Flavorwire Exclusive: Preview ‘C.O.W.L.,’ the Comic Described as ‘The Avengers’ Meets ‘Mad Men’

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Superheroes need to unionize. Imagine if Batman, tired of living that vigilante lifestyle, joined up with his fellow superheroes in order to earn a living wage while fighting for justice. That’s the premise behind the new creator-owned Image Comics series C.O.W.L. The title stands for “Chicago Organized Workers’ League,” and in this ’60s-set story, tired superheroes who banded together as C.O.W.L. are facing an uncertain future. It’s a fresh reimagining of superheroes who feel far more realistic than men in tights. Flavorwire emailed with C.O.W.L. co-writer Kyle Higgins, who’s expanding the world of his original short film, “The League.” Read ahead for Higgins’ insight and exclusive images from C.O.W.L. #2, available on Wednesday, June 25.

Flavorwire: Have you read up on the history of the CIA and other government agencies in the ’60s. Are they a guide for your story?

Kyle Higgins: Yes, definitely. Also, labor unions and Chicago politics. Mike Royko’s Boss, Jane McAlevey’s Raising Expectations (which is about modern day labor unions), Steven Brill’s Teamsters, The Third Coast, There is Power in a Union: The Epic Story of Labor in America, Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA.

So C.O.W.L. has had a long journey, starting as a short film called “The League.” What was the initial spark for you?

I’ve loved superheroes and superhero films for as long as I can remember. In fact, it was Burton’s Batman and Donner’s Superman that got me into comics and filmmaking. I started shooting little superhero shorts — Superman, Power Rangers, Ninja Turtles — with my dad and sister when I was about seven. Fast forward ten years and I knew I wanted to pursue filmmaking as a career. In addition to that, my passion for comics had continued to grow. I was reading twenty books a month, and at a certain point, I had an idea for a spoof story about organized superheroes. That turned into a three piece prose piece that I used to get into Chapman University’s Film Production program.

Once I was in the program, and I saw the level of the thesis films that were being made, I started thinking about ideas for my own. I wanted to circle back to the genre that got me into filmmaking in the first place, especially since I had no idea whether I’d ever get the chance to direct a superhero film professionally. I figured, if I was going to spend two years of my life living and breathing something, almost killing myself to get it finished, I had to be unbelievably passionate about the story and the project. The superhero labor union idea came back up, but this time… with a more serious tone. I’ve always been fascinated by the 1960s and the Cold War —setting the story during that time, and in the context of Chicago’s political history and union relationships, helped me to ground the concept and introduce moral and ethical questions.

What kind of visuals have inspired the look of C.O.W.L.?

1960s illustration, film noir, 1980s Epic comics… Rod has a lot of influences. I should also add, this is his first book as an interior artist. Prior to this, he’s worked as a colorist at DC — which is where we met — but he’s never done full sequentials himself. It’s incredibly inspiring and thrilling to see him bring these characters to life. Everything Alec and I write, Rod makes better.

What superpower is the most fun to write about?

You know, I originally thought this was going to be the one that’s the biggest pain… but I’ll go with Karl Samoski, also known as Eclipse. Karl works as a part of the Patrol Division on Chicago’s West Side, along with his partner Grant Marlow. If you were to think of C.O.W.L. like a police precinct, the Patrol Division is the closest thing C.O.W.L. has to beat cops. They’re the non-flashy, street level guys, who drive in squad cars and respond to complaints, provide backup for investigations, and just generally work the streets.

Karl’s a bit of a raging asshole — a black hole for optimism — and has anti-kinetic powers that reflect that. The idea is that he can disrupt the flow of energy and electricity. At its most basic level, that means he can turn lights off. But, focus the ability a bit further… and he can disrupt the kinetic energy transfer from a firing pin to a bullet… causing a gun to misfire. There are all sorts of fun uses for it.

What are your feelings on Men in Tights, and will that be a part of C.O.W.L.?

The older I’ve gotten — and the more superhero comics I’ve written — the more accepting I’ve become of men in tights. When we were making The League, I had a pretty strict edict that all the costumes feel like real clothing. Even Sparrow, who had the most “tights” look to him was more pants than tights. I still err on the side of practical clothing for C.O.W.L., but I think overall there’s been a move in superhero comics to make costumes feel more tactile and less painted-on. Which I prefer.

What’s been the most surprising discovery in the process of making this story?

I’d say how open we’ve been to discovery. I’m usually a very strict outliner, and while we do have a pretty strict outline for C.O.W.L... Alec and I have allowed ourselves quite a bit of flexibility to explore different characters and storylines that we hadn’t initially thought were going to focus on. We’ve allowed them to become important. John — one of C.O.W.L.’s chief investigators — is a great example. Originally, he was a bit player. But we liked Rod’s design for him so much, and the backstory we developed, that he morphed into one of our main characters, if not the main character.

What are you up to next? Can the world of C.O.W.L. expand?

It’s a big, huge world that we’ll be exploring for — knock on wood — quite a long time. As readers will see in the first couple issues, we’re not telling the story about the beginning of Chicago’s superhero labor union — we’re telling the story about the end of it. So, once the villains are gone… what then? Being a superhero is — literally — a paying career for the members of C.O.W.L. What happens if that stops? What happens if the organization goes away? Will the villains come back? In some ways, C.O.W.L. as an organization is a super powered crime deterrent by way of being an alternate career path. That has to be worth something, doesn’t it?

The big draw — for us — is that anything can happen. Our characters aren’t protected by sixty years of continuity. When someone dies, or someone does something terrible… it’s permanent. Our characters have to deal with it. There’s no continuity reset. And… yes, very bad things are going to happen. Think of it like Game of Thrones… by way of Mad Men.