For a long time, you have an idea of what comics are. In your mind, if you picture a “comic book”, you may go to Batman or Superman or any number of other caped superheroes. Every so often, you come across a comic that changes your perception of what comics are and what they can be. Depending on your age and experience, these moments may have come from seeing Marvel’s science of the ’60s, DC’s political awareness of the ’70s, Eastman’s Turtles or Miller’s Dark Knight, in the ’80s; Gaiman’s The Sandman–which technically began in the ’80s–or McFarlane’s Spawn, in the ’90s; Vaughn’s Y: The Last Man or Kirkman’s The Walking Dead, in the first decade of the 21st century, or so many more that I’ve not mentioned. There are always comics that find a way to feel new and bold. As you grow older and gain more experience, these come fewer and farther between, so you learn to treasure them.
Now, you may have noticed that I omitted quite the pivotal comic from the 1980s, and that’s because it’s the one I’m getting to. Alan Moore’s Watchmen began its publication a year before I was born, so I was clearly not there for that moment, but you hear things, you know? For example, I can hear you wondering why I’m bringing up all these other comics when I’m supposed to be here to review Image Comics’ C.O.W.L., and I’ll tell you: because with C.O.W.L.‘s first issue, I now feel like I was there when Watchmen was published.
Before being a comic created by Kyle Higgins and Alec Siegel, C.O.W.L. actually began life as The League, a short film that introduced us to this alternate world of a 1960s Chicago that’s home to the world’s first superhero labor union. That union has now been changed to the Chicago Organized Workers League, but we’ll just call it C.O.W.L. You can no doubt see why this comic has drawn comparisons to Watchmen (including the one I’ve made above). Make no mistake, however; although C.O.W.L. does seek to mesh superhero adventure with real-world political intrigue, it is not simply a Watchmen remix.[pullquote]It’s an intriguing concept that should open the door to a million possibilities.[/pullquote]
In its first issue, C.O.W.L. begins by thrusting you right into the middle of an assassination attempt which does two things: introduce you to the heroes of this world and give you the ominous name of a criminal group, Chicago Six. That’s a fairly straightforward premise; now we’ll watch as the two factions battle it out forever, right? No, with this opening battle the Chicago Six has ostensibly been defeated. You see, C.O.W.L. was formed in 1949, at a time when they were most needed; it’s 1962, now, and gone are the heydays of the 1950s. What they’ll be dealing with here is the business that has become of heroism, and what they’re fighting is irrelevance. It’s an intriguing concept that should open the door to a million possibilities. I expect to see bribery, cronyism, in-fighting, etc; I wouldn’t be surprised if the pages of future C.O.W.L. issues contain the body of Jimmy Hoffa. There are so many places his can go. Even the “Cowl” name calls to mind an organization of veiled transparency, which is shown perfectly in the issue with “redacted” lines of information in a file found within the issue.
Beyond the great writing from Kyle Higgins (who seems to have been the sole writer of this issue), we’re also treated to the magnificent mixed media paintings of Rod Reis’ watercolor and markers. The art in this issue, while mostly contained within a subdued color palette of greys and blues, often spontaneously bursts free of the comic’s panels creates its own world of untethered graffiti, which is a fantastic combination with the almost Mad Men-level characters Reis is given to work with.
I had high expectations for C.O.W.L., and this first issue completely blew those expectations away. This is really the complete package of a fresh take on both the superhero genre and the art used to capture it. I look forward to reading this each month, and I hope you’ll join me.