C.O.W.L. Writer Kyle Higgins Talks New Image Comics Superhero Book

Kyle Higgins discusses writing a comic about superhero labor unions, C.O.W.L. and working with Image Comics.

The Image Revolution continues. Image is hitting fandom with hit after hit, fresh concept after fresh concept, and one of most original new projects is C.OW.L. (out this week) by writers Kyle Higgins (Batman, Nightwing) and Alec Siegel (Captain America, Avengers), and artist Rod Reis (Justice League). C.OW.L. centers on the world of superhero labor unions in 1960s Chicago, a genre mash-up and period piece that sounds as fresh and exciting as anything on cable TV, but is also pure comics. It was our pleasure to discuss C.OW.L., the project’s origins, and what readers can expect from the book with series co-author Kyle Higgins. 

Can you talk about the genesis of the project? Where did the spark for C.O.W.L. come from?

It started as something that made me laugh. I was working a summer job in Illinois, at Accurate Dispersions, and I was up in the R&D lab doing draw downs for paint colorant samples. I was talking to one of the guys I was working with, about Batman Begins I think…and I made some comment about how superheroes really needed a labor union. He laughed and said “yeah, maybe the villains are villains because they couldn’t get in.” The idea stuck with me all day, and that night I tried to write a script for it.

But then I realized how little I actually knew about labor unions (laughs). So, I shelved the idea. Then when I transferred to Chapman University, I needed a writing sample in order to get into the film program. I dusted the idea off and wrote a three page story…which I just found again, actually. It’s more of a satire… nd it’s not particularly good (laughs) but a lot of the ideas we’re exploring are in there. Even just as throwaway lines.

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So what made you want to revisit this world as a pro?

I believe in the idea, the world, and the characters. I think everyone has a project that– in some ways– they see all their other projects through the lens of. For me, every step I’ve taken as a writer, everything I’ve learned and am learning…I find myself relating back to C.O.W.L. Like, I’d be working on a Nightwing story and find something in the way I structuring a subplot, and I’d go “oh, that’s how an ensemble cast works…that would be a really cool dynamic to explore with Geoffrey…” etc. So, I think it was only a matter of time before I went back to the world of C.O.W.L.

Please explain to those not in the know, the film The League and how it inspired C.O.W.L.

The League is my senior thesis film, about the superhero labor union of 1960’s Chicago. It’s– like you said– what C.O.W.L. is inspired by. In a lot of ways, it was a dry run. It’s where we first introduced characters like Geoffrey Warner, Blaze, Sparrow, Eclipse…but it’s a murder mystery story. We really only used the idea of a superhero labor union as a backdrop. Now, in C.O.W.L., we’re really exploring what this organization is. How it operates, who’s in it, etc.

What drew you to the particular setting of 1960s Chicago?

It was a combination of things– Chicago’s political history, the prominence of labor unions, and the rise of the Marvel characters, who really represent the changing of the times. C.O.W.L. fits very well in this era.

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How did this project end up at Image?

Kind of a total coincidence, actually. I have another project at Image, and Alec and Rod and I were working on C.O.W.L. on the side… just on our own. I happened to be sitting with Eric Stephenson at SDCC last year, talking about the other project, and he asked what else was going on. I told him “oh, you’d probably get a kick out of this…” and I showed him these watercolor pages from Rod, for C.O.W.L.

I told Eric that we were doing it on our own, and planning to publish it in Brazil…where Rod lives. After that, we were going to kind of play it by ear in the U.S. and see if any publishers might be interested. Eric said “well, I’m interested…” and it went from there.

Right now, Image is experiencing a creative renaissance not seen since mid ‘90s Vertigo. Can you tell us about the creative dynamic of working with Image?

It’s pretty fantastic. And for me, working on a book at a company where everyone is pushing boundaries…upping their game on every title…it’s inspiring. It focuses and pushes me. I feel incredibly fortunate to be working there right now.

When a writer is working with Marvel or DC, they are working in perpetual second act, in Stan Lee’s ideal of “the illusion of change.” What’s it like to be fully immersed in a superhero universe that has a refreshingly possible third act dynamic?

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That’s the whole draw of C.O.W.L., in my opinion. It’s one of the things I love about Game of Thrones right now. I haven’t read the books, but the HBO show has me hooked every week. These characters change in big, dramatic ways. Sometimes that means death, other times it means redefining their purpose. C.O.W.L. is a series about superheroes in a time of change. Our characters will change, for better and for worse. We’re putting them in uncomfortable positions and challenging them. How they react is what defines them and makes them interesting.

How much research have you done into labor unions of this era, and are there any books you can recommend as a primer for C.O.W.L.?

Quite a bit, actually. And we’re not done! I’m staring at two books on my desk right now that I need to dive into next week. I don’t know that there’s any sort of, necessary reading per se, but I would recommend Mike Royko’s Boss for a portrait on Mayor Daly, as well as Teamsters by Steven Brill. Teamsters takes place a bit later, in the 1970’s, but it’s still fantastic.

Tell us about working with your co-writer Alec Siegel. How do the two of you break story?

Most of the times it’s us in a room, or on a walk, talking through story points and characters…themes and broad strokes. Once we settle on what the point of the story is, we’ll typically do a page by page outline together, and then split up which scenes we’re writing. Eventually, we’ll come back together and work on one document, with each of us taking turns typing. We’ve been writing together for a long time, about nine years. Our process ebbs and flows, but for right now this is how we’re doing it.

Has your great work on mainstream super-heroes like Nightwing and Batman changed your perceptions on the genre between The League and C.O.W.L.?

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It has, yes. In big, big ways. A lot of my superhero work has been pretty down the middle, which definitely has its merits, but…you start to understand the genre in different ways when you’re writing in it. You see why things work the way they do, from the inside out, and how the illusion of change really works. It’s especially apparent when you’re trying to build an arc for a character. And writing those stories has taught me a great deal about writing C.O.W.L. as an ongoing series, in a way that I never would have come up with had I not put in the time on Nightwing and Batman Beyond.

Obviously C.O.W.L. is an alternate history, can you give us some ideas of how the existence of super powered beings have changed history?

Well, the divergence starts to happen before World War II…but the real shift happens after the war, when the development of the atomic bomb paved the way to super powers. From there, technology advanced, costumed criminals became more common, and C.O.W.L. formed.

Are there any particular Silver Age stories that have inspired C.O.W.L.?

I was a big Marvel fan growing up, and some of my first comics were early 1960’s reprints of Spider-Man, FF, Hulk, the Avengers, X-Men… there’s no specific story points that stand out as being direct influences, but I bet if I dug deep enough I could find some. When we made the short film, Darwyn Cooke’s amazing New Frontier was something I went to a few times…from a style and aesthetic standpoint. It’s an amazing book.

Rod Reis is mostly known for his work as a colorist. How did he get involved and what elements has he added to your established world?

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Rod’s amazing. Truly. We met on Nightwing, which he colored the first sixteen issues of. C.O.W.L. is actually his first book as sequential artist. We worked together on a little eight page story for my friend’s anthology, and off the strength of those pages… I asked Rod about C.O.W.L. It’s been a fantastic experience, and his art is so unique. It doesn’t look like anything else on the stands right now…which is obviously super important with a creator owned book. Especially a creator owned book that involves superheroes.

Let’s talk about some of the players in C.O.W.L. What motivates them, what do they want, what is standing in the way of their goals?

In the first arc, our main characters are all members of different divisions in C.O.W.L. and their stories and purposes are really tied to the organization. Geoffrey Warner is the founder and the leader, and he’s also a retired superhero: The Grey Raven. He’s something of a living legend, and C.O.W.L. is his legacy. It’s also a Chicago institution and, in his mind, is incredibly necessary for keeping the city safe.

Kathryn Mitchell, Radia, is a telekinetic, and a member of the tactical “trinity.” She’s arguably the most powerful person on the planet, but has been made out to be something of a sex symbol by the media and C.O.W.L. Her story in the first arc is really about redefining herself in the eyes of the city, and C.O.W.L. There’s also the hints of something there between her and Geoffrey…possibly an old relationship.

John Pierce works in the investigations division. He’s kind of our moral compass in the book. He sees what C.O.W.L. has become and knows what it used to be. The case he gets involved with, questions a lot of what he thinks he knows about C.O.W.L.

Grant Marlow is a member of the patrols division, along with his partner, Eclipse. Grant doesn’t have any powers or a codename…which is rare for any members working the streets. This is definitely a story point though. Grant feels rather inadequate in the organization, the weakest link, if you will. He also has a twelve year old son who has become rather disillusioned about his father. Grant’s story in this first arc is about finding his purpose in C.O.W.L. and the city.

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Who would you consider the antagonist of the series?

Themselves. The opening of issue 1 follows the organization taking down the last of the big villains from the 1950s. Now, they’re faced with questions from the public and City Hall about whether they’re still necessary in the city. The times are changing. Can the heroes change with them?

Can you describe the differences of working on a project that is wholly your own? Is it more difficult to find voices for characters that sprung from your own mind rather than giving a voice to established icons?

I wouldn’t say it’s harder…I’d say it’s different. In a lot of ways, it’s incredibly liberating. As I said before, these characters can grow and change. They can die. Anything can happen, and everything that does happen, has consequences and lasting ramifications. For me, there’s more pressure on a book like C.O.W.L. As a creator, I feel like I’m operating on a tight rope with no safety net. But, having gotten a taste of it, I don’t think I could ever give it up.

It’s a crowded marketplace, what will readers find in C.O.W.L. that they won’t find anywhere else?

If you like shows like Breaking Bad, Mad Men, Game of Thrones, The Wire…I think you’ll like C.O.W.L. Like I said– anything can happen. C.O.W.L. is a complex character drama that just happens to have costumes.

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Will any other time periods be shown besides the ’60s? Modern day superhero unions?

Yes. We’ll be showing earlier versions of the union, definitely. As well as sequences from World War II. As far as modern day…no, there aren’t any plans for that right now.

Do any real world figures take part in the story?

Yes. Presidents, Mayors, public figures…we’re pulling from history where applicable.

Kyle Higgins, thank you very much!

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