Legendary comic book artist and Milestone Media co-founder Denys Cowan joined CBR executive producer Jonah Weiland in the CBR Speakeasy for a lengthy discussion covering Cowan’s career, diversity, and the current state of Milestone properties at DC Comics. They begin by discussing Cowan’s seminal work on “The Question” with Dennis O’Neil and the mistakes he made as young artist. They then discussed his entry into the field, which included a stint at Neal Adams’ Continuity Studios and how he was able to learn from the greats at a young age.
Cowan then offers his thoughts on diversity in comics — what’s working, what isn’t, and what still needs to be addressed — which dovetails into a discussion about what Milestone’s goals were and why those characters and stories were able to resonate with readers without overtly being “black comics and why Milestone characters didn’t take hold in the New 52. Things wrap up with a status update on the long-gestating “Batman: Mortality” miniseries Cowan is working on with Paul Levitz, the cancellation of “Dominique Laveau: Voodoo Child,” and how the late Dwayne McDuffie forever changed both Milestone and the comic book industry.
On the decision to remove sound effects from “The Question” and let the art tell the story: The lack of sound effects was very organic. It was simply because he never indicated any in the scripts. There were no sound effects in [Dennis O’Neil’s] scripts. He would just describe the action, and then we’d have our caption, we’d have our dialogue and that was it. Denny’s scripts, literally, if you ever see them, were small and a panel description was one line, two lines, and that was it. They’re very thin. They’re not like Alan Moore’s scripts which are really thick. There were no sound effects indicated — actions, but not sound effects. So I would draw it, and since there’s no sound effects I don’t have to draw any sound effects, I don’t have to do any lettering or anything like that. Boom. Done. He never wrote captions that would describe the action. The action — you saw it — it would describe the action. So if you remember the captions were always what he was thinking about or something that was about to come up. It was all his point of view so it’s always him, but it never said, “And now as I go down the alley I’ll open the door.” It was nothing like that. It was always some esoteric whatever he was thinking.
So that’s the origin of the non-sound effects. They just simply weren’t in the script. It was planned. I know Denny planned not to have sound effects, that’s why he didn’t put them in.
On being “raised by wolves” in the comics industry: Here’s the absolute truth about me. I was raised by wolves. I was raised by comic book artists. So I’m a 14 year-old kid in an environment where literally, up until the time I was 25 or whatever, I am surrounded every day with comic book artists and writers. That was my life. In high school I was an intern — I went to the High School of Art & Design, and from there I went to work at [Neal Adams’] Continuity [Studios] in comics. I’m very impressionable, you know, [and there’s] Russ Heath telling me what to do and Wally Wood’s coming to the studio cursing me out because I messed up his photostats. That was my everyday life.
I didn’t realize just how special and lucky I was until very recently. When I started thinking about it I was like, “Wait a second…” Maybe Joe Kubert had that when he was coming up, maybe a few other guys, but not that many people had their formative years as a teenager when you’re going through all your puberty and going through all the stuff you’re going through, but you’re surrounded by your heroes. … I was there when Bill Sienkiewicz first showed up. First showed up to show Neal his samples. I was there when Frank Miller showed up. I’m working in the back, 15 year-old kid, coloring animatics, but I’m watching these guys too.
On diversity in today’s comic book industry and where it can still improve: The comics industry has changed so much since Milestone. When we did our thing there wasn’t the big independent press. There certainly wasn’t the internet. There weren’t different ways of reaching an audience. So it’s almost not fair to compare the times. The thing we did at Milestone that was different than what’s being done today, a number of things. One is twenty years ago we had all original characters. Now there are a few original African American characters of color, but what you mostly get is, “Ms. Marvel is now Persian,” right? Or “Spider-Man is now black.” “There’s gonna be a black Spider-Man!” Or, you know, there’s a black Batman. Joe Kubert and Stan Lee did a black Batman — whatever it is. Always a black version of a white character, which is okay, I guess.
My pet peeve is like, for me, it’s — it’s valid but it’s also nonsense. Because one, why is anybody settling for a black version of anything? What does that even mean? That just means that, okay, you couldn’t sit down and come up with an original idea so you’re giving me a black version of Captain America — that’s Kyle [Baker] and he’s great, so that’s different — but you know what I mean? It’s like, what’s the point of that? That’s lazy thinking to me. Its frustrating and I don’t like any of that. And there’s a lot of that going on now. So you have the Miles Moraleses, who’s an an awesome character, I’m sure, but — just a version [of a character] in black face, of the same stuff. And then that’s supposed to keep all the people who want to see black characters happy, and sometimes they are. They’re so excited to see a black version of something.
Be excited to see the new version of whatever. Be excited to see an original creation of whatever. That’s what we did at Milestone, and that’s what’s different than what’s going on today. I haven’t seen any original African American minority characters break out the way we did. I think the reasons for that are, one, we had the distribution, and the ideas. Lacking both those things and really solid, great ideas, not much is gonna come through. Not trying to put them all down — I’m not putting any of them down. I haven’t see anything that captured people in such a visceral way. Any time you’re announcing that “I’m working on the ‘Mighty Avengers’ and they’re all black’ and that’s gonna be the thing — you’re gonna lose. … It’s almost like, “Okay, we’re gonna throw you these bones. And it’s gonna keep you happy,” because nobody’s taking the step up to do the real things that need to be done.
On why Milestone did not to do “black comics”: At Milestone we didn’t do black comics. We did comic books that featured these characters with a point of view that was different. Until the creators who are doing stuff now step up and realize that [we’re missing that today], then you’re gonna be thrown these bones and you’re going to eagerly want to work on them and thinking you’re doing something. But you’re basically just colorizing characters. We come from such a great — just on the African American front — we come from such a great, diverse, rich culture that has accomplished so many things, it’s frustrating for me for people to be happy just doing black versions of the white characters. Let’s come up with something new and original.
On why the Milestone characters did not see much success in DC’s New 52 relaunch: You know, I really can’t answer that. Maybe nothing is holding it up. I would urge people to pay attention to what’s going on in comics. You never know what’s gonna come up. There has to be an appetite for this kind of stuff — an appetite from the people who publish this kind of stuff to want to do it. So if you’re making your money doing the same kinds of things over and over and over and over again, serving the dwindling audience in a way, for the print material over and over again, but you’re making a lot of money doing the other stuff in the movies and all that stuff, the incentive to do even an area like Milestone that you don’t know much about, that happened twenty years before you even got there working for this company, and while you may have some fond memories of it you don’t have any real connection to it, it’s easier to do the New 52. Or the Old 52 now, whatever it is, than it is to get back into that kind of stuff. That being said, Milestone still has some very big, influential fans at DC, so you never know what could happen.
On Dwayne McDuffie’s impact and how he changed the mission statement of Milestone: In comics, his vision was so big — and I’ve told this story before — I started Milestone. My idea. I called Michael Davis, I called Dwayne McDuffie, I called Derek Dingle. … At San Diego Comic-Con in 1990 or whenever it was, we all met. We started talking about it, and my original vision was, “Okay, we’re gonna do black comic books, for the black people.” Dwayne was the one who was really like, “No. We have to do — we’re gonna push it even further. We’re gonna do comics for all people who are underserved in the comics industry.” So my idea was originally let’s do these black characters, not for black people, let’s do these black characters and focus on that. His thing was to open it up. So then we got the Ivan Valezes and the Robert Washingtons, all these people with different visions — gay, straight, whatever it was — and we did these comics twenty years ago. That was Dwayne. And he was pushing against an envelope that was — a ceiling that was really there — and we did it anyway. It was his vision and his bravery that did that.