "New Frontier" fans have figured it out. Cloud succeeded in bringing down the dinosaur that killed his friends, using two live grenades and one last leap into the breach.
It's only the beginning, too, as Clark and Jonathan uncover... well, every significant moment in Cooke's story. After working their way up the nearby cliffs from which the doomed soldier flew, they even discover the remains of Pooch, taken out by the same booby trap that delivered Cloud his fatal injuries moments before he took the dino with him. It was a particularly heartbreaking moment in the original tale, and Krypto's sad whimpers aren't going to help any, either.
A splintered wooden leg (once belonging to Capt. Storm) is purely fan service, as is the discovery of the cave Flagg and Cloud once reinforced using the ammunition and explosives acquired from the remains of the island's doomed visitors. These moments may be completely lost on new readers, or simply those familiar with the Justice League-centered storylines of "New Frontier", but for Cooke fans, it's the kind of tribute and painstaking recreation comics so rarely offer. A point driven home in the issue's final page.
The Losers' Final Words, Finally Heard
It's here where the story's title, "Escape From Dinosaur Island" is punctuated with the explicit tribute "For Darwyn Cooke", cementing that the return to "New Frontier" is the team's way of paying their respects to the late comic writer and artist. Although the final words of John Cloud's message are obscured, the impact of a humbled Superman and his son beholding the cave writings isn't dulled by time. Even if the significance or details aren't known by the characters in the story, the readers know. And they may also know the larger threat being teased in Cloud's warning.
As "New Frontier" readers know, the island in question soon undergoes a bit of a transformation, revealing itself to actually be a sentient being older than life itself. Having witnessed the evolution of man to the brink of nuclear warfare, it awakens, determined to exterminate humanity before abandoning Earth for good. Filling in the blanks in Cloud's message (as written here by Tomasi and Gleason), it seems the Navajo's final sweat lodge revealed the truth of the island's menace:
Flagg, I know you will return to this place. Be forewarned that my visions reveal a spirit so fast that it has no beginning or end just an all-consuming circle that dwarfs the monsters that roam this place.
The bold-faced final sentence is too obscured, but Cloud seems to have uncovered the secret of 'The Center' here, just as in the original story. And if Rick Flagg does return to encounter Clark and Jonathan, the passage of time tells us that Superboy's science project may have transported them through time as well as space.
The question now becomes: is this fitting tribute also a tease of a re-telling of Cooke's "New Frontier" event? Hopefully the next issue will provide some answers.
Superman #8 is available now.