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Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Comics Spotlight Review - C.O.W.L.: Principles of Power

Perhaps my least favorite thing about superhero comics is the reliance on 'easy' drama. You know the kind - Spider-Man, lying about who he is to Aunt May for no discernible reason, year after year, because it's an easy well of pathos they're convinced will never run dry. It's plug-and-play drama, a neat narrative that shows our hero suffering (but not too much!) but still doing the right thing - never mind, of course, that it turns a chunk of the supporting cast into nagging killjoys. It doesn't work on a logical level, but it does work on an emotional one, so it (and the many tropes like it) is never, every going away.

C.O.W.L., the new Image book from Kyle Higgins, Alec Siegel, and Rod Reis, smartly avoids nearly every bit of cheap character drama I've come to expect from superhero storytelling.

The series focuses on the C.O.W.L., the Chicago Organized Workers League. After World War II, the superheroes and masked adventurers who had helped win the war came home to find organized crime running the city of Chicago, so they went to work. Eventually, they got city funding, started a union to get pay and medical care for the increasingly-large number of super powered people drawn to the city, and they won the war on organized crime. But in the 1960s, those days - the days when the city was terrified by masked super criminals - are gone, and people have started to forget why C.O.W.L. existed in the first place.

Each issue follows a different member of its sprawling cast while building out the world in the background of each issue. Radia, one of C.O.W.L.'s premiere members and one of the only female members, can't get anyone to take her seriously, despite being among the office's most competent members. Grant, a crackshot with no powers to speak of, has a kid who knows just how uncool his non-powered father is, and takes an insane risk to prove he belongs. Each issue features a character-driven A-plot that runs like that, which grounds common, everyday human concerns in high-stakes superhero action.

Holding it all together are two plots running parallel. In the first, aging founder and COWL leader Geoffrey Warner tries to bargain with the City of Chicago for a new contract but runs into trouble when he realizes he did too good a job, killing or putting away all the major supervillains and eradicating a need for his organization. In the second, one of C.O.W.L.'s analysts, a dour detective who doesn't quite trust the system, follows a lead that may implicate C.O.W.L. in some dirty business of its own. The two stories work well together, and giving the series a pair of running plots helps ground the character-driven parts of the issue as a part of something greater.

But while I love the plotting and the pacing, I feel like a lot of the characters are still quite shallow - only really Radia and John have strong arcs and a lot of focus in this first volume, and many of the characters remain unfortunately shallow. Arclight and Geoffrey Warner are the biggest problems, two hugely important characters whose backstories are largely mired in super-cliche, which makes one last-act twist in the volume feel lazy and unearned. We get it, guys, you've read Watchmen.

I'd be remiss if I failed to mention artist Rod Reis, the standout star of C.O.W.L.. Reis handles both pencils and colors and largely forgoes inks, giving the series an intricate, painted look. The art, occasionally bordering on impressionistic, manages to capture both the style and feel of the 1960s without being too beholden to specific cultural touchstones. I did notice every now and again the pencils would overpower the paints, breaking the illusion and sometimes making the characters look a bit goofy, but Reis' striking work nevertheless elevates C.O.W.L., particularly in the Frazer Irving-influenced coloring that goes less for 'realism' and far more for color schemes that reflect and influence the mood of the scene, which creates more than a few immensely striking scenes.

C.O.W.L.: Principles of Power is at its best when the plot is being driven by the actions of the characters, rather than the other way around, because many of the elements not driven by character are going to feel mighty familiar to anyone who has read a superhero comic since the late 80s. Hopefully, with a little time to flesh out the rest of the cast in future issues, the series can grow into its strengths; until it does, however, you have an engaging, mostly enjoyable series with gorgeous art and a setting with a ton of potential. Superhero fans looking for something new-ish could do much worse.

C.O.W.L.: Principles of Power by Kyle Higgins, Alec Siegel, and Rod Reis, is out now from Image Comics with a list price of $9.99.

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