Denys Cowan, comic artist and co-founder of Milestone Comics, discusses creating the creator-owned African-American comic imprint, what he would change from that time, and he teases new material for Milestone fans.
Q: In the episode, you talk about how you got the idea for Milestone, for creating these new black heroes, almost like a bolt of lightning. What was it like building this business from the ground up?
A: The whole “let’s create a comic book company that does these kinds of characters and we could do it independently” — that was a bolt of lightning. But the content of what we were talking about was just years of thinking about this kind of stuff. The actual process took about a year, and it was a year of trial and error — of writing things down, a lot of meetings, a lot of discussion whenever we had time to do it because we were all working full-time, so it was a lot of late nights ’til 12, 1 a.m. in the morning.
I think the hardest thing was keeping the whole thing a secret. It had to be a secret. We were young black professionals in the industry and here’s the thing — you start talking about stuff with different people outside of what you’re doing, and people come up with all kinds of reasons why you shouldn’t do it or why it’s a bad idea. “Nah, nah, man, that sucks, they’ll never let you do that.” We could have heard a lot of that while we were putting this together, but one of the things we did was swore each other to secrecy. We didn’t even speak about it if we were out in public, because we were that paranoid that either someone else would do it or that we would just hear stuff that was not going to help us. So, you create an atmosphere of relentless positivity that this is going to work because you’re not listening to anyone who says that it wouldn’t, who would stop you from doing what you’re doing. … So, when we gave it to Paul [Levitz, former President of DC Comics], it was as a total surprise. No one had any idea that any of us were working on anything like this. It was stunning to them – and completely blind naiveté by us that it would actually work.
Q: Were you surprised that Milestone resonated with so many fans?
A: We were very happy about it. In the middle of it, you don’t realize just how good it is. You’re just so busy working and trying to survive that you’re not even thinking of being particularly revolutionary. You’re just kind of doing it and getting through it. … We got all the responses that you might imagine because something like this hadn’t existed. The other thing I should emphasize is this: Milestone was not about black people. It was black people who founded it, but our main thrust was multiculturalism. It was not Black Power. Transgender people, gay people, women, minorities, with a focus on what we really knew — [multiculturalism] was our goal. That’s what Milestone was. So we got reactions not only from black people, but we got reactions from a whole spectrum of people who had been under-represented, or felt that they were.
Q: Is there something you’re most proud of that you accomplished at Milestone?
A: Probably I’m proudest of introducing this multicultural approach in comics where it had not existed before. That multicultural approach, I think, changed the face of comics. It would be awfully hard to create stereotypical black characters or a stereotypical anything because you’re kind of going backwards. It’s not a good look. A lot of things that have come out after Milestone trying to do what we did have failed, because it’s a particular blend of things, it’s a particular approach to things.
Q: The Milestone story is filled with many stranger-than-fiction movie moments and reconnections. Do you think Milestone could have been born without the initial relationship between you all, especially between you and Derek Dingle?
A: No. I think it would have been something totally different. There were other things that were formed by other people in different companies that came after us. But it was a particular combination of Derek and I, and Dwayne [McDuffie] and I, and Derek, Dwayne and Michael and I and Jim Owsley that made that possible. You take one person out of that group, it’s not the same, and it wouldn’t have happened. It happened precisely because those people were involved in the way that they were. I think it would have been something else and something totally different or created a character or two. But coming out with a force like that? No. With four books and 100 characters already? No.
Derek really did show up at my door. … And it was really like seeing a ghost. It was like, “What the hell?” He didn’t call, he didn’t say, “I’m on my way.” He just showed up in a way that people do not do anymore. People don’t show up and knock on your door and say, “Hey, how you doin’?” You’d be like, “What?”
Q: In the episode, you talk a lot about what you feel to be your own personal shortcomings in the legacy of Milestone. Would you change anything if you could go back?
A: Of course I would. I equated this in the film to being in a rock band… [and] how hard that is to keep four guys together, thinking the same way, doing the same things. The Rolling Stones are a miracle. They’re still together 55 years. The Beatles lasted 10 years… It’s hard keeping it together. My regret is that I couldn’t separate my own ego from the importance of the mission at that point, or the importance of what we were doing. And my regret is that I left the way I did, and it went down the way it did. I should have stayed and dealt with whatever problems there were head on, however painful they were, whatever form they took. Don’t ever leave, unless there’s no other way out. And it was not the best decision and [I have] a lot of regrets. Some regrets about the way we handled the situation with DC, even me personally, like I probably could have done more, I probably should have said something. Again, this comes back to the dynamics of the people. Once you take one person out of the equation, it changes the dynamic of everything. The Rolling Stones without Keith Richards is not the Rolling Stones… This is the same way. It’s not like I was Keith Richards, but when I left Milestone, the other three guys were kind of limping along. … If I was there, that would not have happened that way. Now it may have eventually killed me to stay, I don’t know, but continuing would have been a much better thing to do, to work it out and figure out a way to keep Milestone going.
Q: What kind of advice would you give your younger self?
A: If I could step back in time, I would counsel my young self the way I counsel my 26-year-old son now — which is [to have] patience. You’re in a hurry, you get everything done, but you learn so much by waiting, seeing how a situation will work out. Don’t react right away. Take your time, assess and then act. Don’t react emotionally to everything that happens, which is what you do when you’re younger. It’s all about your feelings. I would go back and tell my young self, “Don’t have any feelings!”
Q: The episode ends on a great high note that Milestone Media is coming back, and just recently, it was announced that five new Milestone books would come out in 2018. Can you talk more about what fans can expect about the future of Milestone?
A: I was there as part of the announcement… at New York Comic Con. We did a whole Milestone panel where [Robert] Kirkman came up and introduced the Milestone segment of his Secret History of Comics and we talked about the new titles we were doing and showed the artwork and everything else and a reconstituted Milestone. So, yes, it’s back and it’s very exciting. It’s not the same as it was before. It’s not the same Milestone. Some of the same people are involved, me and Derek, but Dwayne isn’t around anymore and some of the other creative people have not participated as of yet. It’s different. It’s a band with new members. And we’re going to do some stuff that’s very exciting and very innovative and different and great, but it’s not 1992. It’s a different world. We’re all very excited and DC’s excited. Anytime people actually start paying money for something, they mean it. DC’s actually paying money to produce these books and get them done. We’re all really hyped about it.
Q: What are you most excited to bring to a new audience?
A: Even now, with all the comics there are now, there are some exceptions where some of the multicultural characters are written really well. But, for the most part, it’s still run by 55-year-old white guys who want to keep it exactly like it was. They’re jazzing up Superman. They’re jazzing up Batman. But they’re pretty comfortable and keeping it right where it is. That’s why you haven’t seen a whole lot of multicultural characters. That’s why the Black Panther’s such a big effing deal. To a big audience and especially to black people and people of color, it’s a huge deal because nothing much has changed. It’s not like they’ve had a whole lot of choices. It’s not like the Milestone stuff’s been continually in print or you have a Static Shock movie. So what I want to bring to that new audience is the same excitement that we brought to the other audience for the same reason — because not much has changed. The world still needs these characters. The world still needs to be told these stories from this perspective… The new stuff we have is really going to shake people up because it’s still outside of anything that’s being done now in comics. So people are going to be like, “Oh my God, I can’t believe these guys are actually doing this.”
Q: It seems like the comic book audience is hungry for this new material.
A: Yeah, they are. I think they’re hungry to see new characters. As great as the experiment was, and I think it was really cool, seeing old characters like Spider-Man, and even though Miles Morales is a great character, but it’s still Spider-Man, now he’s black. It’s still Captain America, but he’s the black Captain America. Or Superman, but he’s black Superman. That stuff is okay, but it’s not the real thing. Very good story, very good stuff, but it’s not really original characters with an original viewpoint. That’s still missing, and that’s what we’re going to bring back.
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