Today, Patrick and Drew are discussing C.O.W.L. 1, originally released May 28th, 2014.
Patrick: Chicago’s a great town — I lived there for four years, and grew up in its shadow. It’s a city that wears its heritage on its sleeve, somehow proud of both the blue collar guys that broke their backs working for the man, and the corrupt politicians, union bosses and career criminals that constitute “the man”. The city is simultaneously anti-authoritarian but pro-institution, like it’s scared of change but quick to complain anyway. Kyle Higgins, Alec Siegel and Rod Reis’ new series — the title of which is one of the most evocative acronym I’ve seen in recent memory — plays to the idea of institutional inertia, and how it is destabilized by the chaos brewing just below the surface. Only, y’know, with superheroes.
The superheroes in question are members of C.O.W.L. — the Chicago Organized Workers League — and they are the institutional remains of what once was an independent six-hero crime fighting team. [Editors Note: Yeah, that’s not accurate – the Chicago Six looks to have been a cadre of Chicago Supervillains, and C.O.W.L. was formed to fight them.] By 1962, they’ve ballooned in size, and some of whatever governing principals they might have had have been obscured by their own power. Quick example of that: we meet Eclipse (by all rights, a superhero, right down to the emblem on his chest) as he deters a peeping tom by pissing on him. Great guy. It seems not everyone is happy about the direction C.O.W.L. is headed, least of whom is Ivan, a.k.a. Skylancer, one of the original members of the team. Skylancer runs amok in downtown Chicago, until the modern day C.O.W.L. agents are able to take him down. Higgins and Siegel are notably withholding about Skylancer’s motivations for going on this killing spree, and even the boxes of voice over narration don’t give us much of an insight into what he’s up to. The real kicker is that this sequence acts as a cold open, the following title page revealing that this issue is called “Chapter 1: Motivation.” It’s an ominous promise that the apparently random violence of the first couple pages is actually quite purposeful.
This leaves Geoffrey Warner, formerly the superhero Grey Raven and currently the head of C.O.W.L. to defend the reputation of the organization and investigate what happened with Skylancer. Which of those is the tougher task remains to be seen, but his own staff is undermining him left and right and the issue concludes with the press questioning the relevancy of the organization altogether. Fortunately/unfortunately, the group’s purpose might be too readily evident as our heroes discover that Skylancer wasn’t working alone.
Much as we aren’t privy to too many of Skylancer’s motivations, we’re also left in the dark on what drives a lot of these guys. Eclipse seems to get off on his own authority, and Warner is probably something of a traditionalist. He’s proud of his time as the Grey Raven — certainly more proud than his teammates are of him: they’ve heard his war stories too many times. It’s hard to tell whether he’s being set up as one of those impotent old men, desperately clinging to the old ways, or a pillar of undisruptable order. Enticingly, Higgins and Siegel are kind of playing it both ways. His interaction with Radia reveals just how little of his way he’s actually getting. Ultimately, she agrees to the demeaning press conference without a fight, so he’s still a functioning figurehead.
Rod Reis’ art is absolutely stunning throughout this issue. I’m mostly familiar with Reis’ color work on DC’s big-name titles and paintings he puts up on twitter. He brings that painterly moodiness to Higgins and Siegel’s story. Unlike a lot of the moodier work we’re reading right now, Reis is able to maintain momentum and clarity, frequently marrying it seamlessly with breathtaking stillness. It comes early, so I was won over by the top of page two, but these panels of Recon high above the city imply motion, perspective and scope all in one amazing set of images.
Reis also reinforces the espionage trappings of the series by deploying these panels within panels, as if to draw the reader’s attention to the next important thing. A rectangular panel picks Warner’s limo out of a wide shot of the street, or a circular panel indicates Eclipse’s ringing phone. Then, when John spots a folder filled with classified documents in Skylancer’s hideout, the coloring changes: now it’s red.
The importance of all this hidden is reinforced again, by the issue ended with Warner’s redacted personnel file. There are a bunch of rich histories at play here, and everything indicates that we ain’t seen nothing yet.
Drew, are you as enthralled by these mysteries as I am, or do you wish the issue would have been more forthcoming with character details? Also, I’m not familiar enough with Chicago Union history to draw any concrete connections, but I bet the secrets we’re going to uncover in the next couple issues will point us toward more specific influences. And finally, a non-question-point: it was disorienting to see some of Skylancer’s letters reversed to resemble cyrillic letters. I took Russian in college, and while I may not remember how to ask for directions to the rest room, I know that a backwards N reads like a long E, and a backwards R is a “ya” sound. Damn you, education!
Drew: You know, this issue splits its time rather evenly between action, office drama, and cop procedural. Throw in a bit about corruption, politics, and unions, and you’ve got something that sounds a bit like The Wire — and that’s a very good thing. One of the most remarkable things about The Wire is the way its telescoping focus allowed it to sketch out a staggeringly nuanced and detailed picture of the Baltimore underworld — the people working to change things, and the systems that keep them the same. One issue in, and C.O.W.L. already seems poised to do the same for Chicago, albeit in an obviously more fictionalized universe. Heck, the title page even features a detailed community area breakdown, which the issue references to give the locations a bit more specificity.
What up, North Center? That specificity (of course C.O.W.L. headquarters are in the Near North Side) lends the series the Chicagoan bona fides it needs to sell the outlandishness of its story. This isn’t just another superhero story set in another nondescript metropolis — this is a story very much influenced by its location, taking place in neighborhoods and on street corners that you can actually point to on a map (or better yet, walk through in real life).
And it isn’t just street names. One issue in, and it’s already clear that this creative team aims to be specific in the architecture, character, and texture of these locations as they come up. The part of that that has me the most excited is that their depictions of these locations aren’t monolithic — check out how different the Near North Side feels from the air versus at a more street level.
As much of as I’m seeing of The Wire here (and I do hope the detail-focused procedural we see here is the shape of things to come), the early sixties setting also lends this series a pretty healthy dose of Mad Men. It’s not the most intuitive mash-up, but one that is surely made in TV heaven. I know it sounds like I’m talking in nonsense tv buzz-speak, but Mad Men-like isn’t just a euphemism for “set in the sixties” — check out this page and tell me it couldn’t come straight out of last season of Mad Men.
Over-reliance on moods and ideas borrowed from successful shows, movies, and comics can certainly be a sticking point for many new series, but Higgins and Siegel bring more than enough new ideas, and Reis makes all of these moments his own — for all my talk about how much this series resembles my favorite cable dramas, it doesn’t look anything like The Wire or Mad Men. It’s an assured debut, and I can’t wait to see what happens next.
For a complete list of what we’re reading, head on over to our Pull List page. Whenever possible, buy your comics from your local mom and pop comic bookstore. If you want to rock digital copies, head on over to Comixology and download issues there. There’s no need to pirate, right?