As the heyday of superheroes wanes, the powered members of C.O.W.L. -- the Chicago Organized Workers League -- find themselves disillusioned with their leaders, their work and each other. Kyle Higgins, Alec Siegel and Rod Reis join forces to produce a world where being a superhero is a job that earns the same fatigue as any other, albeit with a bit more celebrity. And though it has some trouble with its world building, "C.O.W.L." #1 presents a strong core idea and luscious artwork.
"C.O.W.L." #1 doesn't feel like a debut issue. That is, Higgins and Siegel get things going in medias res but never quite slow down enough to give us a strong sense of the world. They throw in some exposition through Geoffrey Warner's dialogue at the end, alluding to a golden age of heroes, but as of yet all we've seen is a fractured and biased glimpse into C.O.W.L.'s history. However, this doesn't quite get into what C.O.W.L. is. The abbreviation in its long form doesn't offer many specifics: Who can join C.O.W.L.? Is it powered people only? Law enforcement? Anyone who wants to join? Clearly, it's the group of protagonists that Higgins and Siegel follow, but these questions and more go unanswered, which ultimately feels more than a little unsatisfying. They simply need to set more parameters in their world building.
Likewise, the characters' introductions -- with the exception of Radia and Blaze, the books' only female and black characters so far -- are confusing, at best; I had to continually refer to the character key at the beginning of the book just to keep them straight. With uneven pacing and not enough detail, this is a hard book to jump into, even from the get go.
But however weak the execution sometimes is, Higgins and Siegel have an excellent concept at the heart of this book. Through the way the characters interact with each other and their work, readers can feel the disenfranchisement emanating off the page. Although the "disillusioned superhero" plot isn't something brand new, Higgins and Siegel make the story feel fresh; if fleshed out more, the idea of a "hero union" -- if, as suggested by the solicitation, this is indeed the direction the book is going -- has phenomenal potential. What's more, the issue includes a handful of exciting moments and fluid teamwork, not the least of which involves a high-stake collaboration between Radia and Recon that will be sure to impress.
If I were to recommend this book for any reason, it would be for Rod Reis' artwork. In a word, his style is striking; using no inks and very light pencils, each panel looks like a miniature painting. He uses this look to great effect, using paint splatter to add flare to Skylancer's jetpacks and to light the Chicago landscape up in a gorgeous skyline view. From the very first page, his rendition of Chicago comes across naturally, creating a world that looks as though you could step right in. Although his style is extremely pretty, he's unafraid to get dirty as the script calls for it, depicting violence in all its gory glory. Further, he adds a clever little device to guide the readers' eye, in that he included light lines that circle or box key items in some important panels; although this could easily become distracting or overbearing, he uses them sparingly enough -- and with just the right thickness -- that they never overshadow the scene itself. Having colored the issue himself, Reis gives the book an appropriately dark tone by largely using muted blues, grays, and blacks.
For all this dark tone, however, Troy Peteri uses bright text boxes that clash with the artwork and a font that is both too large and too peppy for the book's serious atmosphere. While this device would have worked wonderfully in another series, it does no justice to the story here.
What "C.O.W.L." #1 lacks in world building, it makes up for in heart. Although the series is off to a shaky start, Kyle Higgins, Alec Siegel, and Rod Reis have certainly got a strong premise and its merits are just beginning to shine through in this debut issue.