Today, Drew and Spencer are discussing C.O.W.L. 9, originally released March 18th, 2015.
Drew: I once saw a Q&A session with The Wire creator Dan Simon where he had to defend a moment that one audience member saw as a crack in the realism of the show. I don’t remember Simon’s exact words, but his answer boiled down to the fact that the show isn’t real — sometimes, the creators would knowingly break from absolute fidelity in order to elicit the appropriate emotional response from us. Everything we saw on that show, just like any number of less realistic narratives, was there for our benefit, not because it’s 100% true to life. What’s funny to me is that the fan’s complaint wasn’t with the credulity-straining Hamsterdam or serial killer plotlines, but with the body language of an uncredited, unnamed character. I suspect the reason those bigger pieces of fiction get a pass is because we want them to happen. The Wire does such a good job of detailing how the system is broken, we can’t help but cheer when a character attempts to buck it. It’s cathartic, so we overlook that it’s also kind of batshit. I found myself thinking the same thing about Radia’s catharsis in C.O.W.L. 9, which is so necessary, it really doesn’t matter how unlikely it is.
Okay, hur dur, I get that we’re talking about an alternate history where superheroes actually exist, so “realism” isn’t exactly a primary concern. My point is: Kyle Higgins and Alec Siegel sell what is decidedly an extreme measure as a totally logical consequent of Radia’s situation. It’s character work at its finest, telekinesis be damned. So, let’s back up and figure out what the hell I’m talking about.
The hostage situation is putting pressure on Mayor Daley from all sides, so he crawls back to Geoffrey to accept the contract they had initially agreed upon, only Geoffrey realizes he has the upper-hand, and pushes for even more favorable terms. Daley balks, which means C.O.W.L. has to continue sitting on their hands, even as the ransom deadline approaches. This isn’t sitting well with Kathryn, who has long been fuming from her lack of agency — especially after the dressing down she got from Geoffrey last month. A marriage proposal from her longtime boyfriend is enough to put her over the edge, so she decides to singlehandedly rescue the alderman.
It’s a fist-pumping demonstration of power. It’s also a bravura action sequence, which I’ll get to in a moment, but I’d first like to examine the psychology that makes her actions so compelling. Of all of the elements of the period setting, the systemic casual sexism is the one that seems most specific and pronounced. Radia’s abilities make her one of the most formidable C.O.W.L. agents we’ve seen, but she’s constantly belittled and dismissed, pigeonholed as the “face” of the organization. Her value to her colleagues begins and ends with her gender. She could grin and bear it when she was also fighting for justice, but the politics of this situation — indicative of the same politics that hold her back — disgust her. Moreover, when her boyfriend suggests that she stop working altogether in order to start a family, she feels the shackles of patriarchy getting even heavier, pushing her to realize that, not only does she not need a man, she doesn’t need C.O.W.L. — she can fight crime on her own.
Of course, there will be political repercussions. Resolving the situation that was motivating Daley in the first place will exacerbate whatever blowback Kathryn can expect from the union, perhaps turning her moment of empowerment into a depressing reminder of who has the real power. But, for now, we get to revel in Radia kicking ass.
Not that it’s an easy win, by any means. Higgins and Siegel put her through her paces, but the real star of that sequence is Rod Reis, who cleverly illustrates Doppler’s sound-manipulating abilities by having him interact with the actual sound effects and speech balloons throughout the scene.
It makes no literal sense, but again, this is an example of a moment so cool that “realism” doesn’t matter. He can use sound to hurt people, and this is the clearest way to represent that in comics, where words take up physical space on the page. It’s such a perfect approach for the medium, I can’t help but hope Doppler manages to break out of prison, just so we can keep interacting with him.
Spencer! Were you as thrilled by this issue as I was, or did any of those “unrealistic” moments pull you out of the experience? More importantly: do you agree with Higgins’ assessment that Doppler grabbing that ‘D’ was the coolest? I might actually give the edge to Radia telekinetically resetting her ankle as the most badass moment of the issue.
Spencer: Drew, pretty much every single moment of that fight scene could qualify for the coolest/most badass moment of the issue. I mean, Radia’s hardcore hand-to-hand skills? She barely needs her powers to take Doppler down! What about using the sound of Radia’s footsteps to snap her ankle? Or making her literally choke on the words coming out of her mouth? Or Doppler using his hostage’s screams as a handy cushion?
It’s a tough call; let’s just chalk this entire scene up as one of the best fight sequences in recent years and call it a day. My love for Reis’ art also extends to his coloring, which, to touch upon Drew’s thesis for a moment, also benefits from rejecting “realism” altogether.
The first three pages of this issue — consisting of the Mayor’s tense meeting with his superiors — are colored only in black, white, and shades of gray, a palette Reis often applies to scenes involving official meetings with bigwigs such as this (and a coloring choice that even applies to the speech balloons!). The reader certainly isn’t meant to think that the world suddenly shifts to black and white for these meetings; it’s simply an aesthetic choice that highlights the “classic cinema” feel of these scenes (between the coloring and the men’s grizzled, hardened faces, it looks like something I’d see on TCM). In a similar fashion, Reis even manages to use a lack of color to heighten mood and emotion:
Earlier in the scene Reis establishes that this room is filled with candles, which could make it look like the candles are burning the color itself away in this first panel, but the truth is that it’s more an effect of David’s words striking a particularly harsh chord with Kathryn, to the point where they drain all color from her world. Reis’ acting in that last panel is fantastic — Kathryn is posed in the typical “overwhelmed by a proposal” gesture, but her expression makes it drastically clear that, if she’s overwhelmed, it’s not by pleasant emotions — as does the caption, which is actually being spoken by John Pierce’s widow on the next page but applies just as much to Radia. In both the art and the writing Higgins, Siegel and Reis make choices that aren’t always “realistic,” but which suit the tone of the story and the medium it’s being told in perfectly.
As for Radia herself, well, this may be a weird thing to say, but I can’t help but to think about Betty Draper. On more than one occasion I’ve described C.O.W.L. to people as “Mad Men with superpowers,” and Radia’s story in C.O.W.L. 9 has some strong parallels to Betty’s story in the first season episode “Shoot” (which, for those without an encyclopedic knowledge of Mad Men, is the one where Betty shoots those birds). Betty started out the series as a bored and passive housewife, and “Shoot” is the first time she gets a glimpse of a fulfilling life only to have it snatched away from her in the cruelest way possible; shooting those birds is the only way she has to take any control of her life, to show any agency whatsoever, after her crushing loss. It was a pivotal moment in Betty’s development, as it kickstarted her development from timid and passive to a stone-cold ice queen who gets things done. Betty needed to develop in this fashion to escape her horrid marriage, but in doing so, drove away everybody who was supposed to love her.
The final scenes of C.O.W.L. 9 will likely be just as pivotal in Radia’s development. Kathryn is heroic enough that I don’t think she’ll become as shrill and unlikable (or alone) as Betty can often be, but I get the feeling that characters within the narrative itself could see her that way — to Radia, “I’m a superhero, dammit!” is an affirmation, but to the horrified crowd around her it could be seen as intimidating or arrogant. Still, Kathryn has reached a point where she finally knows what she wants and isn’t afraid to pursue it, and that’s a path that she won’t be able to back away from easily. Things have changed, for better or for worse.
As fascinating as I find Radia and her evolution, I may be even more engrossed by what her actions mean to the rest of the cast — and their grandiose plans. Radia’s rescue of the alderman puts Geoffrey’s negotiations with the mayor at risk, but perhaps more dangerous is his deal with the Camden Stone, Doppler’s boss and the man who, at Geoffrey’s request, provided villains for C.O.W.L. to fight. How’s he going to feel about Doppler’s arrest? Is he going to want to keep working with Geoffrey if this strike continues on?
It would be easy to bemoan how Radia’s actions have toppled Geoffrey’s almost-complete plans if not for the fact that they were illegal and immoral to begin with. I can’t help but think of how Radia describes herself as a “superhero” — it’s a word we haven’t heard much in C.O.W.L., and especially not within the organization itself, where the agents act less like superheroes and more like cops with powers. Radia’s actions are so satisfying — so “superheroic” — because they supersede the rules entirely and focus solely on justice and doing the right thing. Is this a condemnation of C.O.W.L. as an organization, or only what Geoffrey’s turned it into? Whatever the answer, Higgins, Siegel and Reis are sure to deliver it in a suitably atmospheric and complex fashion. It’s going to be a long wait until C.O.W.L. 10, but at least we’ve got plenty of juicy questions to ponder while we wait.
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?