Forget what you thought you knew about the world of C.O.W.L., the Image series set in a retro superhero universe.
It's all going to change.
In a spoiler-free interview with series creator Kyle Higgins, Newsarama learned that this week's issue #5 will see a huge shift in the roles played by the characters — and the C.O.W.L. organization itself.
"I'll have to be a little coy here about the twists in issue #5," said Higgins, who co-writes the series with Alec Segal. "But I think it's safe to say that the series heads into a completely different direction as a result of it. And that's not me playing the typical comics 'everything changes' cliché."
C.O.W.L. #5 also represents the final issue that will be included in the series' collection, which is being released at the end of October. "These changes will redefine the book you think you're reading, and the people that are in it," Higgins said.
Set in 1962 Chicago, C.O.W.L., which features art by Rod Reis, is based around the idea of an organization called, "The Chicago Organized Workers League," which is the first superhero labor union in America.
"It's really not about the building of a superhero labor union," Higgins said. "It's about the collapse of it.
"It's set during a very tumultuous time of change," Higgins said. "We're now in the early '60s, and the good-and-evil, black-and-white delineation of the post-war years no longer applies, and we're entering an era where paranoia runs rampant and the Cold War gets into full swing.
"So we're looking at that shift in the world, and the beginning of America's loss of innocence, through the lens of superheroes," he said. "In issue #1, they take down the last crazy villain in Chicago in 1961, and then the series follows several members of the labor union as they confront the changing of the times, as well as a changing of the organization. Now that the threats that have occupied them for the last 10 years are gone, the question becomes whether or not C.O.W.L. will become irrelevant, and what does that mean for its members?"
At the helm of C.O.W.L. is Geoffrey Warner, the founder and is formerly the greatest hero in Chicago, the Gray Raven. "His life's work is tied to the organization," Higgins said. "What does it say about him if it were all to collapse and go away?"
Readers have also met Radia, who's become a reluctant sex symbol, because she's pretty and powerful, "although no one seems to care about the latter — they only care about the former," Higgins said; and the series has introduced John Pierce, one of the investigators inside C.O.W.L., who uncovers the beginning of a conspiracy that looks like C.O.W.L. may have been selling weapon designs to the bad guys.
If it all sounds like familiar touching points from history and everyday life, that's by design. "Alec and I are both world-builders," Higgins said. "The material we respond to as fans is material that's very fleshed out and feels like you can escape into it.
"And that's what we've tried to do with C.O.W.L., from splitting up the city into districts — in every issue, there's a map of the city of Chicago, and it's split into the C.O.W.L. districts, and we reference that in every location caption, so you know where in the city it's taking place — down to the inner workings of the organization, how C.O.W.L. is split into different divisions, and who's in those divisions," he said. "And then we spent a lot of time with C.O.W.L.'s relationship with the city. You see in issue #3 that there are labor negotiations; they're trying to figure out the budget for patrol cars and ballistic nylon and all the things that would be issues with something like this in the real world. Obviously, we don't want that to be at the center of the book, but little pieces of that kind of thing help ground the story and the setting, and makes it more relatable."
Higgins said he decided to set the story in the early '60s because of the relationship and power of the labor unions at that time, especially in Chicago. "It really made it a nice setting to place a superhero labor union," he said. "For me personally, I feel like doing something set in the past lends a seriousness to the idea, and it helps the believability, because you look at it and say, 'Well, maybe this could have happened.'"
Over the first four issues of C.O.W.L., the tension has been building as several of the characters have been backed into corners. And in issue #5, they lash out in ways that are game-changers for the series — something that can't usually be done with the superhero characters that Higgins writes (such as the Batman characters he's currently co-writing in Batman Eternal).
"That's the exciting thing about doing a creator-owned book," Higgins said. "Anything can happen. We're writing superheroes, but we're not locked in to years and years of continuity."
And to emphasize just how important C.O.W.L. #5 is to the series, Higgins said that, originally, the material seen so far was going to be the backstory, and issue #5's events were supposed to really hook readers into the series.
"The twists in issue #5 are the story points that Alec and I had originally wanted to launch the series with, to be totally honest," he said. "But as we got into writing and plotting the first issue, we realized that, for it to carry the emotional weight that we were hoping for, we really needed to take a step back and build the world out, establish the characters, and really develop their flaws and the problems that are facing them in early 1962 — and really see what C.O.W.L. means and represents to each of them."
So what's up next for the series? "At the end of each issue, there's a dossier, and every one of them has redacted information — except Radia's. So the question of why Radia's story is out fully in public is something we'll be looking into," Higgins said. "Geoffrey Warner and his former sidekick Sparrow is something we'll be getting into. That's a very big story with a lot of baggage to it. The Dart, Blaze's brother, who was the fiercest villain that Chicago every had — we'll be looking at what happened to him.
"And the new relationship that's established at the end of issue #5 will be the big crux of the next arc," Higgins said. "And I'm trying not to spoil any more than that, because I think the dynamics at the end of issue #5 are going to catch people pretty off guard."
The collection of C.O.W.L. will include extra materials, including new designs and title pages, and there will be an exclusive hardcover at New York Comic Con featuring a cover by Rod Reis available at the Image booth.