By Kyle Higgins, Alec Siegel, and Rod Reis
C.O.W.L. is a comic very much in the same vein as Jupiter’s Circle in that it’s a broad form story in a thoroughly realistic period setting and more about the clashing personas encased in masks and costumes rather than superheroics and vicarious thrills. Another similarity it has to Jupiter’s Circle is that they’re both some of the best books currently being published, though as issue 11 is the conclusion to C.O.W.L. that little similarity is just about finished.
The story of C.O.W.L. is set in Chicago in 1962. In this continuity the city is served by an entire organized work force of superheroes known as C.O.W.L. for Chicago Organized Workers League. The organization was founded after World War 2 when the heroic absence from the city had allowed for the growth of mafia rule and several super villain forces. C.O.W.L. allowed the heroes to become legitimate law enforcement agents with a broad array of resources while also making them into something closer to a corporate body than a force of community activists. However, nearly 20 years later Chicago’s super crime probably is all but wiped out and C.O.W.L.’s contract is up for renegotiation leading everyone to start wondering if the age of the superhero is finally over.
From there C.O.W.L. hasn’t really followed a main story so much as the individual fragmented lives of the broken people who make up the comic’s field of view. This issue does a lot to cap off the various storylines in a satisfying way, but it feels more like the conclusion to a chapter 1 than a summation of the story so far. Everyone’s story gets wrapped up, but it’s a very open-ended conclusion and you get the sense the creators are really leaving the door open for future stories in this universe down the line. That’s a fine way to end a story, though C.O.W.L. ends up a little too ambiguous on the whole.
The central C.O.W.L. Strike storyline is where this issue falls the hardest in my opinion. The conclusion makes sense within the story we’ve seen so far and certainly gels with C.O.W.L.’s overall thematic underpinnings, but the open-ended aspects of the conclusion seem a little half-hearted. The best point of comparison for a similar idea done with a bit more oomph behind it would be the conclusion to James Robinson’s Golden Age or Matt Wagner’s Batman and the Mad Monk. In both of those pages the conclusion brought with a kind of inherent promise that even if there was never a sequel the audience could tell what was coming back. That’s harder to achieve with original character’s like C.O.W.L. but not impossible and the way the comic teased possible future developments for C.O.W.L. and its membership just wasn’t as engaging as it could’ve been.
Still, C.O.W.L. has never really been about story; it’s far more concerned with its characters, all of whom get very strong conclusions. The best of this is probably Geoffrey Warner, C.O.W.L.’s chief and founder. Warner has been at the center of C.O.W.L.’s universe from the start and this issue really brings home to roost a lot of the more ambiguous and subtle intimations that have been hovering around his character up to now. He’s the dark central core of C.O.W.L.’s entire miasma of flawed humanity, an aging edifice so terrified of his own obsolescence he’s willing to chip away at his own idealism till there’s nothing left of the man he was but outdated wartime machismo and revisionist heroism. Even despite all that Warner isn’t framed as the villain of the piece so much as the ultimate embodiment of the same human frailty that plagues all these characters; how we confront forces beyond our control. The ending really drives this home and is actually pretty similar to that of The Godfather, which is high praise indeed.
Rod Reis does great work with artwork. His style is reliant on a lot of heavy pencil work and sketchy designs that seem rough but also engaging. There’s a kind of harsh honesty to his character designs and a major emphasis on depicting characters that look like average people rather than idealized humans. Most of the panels highly emphasize character’s faces and we tend to spend most of the story in close proximity to the cast, which helps to make the entire comic feel far more emotionally energized. We’re rarely given respite from the characters’ feelings and expressions, which helps ground the story in these people and how we relate with their struggle more than the world of C.O.W.L. Reis is also doing the color work this issue and has such a unique approach it’s a real knockout. A lot of the colors are faded or will occasionally bathe backgrounds in black and white with only core characters depicted in color. The whole comic has a watercolor aesthetic to it that blends strangely with the emotions and facial emphasis. Everything about the artwork is designed to convey to the audience that this is a character drama about people and it works wonders.
C.O.W.L. #11 isn’t the series strongest issue, but it’s a good one regardless and a strong send off for the series. It does a good job staying true the series tone and theme especially in the way it resolves its central storylines. It would’ve been easy to fall back on a more pat and tidy ending that gave the audience good guys and bad guys and a moral victory but that’s not the comic C.O.W.L. is. There aren’t even any winners or losers in this ending, just those who change, who go forward, and those who remain stuck in the past.