By Andrew Stevens. At the close of issue five of The Chicago Organized Workers League (C.O.W.L.) we emerge from a labyrinth of plot and character setup, only to turn around and see the vista Kyle Higgins, Alec Siegel, and Rod Reis have created. Below us stands the Chicago of 1962, a super-powered history seamlessly grafted upon its infamous politics. In the course of only five issues, this creative team has created a comic cocktail that is equal parts noir, political drama, and super powers, a mix of cerebral artistry seen from the likes of Alan Moore and David Simon, but still its very own.
Our story is fitted with a host of characters that permeate through both Chicago’s city leadership, as well as the organization known as C.O.W.L. Add to that the city’s organized crime network, its aldermen, and the pantheon of the Chicago Six (a super villain team that operated just after WWII), and you sense immediately that we are in different sort of comic book. Kyle Higgins and Alex Siegel are interested in collisions both micro and macro that occur in the city of Chicago circa 1962, but they reserve all personal judgement. This allows the art of Rod Reis to cast the events of the Principles Of Power arc in a blurred, impressionist style interrupted with panels of realistically rendered architecture and character portraiture.
What C.O.W.L. does well is maintain a gritty sense of reality with its inclusion of super-powers. How the creative team manages this is threefold: they include rich, complex characters, set their work in 1962 Chicago, and populate their work with minor and major characters from Chicago’s history. When super-powers become a bargaining chip on Mayor Daley’s negotiating table, we move away from the tights and fantasy of mainstream superhero comics, and move into a comic that David Simon might edit.
The book’s setting of 1962 merits some attention. One myth that seeks to be broken in the pages of C.O.W.L. is our creeping nostalgia of the Cold War: as we grow in distance from that period in time we soften its edges and assume that – in the brittle binary of Soviet versus Capitalist – we once had real order. It’s obvious that C.O.W.L.’s creative team has some serious gray matter packed within their brain cases, because what they’ve accomplished here – and this only emerges in the end of the book’s first storyarc – is to complicate the notion of “orientation through super-power” (“power” through both an individual’s own super-power, and in the nationalistic sense), and demonstrate the ways that those in authority, and those knocked from authority, can resort to guerrilla tactics in an effort to maintain both control and the illusion of coherent opposition. If that sounds complex, that’s because it is.
What Higgins, Siegel, and Reis seek out in the pages of C.O.W.L. is not just an adventure story, or even a mere character study. Instead, they choose to exhume Chicago’s political class, its police force, its unions, and its underworld. The investigation of these disparate communities, as rendered in Reis’ artwork, delivers a fever pitch of ink splats, nine panel pages, bleeds, and half page splashes,which together smacks of an artist operating in a frenzied world of ambiguity.
Reis knows when to effectively drain his pages down to black and white, when to raise it into dull browns, and when to suddenly splash us into violets, blues, greens, and oranges across the next page. His discipline of colors, and his attention paid to each panel, combine into a Chicago presented in detailed, realistic panels; her architecture acts as an anchor to pages that burn with color and kinetic energy. Chicago, in the course of five issues, emerges as a significant character. Her presence acts as a reminder of what these powers struggle for. The sentimentality of the common man is not found here, no citizens with children hoisted upon their shoulders, nor is there sympathy for civilians crushed by the machine. Washed in dark colors, these faces are blurs, as anonymous as any crowd anywhere in any epoch. What grounds C.O.W.L.’s heroes, villains, and those in-between, is the city. In some ways, we can read C.O.W.L. as a love letter to Chicago because as one moves through the story, any shot of her streets is a respite from the action.
C.O.W.L.‘s window into 1962 isn’t merely for a rehashed infusion of Cold War narrative, nor is it for the repeal of some forgotten Golden Era. It asserts what the Wu-Tang Clan said in “Can It All Be So Simple”: we shine in our memories, but they’re still fucked up. Granted, 1962 is the past, where things were done differently, but what remains from history is what we’ve learned from it: corruption crushes those with integrity, and what’s more, the forces that fly an amoral banner have their own integrity. That is where C.O.W.L. shatters its morality into a fractured ambiguity.
How I know this creative team isn’t merely interested in escapism is the way they present their story, and sure, I can gush more about the art, lettering, and color (because it’s fucking gorgeous), but what I’m interested in is how this tale demands to be read. In each of its five issues we have a number of features that press the boundaries of the comic book: a colorized map of Chicago’s districts, a list of the characters involved and their titles, and (most interestingly) the dossiers at each book’s end. What takes these from being standard character profiles – and ensures that they serve that purpose – is that these sections are redacted. I know that this artifice of redaction serves as a way to obscure plot backstory and save it for later reveals, but it also serves to ratchet up the narrative tension.
At the story’s center is C.O.W.L., a union of individuals (some with super-powers), who serve the common good. Like present day alphabet soup organizations who profess a similar mission, C.O.W.L. has secrets. What makes them unique is that they are young: founded in 1949 to meet the immediate threat of the Chicago Six – the aforementioned super-powered crime overlords – C.O.W.L. received a blank check from city hall. Here we can see a narrative doubling as we look back on 1962 and in turn 1962 looks back on The War. C.O.W.L. contains numerous veterans of World War II, a war with an obvious opponent where the struggle was made clear. In 1962 the enemy is distant, the city is under control, and C.O.W.L. faces a mayor interested in repealing their power. Add to the mix the book’s historically accurate aldermen who wielded power alongside the mayor, and who might be at the center of a plot that diminishes the integrity of C.O.W.L. What is a union of super-powered crime fighters to do?
In the first five issues we get a slow boil. The creative team takes us through their stable of characters, from those equipped with super-powers to those who are without, those who pack a detective’s intellect or lust for power, or sometimes both. A singular narrative focal point rests on John Pierce, one of a handful of individuals at C.O.W.L. with no powers, who on the page looks like a Vincent Price doppelgänger (I had great pleasure hearing Pierce’s lines in my mind read in Price’s signature cantor). In issue one, John discovers that C.O.W.L. might have committed some recent dirty deals, namely the sale of a blueprint for high-grade weapons from their own R&D team. We follow Pierce through his dilemmas and occasional street work, as he cleanly and clearly dips in and out of the plot. While I hesitate to call him the protagonist, he’s the closest to the center as we get in C.O.W.L.
Cast alongside John Pierce is Kathryn Mitchell (aka Radia), a capable telepath held back by 1962 gender bullshit, (an avenue in which Higgins and Siegel veer early towards for more exciting scenery). We root for her, but somewhere underneath we sense an edge that might take her quest for power and equality to a dark place. Her partner, Karl Samoski (aka Eclipse), an anti-kinetic power disruptor, finds her cast aside after mayoral cutbacks result in a friend getting hurt. Together these two represent the good, and both have a desire to reduce criminal activity, but they operate outside of C.O.W.L.’s structure. Juxtaposed against Pierce, an individual out for his own ass (but also wanting a transparent and orderly C.O.W.L.), we have a force for good with complex motivations, backgrounds, and dilemmas that send the plot wobbling off in enough directions to stimulate a hurricane of brain activity for every reader.
Layer the John Pierce/Radial/Eclipse dynamic with C.O.W.L. leadership, Geoffrey Warner (aka The Grey Raven), an unpowered, less than ethical executor of C.O.W.L., that holds impressive titles such as Sharpshooter and Master Strategist. As we’ve seen in early pages of this story with mongoloid super-freaks attempting to crush police, having power does not equal automatic success or status. The Grey Raven, founding member of C.O.W.L. – who we see trying to control and redact aspects of the organization’s history in scenes with a tweed-wearing reporter -adds another complex layer of this story’s meditation on history.
From the first page, there is but one structure that unites all of this intrigue, and that it is a vital scaffold that threatens to buckle under all of this narrative weight: unions, that controversial entity (that, given my metro-Detroit roots, make my blood redder) that never fails to deliver drama and conflict. Higgins and Siegel throw on the bricks of city politics, secret agendas, Cold War tactics, the fade of WWII, the dilemmas of power, and the common good, and what we’re left with as an edifice of comic book story telling that rivals anything else Image, or any other publisher, is putting out. If the second arc isn’t a wrecking ball that demolishes all this carefully-laid work (and I doubt it will be), we’re in for a story that just might scrape the sky.
Story by Kyle Higgins and Alec Siegel.
Art by Rod Reis.
9 out of 10