By Matthew Cowans
The face of Western comics is changing, but it’s been a long road and a journey that still has many hills to climb. Black characters are taking on more prominent roles in the panels we read, and more Black creators are shaping their stories behind the scenes. But what of the creatives who came before? This column traces the path of Black comics creativity throughout the decades, with each year focusing on a book that features a Black writer, artist, colourist, letterer, or editor. From underground comix through Black Panther and beyond, this series will reveal the evolution of diversity in the comics industry, and shed some light on the unsung Black heroes that have helped to shape it.
It’s 1992, and images of urban unrest sparked by police brutality flood the airwaves. Many say change is needed and that a voice be given to the voiceless: amidst this turmoil, a group of Black writers and artists gather together, and penciller Denys Cowan is among them.
Cowan and others are tired of the lack of opportunity for Black creators and the limitations imposed on them in the comic book industry, and they want to create stories and tales informed by their own experiences. They want to create heroes and villains that appeal to Black and other underrepresented groups whose voices and faces didn’t feature regularly in contemporary comics. Most importantly, these creators imagine characters that they themselves can own and chart their own destinies. These conversations would morph into action, leading to the formation of Milestone Comics, a Black owned comic book company that created characters such as Static, Icon, Rocket, & Hardware.
However, this is not the origin of Denys Cowan’s comic journey. That story begins earlier.
Imagine being a 14-year-old kid. You go to school and maybe later hang out with friends. Many kids that age spend countless hours trying to master Super Smash Brothers… but Denys Cowan was different. At 14, he was working as an apprentice for Rich Buckler, a comic book artist (and creator of Deathlock). Cowan had been introduced to comics at a young age through his friend and future co-worker Derek Dingle, falling in love with both the work of Jack Kirby and the George Reeves Superman show. Cowan met Buckler through an aspiring artist and classmate who worked as an assistant in Buckler’s studio, and when invited to tag along with him one day, he jumped at the opportunity and was also given an assistant position.
During the year he worked there, Cowan learned about drawing fundamentals and use of references – while he was not given significant work, he was able to work on background animals in a Green Lantern story. Through this apprenticeship, he came to meet and work for Neal Adams.
Cowan attended High School of Art and Design in New York City whose alumni included John Romita Sr, Carmine Infantino, and Art Spiegelman. In 1975, he became intern for Neal Adams’ Continuity Comics, and while there he met creators including Bill Sienkiewicz, Jim Shooter, & Frank Miller. Connections made here would later prove helpful years later as, artwise, Cowan worked on backgrounds and coloring while learning the tools of the trade. He also cleaned the studio and fetched coffee. As a 17-year-old, these opportunities and the lessons taken from them were worth their weight in gold.
Throughout Denys’ personal and professional life, he was no stranger to overcoming adversity. He was raised by his grandparents following his mother’s death and initially dropped out of school as a teenager. Growing up as a Black teen in New York in the 1970s, he faced all of the usual prejudice and mistreatment fitting for that time, but due to this, Denys’ aspired to work on a title like Black Panther, whose strong and cool portrayal of a Black man was more appealing to him than Power Man’s jive talking Luke Cage.
As a young comic artist, he faced discrimination from DC editorial and management – being told that his services were not needed as they already had a colored artist. In a more damning instance, editors stereotyped Black artists as all unreliable and shiftless who never made deadlines, and therefore were not worth hiring. Despite this, Cowan had made the connections and honed his craft to the point that it made taking the next step possible… and with it, the seeds of a 40-year career were planted.
Cowan’s first published work was a short 3-page story called “Ultimate Weapon”, featured in Weird War Tales #93 from November 1980. It took him three months to complete.
Paul Levitz had come to him and requested that he work on the story which was part of a larger compilation issue. The Ultimate Weapon (written by George Kashdan, penciled by Cowan & John Celardo) takes place on a post-apocalyptic Earth where nuclear war has blasted humanity back to the Stone Age. A gang armed with rocks preemptively attack another gang armed with clubs due to fear of them having an ultimate weapon. This ‘Ultimate Weapon’ turns out to be… the wheel.
Fear, paranoia, and an unbridled arms race nearly destroyed civilization during the Cold War, and this story reflects that dark possibility, an the concept of Preemptive war and the desire for a First Strike also alludes to that 40-year standoff between the US & USSR. The tale illustrates that life and history can be cyclical as human survivors battled amongst the wrecked cars and ruined cities of a bygone civilization that killed itself. Technology may change but human nature will cut through.
Cowans’ style as shown in this short story is far from the work he is more famously known for. The boxy faces and heavy linework that characterize his usual work are replaced by a more DC House Style. The Ultimate Weapon’s composition and panelling lack the dynamism & atmospheric feeling of Denys’ later work – understandable given that this was from a very early point in his career, and was part of a collaborative effort with another artist. After Weird War Stories, though, Cowan did work for both DC & Marvel until he began a legendary run on The Question with writer Denny O’Neil.
Today, much like in ‘The Ultimate Weapon’, that cycle of history repeats again as Denys Cowan, Reginald Hudlin, and others are currently at the cusp of reviving the Milestone characters as a part of a new DC Comics initiative. Life has changed from the early 1990s – but as the current headlines show, many things sadly remain unchanged. More diverse voices are once again needing to be heard. The comic industry boom of the early 1990s produced many new characters and concepts, but thirty years later few of them linger in the public memory, and even fewer are still on comic shelves or pull lists. Static, Icon, and other Milestone heroes endured and can rise to the current moment. Like Cowan himself, Milestone has overcome adversity and turmoil to tell the stories and light the imaginations of a new generation.
Denys Cowan is still hard at work as an active comic book artist: pencilling The Question: The Deaths of Vic Sage and Milestone Returns #0. Outside of comics, Cowan has worked for BET and helped develop the hit ‘The Boondocks’ cartoon based on the newspaper comic by Aaron McGruder – and of course, the cartoon ‘Static Shock’.
His story is one of hard work, resourcefulness and perseverance, and his drive should be admired by comic books readers of any race. Denys Cowan is a comic industry icon and trendsetter who paved the way for Black success in the industry, and he should take great pride that the heroes he helped create are once again able to shine at a time that we truly need them.
Weird War Tales #93 “Ultimate Weapon”
Written By George Kashdan
Pencilled by Denys Cowan
Inked by John Celardo
Coloured by Adrienne Roy
Lettered by Milt Snapinn