Denys Cowan’s comics career spans decades. Perhaps most famous for his work on mainline DC characters like Batman and his “mature readers” take on The Question with Denny O’Neil, Cowan is also one of the architects of Milestone Media, the trailblazing company that grew out of the classic ‘90s comics publisher, Milestone Comics. While the original run of Milestone only lasted a few years, it spawned a beloved animated series (Static Shock), and is now a key imprint at DC Comics, who have recently revived much of the key characters and titles for new tales for a modern audience.
You can listen to the full episode as part of our DC Standom podcast series, or read highlights below.
Den of Geek: We’re two years into the Milestone revival. Was there a five-year plan when you set out to do this? What can you tell us about how far along on your initial plans you guys are?
Denys Cowan: There was a big plan. We came out two years ago, but we’ve been developing this for the last three years before that. There’s been a lot of thought, a lot of development, a lot of prep time getting this stuff ready for all the different things that we wanted to do. We took the time to plan out what we wanted to do and some of it is happening now as we speak.
And one of those things is the Milestone documentary, Milestone Generations on HBO Max. Was there anything that you had forgotten about? Or did you learn anything about yourself or Milestone while you were working on this stuff?
There was plenty of stuff. One, man, we sure used to dress fly, you know? We were always wearing suits and ties and stuff and I’m like, “What happened to that guy?” I had hair. So that was different looking at that young man. It was a good experience. But … I don’t like going through the past and that’s a big part of what that was. It did give me a chance though to look at things in a different context, from being older, and realizing, “Wow, what we did was pretty important. What we did was cool.” And being able to explain to people what we were doing then. [On the one hand] I hate living in the past, but on the other I enjoy talking about what we accomplished at Milestone and what we’ve yet to do.
Looking back, I seem to remember feeling that you guys were ahead of the curve with the way you were laying out storylines in books. “Writing for the trade” is kind of an ugly way to talk about stuff, but it almost feels like you guys were doing that even back then.
It was smart writing and it was deliberate. We wanted to create stories that were timeless. But the way to do that is you can talk about topical subjects, but you’re not making the topical subject the thing your book is about. It just happens to be what’s going on in the world but your archetypal characters are dealing with it. The characters and what they’re made of stays the same.
We started out with strong archetypes with Static, Icon & Rocket, Hardware, the Blood Syndicate. They were all very deliberately designed to do what they ended up doing which is being kind of perennials. That was all part of the the grand design from the beginning…A lot of that was Dwayne McDuffie, truly an architect of a universe, who truly had the vision to see what this could be and was brave in ways that we all were not.
What do you think Dwayne would think of the revival so far? How do you guys infuse that spirit into the new books?
That is a good question. I haven’t even thought about what Dwayne would think about it ’cause just working with him so closely all those years. What would he say? I know what he would say. He’d say, one, “Why isn’t he writing all this stuff?” That’s first thing he’d say. “How could you guys do this without me?”
There’d be a lot of questions that Dwayne would have if he was alive and looking at this now. But if Dwayne was alive, it would be a whole different texture to what we’re doing. Hopefully, we’re continuing what that legacy is. But who knows what he would have done? We could only speculate about what he would have brought. Hopefully, he would’ve really dug what we’re doing now.
What can you tell us about the Milestone Initiative?
We love the Milestone Initiative. When the Milestone Initiative started out, we had a collaboration with Ally Bank. They wanted to help us reach kids who…don’t have the same shot at getting into comics as other people. It’s an incredibly tough business to get into, anyway. If you’re a creator of color and you don’t have access to all the ways to get in, it could be impossible. So what the Milestone Initiative was is a way to provide these kids an entry into our industry.
We’re not doing anything right if we’re just doing comic books, pumping them out, getting people to buy them, getting this money, whatever, if we’re not giving back to the community in a significant way. That’s our tradition that we’re determined to keep up. We can go forward only if we’re reaching back and helping people, pulling them into what we’re doing. It’s 12 writers, 12 artists. They got a 12-week course…They had great teachers teaching them writing and drawing. And I think that the cohorts, that’s what we call them, got a lot out of it. Some of the talents are so blazing. You know, we’re gonna hire them right away. They’re all doing remarkable things though.
What lessons did you learn from the original Milestone launch compared with today?
So much of the stuff back then was laid out really well. All the stuff was there to make them great. All we did was look at a lot of current events, and at what was going on, because Milestone was always about what’s going on now, what could happen in the future, you know? But we didn’t do message comics at all, which is why you like them.
So what we’re doing now is we’re still taking that same kind of approach. Entertainment first, superhero stories first. Message? Later on. That will come through. The fact that we exist is a message. There’s no need to beat anyone over the head with anything. Just tell good stories and fun stories. That’s what we’re about now. So, it hasn’t been that hard to navigate from one universe, from the ’90s to the current one now, you know? Because all the structure is still there. It’s still the same and it still works.
What can you tell us about Static: Shadows of the Dakota?
The original artist, Nicholas Draper Ivy, is back along with Vita Ayala. Nicholas is co-writing this time. He has a lot of ideas about Static. He is probably the biggest Static fan of all time. We found him on Instagram because he put up Static Shock samples. And I’m like, “This is one of the greatest Statics I’ve ever seen. Let’s call this kid.”
The interesting story when I called him, I reached out to him and the first thing he… I think I Instagram messaged him. And he was like, “Get the ___ out of here. You’re not Denys Cowan. Like yeah, right?” And totally blew me off. So I ended up hitting back again like, “No, it’s me. This is real. Do you wanna work on Static?” And then he was like, “Huh? Wait, you’re real?” And then it turned as a whole different thing. He was really charming. But yeah, we’re very excited about what they’re doing with season two. They’re already in it. We’ve seen a bunch of designs. We’ve seen the storylines. It’s gonna be awesome.
How far ahead do you have the Milestone Universe mapped out?
Pretty far ahead. We did a book called Milestones in History which is basically telling a story of Black historical figures that have never been told in comics or anywhere. Eugene Bullard, Hannibal, people like that are featured in our book…One of the stories at the end of the book is a Hardware story where he discovers Benjamin Banneker’s time machine. What he does with it, you’ll be able to figure out between the end of Hardware #6 and Milestones in History. We talk about what we’re doing in the future. So yes, it’s all been planned out all very carefully and we’re excited to bring it to people.
When the original Milestone came around, superhero movies were not what they are today. Times have changed. There has been talk of a Static movie with Michael B. Jordan’s production company. Has there been any more movement on bringing the Milestone characters to other media?
There has been. I mean, right now with DC, apart from DC, we’re talking about a lot of video games stuff. ome of my characters are slate to be in two video games which I’m not gonna reveal now. But they’re gonna be in video games. There’s one being developed all on our own. There’s plans for animation. We had a very successful show called Static Shock that came on in the ’90s. There are things to be done in that space that I think would resonate with kids today. There’s definitely plans outside of comics. We’re doing stuff. Some of the stuff I can’t talk about.
Now I have to do the pivot. I can’t talk about that but what I can talk about is our young adult graphic novel that’s gonna be out in 2023 with Lamar Giles and Paris Alleyne. We’re excited to be in that space, too. So, we’re in all the spaces, including toys with Todd McFarlane…So there’s things happening.
Milestone Generations is available on HBO Max now. Static: Shadows of the Dakota #1 is out on Oct. 4.