by Derek Royal
As a rule, we don’t review superhero titles on The Comics Alternative…at least mainstream superhero titles. As Andy and I indicated in our inaugural episode, we would consider discussing non-mainstream (i.e., publishers other than DC and Marvel) takes on the genre, especially those that bring a satiric, revisionary, or self-reflexive perspective to superhero comics and their place in our culture. The new series from Image, C.O.W.L. (written by Kyle Higgins and Alec Siegel, with Rod Reis on art), would certainly qualify as a unique twist on the genre. It’s about group of heroes who band together in the early 1960s to form the Chicago Organized Workers League — which actually sounds more like 1930s union than it does a superhero team — and choose to fight crime not as vigilantes, but as a collective for hire. In this way, Higgins and Siegel come to the superhero genre by asking an unlikely question: what would happen when a group of heroes band together, especially within a Cold War atmosphere, to sell themselves as a law-enforcement body?
At least that’s the question that I see posed in this first issue of the series. Higgins, who has firm footing in the traditional superhero world, isn’t just writing another superhero comic. He and Siegel are setting up in issue #1 potential conflicts that, I assume, will play themselves out as the series unfolds. There are heroes who used to fight crime out of personal conviction, but who are now doing so to make a profit. There are underlying tensions between those who believe in personal street-level justice and those who have more entrepreneurial goals. There are potentially unsteady negotiations between C.O.W.L. and the Chicago mayor’s office to ensure the city’s safety. There are global threats that take on a more localized form. And there are histories between, and among, the various heroes that are laced with sex, rivalry, and infighting.
All of this may sound like a lot to glean from just one issue of C.O.W.L., and that actually speaks to both the title’s promise and its potential challenges. This first installment is packed with action, character diversity, and situational exposition. In fact, there is a hero roster on the title page that greatly contributes to story readability. I found myself constantly flipping back and forth from the main action to the character list, just so I could understand who was who and what kind of relationships these figures may have with one another. And the situations we’re thrown into are at times fast-paced — there’s a lot of crosscutting, and much of the issue has a staccato rhythm — which definitely keeps our attention, but at the same time fragments the narrative. So while readers of this first issue might feel that they’re getting their money’s worth, all of this doesn’t necessarily bode well for reading comprehension. Indeed, this may be one of those cases where waiting for the trade might be preferable. As we discussed on a special roundtable episode last week, there are some titles that don’t read as well in single issues, but they may be more cohesive and enjoyable in collected form. Higgins and company are quite ambitious in this inaugural issue of the series, but I have the feeling that I’d get more out of it if I had the first completed narrative arc in my hands.
What they set up, though, is certainly fascinating. This is one of those titles that presents a different, and perhaps unlikely, facet of the superhero genre. Much like Watchmen and Squadron Supreme, it posits a group of heroes whose potential conflicts with legitimate authority parallel its internal drama. Like Brian Michael Bendis’s Alias, it foregrounds a post-heroic mindset within a superhero setting. And like the more recent Sidekick, it shows (or possibly will show) the darker or less attractive side of superherodom. And all of this is represented effectively through Reis’s art, which has a brooding, almost sinister tone, suggesting that what we see initially may not jibe with the reality that lies underneath. Whether you choose to get it in monthly installments, or just decide to wait for the trade collections when they come out, C.O.W.L. promises to be a different kind of superhero narrative, the kind that you might expect from a publisher like Image.
Keep up with C.O.W.L. and other comics by the same creators: