Back in the late ‘80s, Denys Cowan drew The Question series written by Denny O’Neil, while Bill Sienkiewicz inked three years of the covers. Now, they’re reunited for The Question: The Deaths of Vic Sage, the latest Black Label mini-series written by Jeff Lemire. Although this version of The Question is back fighting crime in Hub City, there’s a pretty major twist that allows newsman Vic Sage, the man under the faceless mask, to discover something new about his past and future. (The title is a pretty big hint.)
The Question was originally a Charlton Comics character created by Steve Ditko a few years after Spider-Man that was acquired by DC Comics in the early ‘80s. If the character resembles a certain Rorschasch from Alan Moore’s Watchmen, there’s a good reason for that. Watchmen originally began as Moore’s attempt to tell a darker story using the newly-acquired Charlton characters, but it was then decided to do it as its own series. The rest is comic book history.
Ironically, The Question: The Deaths of Vic Sage might remind some of the storytelling used in Watchmen or even Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, some of the best-selling books that came out just as The Question was first being published by DC. We’ll have to see if this new series becomes as iconic as the one written by O’Neil, but the first issue is a great continuation of what was done with the character back then.
The Beat got on the phone with Mssrs. Cowan and Sienkiewicz last week and asked what got them back working on The Question.
“The opportunity to work with Jeff Lemire and potentially with Bill Sienkiewicz is what brought me back to it,” Cowan told us. “I’ve always loved the character, The Question, and I would have loved other opportunities, but this was the ideal way to do it. The only way it could mess up is if I messed it up.”
Sienkiewicz agreed – at least on the first part of that sentiment – adding. “Having just finished up The New Mutants with Chris [Claremont]*, revisiting the same team from 30-something years ago, the idea to me of actually revisiting a series, I sometimes ask if it’s an answer to a question that nobody really asked. What will make revisiting this special, as opposed to just doing it for nostalgia or a cash grab or trying to rely on people’s memory? For me, it was knowing that Denys would be working on it, and Jeff Lemire is a phenomenal writer. It took the trepidation out of it for me and turned it into a no-brainer.”
The idea to do The Question came from a general meeting between DC with Lemire, who threw out the idea of doing The Question with Denys Cowan, though it then took them a few attempts to get a story that DC publisher Dan Didio could get excited about. “Jeff went and wrote four issues in a month and a half, 48 pages each, and turned it into a movie almost. I got the scripts, and I’ve just been working on them ever since. We had a lot of contact at first, but at this stage, it’s more on Bill and I and the colorist, letterer, and our long-suffering editor Chris Conroy, than it is on Jeff.”
This isn’t the first time this trio has worked together, as they collaborated on a few issues of Lemire’s Green Arrow run. Cowan explained why he feels Lemire is one of the top writers in comics. “Jeff is a brilliant writer, who is also an artist, so he thinks and writes very visually, which is half the battle. When Jeff Is writing panel descriptions or something going on – because he’s an artist and knows someone has to draw this stuff – he can articulate it and put things down that are drawable, as opposed to things that are not drawable. That is the biggest thing, but the first thing is the brilliance of his stories and his unusual approach. The third thing is that he’s so prolific. I’ve never met anybody who wrote as much as Jeff with a high level of quality that he’s able to maintain.”
“It’s fun as a snapshot of revisiting what we did, but also, we’re older now and hopefully wiser and more mature,” Sienkiewicz said about his continuing collaboration with Cowan. “The idea of actually coming back and seeing how we approach the character with a new writer but also with problem-solving and artistic chops being different. It’s not quite like Robert Plant singing ‘Stairway to Heaven’ for the 835thtime, but it’s always kind of interesting to see what you can bring to it, keeping it fresh but also bringing something for the fans who are appreciative of what it was to them when they were younger and bringing in some new fans as well.”
“We’re trying to hit the notes that the fans want to hear, and then give them something else to go along with it,” Cowan concurred.
“Our friendship led to the interesting idea of collaborating as well, and we became a natural fit,” Sienkiewicz elaborated further. “Over the years, it’s always been really interesting for me, because Denys’ work is growing and changing. My work hopefully has been doing the same. I look back on some of our stuff we did back in the ‘80s, the interiors that I did ink over Denys and seeing how we’ve changed and grown. It’s an interesting snapshot of how things have moved through the years.”
The decision to publish The Question: The Deaths of Vic Sage as a mini-series in the Black Label format was also quite appealing to both artists. “When I heard it was going to be for a new imprint that wasn’t in the standard comic proportions but more of a book proportion or something you’d see from Abrams or Scribner,” Sienkiewicz remarked. “Comics have that classic 10 x 15 longer proportion, so this was more of a square proportion, the same way that when the square-bound stuff came out with The Dark Knight Returns(i.e. Prestige Format). The idea of working with a new format usually means that the companies are going to give it a little bit more of a push and a special treatment. It’s not just another book that gets lost in the sauce. When they said that it would be in a new format and imprint, even without them saying it, it gave the impression they were going to take it seriously, and do it up right.”
“The format is great because technology has changed since we did it thirty years ago,” Cowan chimed in. “It’s a different process now. Printing is better. The whole way of coloring it and even producing it is totally different from the way we did it back then. The only thing that still remains is that I still draw it with a pencil on paper and Bill still inks it with a pen on paper. We keep it real like that, but everything around us has changed.”
“The thing with The Question is that we were always dealing with adult themes even in the ‘80s, but it’s not necessarily all about sex,” Cowan said about tackling The Question under the Black Label vs. DC’s ‘80s comic standards. “It is about different kinds of content that might not necessarily appeal to kids but that would work on an adult level. We’ve always done that with The Question, so going over to the Black Label format in terms of content wasn’t that different.”
“The idea of a mature title even starting back in the ‘70s and especially with Denny having written the Question, Denny has always written about moral ambiguity and shades of grey, and then just carrying that through to the ‘80s and onward,” Sienkiewicz agreed. “I think that the concept of having a lot of latitude to get into a lot of incredibly vulgar language, just because you have that opportunity doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to take it.”
“What’s fascinating is seeing how Jeff is writing it and Denys is drawing it,” Sienkiewicz continued. “Once you even have the opportunity to do it, you can even pull back on it and not show that stuff and still have it be not just as effective but even more effective as an adult thematic approach.”
Sienkiewicz really appreciates the leeway that DC and the editors have given them with this book, giving a much-appreciated film analogy. “When you’re doing something like this, it’s almost like when Clint Eastwood directs. He’ll hire Sean Penn and Tim Robbins. He just brings people on board and lets them do what they do, because they’re pros, and he lets them follow through on how they see the characters, and then he gets out of their way. I think that’s pretty much what they’ve been doing with us. There is a level of history but also a level of trust and professionalism. It’s great when all of the parties are inspired by each other and are firing on all cylinders.”
Cowan hasn’t heard of any plans for DC to reprint his earlier run on The Question with Denny O’Neil – not that they would even tell him, necessarily –although he does know that most of the previously-published trade collections from about ten years ago are now going for a lot more money on secondary markets. When you see the gorgeous artwork in the duo’s most recent collaboration, it’s not even remotely surprising.
The first issue of The Question: The Deaths of Vic Sage is now available in comic shops. *Look for more soon with Sienkiewicz on returning to The New Mutants. (Special thanks to The Beat’s Cori McCreery for arranging this interview and giving me a chance to talk with two of my idols.)