This eleventh issue of “C.O.W.L.” by Kyle Higgins, Alec Siegel and Rod Reis is also its last, with the series’ cancellation announced in April. Higgins and Siegel’s structure the final issue with obvious care, wrapping up most of their loose ends and checking in with most of the cast.
“C.O.W.L.” #11 has staccato, tense pacing, but its tone is elegiac. The textbook voiceover of Geoffrey Warner’s thoughts continuously telegraphs his feeling of failure. Although C.O.W.L. is still standing at the end of the issue, heavy losses are sustained. The atmosphere is as if the union is closing up shop. Higgins and Siegel also visually signal the end of an era, especially in the scene in which characters leave the office with their personal stuff in boxes.
Rod Reis’ delicate linework is beautiful, especially for details like Reginald’s pin-striped suit or background details like light fixtures and scrollwork on bed frames. He also has a lovely, subdued palette throughout the issue that pairs ochre yellow and pale teal with blue-gray and purplish shadows. His weakness is in depicting action. His bodies and facial expressions are stiff. The faces themselves show clear emotion and the anatomy is fine, but the flesh lacks a feeling of movement and vitality. The moments that don’t require fluidity, like Geoffrey’s moment of shock when he walks into his office, have a strong emotional charge. Scenes of action, like Karl’s clenching his fists inside Reginald’s office, don’t look quite right. The silhouette where Karl is running looks cartoony and funny, killing the atmosphere of dramatic menace and agitation.
In this last issue particularly, the superheroism aspect is irrelevant. The disconnect between the marketing of “C.O.W.L.” — superhero unions! — and the crux of the story may have turned off readers who wanted a more traditional superhero yarn. “C.O.W.L.” is much more like “House of Cards” than “Batman” or “X-Men.”
The action turns on strategy and the mismatch between heroism and politics. Higgins and Siegel direct the reader’s attention to this by showing the Grey Raven’s seeming resolve and high-minded ideals in his speech to the public. That scene of daylight is followed by two twilight scenes of ugliness and weariness. Geoffrey’s dream is followed a nightmare of his own making. The light/dark, public/private symbolism couldn’t be clearer.
Although the action is intricate, “C.O.W.L.” suffers from shallowness of characterization. Almost all the characters still feel like types. Reginald, in particular, functions as a foil to Geoffrey more often than not. The dialogue echoes lines from movies and TV, and all of the emotional beats are familiar, even when the specific details of the plot twists are unexpected.
The exception, of course, is Geoffrey himself, the head schemer. “C.O.W.L.” is really his story, about the slow fall and corruption of a powerful, potentially great man through both ambition and misguided principles. In structure and in its emotional arc, “C.O.W.L.” is similar to Shakespearean tragedies like “Julius Caesar” and “Macbeth” or, more recently, “The Godfather” and “Breaking Bad.”
In the climax of “C.O.W.L.” #11, there is no fight. The action taken is beyond the pale. To right a wrong, a self-proclaimed hero steps even further outside the pre-ordained rules, and this rule-breaking still has the power to shock. It acknowledges failure, not only strategically but in the moral dimension.
The final two scenes feel inevitable, and yet the twist is still a surprise. Superficially, it’s the violence that is shocking but, really, it’s how the violence is visually telegraphed as an execution. The resulting moral and emotional significance makes for a powerful ending that does justice to the creative team’s vision.