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Denys Cowan & Bill Sienkiewicz on The Question: The Deaths of Vic Sage

Over a decade since his demise in the DC Universe, the classic Question, Vic Sage, is back starring in a new DC Black Label miniseries The Question: The Deaths of Vic Sage. Written by Jeff Lemire, the upcoming comic title reunites the universally acclaimed art team of Denys Cowan and Bill Sienkiewicz decades after their landmark run on the character starting in 1987. The new story has Vic back to his old tricks in Hub City, exposing citywide corruption both as a hard-hitting political pundit and literal hard-hitter as his faceless alter ego when he stumbles across a secret with sinister implications for his own history spread across different eras.

In an exclusive interview with CBR, Cowan and Sienkiewicz revealed what to expect with the new miniseries, how they see the character after all these years, and the secret origins of their breaking into the comic book industry and first meeting.

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CBR: Both of you guys have had experience working with Vic Sage; Denys, you and Denny O'Neil worked for years with the character. What is it like coming back to him for his first solo story in years?

Denys Cowan: It's a lot of fun. It's a trip down memory lane because I haven't really drawn a lot of those characters in such a long time so it was great to be able to revisit them at the same time. I've had to look at a lot of the old stuff and try to remember different things that we did and different approaches that we took. So it's been a trip down memory lane, as far as looking at old material, and then, as a consequence of looking at all that stuff, if I've actually gotten any better in the 30 years since I've drawn the Question. That's the real thing because people will be comparing this work to the old work and if there's no jump in improvement, if they say "This is just as good as it was before!" I'd be like "Oh my God, I haven't done any better in 30 years!"

Bill Sienkiewicz: I know we're talking about Vic Sage but, you know, I'm just thinking about the New Mutants that I just did with Chris [Claremont] and revisiting it after so many years away and, to sort of take what Denys just said, about coming back to a series after so much time has passed -- because you're not the same people we were back then! Sometimes the difficulty is you, one, you want to go back to the well and make sure the well's not dry. Also, you don't want to be the Eagles doing "Hotel California" rather than retiring or whatever. I want to make sure that I'm still bringing something new to the game.

And, because I know change is inevitable, the way I'm approaching this that Denys is going to knock it out of the park. With me, I'm just trying to bring finishes and inks that reminds us, in some ways, of what we did before but it is all these years later and, hopefully, still bringing something fresh to it so that the readers will enjoy it. I think that the worst feeling is not that they don't like it but that they compare it to what came before and that's always a slippery slope, it's kind of a dangerous arena to walk into.

With this, you're working with Jeff Lemire now; he comes from an art background himself. How's it been working with him as opposed to working with Denny O'Neil on this project?

Cowan: Really different because with Denny, in the 80s, it was pretty much hands-on. I would see Denny almost everyday because he worked in the DC Comics offices so I could interact with him. My editor was Mike Gold, I was interacting with them two or three times a week at different times of the day just to bring in my work to the office and it would get critiqued right then and there. I would end up literally at a table with them going through the stuff panel-by-panel, page-by-page and working through the issues that way.

With Jeff Lemire 30 years later, technology is different; everything is different [in how] I'm getting the scripts. Him and I did discuss the story beforehand and come up with the story that we wanted to do. We did talk about the structure of the story, what will be in it, the main ideas; I knew what we were going to do. But it was done, there was no more collaboration in terms of him and getting back together on a regular basis, none of that is happening. We email each other but it's not about doing creative things.

That isn't to say he's not a great guy, he's an awesome guy but he seems like the kind of writer, being an artist himself, to write the stuff, sit back, and let the artist do his thing. He's not trying to micromanage the project artistically even though he's an artist himself.

Sienkiewicz: I respond more to writers who sort of give me an idea of what they want and then they trust you to do the gig. Because when I get the pages, they're just sort of given to me by Denys. Until I get the pages, I don't know what to expect. It's sort of the classic, collaborative aspect; the penciling and inking paradigm. I'm not involved in the day-to-day conversations or layout or anything else; it's that same kind of scenario that's been part of this business forever. To me, it's just exciting to see where they're running with it and then comparing it to what had been done before, what we had done with the Question before. It was looking at it from a brand new point of view.

Both of you guys have done a lot of street-level stuff: Bill, you've done Elektra with Frank Miller, and Denys, you've done Deathstroke and, of course, the Question. What is is about street-level stories and characters? What keeps you coming back for more?

Cowan: I don't know. I don't know what keeps me coming back. I mean, I like the Question, I like his whole world. I like drawing guys in suits and hats; you don't get a chance to that that much in comics as far as the main guy's get-up. So I enjoy that part of it is just different than other stuff. But as far as street-level? I don't know if I ever really considered the Question street-level other than the fact that he doesn't have superpowers, so I see what you mean.

Sienkiewicz [to Cowan]: I think if there's anything that might be considered street-level, it's something we both kind of bond over, I think it's a common thread you and I both share. Maybe it's because we're both from the East Coast and New York, there's a grittiness to it. I think that there's probably a lot of testosterone in both of our works.

Cowan: [laughs] Yeah, urban not actually street. There's a lot of urban energy in our work.

Sienkiewicz: Yeah, exactly. You know, with the Western theme, it's urban with a lot of dust and tumbleweeds.

Cowan: Yeah! And horses and guns!

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You've definitely got that grit. Hub City feels like a Scorsese movie in a lot of ways; very Mean Streets, very Taxi Driver.

Cowan: Hub City was based on East St. Louis, which was a city on decline. Back in the day, it was based on East St. Louis, not New York. Basically, it's a Midwestern city that's totally and utterly corrupt and rundown and very dangerous -- which was not that far from New York in the 80s!

Sienkiewicz: Right! I'm curious, just asking my own question here, because obviously we know what [Question creator] Steve Ditko did and I'm curious myself: Is that something you and Denny talked about in terms of just taking what he did and just, kind of, [increasing] it?

Cowan: Well, what we did was this: For that first issue, we looked at what Steve Ditko had done with the Question; we look at what Alex Toth had done with the Question. In that very first issue, we paid homage to Steve Ditko and then we killed the Question; we killed the Steve Ditko version of the Question in the first issue. So, when he came back in the second issue, I was kind of able to do whatever style of work I could at that time and not really copy Steve.

Sienkiewicz: I totally get that, you had to make it your own.

Cowan: Yeah, you had to make it your own because, otherwise, there was never any way it was going to be anything. I couldn't have done it any other way. There's no way I could ever be as good as Steve Ditko so thank God they didn't insist on it.

Bill, you're doing my job better than I am [laughs].

Cowan: Here's another tidbit: I was not the first artist on The Question, I was supposed to be the replacement artist on The Question. The first artist was supposed to be Ernie Colon. At the last minute, he couldn't do it. I think he was doing Amethyst or whatever he was doing back then; he couldn't do it. That Friday, [legendary DC Comics editor and artist] Dick Giordano has found out Ernie couldn't do it, saw me walking his office, and pulled me in and said to me "I have an emergency, I have a book called The Question. Do you think you can do it? Ernie can't do it."

Sienkiewicz: I think I ended up getting Moon Knight because I walked into Marvel with a portfolio of DC characters, with like Neal Adams Batman and Green Lantern, and I think they were like "What characters [do we have] like Batman?" and I was like "'Moon' who?!" And then, years later, you become known as THE artist on [a title] when it was just simply a kind of very fortuitous hallway topic.

Cowan: Yeah! You know, [Black Lightning co-creator] Trevor Von Eeden could've been walking by, at that time, and Dick could've called him in and said "Trevor, you doing anything? You want to do this book called The Question?"

Sienkiewicz: Along those lines, that might have happened but it might not have been the same, it would have been a whole different animal; the fact that you stuck the landing, so to speak, which you obviously did.

On an abstract level, what makes Vic Sage endure? What is Vic Sage personally to both of you?

Cowan: Oh my God, that is abstract...I don't know if he's anything personal to me. I've always enjoyed Vic Sage because I always considered him a raw character, like an edgy character that's kind of rough around the edges a bit. I imagined him, believe it or not when I was drawing him back in the 80s and even now, probably more like [classic Hollywood actor] Gary Cooper than anything else. If you look at those early issues of The Question, I was basically trying my damn best to make him look like Gary Cooper.

He had this just kind of American honesty and this American look. An inherently decent person with values that invoked that kind of physicality. That's what I was trying to do with The Question, that exchange. I don't know if I related to that, but that's certainly what I was trying to accomplish and still the same today. When we got to draw the Western, it was a lot of fun really playing with that kind of aspect.

Sienkiewicz: I can definitely see that now that you mention it, and I can also see a little Clint Eastwood. My association with the Question is really kind of through your eyes, Denys. I don't necessarily have a way that I see him specifically. It's more trying to sort of take what you do and how you see him and, hopefully, catch the right wavelength that you're on.

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This is The Deaths of Vic Sage; you do blend in some more surreal imagery. What is it about bringing that kind of imagery into this more grounded, gritty setting?

Cowan: I never think about it like that, it's just picture-making. I literally don't think I have to incorporate supernatural elements and abstract designs into this realistic thing. It's more like I have to tell the story in the best way I can; whatever that is, it's what I do. It's definitely something I'm very conscious of, I'm just not conscious about separating it like that.

You two have been working together for years now, not just on The Question. How has your collaborative process been?

Sienkiewicz: We've been working together for many, many years. We became friends early on, we worked together in a studio. Knowing someone that well, you also get to understand them a little bit more as well and you sort of grow along with them. For me, we kind of have a shorthand in terms of how we work together so I kind of exactly know what he's going for.

Cowan: That's totally true. Bill and I have known each other for years and years; we've known each other since our early 20s. I remember the first time I ever saw Bill and I remember the second time I ever saw Bill. The first time, I was up at DC Comics and I was in the lobby. And this guy walks in wearing a sports jacket and slacks, with a portfolio, this young, white dude. I remember sitting in the lobby joking with Trevor or somebody looking at this dude in a sports jacket, like, [sarcastically] I guess he's a real professional. I didn't see his work, but it was Bill.

Days later, I was working for Neal Adams at the time and I'm doing backgrounds or whatever. And that same guy walks in and he has an appointment with Neal Adams and see this guy walking in and I'm like "Who does this guy think he is walking in to see my boss?" So Bill comes in with his portfolio and I think it's the first time he had been up there. Neal opens his portfolio and calls us all over as he's flipping through pages [in his front office], "Denys, come over here and look at this." We're looking and our mouths are open as Neal is saying stuff like "He's like me but he's doing it right!" because we're all up there trying to be like Neal Adams! This kid is coming up and doing him but in his own way and Neal picked up the phone and called [editor] Jim Shooter; I remember it.

Sienkiewicz: Wow...some of that day sort of stays in my mind, just burned into my brain. I just remember wearing pants that you could play checkers on [laughs]. I remember [prolific comic artist] Alan Weiss telling me that he liked my Eiffel Tower tie. I was a rube, man.

Cowan: Yeah, but your talent was already transcendent. I'll never forget Neal pulling us all over; just messed me up.

Sienkiewicz: Yeah, you never know how it's going to turn out. I remember the first time that we started talking and you showed me your stuff and I just took a liking to it right away. Even then, you had a distinct idiosyncratic way of working. I don't think your work could get confused for anybody else's and, when I ink it, you're not a house style even though you've done stuff with DC and Marvel for many, many years. You're still like an indie kind of guy.

My closing question is what makes you both the most excited about this particular project?

Cowan: Honestly, for me, it wasn't just about the character even though I've always had a soft spot for the Question. It was a chance to work with Bill and Jeff Lemire. We've done it before on Green Arrow and it was great. We had a chance to run that back again and how could you say no to that?

Sienkiewicz: Yeah, at the end of the day, it's fun to do the stories and, hopefully, the fans will be appreciative and everything, but the amount of time that Denys and I are spending at the board, it's got to be fun and it's got to feel like an investment. It's great to work on it with friends and just have a good time. I'm going to be perfectly honest here and this isn't a slight against anyone but if somebody had come to me and said that they wanted me to ink The Question but it wasn't going to be Denys penciling it, I would've passed. When Denys first approached me, I was like "Goddamn it, I've got to figure out a way to push my schedule." I get territorial over your pencils [laughs]!

Cowan: We're grateful that Bill gets to work with us and I'm especially thankful anytime he gets to work with me and I mean that, I'm not just saying that for the interview; this is true. I consider myself a lucky man to have Bill ink or work with me in any kind of way. We don't take any of this for granted.

The Question: The Deaths of Vic Sage #1 is written by Jeff Lemire and illustrated by Denys Cowan and Bill Sienkiewicz. It goes on sale November 20 from DC Comics.

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