Review: COWL Vol. 1: Principles of Power trade paperback (Image Comics)

Monday, December 15, 2014

Part Ex Machina (which was itself part West Wing), part Watchmen, Kyle Higgins and Alec Siegel's COWL Vol. 1: Principles of Power is another great addition to Image Comics's pantheon of self-contained, imaginative series. The first volume is largely introductory, with a maybe too-split focus between introducing the characters and establishing what the rest of the series will be about, but there's a lovely amount of superhero politics involved that places COWL firmly next to Ex Machina and Greg Rucka's Checkmate, for instance.

[Review contains spoilers]

Though I plenty enjoyed the interpersonal dynamics of COWL (especially between Grant Marlow and his son), the book distinguished it to me as "something else" in the third issue's extended contract negotiations between the COWL superheroes union and the 1960s city of Chicago. There's nothing wrong with the book's examples of "standard" superheroics, though they don't set the book apart, and even the instances of superheroes behaving badly (Eclipse peeing on a suspect, Arclight beating up a pimp) evoke a familiar bit of Watchmen's fall of the Minutemen. But when COWL chief Geoffrey "Gray Raven" Warner starts delving into this and that contract clause, COWL becomes a thinking person's book, a political workplace drama presented as a superhero story and not the other way around. There's even some "new language" in the contract that Higgins and Siegel let hang for a moment, challenging the reader to intuit the political implications for themselves.

Warner becomes here the character to watch, and even though in the book's denouement it looks like Warner might be overthrown, he emerges as a key figure for the next volume, making a deal with a local mobster to keep COWL in business. In this, the writers suggest more political back-and-forth to come; I also liked the discussion of COWL gaining and losing support from other labor unions and the teacher's union, which helped ground COWL as, while made up of superheroes, really in the same realistic boat as these other entities. The idea of a superhero strike was also fascinating. (With all the labor and special interest politics here, House of Cards fans are another clear market for this title).

Warner's fall and rise indicates a certain bait-and-switch on Higgins and Siegel's part as to who the "main" character of COWL is, and ultimately demonstrates the book as containing a real ensemble cast. "Regular guy" Marlow seemed early on to be the reader's "way in" to the series, until Marlow is severely beaten and largely exits the book after the second chapter. Equally unexpected, then, is Eclipse's partnership with Radia, a change from what the reader has been lead to believe is the status quo. And late in the book it seems investigator John Pierce will emerge the hero, but he, too, seems effectively taken out of the book as Warner re-emerges in the end.

The early pages of COWL document seven main characters; Kathryn "Radia" Mitchell and Reginald "Blaze" Davis each effectively get profile issues here, and to whom the other issues are dedicated is open to a little debate -- Warner, Marlow, and Pierce, I'd say, though arguably Tom "Arclight" Hayden figures prominently in the second and last chapters. This inconsistent parallel structure harms the book a little, in that on one hand the disconnected chapters may seem to lack focus and on the other hand the profile chapters come off as too pointed in one direction. The book is plenty fine even with this difficulty, though I think I'll like more the second book now that everyone's been introduced and established.

The writers undertake a challenge in writing a female character and an African American character in a scenario where each faced considerable prejudice, while at the same time having to keep the characters and those who discriminate against them each from becoming stereotypes. I am sure that Higgins and Siegel's portrayal of a woman's struggles in the 1960s is not too far off the mark, though at the same time the repeated scenes of Mitchell being treated like window dressing and her climactic question, "Why does everyone thing they can touch me," perhaps comes off as reductive; the writers see too clearly Mitchell's dilemma and put it too directly on the page, rather than let her arc unfold more naturally.

The writers' spotlight issue on Davis is better, allowing the racism Davis faces to come out more subtly and also exploring Davis's mixed feelings about in some ways "passing" because he's a superhero. At the same time, as COWL is set in 1962, in the midst of civil rights protests but before the Civil Rights Act, I was surprised not to see any reflection of the Civil Rights Movement in the story as regards to Davis.

The trade includes faux dossier pages on the characters; there's lots of interest here, especially that given how redacted most of the dossiers are, it's suspicious the extent to which Mitchell's is not. In these, the writers seem to hint at a former super-team or covert group for many of the team members, and here again I wonder at a Watchmen-eqsue Minutemen-type falling out. That Davis's brother was a supervillain and leader of the Chicago Six is a big revelation that puts a new spin on Davis's profile issue, and that's the one I'm most curious about when COWL returns.

COWL Vol. 1: Principles of Power joins Image's Saga and Lazarus (and Dark Horse's Mind MGMT) as another in the current renaissance of creator-owned titles. With politics and backroom deals abounding (and more to come, hopefully, than even the book's superheroics), COWL takes the superhero story in a different direction. I'm paying attention, for sure.

[Includes original and variant covers, dossier pages]

We'll stick with Kyle Higgins and Chicago for Nightwing Vol. 5: Setting Son later this week.
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