In the tradition of Watchmen and Kick-Ass, C.O.W.L. explores what a world with superheroes would really be like. Creator-owners Kyle Higgins (Nightwing, Batman Beyond) and Alec Siegel (Captain America, Avengers), along with artist Rod Reis (Justice League), offer a series focused on the economics of crime fighting. While Bruce Wayne and Tony Stark have inherited wealth to fund their superheroism, many others, particularly perennial poor-schlub Peter Parker, struggle to balance their altruism with the need to pay the rent. The heroes of C.O.W.L. fall squarely in the latter camp.
Set in Chicago in 1962, C.O.W.L., Vol. 1: Principles of Power collects the first five issues and sets the stage for the series. As in Watchmen, superheroes seem to come into being during the Great Depression, not coincidentally the same time that Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster brought Superman into the world in Action Comics #1 (1938). In the alternate reality of C.O.W.L. (and, again, like Watchmen), superheroes helped lead the Allies to victory in World War II. This is another reference to comic book history, as virtually every comic of the day featured cover art showing superheroes knocking out Hitler.
As in the real world, the moral landscape muddied after the defeat of the Nazis. Some of the superheroes became Cold Warriors and waged clandestine battles against their Soviet counterparts. Most returned home, where they learned their super powers were not exactly marketable skills. The only organization willing to employ “powers” was the mafia. A few heroes fought against these super-powered wise guys, and these heroes realized that their opponents were not true villains, but simply desperate people in need of steady jobs.
And so the Chicago Organized Workers League was born. C.O.W.L. negotiated a contract with the city of Chicago to fight crime in exchange for decent pay and benefits. Superheroes became civil servants. When the story begins, C.O.W.L. brings down the last of the “Chicago Six” just as its leadership negotiates a renewal of its collective bargaining agreement. C.O.W.L. becomes a victim of its own success; the city wonders whether it needs superheroes on the payroll when all the supervillains are gone.
Just when I think there is nothing more that can be done with the “fights-in-tights” genre, someone comes up with something truly original. The main conflict in the series is the contract negotiations between the city and its superhero’s union. In Watchmen, the New York City police went on strike to protest the costumed vigilantes horning in on the crime-fighting business. In C.O.W.L., it is the superheroes who form picket lines while the C.P.D. keeps the peace.
Co-writers Higgins (born in suburban Lockport) and Siegel (Illinois State University alumnus) have woven Chicago deeply into this story. C.O.W.L.’s chief antagonist is not supervillain Skylancer or mob boss Camden Stone, but rather “hizzoner” himself, Richard J. Daley. Daley was a shrewd politician, but more than that, he was the tough boss of the Chicago Democratic Machine, and we see glimpses of that in these pages.
Artist Rod Reis deserves much of the credit for establishing the setting. This is not a generic city called “Chicago.” The very first page is a ward map of the city. The panels are filled with three-flats, garbage-filled alleyways and El platforms. The color palette leans towards sepia and black-and-white, evoking old photographs and anchoring the story a half-century into the past.
I do have one quibble, though. C.O.W.L. does a masterful job presenting Chicago in almost every respect, except its depiction of organized crime. For one thing, there is no “mafia” in Chicago—we have “the Outfit.” And the Outfit was never run by anyone resembling Camden Stone. In 1962, flashy gangster Salvatore “Mooney Sam” Giancana was the Boss. If the real Daley is going to be in the comics, why not the real Giancana? Or at least a fictional character based on him? Or maybe just an Italian? So far the WASPy Stone is far less interesting than the man who rubbed elbows with Frank Sinatra and conspired with the CIA to assassinate Fidel Castro.
But on the whole, C.O.W.L. is a refreshing take on the superhero genre. Super-powered fistfights take a backseat to bare-knuckle politics. And Principles of Power ends with an unexpected death that blows open the possibilities for the rest of the series. This is one picket line you do not want to cross. But it is most definitely a comic book that you’ll want to read.