Art by: Rod Reis
Published by: Image Comics
“C.O.W.L. #3” tackles some issues that your average comic either can’t or won’t. That aspect alone makes it worth reading. If you’re like me and like a little bit of meat on the bone, then this is a series for you. But C.O.W.L. also possesses great characters and some of the most phenomenal artwork of the week. The title of this issue is “Perception” and the comic really tackles that theme with brilliant result throughout its pages. The final page delivers a cleverly devised cliff-hanger that confirms the suspicions you’ve probably been harbouring and tees up a major plot for the series going forward.
Who would have thought that a labour union for superheroes would work so well? Obviously Kyle Higgins, Alex Siegel, and Rod Reis did, but it’s kind of surprising that it has taken this long for a great book to tackle the subject. “C.O.W.L. #3” produces drama in a unique way that no other series is able to replicate. I know boardroom negotiations don’t exactly scream drama but Higgins and Siegel have clearly done their homework on what can make a labour dispute a compelling story. I like seeing a dude get punched in the face as much as the next guy, but the subtle chess match between the employer and employee is probably more stimulating. This real-life scenario goes so far as to make the characters seem more organic because the very nature of what they’re doing is easily understood by readers.
Siegel and Higgins also examine the perception of women in the workforce and in the superhero genre. This provides perhaps the most interesting commentary in the issue. Radia hasn’t had enough time to develop a strong voice of her own but the projection of other characters onto her tell us a lot about her. Being the only female hero we have seen thus far, it’s clear that she’s treated lesser than the men. A journalist (those damn journos!) tells her that he’s going to “play to her strengths” and “stick with the simple topics.” This sort of casual misogyny is disgraceful and dreadfully accurate not just in capturing the upheaval that was taking place in the middle of the last century but also in places all over the world today. Reis makes Radia beautiful, radiant even, but we’re never left in doubt of whether she’s more than just a pretty face. When she loses control after being touched on the arm by a local gangster the following panels are satisfying in every sense and look fantastic.
Reis is not just a talented artist, he’s an easy marketing tool as well. This book doesn’t look anything like the others on the shelf, in a good way, and I don’t find it difficult at all to recommend this series because of that. The nature of Reis’s style can make consistent facial visuals a bit hit-and-miss but they never look bad, just a little different when posed an alternative way. Each reader is liable to react a little differently to this but for my part I never found that getting in the way of enjoying the feast Reis laid on the table.
In a comic that featured heavy commentary on perception Reis, like a consummate pro, balanced the issue with an extremely neutral colour palette. Letting the tone of the book be established by the story itself was an interesting gamble, one that I think pays off for the reader. The atmosphere doesn’t boldly assert the theme and instead is presented in many different shades, just as there will be many different interpretations of the book itself. This reserved colouring also makes the occasional splash of colour a striking contrast to the rest of the comic, drawing your attention to that particular scene and forcing you to consider whether a perception was just shattered.
“C.O.W.L. #3” comments on all-too-real problems. How does a superhero union have anything to say about real-life? I’m glad you asked. Income inequality is a term that you’ve probably seen on the news or read about online or in the newspaper. The term describes the gap between the middle and low income earners and the high income earners. This gap is significantly worse now than during the ‘60’s era depicted in this comic. In my home country of Canada, we face a political and economic landscape that is almost unrecognizable from the one we had only a half century ago. Of course, there were plenty of nasty things going on back then but when top income earners controlled 8% of the wealth back then compared to 32% today, you don’t need an economist to tell you there’s a problem. This series highlights why unions existed at the height of income equality, they empower the worker in ways previously unimagined. Think of it like an industrialized Magna Carta. But “C.O.W.L. #3” also shows the difficulty that is tied to unions. The danger of handing someone too much. The danger of what happens when diplomacy breaks down. The danger of synthesizing the voices of the individuals into a singular figurehead. And the greatest danger of all: that all of this is made functional by humans. These constructs must operate while relying on all our idiocy and genius, all our lethargy and drive, all our cowardice and courage, all our pettiness and righteousness. It’s a mix that screams trouble.
We’ve already determined that it’s bad when middle-earners’ wages increase 6% over ten years but top earners wages increase 75% over the same span (numbers that aren’t as anecdotal as you might think). We have a similar problem when I’m likely to make as much money by the time I’m 65 as my girlfriend is by the time she’s 79 and that’s assuming we stay in a pretty good place to live, all things considered. To say that this is unacceptable is barely breaking the surface of the problem. But it’s a decent start. As Radia learns the hard way, it’s a tough world out there, but it’s a little tougher is you don’t have a penis (because that totally makes sense). It’s not about making sure that everything is the same for everyone. It’s about opportunity. Ensuring that everyone has the same opportunities in the workforce, even in a country as amazing as Canada, isn’t representative of reality. This is what we must fight for.
Kudos to Siegel, Higgins, and Reis for taking on controversial subject matter. But even more kudos for tackling crucial subject matter. As far as I’m concerned C.O.W.L. has become required reading. This book features some of the most impressive and expressive art you can find in any series and it is filled with relatable characters and compelling fiction. All of that and the book transcends being just an enjoyable read and forces you to think about higher issues.
“C.O.W.L. #3” earns 9.1 / 10