Denys Cowan is a living legend. He pencilled the original run of The Question with Dennis O’Neill, laying the groundwork for that character to become a fan favorite for three decades. He co-founded Milestone Media and gave the world Static and Hardware and all the other characters that make you shout in delight when they show up on Young Justice. Hell, he even drew the album art for Joe Biden’s favorite Wu Tang record.
Bill Sienkiewicz is also a living legend. He just dropped an art retrospective covering a portion of his work as the primary artist on books like Elektra: Assassin and New Mutants and Stray Toasters. But beyond his work as the primary artist on all-time classics, he’s also one of the most gifted inkers to ever work in comics, simultaneously immediately recognizable working over someone else’s pencils and yet also subtle, enhancing what the penciller laid on the page without overshadowing it. So one would assume that when the two got back together to work on The Question: The Deaths of Vic Sage, the new Black Label comic they collaborated on with Jeff Lemire, they would immediately know they were onto something special.
“Issue four, Page 25 [I’d] be like you know what, I got it,” says Cowan in an interview. “Yeah. I think by, you know, I think middle of page of issue four, I’ll figure out what I’m doing,” agrees Sienkiewicz.
Announced at San Diego Comic Con, The Deaths of Vic Sage has been in the works for some time now. Cowan, the preeminent Question artist, and Sienkiewicz, who painted many covers for the original series and has been inking a lot of Cowan’s DC work in recent memory, were specifically requested by Lemire for the project. “Working with Jeff Lemire is. like, sheer joy anyway,” Cowan says. “[The Question is] one of my favorite characters, but it could have been anything and we probably would have had to take a hard look at it, because Jeff’s brilliant.”
Reading the comic they put out is like putting on a comfortable old sweatshirt. The first issue hits all the classic notes from the original – Hub City is still a dense, gross, crooked dumpster fire. Vic Sage is the crusading, just-barely-not-reckless television journalist burning it all down around him. Richard Dragon microdoses LSD. Myra Fermin is the lone good person in all of Hub City’s government. Lemire, Cowan, Sienkiewicz, colorist Chris Sotomayor and letterer Willie Schubert take those familiar elements and update them with modern tools, and the output is spectacular. The book shines, especially and almost literally in digital, with clarity and colors that couldn’t have been done with the tools and techniques of ‘80s books.
And then, as is shown on the cover of the second issue, the story takes a hard left back into the 1870s and turns into something that has definitively not been done with the Question before. Fortunately, The Question’s costume is fairly straightforward and iconic. “Vic Sage looks like Vic Sage in all the different time periods,” Cowan says. “It wasn’t that big of a challenge making him look like himself. You had to do things with the Western stuff, his hair’s a little longer, he has sideburns as opposed to the more clean cut look…but basically he’s who he’s been always.”
And the pair teased another time jump later in the series. “We’re exploring different time periods in his life,” Cowan says. “You go from the present day, to the Old West, to the 30s, back to the present day.” Sienkiewicz replies “I’m doing the Western job right now, and I’m having a blast on it…the 30s is another great time,” completely understating the fact that this duo drawing hard boiled crime noir is likely to send the comics internet into religious ecstasy.
What makes Cowan and Sienkiewicz’s uncertainty about their work until it’s finished even funnier is the fact that this duo has been making the impossible happen for years now. Cowan’s original inker on the seminal Question run was Rick Magyar, who did lovely work using shadow and shading to fill in the character of Hub City, especially. Sienkiewicz did iconic covers for the original book, and when the book was brought back for a “final issue” as a Blackest Night tie-in, and from there they’ve been churning out hit after hit at DC. And most of these books…their existence is patently ridiculous. Working together on an anniversary issue of Green Arrow makes sense, especially when they’re folded into a story where Andrea Sorrentino is the main artist. They made Deathstroke #11 critically acclaimed and visually magnificent. But Convergence: Detective Comics is a nostalgia grab crossover tie in that was elevated by the quality of the creative team (a factor that, in hindsight, was present on a great many Convergence minis).
And Hong Kong Phooey/Black Lightning was another inexplicable Hanna Barbara/DC crossover book made inexplicably good because Cowan and Sienkiewicz took Bryan E. Hill’s blaxploitation martial arts script and made it varyingly scream, sing and hum. “I think with Hong Kong Phooey we were both like, ‘Really? You’re going to do that?’” Sienkiewicz says. “Sure, why not. And then when I got the pages at the end of the day, it’s just a lot of fun.”
Ultimately, the collaboration works because the two artists are professionals. As fun as these books are, Sienkiewicz says, “the whole thing about collaborating is sort of trying to walk in the penciler’s shoes for a bit, see how he or she views the world and what they’re trying to say. And it’s my job, even though I know my style can be a little overwhelming.”
“We’re both professional enough to know that it’s probably going to work out,” Cowan says.
Based on the first issue of The Question: The Deaths of Vic Sage, it worked out.