C.O.W.L. 5

Alternating Currents: C.O.W.L. 5, Drew and SpencerToday, Drew and Spencer are discussing C.O.W.L. 5, originally released September 24th, 2014.

Drew: Organization is a fundamental element of life. Our genes organize to create cells, our cells organize to create organs, and our organs organize to create living, breathing people. Because the unit we care about is “people”, we don’t really think about any of those smaller units as sacrifice anything in order to contribute to a whole, but when we zoom our scope out to societies and organizations, suddenly existing within them requires profound sacrifices from the individuals. Social insects, like bees and ants, seem particularly alien to us, as the vast majority of the hive will never procreate, and couldn’t do so even if they had the inclination to go rogue. It seems like a loss of free will, but is it really any different from the role a random blood cell plays in our body? So long as the unit we care about survives — the hive for the bees, or the body for the blood cell — the “sacrifice” was worth it. But what if the blood cell does have free will? Or, as is the case in C.O.W.L. 5, what if the organization is made up of humans with free will? How much we’re willing to sacrifice depends a great deal on how much we value those organizations.

In the wake of the riot, C.O.W.L. has some serious image issues. Daley would have to think twice about turning to superheroes in general, but the other unions have also pulled their support, leaving Geoffrey with little bargaining power. As if that wasn’t enough, John is planning on turning his case over to the police, exposing C.O.W.L.’s incompetence regarding the weapons leaks. It’s a logical move for John — this case could get him off of the sinking ship that is C.O.W.L., while putting him in the good graces of the CPD — but Tom is suffering from the same image problems as the rest of C.O.W.L.

Doubting TomThat disparity becomes key when Geoffrey makes a personal appeal to Tom, suggesting that life would be much better for him if as long as C.O.W.L. is still around. I’m not sure how much Geoffrey is bullshitting Tom in that scene, but given Tom’s behavior of late, it’s pretty damn hard to imagine him “easily running C.O.W.L.” Either way, Geoffrey is able to convince Tom that letting John seal C.O.W.L.’s coffin wouldn’t be in his best interest. Unfortunately, John makes it clear he’s not going to roll over on this one, so Tom just goes ahead and lazer eyes him to death.

It's a scab scabThat certainly seems like enough to paint Geoffrey’s camp as utterly evil, but at least at this point, we can understand the intentions. It’s a classic Rorschach/Dr. Manhattan scenario — C.O.W.L.’s work is too important to let something as trivial as the truth jeopardize it. C.O.W.L. is an omelet, and unfortunately, John is one of the eggs that needs to get cracked. I may question why Tom would so strongly implicate C.O.W.L. at the murder scene by writing “scab” on John’s forehead (honestly, as if “killed by lazer eyes” wasn’t enough to indicate superheroes, he goes ahead and confirms that this is about the strike that superheroes are currently undertaking), but it’s a powerful enough image to let it slide.

Okay, so I may be able to kind of see why Geoffrey would want to kill John, but he switches into full-on bad-guy mode for the final scene, where he meets with Camden Stone, basically asking him to bring back supervillains. They don’t get into numbers, but it’s clear that Geoffrey would be offering Stone some kind of compensation — that is, he’d be paying Stone to manufacture problems for C.O.W.L. to solve. Again, I appreciate that this may simply be a ploy to weather the storm C.O.W.L. currently finds itself in, allowing it to solve actual problems in the future, but it really feels now like C.O.W.L. doesn’t have enough legitimate problems to justify its own existence. Bamboozling the entire city of Chicago certainly seems like it’s no longer in the service of Chicago at large, and may exist simply to benefit Geoffrey and his compatriots.

Taken together, this all paints a pretty grim portrait of organized labor. Higgins and Reis certainly aren’t suggesting that all (or even any) unions behave this way — and this is a comic book, after all — but this kind of reads like a right-winger’s worst nightmare. Maybe intentions don’t matter when the organization’s self-interest starts to take precedent over its actual purpose. Or maybe protecting workers from the whims of society is the purpose of unions. I don’t know if I can come to any conclusions about this yet, but it’s certainly gotten my thinking. Are you as engaged by all this as I am, Spencer?

Spencer: Definitely Drew. I think you raise some excellent questions about the purpose of unions, and while I’ll get into that in a sec, first I want to mention something that, after five issues, I only just now realized: C.O.W.L. doesn’t exactly act like a normal union to begin with. Not that I have a ton of experience with unions, but from what I’ve seen, they exist to find their members jobs, negotiate their wages, and protect them from abuse from their employers. The unions themselves aren’t the employers; a plumbing union, for example, doesn’t schedule toilet repairs, it simply helps manage the affairs of its members, plumbers who may work for various employers.

C.O.W.L., though, seems to act as both union and employer, organizing patrols and busts even as it negotiates its members’ wages with the Mayor, and I think that adds up to a bit of a conflict of interest. You see, Drew, normally I would most definitely agree with you that a union’s purpose is to protect workers from the whims of society, and in that sense, Geoffrey’s actions — while still morally inexcusable — at least make sense, as he’s doing what he thinks he must to ensure the continued existence of C.O.W.L. and the protection of its members. The problem is that, as the leader of an organization that also exists to protect the people of Chicago, he’s seriously dropping the ball.

I think it’s pretty obvious that Geoffrey cares more about keeping C.O.W.L. running than about protecting citizens, but at the same time, I have to wonder if his insistence in keeping C.O.W.L. running is less about its members and more about his own ego.

a bad manager usuallyGeoffrey was great at being a superhero, but I wonder if he feels like he still has something to prove as an administrator. He may see C.O.W.L. closing down as a personal failure or as something other people will look down on him for. Regardless, by the time he approaches Camden Stone he fully admits that he’s doing what he’s doing for himself, because he’s not ready for C.O.W.L. to end. There’s obviously a lot going on in regards to the politics surrounding C.O.W.L., but I think this story may be less about the benefits and downsides of unions than it is about the way power and ego and the desire to leave a legacy behind can corrupt.

Of course, by making a deal with his enemy Geoffrey is almost guaranteeing that his legacy won’t be a good one, and in that sense, Higgins and Siegel make a strong argument that C.O.W.L. may not even be worth saving. Throughout the entire title so far the organization’s glory days are mentioned as being long over, and a leak spread by their own employees ended up being responsible for the last crime spree of the last great supervillain. Maybe it really is time for a change in how Chicago handles its superpowered crime, but is that what the Mayor’s really concerned about, or does he simply want to save money by cutting out C.O.W.L. and screwing over its agents?

Then there’s the complicated politics behind the heroes getting paid for their services in the first place. In theory I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the members of C.O.W.L. being paid to protect the city — they aren’t unlike cops in that sense — but it does raise the question of whether it’s ethical for them to strike and, in the process, put people in danger (or at least use their safety as a bargaining chip to benefit themselves). In this very issue Arclight defines a hero as “someone who’s willing to put others first, to make sacrifices,” and while he may not be the best source to go to for advice, I do tend to agree in this case. With such an important job, perhaps the right thing to do would have been to accept the Mayor’s cuts if it meant keeping the city safe?

This reading may be unintentional on Higgins and Siegel’s part, but the more I think about it, the more I see the conflict between the Mayor and C.O.W.L. — and the problems it’s caused — as a condemnation of capitalism in general, of a society that has to fund and budget essential, life-saving services, where profit and ego are more important than actually accomplishing something important. As much as the heroes may deserve compensation for their deeds, putting a system in place to actually provide this seems to only divert or even undermine their efforts, as Geoffrey has proven.

It’s obvious that there’s a lot of complex moral dilemmas in play here, which I absolutely love, but that’s only half of the equation; much of what makes C.O.W.L. a success is the phenomenal art of Rod Reis. There’s so much he excels at that I’d need to write an extra article just to do it justice, but what stands out to me in this issue is Reis’ colors, and specifically the way he uses them to set a mood, starting with the very first page:

the police only use blue lights in this universe; it's moodierThese five images are such a striking, evocative way to start up the issue and sum up the riots, but I want to focus on the muted pallet here. It’s night, so of course things are dark, but Reis even depicts fire and blood in the dullest of reds; it’s all an attempt to keep this scene as moody and foreboding as possible, and it works like gangbusters. Reis shows similar skill when coloring other scenes, not worrying about realism but instead using color choices that best embody the feel of the scene, be it the overwhelming black when Tom and John confront each other in the alley (a perfect contrast to the blinding light of Tom’s heat vision) or the black and white used when Geoffrey talks to the other union heads.

watercolor thoughtsThen there’s the second panel here, one of the only times Reis lets a panel bleed into the gutter instead of squaring it off. Clearly the splatter of color behind Geoffrey means something; perhaps it’s confusion, the anxiety on his mind that he immediately spins into the manipulation of Tom, or perhaps it’s actually him coming to terms with the tempestuous recent events and the shocking lengths he’ll soon go to to resolve them. Either way, Reis’ gorgeous, thoughtful work is the perfect compliment to Higgins and Siegel’s complex story. It took me a few issues to truly get to know C.O.W.L.‘s characters and become invested in the conflict, but the effort paid off beautifully; things are about to heat up, and I can’t wait to see how hot they get.

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?

2 comments on “C.O.W.L. 5

  1. I get sorta hung up on just how evil Warner is being when he strikes up a deal with Stone. Remember, the superpowered bad guys are already on the street, and are already fucking up shit with their powers. And the cops will have a hard time dealing with these jacked-up thugs, but the perception is that costumed heroes can only fight costumed villains. Geoffrey is only conspiring to put those same baddies in costumes. It’s morally dubious, but I don’t know that I’d call it downright evil.

    • I think he’s doing more than asking them to wear costumes — he’s asking them to make some noise just so C.O.W.L. has someone to fight publicly. That seems SUPER evil to me. Imagine we weren’t talking about superhumans, and this was just a regular police commissioner asking a crime boss to do some kind of big public crime in addition to the more secret crimes the public doesn’t know/care about, just so the police can bust it to make themselves look better.

      Like, Stone is getting something out of this deal, right? He’s not just putting on costumes for the sake of putting on costumes. Maybe Goeffrey is paying him to do it, or maybe Geoffrey is agreeing to look the other way when it comes to Stone’s actual criminal activities, but neither is something you want your sworn protector doing. Geoffrey is no longer working in the interests of the people of Chicago, which I think counts as evil when that’s his job.

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