Artist Denys Cowan is a comic book legend. Though he’s young to be considered such, a quick look at the many books he’s drawn and the projects he’s worked on make it clear why he’s thought of so highly. In recent years, Cowan has been working in animation, most prominently as a producer on shows like “Static Shock” and “The Boondocks,” and then as an executive at BET where he oversaw shows like “Black Panther” and a series of shorts, including the controversial “Read a Book” PSA.
Cowan’s first love remains comics, however. He got his start in the industry as a teenager working for Rich Buckler and then under Neal Adams at Continuity Studios. His first major work was illustrating DC Comics’ “The Question” written by Denny O’Neill, a cult hit that made Cowan a fan favorite. He went onto draw the “Blind Justice” story arc of “Batman” written by “Batman” screenplay writer Sam Hamm, before drawing a “Deathlok” miniseries at Marvel where he met Dwayne McDuffie. The pair along, with Michael Davis and Derek T. Dingle, went on to form Milestone Media, where Cowan designed many of the characters, penciled much of the series “Hardware” and the initial zero issue of “Xombi.”
In recent years, Cowan has drawn a number of miniseries (“Captain America/Black Panther: Flags of Our Fathers”) and short stories (“Case 21” in the Vertigo anthology “Strange Adventures”), but this week, his first new ongoing series in more than a decade launches. , is an ambitious new Vertigo title that blends supernatural thriller, social realism, voodoo, history and life in New Orleans after Katrina.
CBR News spoke with Cowan about his career, McDuffie’s legacy and “Dominique,” with the artist providing an exclusive look at the character designs and pencilled pages from the first issue, which hits stores today.
CBR News: You were working in animation for over a decade, but since leaving BET in 2009, you’ve returned to comics. What drew you back to the industry and artform?
Denys Cowan: I could have done another animation gig, been a producer or a director. At BET, I was a Senior VP at a network. I was doing animation, mostly from the network side. I was ordering shows and overseeing shows. We did “Black Panther” at BET. I wasn’t actually animating — I would never call myself an animator. That’s a really highly-respected skill. What I can do is storyboards, direct, produce. I’ve worked with a lot of excellent animators, but to call myself an animator would be an insult to animators. [Laughs]
Are comics your first artistic love?
That’s really what it is. It’s the girl that brought me to the party, and you always leave with the girl you came in with. Comics have always been my best and my first love. It’s not a cliche for me. After the BET experiences — and before that, I was producing “Boondocks” and producing “Static Shock” — there was a lot of stuff that had nothing to do with art, which was always my first love. I never wanted to lose that ability to do comics and to draw and to create. It was a natural thing to get back into it. There are a number of reasons. Peace of mind is what got me back into comics. Peace of mind and maybe a desire for poverty. [Laughs] There’s not a lot of money in comics, but it’s very fulfilling.
In the past few years, you’ve done a few comics, all miniseries and finite story arcs. What made you interested in doing an ongoing series and “Dominique Laveau,” specifically?
One of my desires to get back into comics was to do a regular book. I hadn’t done one in years. I hadn’t realized I hadn’t done one in years, in fact, until it was pointed out to me, because I had been doing so many comics. The chance to do an ongoing series, where every month I got a chance to play with characters and every month we had a chance to develop storylines and see how they played out as opposed to cutting it off after four issues, was a chance I couldn’t pass up.
There are a number of other things, also. One was a chance to work with Karen Berger at Vertigo. She’s one of my favorite editors, and Vertigo is an excellent, excellent imprint. If you work for Vertigo, you’re working with the best of the best, and I wanted the chance to do that. When the opportunity presented itself, when Selwyn [Sefu Hinds] and Karen approached me with the idea — it was an idea, when I was first told about it — I had to do it.
You worked with Vertigo before when you illustrated “Fight for Tomorrow,” the Brian Wood-written miniseries.
“Fight for Tomorrow,” the six issue miniseries with Brian Wood, was done while I was producing “Static Shock.” I think about it now and I’m like, I was insane, what was I thinking? “Batman Confidential” I did while I was at BET, so I was Senior VP and then coming home at night doing these comic books because I wanted to do it so bad.
Did you and “Dominique Laveau” writer Selwyn Sefu Hinds meet when you were both at BET?
I met Selwyn at BET. He was one of our writers. He did news projects and worked on special programming. A very talented man. That’s when I first connected with him and we hit it off, but we didn’t actually do any work at BET together. It wasn’t until after BET that we hooked back up and started collaborating on different things. We’ve collaborated on a number of different projects, some I can’t even talk about, but Selwyn is somebody that I’m going to keep very close to me because he’s a great writer.
Since Selwyn is new to comics and you’re a veteran, what’s your working relationship like on the book.
He’s come up with a lot of original ideas. It’s challenging, because his vision is so big. I think one of the reasons they wanted me to do this book is because, at this point, I’m able to articulate pretty clearly some things that may not be clear in the writing. Which is not to say he’s not a precise writer, it’s just [he has] a lot [of ideas]. My ability to break that stuff down and hopefully present it in a compelling way is one of the reasons why I’m doing it.
One of the reasons why it works is we talk, Selwyn and I. Usually we work through Karen, because even though we’re friends, we keep it very professional. The professional part of it you work through the editor. You’re not going off in the corner and then handing it off to Karen going, “Here you go, it’s all good because we’re friends.” It’s a bit more structured than that. Selwyn will hand in the script to Karen, she’ll edit it, go over stuff with him, then I’ll get it, look at it. I go,” I can’t understand this and I don’t know how I’ll do this.” And then I sit down and draw it. [Laughs] If I have any questions or whatever, I’ll usually go through Karen, though occasionally I’ll call Selwyn to ask, “What did you mean by this,” or “What did you mean by that?” I try to keep it pretty structured. That way, there’s always someone else who knows what’s going on.
How is working with Selwyn different from how you’ve worked with other writers?
On “Batman Confidential,” I worked with Michael Green, and we probably had two conversations. One at the beginning, and then one at the end. With Selwyn, it’s a bit more collaborative in that I do talk to him and try to get a bead on exactly what he wants. It’s not that different from the other writers I’ve worked with, except that he’s a friend. There’s a bit more — it’s a little bit more personal, but professionally, it’s been about the same as with any other writer. Just a little bit more communication.
Do you think that level of communication and interaction is necessary for an ongoing series?
Depends on the artist and depends on the writer. I don’t know if it necessarily makes it better or worse, or if it’s necessary. In this case, I think it all helps because this is a world that has not been seen, with characters who have never been done before, in an environment that has rarely been depicted in comics. It takes place in New Orleans, post-Katrina, so we’re dealing with a lot of social issues. It’s complex and different. It’s not like there’s an established cast of characters — we’re making everything up from scratch. Every issue, I’m making it up and hoping it works.
Is there a lot of research involved?
Yeah, there is. You start off with the city of New Orleans, which is a character itself. All the people in it, the building, the different architecture. It’s different from anything I’ve drawn before. You want to make sure that it’s accurate, because people live in New Orleans and they look at the books. They realize if what they’re looking at is authentic or not, so I’m trying to keep it as rooted in the real architecture and the reality of New Orleans as possible. So there’s a lot of research involved. The characters, not as much, but you’re also trying to draw from the environment that they’re from. It’s New Orleans, it’s Louisiana, it’s voodoo mythology. You’re trying to combine all the elements together in these characters when you draw the story.
This a book where there are three things that I’m not very good at, but I have to do. One is, I hate doing architectural renderings of buildings that are accurate. I just hate doing that. So of course I get “Voodoo Child,” which takes place in New Orleans where that’s all there is. I’ve got to draw women. I love women. I think women are fantastic. Have I drawn a lot of them in my career where they’re stars of the book? Never. So of course I get the book where I have to draw a female lead character. [Laughs] The third thing is, this is a supernatural horror book. I don’t go to horror movies. I saw Clive Barker’s “Hellraiser” in, like, 1992, and that was it for me. So of course I get this book. [Laughs]
The book really does feel different from other work you’ve done. Realism has been a key of many of your projects over the years and is essential here, but every other aspect of the book is something new and different for you, from the supernatural to the historical to architectural rendering, which sounds painful. [Laughs]
[Laughs] If you’re doing ornate grillwork on balconies in every shot, because in New Orleans there’s a lot of balconies that are really ornate and the buildings are very distinctive, it’s a lot of work. Oh, my God. [Laughs]
Talk a little about the process. What happens after you get the script?
I get the script from Karen — she sends one or sometimes two at a time. I’ll read the current issue twice. I’ll take out my iPad and, while I’m reading it, I’m starting to think of shots. Sometimes I’ll write down notes, jot down things next to panel descriptions, little notes to myself. Then I’ll take 8.5″ by 11″ paper and I’ll draw the whole thing. I do that because I like to get a sense of how the page will look printed. I can do it big and shrink it down, but I like to draw it that way. I’ll work out panel composition, lay out the word balloons, work out the lighting, put all the buildings in.
I work with an assistant, and I’ll give him the reference and say this is what I need in this shot, this is what I need in that shot. I’ll use that to finish the final page. There’s a shot in an upcoming issue that has these stone lions that are outside of this landmark in New Orleans. I’ll find the stone lions, I’ll place the lions in the panel, but he’s giving me the details. Then I’m taking those details and going back and on the finished penciled page I’m using what he gave me and building on that. It’s a little complicated, but it’s necessary. At the end of the day, everything you see is mine, but no man is an island. We all work with people. I work with him. From there, I’m assembling all the elements, all the lighting, all the research and reference and stuff that my assistant has done, and I’m sitting down and doing the final, pencilled page and that gets sent to Karen.
The way that you describe your process, it sounds as if you work that way to do a few drafts.
I do. After I read the script, I’ll do those 8.5″ by 11″ layouts. Then my assistant gives me another version of what I just did. Then I’ll take that version and the final thing you get is me pulling all those elements together. A book like this is pretty dense. It’s a lot of work. It’s probably more work than I’ve ever done in comics, in terms of the amount of detail and the amount of storytelling.
Why do you draw the first draft on 8.5″ by 11″ paper?
Because I like to see how it looks printed. I draw it that way first because that’s the size of a comic book. I probably got that from Neal Adams when I worked at Continuity. Neal used to do things even smaller than that. He would take an 8.5″ by 11″ piece of paper, fold it in half and do his pages like that, then blow that up and trace it off. I think he did that because it was just the easiest way to visualize everything. If you do it small like that, you can keep it right in front of you. It’s a very contained area that you can look at. It just works for me.
I’ve done comic books all kinds of ways, so the way I just described is not the only way I’ve ever done them. As I’ve gotten older and further in my career, I tend to take more time instead of less. I care so much more now in terms of getting everything as perfect as I can make it. This is the method that works for me.
You’re also working with inker John Floyd, who you’ve worked with before.
John Floyd has worked with me on a number of projects. John first worked with me on “Silver Surfer” back in 2002 or 2001. I did two issues, and John inked them both. I didn’t know who he was back then. I didn’t even think about who was going to ink it. He did a bang-up job. Later on, we ended up collaborating on “Batman Confidential.” John inked all issues of that. He is excellent. He has pulled my ass out of the fire so many times with the work that he’s done — he’s just amazing. We did the “Strange Adventures” story, but by that time we were long-time collaborators. It’s a fairly easy working relationship with him. Now he’s doing “Voodoo Child,” and I couldn’t ask for a better inker. He’s just fantastic.
After working in animation for so many years, has your style changed?
Somebody pointed out to me a while ago that my comic book work had changed because of all the animation stuff I had done, that it was cleaner and more open. That might be, but it has never been a conscious thing. I have so much respect for animators. I don’t have a smooth, animation style. I have a style that can be translated into animation. I did a lot of the “Static Shock” designs. I did a few for “The Boondocks.” The animators and character artists were able to take those and translate them into animation. That, I’m good at. But has it changed my approach to comics? Not that much. I was rare, because I was one of the people who did comic books before they did animation and then went back into comics. I already had that skill set coming in, I was already doing comic books. So when I got back to comics, I didn’t have to take things from animation. This is what I do. I probably brought more stuff from comics into animation than the other way around.
You’ve had a long career and I just wanted to touch on two people with whom you’ve worked. The first person is Denny O’Neill, who wrote “The Question,” which was and remains a really unique book.
People tell me that. When I was doing “The Question” back in the eighties, I knew we were working on something special. I had no idea how special, because as I’ve often said, I was so involved with drawing the books and trying not to slip further and further behind deadlines that I was not really looking at it like other people did. It might have been special in retrospect, but while I was doing it, it was like, “I’ve got to get this issue finished!” [Laughs]
Working with Denny, I learned so much. Mike Gold was my editor at the time. It was a hard apprenticeship, because he was on me all the time. Denny didn’t like people messing up his scripts, and I messed up more than I should have. Thank God they let me continue doing the book. They were both very patient with me, especially Denny. He would take time to explain what he was trying to do in the story and what he wanted me to do. Denny’s scripts are, or they were at the time, very spare. He didn’t waste any words. His panel descriptions were very precise and very brief and he knew exactly what he wanted. Working from Denny O’Neill’s scripts was a dream, when I think about, it because everything was laid out very simply and concisely. A true professional.
So, Denny O’Neill and Denny’s scripts, for the three or four years that I did “The Question,” were like a dream. I think about it now, and it’s like, “Boy, was I lucky to be working with Denny.” I don’t know how he felt about it, but it was invaluable to me. And before that, he was my editor. People don’t remember that, but Denny O’Neill was my editor on “Power Man and Iron Fist” at Marvel, so I had a working relationship with him, I had just never drawn anything he had written. Then he ends up over at DC, and I was at DC and I end up on “The Question,” that he’s writing. I learned a tremendous amount from him.
The second person I wanted to talk about is the late Dwayne McDuffie. I know you were friends and you worked together for a long time…
We worked together for a long time. I miss my friend. We’re coming up on the anniversary of his death, which is strange.
Dwayne was probably the most talented individual I have ever met. That’s saying a lot, because I know a lot of talented people and have worked with them. He was very unique. In terms of his writing, we worked on “Deathlok” together at Marvel. That’s when I first met him. I finished off a four issue miniseries that Jackson Guice had started but couldn’t finish, so they asked me to finish it. That’s when I first met Dwayne. Then, they asked me to do the regular series. It was Dwayne and Gregory Wright writing it, but Dwayne was handling a lot of the writing. There was something about the way Dwayne wrote that connected instantly with me. Instantly. He would write stuff, and I would see everything that he was writing about and beyond. It’s hard to describe. I always found his scripts really easy and visceral. I was looking forward to working on them and I think we collaborated really well together. I think it was pretty seamless, him and I.
From there, we went on to form Milestone. I got a chance to work with Dwayne in creating these characters, and we just understood one another creatively. To say it was like Lennon and McCartney — it really was like Lennon and McCartney for me. It was that close and that kind of creative relationship, where you couldn’t tell where one started and another ended ’cause it just looked like a whole thing. I think that’s one of the things that made Milestone work. The stuff that we did together. Dwayne was a hell of a writer. That the way he wrote and the way we collaborated together, it was that way up to the end. The very last script I drew of his was “Milestone Forever.” Dwayne asked me to do the Hardware story. I’m like, “Yeah, I’ll do the Hardware story.” I get the script, and it was like 15-20 years had not passed. It was really incredible. I remember thinking when I was doing it, “Wow, no time has passed. He’s still the man.” And that was the last time we worked together. What a way to end.
It was strange, because around the same time, you worked on “Milestone Forever” and then “The Question” special.
DC was calling me up because they wanted me to do my old characters again and again. I’m like, “Gee, thanks.” [Laughs] “We’re bringing back Denny O’Neill and Greg Rucka to do ‘The Question.’ Do you want to do it?” I’m like, “Okay.” [Laughs] It was like, “Wow, twenty years have passed and I’m working on ‘The Question’ again.” It was kind of like that with “Hardware.” We’re doing this again? For a while it was like, “Let’s call Denys Cowan and get him to do old characters.” I did a “Steel” cover. They wanted me to do it because I used to draw “Steel.” “Can you do this retroactive ‘Steel’ cover?” I’m like, “Thanks, you can’t have me draw the modern version, no — the 1990s version.” [Laughs]
I have to follow up on the comment you made earlier about working on a “Batman” story with Paul Levitz…
It’s called “Mortality.” Paul and I discussed this at the last San Diego Comic-Con. He was like, “I want to work with you.” We discussed this idea about death and Batman, and what we came up with was the five stages of death. Acceptance, denial, all those things, and each story has to deal with one of the aspects as Bruce Wayne comes to grips with his parents dying and how he feels and how he deals with the concept of death. I’ve done one issue, but then “Voodoo Child” came up and takes up all my time. I have another issue where the script and the layouts are partially done. One of these days I’ll take a break from “Voodoo Child” and get back into it, so, when it comes out, I have no idea. It’s a hell of a script. It’s an incredible story to draw. It starts out with Bruce and his dad and they’re walking around and his dad is showing him Wayne Manor. It’s just five pages of Bruce and his dad and it just kills you. Paul’s a great writer.
Bringing our discussion back to “Dominique Laveau: Voodoo Child” to close things out, what can readers expect when they pick up the first issue this week?
The readers can expect an experience unlike anything they’ve ever had in comics before. I say that without exaggeration. I’ve done a lot of comic books. I’ve seen a lot of comic books. I have to say, I’ve never seen anything like this. This is really incredible. Be prepared to be launched into a world where everything is familiar, but everything is not familiar at all. Our lead character, Dominique Laveau, is fascinating. She’s intelligent. She’s sexy, but it’s not a T&A book. If you’re interested in the supernatural, if you’re into voodoo, this book is for you. If you’re into relationships and romance, this book is for you. If you’re into social justice, this book is for you. We touch on a lot of things that have to do with poverty and a lot of social issues that really compelled me to want to draw this because we’re talking about things that are important to society. We’re doing a great supernatural thriller. Plus, I’m putting so much work into it. [Laughs] We’re working so hard on getting those details right, please check this book out.
“Dominique Leveau: Voodoo Child” #1 is in stores today.