It’s the 1960s in Chicago and superheroes have unionized to fight evil under a contract with the city. This is the world of C.O.W.L., a new Image published comic from writers Kyle Higgins (Nightwing) and Alec Siegel, and artist Rod Reis.
In our exclusive interview with Higgins, we talk about how he developed C.O.W.L. from its short film origins, working with both Siegel and Reis, building new heroes, the differences between DC and Marvel, his time on Nightwing, and his present run on Batman Beyond 2.0.
C.O.W.L. started out as a student film for you in college, how has the story matured, what initially inspired the 1960s superhero union angle, and is there a hope that you can go back and tell this story as a film at some point?
Kyle Higgins: The biggest area of growth has come in the world building, specifically in the makeup of the union– how the organization works, what the different divisions are, who our point of view characters are, what the union’s relationship is with the city, etc. When Alec and I wrote the short film, the concept of organized heroes was the backdrop for what ultimately was a murder mystery. The film was only twenty seven minutes long, so outside the general idea of “they’re superheroes who have a contract with the city,” there wasn’t much that we explored in the concept. Now, with the advantage of time and a monthly ongoing series, the world building and the characters are at the forefront.
With regards to the film question… I don’t know if a film is really a good fit. To be honest, after THE LEAGUE (the title of the short film C.O.W.L. is inspired by), I shied away from attempts at developing a feature. In my opinion, a feature has a lot of the same problems that the short has– it’s really hard to explore the organization and the large cast of characters. In the year 2014, I think television and some of the emerging digital series models offer the most potential for a book like C.O.W.L. That said, while I love directing and want to get back into live action storytelling… I’m not really making C.O.W.L. with an eye on other media. If something develops, cool, but the book is my focus right now.
Can you talk me through the decision to begin the book with a rather epic action sequence before introducing the characters and the concept to readers — what made you want to go that way?
Higgins: The series is first and foremost a character drama, but it’s a character drama about people who wear costumes and make a living protecting the city. Also, Skylancer is the last of the great villain threats that have plagued Chicago for the past ten years– the Chicago Six. Opening with his takedown drops people into the world in an exciting way, introduces our “high profile” members of C.O.W.L., and also showcases the event that is create massive fallout and turmoil. This opening really is the end of an era for C.O.W.L. and Chicago– we felt it was important to document.
Plus, I am coming off four years of writing Batman books. Opening action sequences are kind of a prerequisite (laughs)
What can you tell me about working with Alec Siegel, the collaborative relationship, and what Rod Reis brings to the book that really helps to set it apart?
Higgins: Well, Alec is one of my best friends. We met in high school, and have been writing together for the last ten years. Which is crazy to think about (laughs). Even when I branched out on my own at DC, Alec and I continued co-writing screenplays. And he was always a sounding board for Nightwing and Batman issues I was working on. I’m not really sure why we work so well together, but we do. We’re both proud of the work, and the process is fun. What more can you ask for?
And Rod is a Godsend. Truly. C.O.W.L. is his first book, outside of a short story he and I did together for Brian Buccellato’s FOSTER anthology. We met on Nightwing, where Rod colored the first sixteen issues. Once I saw his sequential pages, C.O.W.L. was a pretty natural topic to bring up (laughs). We all feel like if you’re going to do a creator owned superhero book, it needs to be different– especially visually. I think once people see the pages he’s painting, they’re going to be blown away.
Pushing aside the practical differences like owning the IP (which is obviously not an inconsequential thing), when you’re working with your own batch of heroes as opposed to working with DC’s pool of characters, is there a part of you that wishes you could tell this story — which is a little bit cynical in that heroes are heroing for money and not merely because it is their duty — with some of the more classically altruistic DC heroes?
Higgins: I would actually say that owning the IP is an incredibly important part of telling a story like this. There’s absolutely no way we’d be able to tell this kind of story with characters we didn’t own. It’s the same reason Alan Moore didn’t use the Charlton characters for WATCHMEN– to push our C.O.W.L. characters to the places we’re going to take them will only work if we’re committed to the characters growing and changing, which– for most superhero books– is an impossibility. At a certain point, things have to get reset, right? So that the characters never stray too far from who they started as.
So, if this were a story about DC characters… it would have to be an Elseworlds story. And as much fun as those are, I’d rather tell a story with my own characters where they can grow and evolve in unexpected ways. Game of Thrones is a good example– I haven’t read the books (I know! I know!) but the HBO series blows me away again and again in the way their characters evolve. You read the books and watch the show with the genuine feeling that anything can happen.
Also, when you’re developing a world with all new characters, are you consciously trying to avoid creating characters that resemble — not physically but in their powers and personalities — popular superheroes from the world of DC and Marvel?
Higgins: Yeah, but the powers being similar is less of an issue to me than the characters not being distinct and real. Not being fully fleshed out. I mean, nobody wants to read a story about a one-tweak-away-from-Batman archetype. And that’s not something we’re interested in doing.
Can you talk a little bit about the difference between your experiences working with DC and working with Image, some of the positives and challenges that exist with each situation for you as a writer?
Higgins: Completely different experiences. DC is built around characters who have stood the test of time and, for all the changes you can put them through, stay relatively the same. As a writer, you invest yourself and throw all your passion into the book you’re writing, but at the end of the day… it’s not really yours. And you know what? That’s fine. That’s the way it should be. It’s an honor and a privilege to get to write Dick Grayson. To add even a little bit to his mythology.
That said, if DC is about the characters… Image is about the creators. And, let me be clear– I’m not saying one way is better than the other. As a writer, they scratch completely different itches for me.
Obviously, you have experience working within the Batverse and the editorial structure that comes with working on those books, but how is it different with Batman Eternal? How much control do you have with regard to the story, how free are you to go off-script, so to speak?
Higgins: It’s an extremely collaborative project. I just got back from a two day summit in New York where we broke the back half of the series as a group. I came in a little late, taking over for John Layman, so a lot of the front half was already done… but what I’ve been able to do has been a blast.
Are you satisfied with where you left the Nightwing series, are there any regrets about your time on the book — things you didn’t get to pursue that are filed away for later? Also, writing how did your time on that book inform the way that you are writing Dick Grayson now in Batman Beyond 2.0?
Higgins: Dick Grayson made me a better writer. So, in that regard… no. Zero regrets. Are there stories and directions that I wish would have turned out different? Sure. But I don’t know a writer who doesn’t think like that. That’s nothing specific to me. And as for Batman Beyond 2.0… oh man, it’s such a trip writing D.G. in Loren Lester’s voice. I love it.
C.O.W.L. #1 is scheduled to debut on comic shop shelves on May 28th, if the book seems like it might be up your alley, let your local comic retailer know this week that you want them to order it.