“I Was a Teen-Age Comics Artist” with Denys Cowan
Andy Mangels is a USA Today best-selling novelist, an award-winning editor of comic anthologies, writer of several non-fiction books and comic books, and producer-director of DVD Special Features and documentaries.
Unlike the string of ’50s teenage horror pics that this interview’s title is in homage to, the work of Denys Cowan is anything but horrifying to look at–unless he wants it that way, that is. Denys started in the comic business when at an age most comic fans are developing their sense of individual reading tastes (or regressing further into the bandwagon / X-Men mentality), and is now one of the more sought-after artists in the business.
Denys may strike some in this interview as being an “angry young man,” and in the best ways, he fits this label. He is passionate about his beliefs, and is willing to speak out on them, unlike many other professionals. He is equally passionate about his artwork, striving for growth and change in a style which, although non-traditional, is winning him both sales and critical acclaim.
Denys is also an extremely funny and likable guy. Although we missed our interview plans at last year’s San Diego Comic Con, this completely up-to-date interview will fill you in on the life of a “star artist” on the rise. It was a pleasure to talk to Denys, and I look forward to doing so again. Now, on with the show.
AMAZING HEROES: How old are you, Denys?
DENYS COWAN: Twenty-nine.
AH: You’re 29, and you started in comics when you were 15. How does a 15-year-old start in comics?
COWAN: I was going to the High School of Art & Design, and one of the upper classmen was a guy named Armando Gil, who has since worked on The ‘Nam and Savage Sword of Conan. He was two grades ahead of me, and I used to hang around him because, to me, at that time, he was a wonderful artist. I was totally blown away by his work. I guess he took pity on me.
One day he was going up to see Rich Buckler and he asked me if I wanted to come along. [laughs] “Yes!” So I went up and met Rich, and he hired Annando as his assistant. Since I was hanging around, Rich asked if I wanted to help out too. That’s pretty much how I got started. I wasn’t doing full, professional work, but I was working in comics, and it did see print.
AH: You started out doing dinosaurs in the background of Secret Society of Super-Villains?
COWAN: That’s right! Dinosaurs! Giant Dinosaurs! I have no idea what issue, but I remember two stories. One was Captain Comet with the Super-Villains, and he fought the giant dinosaurs. The other was a Green Lantern story with giant gorillas. It was a Gorilla Grodd story.
AH: So you got to draw both giant dinosaurs and gorillas.
COWAN: No, he wouldn’t let me touch the gorillas. In that one, I got to draw buildings.
AH: From there, you eventually went to Continuity Studios?
COWAN: Actually, from there, I worked with Ron Wilson and Arvell Jones when I was 16. Then I entered my Junior year of High School and got an internship at Continuity. I kind of knew those guys because I was hanging around Joe Rubinstein also, who graduated two years before me. It was pretty easy to angle my way into an internship. because I was always hanging around there anyway.
AH: What did you do up at Continuity?
COWAN: [laughs] Oh. geez. I cleaned a lot. Basically. I was able to do backgrounds and stuff. I didn’t get to do a lot of art though. It was mostly photostats and making coffee and generally being a nuisance. Neal Adams, at the time, generally put up with a lot of nonsense. That’s also where I met one of my good friends, Joe Brozowski. Whenever I would mess up on a job, such as if I was coloring something, Joe would follow behind me, cleaning up my mistakes. I think he hated me for a while. He was always having to clean up my messes.
AH: This is when you were 17?
COWAN: Yeah, 16 to 17.
AH: Were they working on Ms. Mystic then? [1976-1977-AH]
COWAN: Yeah. Mike Nasser was.
COWAN: What’s so funny?
AH: Just the fact that 12 years ago they were still working on Ms. Mystic, and the third issue has yet to come out.
COWAN: Mike Nasser had drawn the first book 12 years ago. They had just finished doing the Superman vs. Muhammed Ali book about two months before I started working up there officially. I missed my chance to be on the cover with all the other celebrities. Trevor Von Eeden made it on the cover though.
AH: And you’re jealous to this day?
COWAN: I am. I’m burnt to this day. [both laugh]
AH: What was your first professional work?
COWAN: Let me think here…peel back the layers of a muddled mind. It wasn’t Superman 2020, it was a war story, given to me by Paul Levitz. He gave me this Weird War Story three-pager, which took me about three months to do. I don’t know if it ever even saw print. After that, I did this five-page western story that I got the pages back from last month. I looked at them and gave them all away.
AH: You got the pages back 11 years later?
COWAN: Yeah. They were horrible. But that five-page story took me about five months.
AH: You’ve gotten a little faster.
COWAN: I’ve gotten a lot faster over the years. That was the second thing I did. Then I did a story about football players who kept winning games, but they would only play at night. It turns out that they were all vampires. These are the caliber of stories they gave me to work on.
AH: Eventually through the years, you got a Moon Knight back-up.
COWAN: Oh. you’ve been doing your research. I didn’t do the back-up first. I did the White Tiger back-ups in Spectacular Spider-Man for about four issues, and then I did Firestorm back-ups in the back of Flash for DC. Then, I got a full-length Moon Knight story as a fill-in for Bill Sienkiewicz. Steve Mitchell inked it, and the next month they gave me a Mark Spector back-up story. They were going to give me a whole series of those. I don’t know whatever happened to that. Maybe I killed that idea.
AH: From there, you went to Power Man/Iron Fist?
COWAN: Right to Power Man Iron Fist. This was all for Denny O’Neil. He took me out to lunch one day and asked me if I wanted to do the book. I told him yes, and I did it for about a year. I did 10 issues, and there were two fill-ins. Reliability was not my best virtue then. My top priority was not trying to get books out on time, it was trying to do good work.
AH: Where did you go from there?
COWAN: Black Panther.
AH: The Black Panther mini-series was about Apartheid, which was just starting to get into the papers over here. You did this four-issue mini-series on it, but it didn’t see prim until last year. You did a second story on Apartheid for Teen Titans Spotlight #1 and 2. What were the circumstances? Why would Marvel not publish Black Panther? It has been done for what, about four years?
COWAN: It was actually about five or six years before it saw print. Uhhh… hmmm ….
AH: Was Marvel scared about it?
COWAN: Yeah, I think at the time, Jim Shooter didn’t feel it was strong enough in the right areas. It was weak in some areas and too strong in others. Basically, he said, “It looks like all the white people are killing all the black people.” He didn’t quite see that as appropriate for comic books at the time.
The first issue went to press and was actually going to see print. Shooter pulled it back from the plant and said it just wasn’t good enough. At that point, I had done three issues of it. I was very upset, pissed, mad, angry…I just said “Fuck it. I don’t need this.” I just walked away from it; in fact, I walked away from comics for a while.
Skipping ahead five years, I had done The Question for a year-and-a-half, and the people at Marvel came up to me. By this time, Shooter was history, and Mark Gruenwald–and, I think it was Mike Carlin, although I’m not sure–approached me at a convention and asked me if I would be willing to do the last issue and they would definitely print. I did it. I was willing to make any artistic changes that they wanted, but I didn’t want to make any changes in the content. I ended up adding three pages for the first issue to make the storytelling stronger. I did two new covers, and a poster, and finished the fourth issue. It was printed and sold many, many copies. I was right and Jim Shooter at the time was wrong. I don’t think he thought it wouldn’t sell. I think he just thought the material was inappropriate.
AH: Now you said you were pissed, angry. and about five other words there ….
COWAN: Yes, I was.
AH: Was that largely because of the series, or was it because of the subject matter?
COWAN: Both. I thought that the subject matter was important–is important. I thought that if people and their kids could be made aware of the situation through comics, then I thought it was my job to do that. If he would have asked me to change it to make it better–which I don’t recall him doing–I would have at least listened to what he had to say. But for him to pull the first issue and say “Well, we aren’t doing this,” was, to me, a strong enough statement that I felt that well, here’s my strong statement: “Fuck you.” I really doubt I’d handle things that way now, but at the time, I was a young, angry man.
AH: You are a black artist….
AH: And acknowledging that seems to be imponant to you both personally and in your work. Do you feel that you were being stereotyped as a black artist in that you mainly got to draw black characters?
COWAN: (laughs) Yeah. I’m glad I didn’t do Black Lightning.
AH: But basically everybody else. Do you feel you were kind of stuck then?
COWAN: “Stuck?” You’re being careful with your questions. I wasn’t stuck, but I was definitely being stereotyped. There were certain comments made about…one person told me “Well, Denys, you can certainly draw, and you do have some familiarity with being black. We think you’d be perfect for this book.” I was so hungry for work at the time that I bought that line.
AH: What book was that?
COWAN: This was Power Man/Iron Fist. The Panther was my own decision. It never would have occurred to me to do Power Man/Iron Fist. I thought that the character of Luke Cage was, at the time, very stereotypical and almost demeaning. You know? [Putting on jivey Eddy Murphy voice] “Well, I ain’t got no super-brain, but I got super-powers. Sheeeit, why not make some money from this.” All that kind of stuff. “Sweet Christmas:’ I just thought it was…
AH: He was the only super-hero at the time who was charging for his services.
COWAN: Right. It struck a wrong chord in me. Hey, I tried to change it. I also wanted more of the humorous stuff taken out and more of the serious plot elements dealt with. My approach to the artwork at the time was pretty straight and pretty serious. Mary Jo Duffy was writing these light-hearted stories. I can’t say that she didn’t have a handle on the characters, but I think she did it as she saw fit. To me, she was missing the mark. That may be a bit strong, but she wasn’t going in the same direction that I thought the book should go in. Denny O’Neil ended up writing four or five issues, and while he was just filling in, it turned out to be almost a regular run.
AH: Did you feel Marvel had any good black characters at the time?
COWAN: Black Panther. That’s about it.
AH: That’s why you worked on him?
COWAN: Yeah. I grew up with the Black Panther. Jack Kirby’s Panther. He.was a strong character. He was his own man. He didn’t go around saying things like “Sweet Christmas.” He had his own culture, and his own kingdom. He was just as smart as any other character in the Marvel Universe. He was a very positive role model, if you can have those in comics. As a kid, you kind of look at those and go “Wow.” Given a choice between being Black Panther or Luke Cage, Hero for Hire….Huh, I think I’ll take the Black Panther.
AH: What did you think of Storm as a….
COWAN: (laughs) I liked her. I really didn’t or couldn’t relate to her at all. She was in the X-Men, she was cool. But she didn’t really do much for me.
AH: She certainly didn’t advance “the black cause” in comics.
COWAN: Well, I wasn’t really looking to advance the black cause in comics, Me personally relating to a character? I didn’t relate to Stonn.
AH: Let me go back to what you just said. You weren’t looking to advance the black cause, but weren’t you looking to bring some equality and realism into it?
COWAN: From my personal standpoint, yes. Let me amend that. At that time, I wasn’t looking to advance the black cause. What I was looking to do was to do stronger books. If I was stuck with Power Man/Iron Fist, I was going to do the best I could artistically; at least to bring it to a point where I could respect it. Hopefully other people would get to respect the character, too.
AH: You said “at that time you weren’t.” Do you feel you are working to advance the cause now?
COWAN: Hmmm. Yes. It’s not a matter of advancing the cause, because in comics, there has always been a fair number of black artists. There certainly hasn’t been an equally proportionate number of black characters … or good black characters. This is an important question.
Let me put it this way. The nature of the comic book medium is that we don’t know what the creators look like. This is good in a way and bad in a way. It’s good in the way that wc don’t have any preconceived notions of what the art is going to look like, based on what the person looks like. It’s good that you have your anonymity that way. Sometimes I think that if you have a visual impression of a person, it can get in the way of what you think about their work.
On the other hand, because we don’t know what the people who do comics look like, we can have preconceived notions. I remember when I was a kid, I assumed everyone in comics was white. The few photos I’d seen were of white people. Jack Kirby, you know, I just assumed he was white; of course, he was. Any interviews I read were with white people. It never occurred to me that black people drew comics. At the time, when I was a kid, there were only one or two that I found out about later. There was Billy Graham and Ron Wilson. That was it. I didn’t even know about them until I got into comics. I had no idea they were black. When I found out, it was like “Really? Oh, this is it. I do have a chance.”
One of the things that’s happened to me that I’m particularly proud of is that when I go to conventions and people meet me, half of them both black and white people, say “I didn’t know you were black.” Some of them even thought I was a girl because of the way my name is spelled. You know, I’m a white girl? [both laugh] When people do see I’m black, especially black people, it’s a thrill for them. I’m fairly well-known by now, and it gives an inspiration to some people. There have been countless times when I’ve met my “brothers,” and they’ve said [jive voice] “Wow, man, I didn’t know you were black. Damn! Shit, I had no idea. That’s so great that one of us made it:’
There’s no denying that feels great. There’s no denying that if me being [in] a position I am in now can inspire other blacks to do the same … you know, if some black kid in Detroit or the Midwest gets inspired to do something that they want to do…that’s what gives me real joy as far as changing things in comics.
AH: Have you ever felt discrimination from within the industry? From other professionals?
COWAN: Oh yeah, sure. Not from the other artists so much, but from people in management and editorial. I’ve been made aware of situations that I didn’t even know existed: people were nice to me, but I found out later on that they would like nothing better than to burn a cross on my lawn. That was kind of shocking.
There was one time, when I was about 17 and was breaking into doing my own stuff in comics. I went up to DC Comics, and the art director at the time looked at my samples and said (Archie Bunker voice) “Hey kid, you’re real good. Real good, but we already got a colored artist working for us.” They were talking about Trevor Von Eeden. I was like “Okay, you already got a colored artist working for you. Yeah, uh fine. Great.” At that time, it didn’t mean a lot to me, because I was just so eager to get into comics. Someone that just threw a fucking racial insult at me and I didn’t realize it. A year later, it dawned on me what this guy had said.
AH: Do you want to tell who it is?
COWAN: No, but not because I will ever work with this person. Chances are, I will never work with this person.
It just didn’t occur to me that he was giving me an insult like that. I went on and remembered what he said, and it eventually dawned on me how fucking prejudiced that was.
There was another incident about three years ago where I did work for a certain title. The editor told another editor that he would never work with a black artist again because we’re all unreliable and shiftless and we never made a deadline. That was it. He was never going to work with another one again. The person who he told this to responded with “Well, there are a lot of white artists that don’t make deadlines. An artist is an artist.” The editor just kind of brushed it off. I guess he had made his point and didn’t want to pursue it anymore. To this person, it was OK to be an irresponsible white artist, but if you were a “colored” artist then he wouldn’t give you another chance.
AH: There’s been a lot of complaints from the women in the comics industry for the last few years that they feel confined. Last year. although few came oUt. the Gays in the industry ar least started complaining from behind the closet door. Do you feel confined in a WASP industry?
COWAN: [laughs] Oooo! No, I don’t feel confined…at least not…no, I don’t feel confined. I’m pretty much free to do what I want to do.
AH: Well, you’ve kind of broken through now.
COWAN: Yeah, now. In the past. I was confined. I was definitely locked into a corner. I was the guy that did Power Man/lron Fist; not just because I was a good artist, but also because I was black. I’ve broken through that now, but it took a lot.
That’s not to say that the industry was so overrun with prejudice that they wouldn’t give anyone a break. There were other black artists at the time who…one of them said to me “We don’t want to be congregating in the halls, you know, ’cause Man will think we’re trying to overrun the place. I kind of want to keep my job.” I thought “Wow, man, this is really fucked up.” I made a conscious decision right then that I was never ever going to creep around like I was [jive voice] “just grateful for the work, Mr. Boss Sir. I won’t step on any toes.” That’s never been my style. Never will be.
AH: Back to your assignments. where we left off, you were now over ar DC. You did some short back-up stories and fill-ins. AI one time you worked with Greg Brooks?
COWAN: Yes. I worked with a murderer. I did a Batman story with Max Alan Collins, and Greg Brooks inked it.
AH: An interesting sidenote there. Denny O’Neil is over at DC now too. and you two landed somehow together on The Question. How did that come about? Since that ‘s the cover feature for this issue, we might as well talk abow it a little.
COWAN: Yeah. I’m drawing the cover for it even as we speak. Well, I had just finished doing the Batman story, and Denny was the editor. We had some problems with that because I was about a week late. Denny, remembering the Power Man/Iron Fist days where he was my editor and writer, had severe problems with my lack of ability to get the job in on time. He had told me a week before I started the Batman story, “Denys, don’t blow this deadline. It’s going to show us that you can do the work on time:’ So, of course, I blew it. I got a big lecture from Denny and pretty much thought “Well. I guess that’s it. I’ve blown my last deadline and I’m never going to … I’ll be stuck doing back-up stories and fill-ins forever.”
At any rate, I had done some Vigilante stories for Mike Gold. He liked my work and wanted to give me something else, but he kind of kept me on ice. I wanted a regular book, and never could really get one, even though I was certainly good enough to do one at this point. Finally, Mike approached me one day and asked me how I felt about doing The Question, because the artist who was originally going to do it, Ernie Colon, was over-committed .
He asked me if I’d be interested in doing it, and I hesitated about half a second and said “Yes.” That’s how I ended up doing The Question. To top it all off, the writer was Denny O’Neil, that same editor who just knew that I couldn’t make a deadline. It was very ironic. I thought “Oh man!”
The Question was a dream assignment, and under the worst possible circumstances for a successful collaboration to come about, we got one.
AH: Speaking of the collaboration, you two seem to work really well together to produce an issue of The Question?
COWAN: (laughs evilly] Denny wrote the first and second issue completely by himself. He has scripted and written all of the issues by himself. I’ve made some suggestions along the way. We sat down and talked a lot about where we were going to go for the first year. There was an issue where a guy was threatening to blow up a school bus. and it was my sugsestion to make it on Martin Luther King Day. Here’s the black activism coming out in me. We made it a story with a guy wanting to blow up a bus of white school kids on Martin Luther King Day. It was supposed to be seen as a form of protest, but it was really to cast blame on a black politician who was running at the time. A white person was the one doing it. Denny, of course, turned it into a much better story than that little plot idea originally held.
We collaborated pretty regularly for the first year, although the second year we got together less frequently, but to greater effect. The second year of the story was another one where we put something in the book of social relevance to me. We did a Klu Klux Klan story in issue #15. Now, it’s at the point where Denny pretty mush just writes it and I draw it. That’s OK, because it seems to be a pretty natural book.
AH: Do you really believe all the Zen philosophy that The Question spouts so much?
COWAN: Ooo Boy! I never paid it any attention. [laughs] No, really I do. I’m a martial artist, so I’m familiar with some of it, although not all of it. As far as believing all of it, I don’t understand all of it, but I’m definitely with the stuff I do understand. Not to say I’m stupid, but a lot of times Denny will surprise me as much as he surprises anyone else; I just get to read it first and run with it afterwards.
AH: You just answered my next question, which was that all the martial arts in The Question have been touted as being highIy realistic….
COWAN: Right. It’s not all because I’m a martial artist myself though. A lot of it has to do with just thinking through the fight scenes. I make sure that the move that follows the move previous to that makes sense. I look at what I would actually do in this fight.
Now, admittedly, because this is comics and entertainment, a lot of the stuff that you actually would do would be very boring on paper. Visually, it wouldn’t look very exciting, so if you’re going to draw it realistically, you have to show it in such a way that it is exciting. That’s where the artist training comes in more than the martial artist training.
AH: With the martial arts and the Zen philosophy present in The Question, don’t you feel that they come into conflict with the roots of the book? That is, The Question is a fairly violent book, and these two teachings espouse different methods of dealing with problems rather than violence.
COWAN: You think that The Question is violent?
AH: Yeah, I do.
COWAN: You do, do you? I’ll show you violence. [Iaughs] Do I think it clashes? No, I don’t think it clashes.
AH: WeII, the way I’ve always understood the martial arts is that you only use it for protection. In this series though, the Question goes out and looks for trouble.
COWAN: No, he looks for the answers. If he happens to find trouble, he’s not going to shy away from it. It doesn’t clash to me, only because I think that the two work in harmony in a way. Violence only accentuates the Zen philosophy and vice-versa.
AH: You’re saying this in hushed tones.
COWAN: Yes, it’s very serious stuff. [both laugh] To answer your question simply, I don’t find a conflict there. I think each of the things enhances the other.
AH: Have you had any problems with the “Mature Readerishness” of the book?
COWAN: No, because it is definitely a mature book. We don’t show a lot of sex, and we don’t use profanity, but we definitely show adult situations. I don’t have a problem with that.
AH: The reviews have all been fairly good for The Question….
COWAN: Yayyy. Yes, we are a critical success, but not a financial one. At this point, I’d like to urge people to buy the book. Buy The Question.
The reviews have been great though. In fact, I was personally up for a Kurtzman Award as Best Penciller for my work on The Question.
AH: Who’d you lose to?
COWAN: Steve Rude, and I couldn’t think of a better person to lose to. He’s phenomenal. I very much enjoy his comic work.
AH: Let’s do some miscellaneous unrelated questions about The Question. Where is Hub City in your mind?
COWAN: I know exactly where it is. It’s not in my mind though. It’s based on a real city, but I’m not going to tell you which one.
AH: Why not?
COWAN: Because I’m sure Denny wouId have done so by now if he wanted it known. It is not New York. I’ve been to this city, but Denny knows it very well.
AH: Is it as bad as you portray it?
COWAN: Yes. Yes. According to Denny, which is good enough for me.
AH: What’s your opinion on Vic Sage’s long hair?
COWAN: My opinion on it? l originated it. They didn’t tell me to do it. I just started putting it in. I like it. When I first started letting his hair grow, we got a lot of mail saying people hated it. Then we started getting more mail saying people really like it. At least it stirred up some kind of controversy. I think it stirred up controversy for all the wrong reasons, but I’ll take what I can get.
I like the long hair, though. I think it’s one of the extremely cool things about the character. He’s a human being, you know? His hair grows longer. He’s not Superman, where his hair stays cut in the same style. In fact, in the latest issues, Vic’s going to be tying it into a pony-tail.
AH: Oh no.
COWAN: You don’t like that, huh?
AH: Well, doesn’t that provide a handle for people to grab him by?
COWAN: He won’t have it when he’s the Question, just when he’s Vic Sage. He lets it flow long when he’s the Question. It’s still a handle for people to grab, but he’s one of the best martial artists in the country, so….
AH: How does he get away with wearing a pony-rail on the nightly news?
COWAN: Because you don’t see it. When’s the last time you looked at a news broadcast and they showed the back of a guy’s head?
AH: Well, if he turns to a monitor behind him….
COWAN: Well, then we’ll show it. How do we get away with showing long hair in a newscast? We still do it. It makes the character unique.
AH: What’s your opinion on the political elements of The Question?
COWAN: To me, those elements aren’t as heavy as other people are making them out to be. That’s because of my closeness to the book. It seems natural to the stories I’m drawing. I didn’t think of it in terms of high drama or anything like that. All I thought of was “How do I make this visually interesting?” You know? People going to vote and lots of talking heads talking about people going to vote.
The politics of it? I think it was a pretty realistic view of how politics really are, just on a smaller scale. They’re pretty venal and nasty. I’m glad I got a chance to skewer politics publicly.
AH: Compare your two inkers, Rick Magyar and Malcolm Jones III. How did you like working with either of them?
COWAN: I enjoyed working with Rick. I think he’s a very talented artist in his own right, and he was certainly a pleasure to work with. I consider him a friend.
Malcolm is a whole different experience for me. Artistically, our styles are a lot closer. He understands a lot of what I do. So far, he’s been the best inker that I’ve had, with the exception of Dick Giordano. The Question that you see now is a lot closer to the way I draw and the way I conceive it than The Question of before.
You preferred Rick Magyar’s inking, right?
AH: Yeah, I did.
COWAN: Well, you’ve never seen the pencils. It takes a lot to get used to the style I work in, if you haven’t seen it completely. Rick had a more traditional style than Malcolm has. Malcolm is a lot more willing to take a lot of chances and go in different directions. It’s very challenging to work with him. It’s also a lot of fun, because of the unique way he can interpret what I do and remain true to it at the same time.
AH: Had you asked me, as an outsider, I would have thought that you would have most preferred Bill Sienkiewicz’s inks.
COWAN: I love Bill’s work. He’s a phenomenal artist, and a pretty close friend of mine. On the covers to The Question, he’s been just excellent. Our collaboration on Doctor Zero was based on the fact that we always wanted to work together and explore what we could do together.
Let me rephrase that earlier statement though. Malcolm is my absolute favorite inker, while Bill Sienkiewicz and Dick Giordano are others of my top favorite inkers. We’ll just leave it like that.
AH: Let’s switch over to Doctor Zero now, since you mentioned that. You went from being an artist who couldn ‘t do one book a momh to an artist who can do one-and-a-half books a month. Has that because you got faster or because you were putting less work into it or….
COWAN: No, I’m definitely putting more work into it. I just got responsible.
AH: You quit partying late and stayed in to do your work?
COWAN: I quit partying at all. I quit all kinds of party stuff. I don’t live a monastic lifestyle, but I’m pretty dedicated to doing good work. I’m conscious of trying to do a good job and of meeting my deadlines. I had to let some things go that were getting in the way of that. For those reasons, I was able to take an increased workload.
Also, as the years have gone by, I’ve gotten faster. When you get faster you find you’ve got enough time to take on another project.
AH: So why did you leave Doctor Zero, if things were going well?
COWAN: Because I was going to start the three-part 142-page Batman story in Detective. That would have been a little bit too much work to handle, so Doctor Zero had to go.
AH: Are you going to return to it?
COWAN: Well, probably not. They’re talking about doing an anthology title set in the Shadow Line Universe, and I may contribute a story or two to that.
AH: What was your experience like working with it? It doesn’t sound like it was a great one.
COWAN: In fact, it was a great one. I like Dan Chichester and Margaret Clark a lot, plus I was given pretty much free reign to do whatever I wanted to on it. The experience was definitely rewarding in that way. They’re very nice people and talented writers. And, I got to work more with Bill, which was definitely a gas.
AH: Currently. you’re doing the Detective Comics 50th Anniversary series….
COWAN: Yes. Yayyy. A black artist is doing it. That’s right.
AH: What did you have to do to get that assignment?
COWAN: As if I had to do something to get it. [laughs] Basically, they were considering three artists: myself, Norm Breyfogle, and someone else. I like Norm’s stuff. He’s really good. For some reason though, they chose me. I think Norm was pretty tied up on the regular book. and this was a big deal special thing. I ended up copping it.
AH: How do you feel about that? The only other person who’s gotten to draw a 50th Anniversary story was John Byme on Superman. You’re doing Batman’s anniversary, and most comic fans find him a more popular character than Superman.
COWAN: I feel great about having done it. Mentally, I’m wiped out. It was 142 pages, and I did have a tight deadline. I feel proud that I was able to be a part of comic history. That was definitely a trip. I try not to linger on that part too long because it would mess me up. “I can’t draw another line because people will be looking at this in 100 years.”
AH: “I’m a part of history…”
COWAN: “…Don’t make any mistakes!” [both laugh]
AH: Or you could get a swelled ego. Like some people we know.
COWAN: Right. I don’t want that kind of thing to happen. I definitely enjoyed it though, and I was very happy for the opponunity.
AH: Is Batman a favorite of yours?
COWAN: Oh yes. I’ve always loved Batman, especially now, because he’s going to enable me to buy a Porsche. [both laugh]
AH: Are you making a good royalty off this?
COWAN: I think that the book is doing quite well. There’s been talk of the first issue selling a quarter of a million copies! That’s at $2.95 cover price! I do get royalties. so that will be very nice. I don’t really want to buy a Porsche though. That was a joke for you people out there. I don’t know what I’m going to do with the money. In fact, I’m, not going to even count on it until I see the checks.
The money isn’t what thrills me. What docs is the fact that I got to do Batman and I got to do him in a very special way and in a special time. If you’re going to do Batman, this is the best time to do it.
AH: Did you like working with Sam Hamm?
COWAN: I loved working with Sam. [jivey voice] “Yo Sam, whassup? How are you?” He’s a great guy and very talented. The story is excellent, and working with him is a joy.
AH: Now you ‘re working with Denny as an editor. Is that more difficult than working wilh Denny as a writer?
COWAN: Working with Denny as a writer has never been difficult. Working with Denny as an editor…is not difficult at all, as a matter of fact. It’s had its moments.
I’ll tell you something about working with Denny though. When I worked with him on Power Man/Iron Fist, he was trying to teach me a lot, and I never quite got everything that he was saying. I learned a lot, but I didn’t get it all. It seems like we’re almost fated to work together, because time and time again we’ve ended up crossing paths. This time, with The Question and this Detective stuff, I learned so much about doing comics, about storytelling, and about a lot of things .
I’ve never had a problem with him at all though. He may have a couple of problems working with me, but I haven’t with him. He’s definitely one of the most talented writers ever in comics, and he’s a good person.
AH: What a stirring testimonial. Speaking of the changing style of your art, over the years it’s developed radically from what it used to be. You’ve risen above the average slyle, unlike most comic artists. How did you develop your current style, or do you feel its been sort of an ongoing gradual process? Did you get the assignment for The Question and say “I’m going to make this a radically new looking series?” Did you do a Bill Sienkiewicz and suddenly go “Boing, I’m different?”
COWAN: Zap, all of the sudden I’m drawing radically! No, actually the first year on The Question was done pretty much straight. if you look back at the issues. They’re pretty standard stuff. The drawing was pretty realistic and the storytelling was pretty basic. It wasn’t wildly innovative at all. I’m not sure if even now I’m really innovative.
There are very few really innovative people in comics, and I couldn’t presume to think of myself as one of them. I would like to be, but I don’t know if I’ve achieved that yet.
The style change came about towards the end of the first year on The Question. I started getting bored with the way I was drawing. I wanted to break out of that feeling of stagnation. I kind of figured it like this: There are artists in comics who draw realistic comics a lot better than I ever could. I just had to find my own way of doing it … a way that was distinctly mine.
I mean, you take someone like Jose Garcia Lopez, who’s a phenomenal draftsman and who has phenomenal storytelling and is a phenomenal all-around artist. I didn’t think there was any way I could do what he did or does. He does it so well. To me, if I wasn’t going to be as good as Garcia Lopez, why was I even trying to draw realistically?
That’s what started the change more than anything else: boredom plus frustration. I had to find my own niche, and I think I’ve succeeded.
AH: How would you classify yourself as an artist?
COWAN: That’s a very broad question.
AH: Answer it however you’d like then.
COWAN: Hmmm. How would I classify myself? Very, very good. [laughs, then whispers] Was that a joke? No, that wasn’t a joke. Or was it?
I wouldn’t know how to answer that question. As wildly innovative? No. As unique? Yes. As superb? I’m working on it. I don’t know if there’s any classification for me. I try to entertain and I put a lot of myself in my work.
To give you an example, you know the way the Question dresses? The different jackets, the different pants and boots, all the way down to the gloves? Well, it’s all part of my wardrobe. I figure [jive voice] “couldn’t find any better model than that.” Yeah. That’s how I ended up doing the “fashion” stuff. Plus, I wanted to do a book with a specific, distinctive style.
AH: What about future projects? You’re working on The Badger Goes Berserk and Clive Barker’s Tapping the Vein?
COWAN: Yes. I’m doing two or three pages each in the Badger series, as well as the cover to the first issue. I did pencils and inks on the cover. I’m inking all of my own covers now, as well as the majority of my work from now on. Not to say I’m not happy with the other inkers; I just don’t think anyone can ink me as well as myself:
AH: Including The Question?
COWAN: No, Malcolm is always going to ink The Question; at least for the duration of our stay on the book. I’m inking all the covers to The Question from now on though.
AH: What are you doing for Tapping the Vein?
COWAN: I’m collaborating with one of my best friends in the whole world, a phenomenally talented illustrator by the name of Michael Davis. He’s a very close friend of mine.
AH: He’s doing Etc. for Pirahna Press and a few issues of Wasteland?
COWAN: Yes, he’s doing Etc. Their launch project! It’s fully painted. He’s collaborating with me on the Clive Barker story called “Midnight Meat Train” from onc of the Books of Blood. I’m having a lot of fun on that. It’s going to be a trip.
AH: You’re going to cut loose and get rid of that gore instinct?
COWAN: The gore instinct?
AH: Well, I figure everyone’s got that once in a while.
COWAN: Yeah, I’ll be making things bloody. I’ll get rid of the gore instinct here. I’ll splatter the whole page with blood. [laughsj I’m definitely going to do .my best on the story, and working with Michael is a lot of fun. We’re both artists in this one together, but we’re both also good friends.
AH: Is he your assistant as well?
COWAN: No, he is not my assistant. My assistant’s name is Andre Coates.
AH: And he mainly does what you did for Rich Buckler, right? The dinosaurs, gorillas, and buildings?
COWAN: He works on the backgrounds, and when we have dinosaurs, I’ll let him do ‘em.
AH: It all comes full circle. Would youu let him touch the gorillas though?
COWAN: Yeaaa–No. I do the gorillas. I do all the figures even if they are gorillas. Andre’s a very talented artist, and he’s going to shake this industry up one day.
AH: Denny’s talked about, and you’ve mentioned a couple of times in here, the end of The Question. Does he finally find the answer?
COWAN: Whooo. Yes, he does. I think what it’s finally going to be is that he gets rid of the reason that he has to be the Question. I guess that means he finds the answers.
AH: How do you mean that? What is his reason to be the Question, and how would that get resolved?
COWAN: It’s his curiosity. I guess he figures out the riddle and figures out that there’s no longer a need to be the Question. How we’re going to come across that I cannot reveal at this time. I can definitely promise it will be interesting though.
AH: You plan to end it at #36?
COWAN: Yes. At least my run on it. I think that Denny’s going to leave it at #36 also. Three years is a nice long stretch of issues. Thirty-six issues. That’s enough. Let someone else do him now. I don’t know if DC plans to turn it over to someone else then or if the book will end.
AH: You will have resolved the plots and subplots?
COWAN: Yes, definitely.
AH: How do you want Vic and Myra to end up at the end?
COWAN: You’re fishing. Happy. Whatever way they can accomplish that, I’m all for. I certainly don’t want to leave Vic and Myra hating each other or any nonsense like that. A lot of that is up to Denny. Whatever he thinks is best, I’ll agree with. I like all the characters, but especially Myra. Aside from Vic, she’s my absolute favorite.
AH: There’s been some talk of a Question Graphic Novel. Will you work on that?
COWAN: Yeah, I will. There’s been talk that if The Question docs get cancelled, or we stop doing it with #36, or both, we might bring it out quarterly in a Prestige Format book. Four giant-sized issues a year, We’d knock ourselves out on it and have a different Question adventure in every one. That’s a novel approach.
AH: What else do we have lined up for the future? In a couple of months you ‘ll be done with The Question and your commitments. What then?
COWAN: Boy, you know, I don’t know. That’s a good question. 0oo, bad pun there. I’ve been offered a number of things from several different companies. I’m considering taking on one of them.
One of the things I’m definitely going to do is a Prestige Format series with a black writer named James Owsley. It’s with a black character and I think it’s going to be pretty radical. It’s a totally new character for DC. It’s almost like a thriller, and it’s going to mix politics with spies and intrigue.
AH: It sounds like this is your political statement book. You’ve got a black writer, black artist, black character…
COWAN: And if anyone inks it, they’ll be a black inker.
AH: So you’re going for a statement with this book?
COWAN: No, but it’s turned out that way and I’m happy for it. Referring back to earlier in the conversation, people aren’t aware of who the creators are and what they look like. I wanted to do something with a black character and a black creative team for two reasons. One, it’s going to garner some kind of media attention which will make people aware of who the different creators are and the contributions they’ve made to comics. Two, I want to prove that black characters do sell. There is an audience for good characters–not just black characters–good characters and good stories. We’re just as capable of producing those as anyone else.
The bottom line, of course, is always sales. If we can pull this off, it will be great for everybody. There’s a lot of black creators in comics now, that people aren’t aware of. People just assume they’re white. There’s a lot of us.
I’m fortunately in the position where I’m the noticed one, which is good because I can point out that there are a lot of us. Hopefully there will be more of us.
AH: Where do you see yourself at 35? Is this going to be your career for life?
COWAN: No, it’s not going to be my career for life. I would like to do other things. By 35, I see myself at the very top of this profession. I want to do good work, and I hope by then I will be producing some of the best work of my life up to that time.
AH: And then what?
COWAN: I think it’s Hollywood for me. I want to get into directing. If not that, just working in the movies. Storyboards and being a part of that whole creative process. I don’t know what will happen though. I used to think comics were cutthroat, but from what I’ve heard, Hollywood is real hard. I don’t think there’s anything I can’t do though.
That’s one of the places I see myself, but I have different dreams. Maybe I’ll be the head of a large art studio. Maybe I’ll be one of those lucky people who get to write and draw exactly what they want and people will print it and everyone will make a lot of money. Being 35, you’re not talking that far ahead in the future. You’re talking five or six years. A lot can happen in six years. I’m going to make a lot happen in six years.