Review: C.O.W.L. #4

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Published By: Image Comics
Story By: Kyle Higgins & Alec Siegel
Art By: Rod Reis & Stéphane Perger
Letters By: Troy Peteri

C.O.W.L. tells the story of the Chicago Organised Workers League, which is basically a workers’ union for superheroes, which makes it a nice, fitting acronym. Set in 1960s Chicago, the C.O.W.L contains not only powered heroes, but also powerless crimefighters who want to make a difference. They are in essence, another emergency service. With the death of the last known supervillain, the League are now a bit lost. A number of them feel that they have it easy now, no longer endangering their lives, while some of them are bored with having to deal with plain ol’ boring ordinary crime.

With no more organised supercrime, the Mayor of Chicago, Richard J. Daley decides to cut some essential funding to C.O.W.L., as well as change the terms of the upcoming contract renewal. Mayor Daley wants to authorise the hiring of non-C.O.W.L. heroes – something which up until now has not been allowed under the terms of the deal C.O.W.L. has had. With this revelation threatening their jobs and livelihoods, and breakdown of negotiations, ex-costumed crimefighter and war hero Geoffrey Warner leads C.O.W.L. to go on strike.

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This issue deals with that strike. While admittedly this issue is far less action-packed than previous ones, it can sort be seen as “part one” of a multi-issue arc, for reasons I can’t say without spoiling the book. We also see superheroine Radia team up with Eclipse to continue their quest to take down mob boss Camden Stone, despite their colleagues protesting on the picket line. Detective Pierce’s investigation into how the bad guys got hold of C.O.W.L. technology also makes some progress (or does it?).

In many ways, the world of the League is exactly the same as ours (with the obvious exception that we don’t have superpowers), so very little world building is even needed. We have been thrust into this world at the end of an era – that is, the end of the supervillain team The Chicago Six – and as such what is new to us is also new to the characters too. Radia too, has to experience the same sexism that plagued our 1960s too; she is fed up with being underestimated simply because she is a woman. She was the one who dealt the final blow to supercrime, but she is given almost no credit, instead being asked to sit for photoshoots – despite being the most powerful woman in the world (that we know of).

Whereas the series so far has plunged us into a swirling mystery of political intrigue, there are little hints of more to come than just politics and workers’ rights. At the end of each issue there are wee biographies of the characters, taking the form of government personnel files. As with any top secret document, there are sections that are redacted, that lead us to suspect that some of the characters may have been involved in some dodgy dealings back in the Second World War (and maybe even since then). We still don’t know where and how people even got these abilities, but we do know that there was an elite commando unit active in Germany around the time of the second wave of powers…

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Another great thing about this book is the little touches of depth that speak volumes about our characters: Radia is a world-famous supermodel but longs for something more; Arclight abuses his celebrity status to get booze and girls; and The Grey Raven uses his influence to gain power in the political sphere, as Geoffrey Warner. A character from a previous issue even had to deal with his son being bullied because his dad was an unpowered C.O.W.L. agent. These little nuances all build on each other little by little in order to tell us more about this world.

The art throughout is also superb, managing to convey the feelings of the scenes well with just the right palette and shadowing. The distinct style implemented is also something quite beautiful. Rod Reis seems to draw upon the classic 1960s comicbook style, while giving it hints of an art nouveau influence too. And of course a splash of noir. This is, after all, a mystery book. All in all, C.O.W.L. #4 may not provide as much excitement as previous issues, but it does develop on characterisation, and that can only be a good thing. Too many books nowadays pour on the action-packed fighting scenes and mysteries without delivering on characterisation but, Higgins and Siegel manage all three of these with ease. Going by the ending though, we’ll have more action next issue…

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