Many, many years ago, I was born in a little place called Chicago. As such, I have always been fascinated with the way the city is portrayed in stories ranging from the Fey-and-Demon-infested Chicago of the Harry Dresden novels, all the way to the version standing in for Gotham in Christopher Nolan’s Batman films. With all the crime and politics, there’s almost always that hint of corruption just below the surface in Chicago.
C.O.W.L. looks at Chicago and plays with those tropes in a fairly different way. Set in the 1960s, it focuses on the corruption in the city and the police force, which is made up of superheroes, some with powers and some without. Founded by a handful of those heroes, C.O.W.L. is the Chicago Organized Workers Union, and they form the basis of a city-sanctioned force protecting Chicago from superpowered criminals.
This backdrop sets the tone for a noir drama on par with The Untouchables that brings to mind elements of Watchmen, with conspiracies inside conspiracies. When the last superpowered villain is taken down, who’s left for C.O.W.L. to defend the city from? It’s an excellent question, and one the mayor asks. C.O.W.L. is, after all, a union with a city contract that’s up for renewal.
John Pierce is an unpowered detective with C.O.W.L. When he comes across information indicating the villain known as Skylancer may have had access to classified C.O.W.L. tech and designs, he reaches out to Tom Haydn, aka Arclight, a hard-drinking, womanizer with a hatred for one of the founders, Geoffrey Warner, aka The Grey Raven. Warner is busy with the contract negotiations and PR, putting pressure on the local press to publish “fluff pieces” and “reimagined histories” of the team’s founding after WWII when the heroes returned only to find organized crime firmly entrenched and in control of Chicago. To strengthen his position with the city, Warner pressures Kathryn Mitchell, aka Radia, to do a photo shoot with a men’s magazine. Meanwhile, Pierce continues to investigate even after C.O.W.L. is forced to go on strike, and Radia goes on a secret war against organized crime with Karl Samoski, aka Eclipse, in response to the near-murder of one of their unpowered teammates at the hands of a superpowered enforcer.
Written by Kyle Higgins and Alec Siegel, C.O.W.L. is a gritty and realistic crime drama. Not quite a procedural, it’s still reminiscent of some great crime television shows and movies. I can’t ignore the fact that it reminds me a lot of Watchmen, though: a period piece set in a gritty city full of corruption and flawed, dark mirror images of heroes who look and feel familiar enough, yet you can’t quite place them. The art by Rod Reis sets the tone well, which includes muted colors similar to watercolors along with thick pencil and splashes of color for emphasis.
Overall, I enjoyed this book a lot. The characters are rich and well-drawn, the story engaging and deeply layered. If you’re a fan of flawed heroes and crime dramas, this is one for you.
Patrick Hester is an author, blogger and 2013 Hugo Award Winner for Best Fanzine (Editor - SF Signal), and 2014 Hugo Award Winner for Best Fancast. He lives in Colorado, writes science fiction and fantasy, and can usually be found hanging out on his Twitter feed. His Functional Nerds and SF Signal weekly podcasts have both been nominated for Parsec awards, and the SF Signal podcast was nominated for a 2012, 2013, and 2014 Hugo Award. In addition to his Kirkus posts, he writes for atfmb.com, SF Signal and Functional Nerds.