Labored: Why Kyle Higgins’ “C.O.W.L.” Couldn’t Come at a Better Moment

If you picked up the launch issue of C.O.W.L. earlier this week thinking that, with the season finale of Mad Man, ‘60s nostalgia is now back in, you’re maybe missing the sheer depth of Mad Men, and definitely of C.O.W.L.

Released this past Wednesday co-writer Kyle Higgins’s and Alec Seigel’s C.O.W.L. comes at a timeous point, but perhaps in a way that most cursory readers won’t notice. The book’s launch coincides uncannily with the seventh season finale of Mad Men. Uncannily, as both works speak to the unrestrained social brio of the ‘60s. But to get drawn in too deeply into the world of ‘60s, and to look at that surface as the only shared capital between C.O.W.L. and Mad Men is to entirely miss the point. What makes C.O.W.L. so psychologically vivid is not a connection to the lifestyles of some generations ago, but the same thematics that underpin and animate Mad Men.

C.O.W.L. is an incredibly sophisticated deconstruction of the superhero genre. Perhaps the most sophistication one to emerge in the years since Andi Ewington’s hauntingly moving 45. Working with co-writer Alec Siegel and artist Rod Reis, Higgins posits a ‘60s era world where superheroes have organized as a labor union, and now face the dissolution of security that this move has brought.

What ties C.O.W.L. together with Mad Men is not a strange synchronicity of timing, nor the evocation of the ‘60s, but a deeper philosophical wrestling with confluence of dissolution and disillusion.

We’ve seen the disillusion build consistently with Don Draper, this season gone, and the last season before that—the idea that even while a nascent knowledge economy takes shape, even while the world of advertising is moving on without him, Don struggles to find his place in the world, or struggles at least to maintain that same sense of fulfillment while holding the same place in the world. While at the same moment the shift to the knowledge economy, beautifully typified by Christina Hendricks’s and Dan Byrd’s battle of wits this past season, makes the large-scale social dissolution of the manufacture economy all that more accessible.

Geoffrey Warner, the erstwhile Grey Raven, and currently the motivating force behind C.O.W.L. (the Chicago Organized Workers League), faces exactly the same crossroads. Personally, he’s staring down the barrel of C.O.W.L. no longer being socially relevant in the way that it was, and the superhero lifestyle, the job security and fraternity that C.O.W.L. brought, possibly being consigned to the past. On the other hand, Warner’s already stopped being the Grey Raven, perhaps he could with equal diligence and social dexterity, reinvent himself in a successor role to head of C.O.W.L. But that would mean leaving behind everything he’s already built up.

There’s an interesting meta-note to C.O.W.L., in that it mirrors perfectly two popular comics culture narratives. The first is the reworking of the writer’s own journey as Hero’s Journey. According to this schema, the writer’s impulse to create a specific fictive world, to develop it according to set rules mirrors perfectly his fictional protagonist’s character evolution and journey through the fictive landscape. The impulse to return to unionized superhero labor must have been a strong motivator for Higgins, as it takes him back to his college film thesis, The League. This impulse to return to earlier ideations of creativity, and to “modernize” these with more adult sensibilities of the mature writer has always been a hallmark of comics creativity. And arguably it’s no different here with Higgins revisiting the themes and characters of The League in C.O.W.L.

But this cultural grand narrative of comics writers “updating” their earlier creative impulses with more adult sensibilities depends on a cultural grand narrative that runs even deeper—one that contradicts the received wisdom of giving up on “childish things” and one familiar to every adolescent comics fan whose mom made them throw out their comics collection in the trash.

Within the scope of comics culture then, within the cultural grand narrative of the writer evolving beloved earlier creativity with more mature sensibilities, and within the cultural grand narrative of fans not giving up on “childish things,” C.O.W.L. works exceptionally well. Warner’s personal story of evolving his Grey Raven identity into a motivating force behind first conceiving of Chicago-based superheroes as labor, and then unionizing them echoes in the stories of both cultural grand narratives. Geoffrey Warner is equally the writer maturing his earlier work, and the fan refusing to toss out a comicbook collection years in the building.

But neither of these jaunts into comics culture grand narratives is what makes C.O.W.L. so psychologically vivid, so socially compelling, so of-the-moment. To understand that requires an even broader scope, and to look at how cultural grand narratives from within comics culture build into modern societal dilemmas.

One sociocultural moment that seems to call up a simultaneity of disillusion (the failure to understand or accept how the self can be sufficiently evolved through current social institutions) and dissolution (the wide-scale evolution of social institutions) is the ongoing debate around how to maximize income from the internet. Or at least—how to ensure levels of regular income at least equate to page hits and reads and likes in the attention economy.

The idea that “information wants to be free,” a saying of Stewart Brand’s, popularized by Roger Clarke speaks to how deeply woven into the internet’s cultural DNA the idea of information as public domain is. This idealistic view, while perhaps a necessary utopian backlash to the kind of paranoia culture around information during the ‘70s, is of course at odds with large amount of time and effort inputted by writers and critics of all shades in their production of the information as a consumable commodity. To this end, Jaron Lanier makes an incredibly sophisticated, yet deeply accessible argument against 21st century share-cropping of information in last year’s Who Owns the Future?.

The broader problem crystallizes in the incident around first retraction ever of a This American Life episode in early 2012. The retraction concerned an adaptation of Mike Daisey’s theatrical monologue, The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, staged since 2010 and dealing with the ostensible dehumanizing labor conditions at Foxconn factories in China (where Apple and other tech products are manufactured).

Following certain factual inaccuracies being brought to light by American financial journalists working in China, the Editorial team at This American Life felt it necessary to retract their earlier episode which adapted Daisey’s stage play. Taking a more parochial view of the incident, The Daily Beast focuses on the factual inaccuracy and the necessary safeguards that are needed to maintain journalistic integrity.

But while journalistic integrity certainly is at issue here, there is the larger social question prompted by why This American Life show runner Ira Glass would invite Daisey onto the show in the first place, after nothing more than having seen the stage play and fallen in love with it.

To answer that question, you’d need to go to the heart of why it is so hard to monetize internet creativity at the same level that we’re able to generate draw in the attention economy. It’s a question that can only be answered, artistically at least, if not factually, by understanding human experience as being racked by indecision at the crossroads of personal disillusion and societal dissolution. The fact that Higgins can produce a highly literary experience by shaping raw material that returns him to the maturation of his own earlier artistic struggles, that speaks to the broader, more generic experience of comics fandom, and simultaneously wrestles with a thorny and perennial social issue emerging from the internet, speaks volumes about his creative capacities. And makes of Higgins a comics writer worth getting excited about, worth paying attention to over the coming years.

The problem of “how to we make money from the internet at a level equivalent to the attention we get in the attention economy,” is the same kind of problem that comics culture has been dealing with since the ‘50s (since the notorious Senate Hearings on Juvenile Delinquency). And in crafting a tale of man who already once has built himself, and his entire community of interest a social safety net, who already once has evolved himself beyond being merely a superhero, Kyle Higgins’s C.O.W.L. brings this problem in the sharpest focus under the lens of the one subculture that’s been dealing with the problem for decades.

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