Of all the major types of narrative conflict that are taught in English classrooms, “Person vs. Society” may have the most potential for depth and complexity. Yet stories that feature people combating the systems and constructs of society typically seem to lack nuance. The interesting questions about government and other man made systems are missing. Why do these systems exist? Can they be improved and, if so, how? Do the good these systems create outweigh the bad? They’re replaced by direct conflicts between good people and bad systems.
That is not the case with Kyle Higgins and Rod Reis’ C.O.W.L.
Set in 1960’s Chicago, the series features the world’s very first union of superheroes. There are flashy battles and costumes, but the real drama of the series focuses around the corruption within C.O.W.L. (Chicago Organized Workers League) and Chicago’s municipal government. Like many superhero comics, the inclusion of super powers simply allows mundane, human conflicts to be made more exciting and dramatic for a larger audience.
That premise allows Higgins and Reis to address a wide variety of issues. Prejudice in the forms of racism and sexism feature prominently. There are also aspects of classism at play. Setting the series in the 1960’s allows for these conflicts, just as prevalent today, to be played up and made more obvious. It is the same route taken by Mad Men, examining modern problems through the lense of a period piece. Two of the series most intriguing characters, Reginald and Kathryn, are featured in ongoing storylines that naturally examine these prejudices in how they affect their own sub-plots. Their inclusion as two of the central perspectives in this ensemble story help make C.O.W.L. a comic that is truly emblematic of diversity.
The central conflict of the series, and the one which frames issues of prejudice, is the struggle between organized labor, government, and other manmade systems. C.O.W.L. #4 presents the beginning of the League’s strike and the tension it creates between its employees, the police, and the people of Chicago. Higgins did an excellent job of presenting the cases for both the union and the city in previous issues, so the strike can be seen as sympathetic, even if some of the strikers are less so.
As an organization C.O.W.L. is filled with people, not heroes or villains. As people they act both heroically and villainously, but are ultimately all flawed. A confrontation between Reginald and one of the League’s better known heroes presents this truth clearly and gets to the heart of what the series is about. Decisions are made not based upon what the right thing to do may be, but what the needs of C.O.W.L. are at the moment. Good men make compromises for the bad decisions of others in order to serve a greater institution. This is the dramatic heart of the comic. No institution in this recreation of Chicago is perfect, but they all seek to serve an important purpose. They are not presented as behemoths for good or evil, but as flawed constructs composed of individuals.
Those individuals are very well constructed by Reis. His artwork in C.O.W.L. is distinctive and lends a shadowy, sometimes surreal, feeling to many sequences. It is never unclear though. Each character has a fixed appearance and one that allows their emotions and thoughts to shine through on their faces and body language. Without the clear presentation of individuals, the examination of systems would be a non-starter. Chicago also feels like a living, breathing city in his art. It is as much a character as anyone else in the story.
Reis is aided by Stéphane Perger in the fourth issue. Perger makes for a natural fill-in, but the breaks between Reis and Perger’s work are still noticeable. Although the costumes help to ensure that most characters are easily recognized, some faces and forms seem off when alternating between the two artists. A conversation that takes place at the strike is filled with characters who seem just slightly different. Perger may be the best possible artist to assist this comic in making deadlines, but the transitions are distracting nonetheless.
C.O.W.L.#4 represents what this series is all about. Much of the first three issues was used to set up characters and conflicts. The drama thus far has been a slow burn, but here it begins to ignite (sometimes literally). Higgins and Reis have carefully laid the groundwork to tell a complicated and nuanced story, and reader’s patience is going to be rewarded starting here. There are plenty of good superhero comics being published today, but very few great comics about the systems we create and operate within. That is what makes C.O.W.L. a unique comic and one worth reading.