Kyle Higgins Talks C.O.W.L. And The Collapse Of The First Superhero Labor Union [Interview]
Available for pre-order now from finer comics shops, COWL is a forthcoming series from Image Comics which stylishly depicts an alternate history Chicago of the pre-"swinging" 1960s, when the (in)famously political city experienced all manner of socioeconomic upheaval -- including the dissolution of the Chicago Organized Workers League. Also known as COWL, it's a union for costumed superheroes, and its days are numbered.
The first issue of COWL avoids some traps into which most non-Marvel and non-DC cape comics fall. Most obviously, COWL is not a Marvel or DC superhero book in disguise. Its characters aren't similar-to-but-legally-distinct versions of heroes we might know from the Avengers or the Justice League, but distinct, original creations of writers Kyle Higgins & Alec Siegal and artist Rod Reis. Similarly, despite its "real-world" premise and period setting, COWL is not a Watchmen cover version, offering a decidedly less dour tone and honest-to-god superhero adventure blended deftly with its dramatic take on city politics. Sometimes it's even really funny. Finally, COWL bucks the origin fetish of the superhero genre by introducing us to its intriguing cast not at the start of their sagas, but at what might be the end.
We had a chance to talk to COWL co-writer Kyle Higgins (formerly of DC Comics' Nightwing and the writer of the impressive digital-first series Batman Beyond 2.0) about his new Image book and what kind of world readers will buy into if they pick up issue #1 next month.
ComicsAlliance: The first thing that struck me about COWL #1 was that unlike a lot of non-DC, non-Marvel cape comics, this was not a Marvel or DC superhero comic disguised as something else. It's its own thing, arguably a thing that couldn't exist in those superhero universes.
Kyle Higgins: That’s actually something we’ve been very conscious of, not just because there are superheroes involved, but because it’s our first creator-owned series and we want to world build in different, unique ways. If you look at the structure of the first issue, the points of view are all reflective of the different divisions of COWL. The organization, how it works, its ranks, and its relation to the city and other unions are all things that Alec and I have spent a lot of time figuring out.
Alec and I have always thought about this series -- and described it-- as being a character drama that happens to have costumes. If you were to think about it in, say, TV terms, it has more in common with Mad Men or The Wire than anything with superheroes. These characters, for us, are what the book is about. Their lives outside the costumes, their places in society, their interactions with each other… we like stories about people who change and evolve.
CA: Do you think it's a risky environment to put out a superhero comic with new characters?
KH: I think it can be, sure. There’s so much great material out there right now, every book is fighting for attention. And with so many superhero titles, the obvious question is, why make more of them? You have to do something different. You can’t just be doing analogue ports of Marvel and DC characters. And that’s not to say you can’t have a character with a similar power or M.O. as a pre-existing superhero, but you don’t want someone who’s nothing more than one tweaked detail away from the Batman archetype.
The other thing, too, is that we’re working at a company and in a space where anything can happen. We’re not looking to play things safe or "protect" our characters. If anything, we’re trying to push them into uncomfortable situations and choices. That’s where you start to see who these people really are.
CA: You mentioned this is envisioned as an ensemble drama, you give us a breakdown of the cast, tell us more about the cast and their power sets and backgrounds.
KH: It really is an ensemble piece. As I mentioned before, the main characters-- in this first arc especially-- are all members of different divisions. That means leadership, tactical, investigations, and patrol. Geoffrey Warner leads the organization as union chief. He founded COWL, and operated as the Grey Raven until the mid-1950s, and now he sits behind a desk and runs the show. As you can see in issue one, there’s definitely a part of him that wishes he were still patrolling the streets.
Radia and Blaze, along with Arclight, make up our tactical “trinity.” They’re the three heavy hitters of COWL. as well as the public faces. Blaze is Geoffrey’s second in command, as well as his oldest friend. They served in WWII together, which is where Blaze discovered the gauntlet that he uses to generate his electromagnetic energy fields (it was originally a piece of Nazi tech). Radia is a telekinetic, possibly the most powerful person on the planet, and yet she’s made out to be a sex symbol by the media. COWL uses her to appeal to a certain demographic, scripts her interview answers, and uses her for publicity. Of course… this doesn’t sit well with her.
The things that she and Blaze have to deal with -- Radia being a woman and Blaze being an African-American-- link into the emerging women’s lib and civil rights movements of the period. The fact that these two people are so powerful doesn’t keep others from having opinions about them.
John Pierce is a primary member of the investigations division, and he’s our moral compass of the book. John sees what COWL is, knows what it used to be, and worries about what it could become. The case he gets involved with challenges all his perceptions about the organization.
Eclipse and Grant Marlow work in the patrol division. They’re more of our “beat cop” characters. Grant has no powers and no superhero name -- which is a story point-- and Eclipse has anti-kinetic powers.
And this is just the first arc. Unions are pretty big in Chicago [laughs].
CA: The union thing is another thing that surprised me about COWL. Specifically, we’re not seeing the formation of the superhero union. We’re seeing the collapse of it.
KH: Right. It’s a fine line, because for you to care about things falling apart… you have to care about the people in the organization and understand what COWL means to them and the city. You’re right though -- I think it’s pretty clear in issue one that the shine is off the apple. The organization has been around for thirteen years, been very successful, but in many ways outgrown its usefulness. Chicago is entering an era where the black and white, good vs. evil delineations are no longer really applicable. Whether it’s because of COWL., or because of the changing of the times, criminals aren’t operating the same way. A private police force to deal with super powers no longer seems as necessary.
So, what now? In our Chicago, being a superhero is a trade. It’s an industry. A lot of these people have been working for COWL for ten years. If the organization goes away, what are they going to do for work?
CA: Can you talk about the period and location setting? They’re hardly arbitrary. Why Chicago and why the 1960s?
KH: Chicago’s political history is incredibly fascinating, especially in the '60s. At that time, between the political machine and the Mayor’s relationship with the unions, it’s a fantastic setting that really grounds our story. Originally, when I first started exploring the concept of organized heroes, I was writing it as a modern day piece… and it was a comedy. It was only after Alec and I set it in the 1960s that it took on a more serious tone and a lot of the ethical questions started to come out. Combine that with the rise of Marvel Comics and the flawed heroes of the Silver Age… it all works quite well. The fact that Alec and I are from Chicago doesn’t hurt, either.
CA: There’s also more super stuff going on in COWL than one might expect from the premise. Can you talk about striking the balance between an adventure comic and an ensemble drama? Issue one really rides the line. Is superpower action a challenge when you’re dealing with themes like those in COWL?
KH: Well, as much fun as a comic book devoted entirely to labor negotiations and pension plans might be… I don’t think the world is quite ready for that yet. From the get go, we knew we wanted super powers and action. It was just a matter of how much, and what type. If you take a look at our big action sequence in the first issue, characters break bones, falls and impacts kill. We like grounded action that has consequences. The character relationships are the most fun to write, but the premise does revolve around these people being classified as superheroes. Seeing what makes them super, and how they operate is important. Especially as we see things start to fall apart.
CA: Aside from the unique twist on the superhero genre, COWL is distinct for its artwork. How did you guys and Rod Reis -- known for his coloring, primarily -- come together? What can you tell us about how he works, how you collaborate, and what you think he brings to the stories?
KH: Rod is amazing. Truly. We met while we were working together on Nightwing, which Rod colored for the first sixteen issues. At a certain point, I noticed him doing convention commissions. He painted a Havok for me, which got us talking about sequential art and whether or not he’d ever be up for trying his hand at it. We worked on a little eight-page story for a friend’s anthology, which turned out pretty awesome, and then started looking for something else to do together. Alec and I had wanted to do something with The League (what COWL was originally called), and it all just fit.
Like I said before, if you’re going to do anything with superheroes, it has to be different. Especially visually. In my opinion, Rod’s art is not like anything else on the stands right now. There’s a Bill Sienkiewicz influence, sure, as well as Phil Noto… but yeah. I can’t wait for people to see this first issue. He’s digitally painting everything and it’s going to blow people away.
COWL #!1 goes on sale May 28 from Image Comics. Retailers may order it with the Diamond code MAR140477.