Denys Cowan knows about the Joe Biden-Liquid Swords tweet.
At San Diego Comic-Con, the 61-year-old comic book artist and co-founder of Milestone Media who drew the cover of GZA’s stone-cold classic Liquid Swords from 1995, raps the table in laughter after I tell him about a viral meme from 2014 that name-checked the album. It’s the first time he’s heard of it.
The meme goes like this: Back when his public image was shaped more by satirical Onion articles than his actual policies, President Biden (then VP to Obama) interrupts Obama when he’s asked to name his favorite Wu-Tang album. Biden screams his own answer into the microphone: “LIQUID SWORDS.”
“I’m a member of the Wu-Tang family,” Cowan tells Inverse with pride in his voice.
Cowan’s art for “Diamond Joe” Biden’s favorite album is one milestone in a career full of them. Another big one is Milestone Media. In 1992, Cowan co-founded Milestone with other Black American comic book contemporaries, like Michael Davis, Derek T. Dingle, and the late Dwayne McDuffie. Through a partnership with DC, Milestone made comics for an underserved Black and ethnic minority readership.
Milestone stopped making comics in 1997 but returned in 2021 with new titles starring the comic book company’s characters, who inhabit the parallel “Earth-M” within the DC multiverse.
“The relaunch has been great,” Cowan raves to Inverse about Milestone in 2022. “We've managed to keep a lot of old fans, who are parents now buying books with their kids. But we've also managed to pick up new readers, people exposed to what we're doing for the very first time.”
Cowan admits that Milestone hasn’t hit the ceiling, yet. “We can always sell more,” he says, “But that’s what every publisher wants.”
During its heyday, Milestone lit up the industry with bold characters and fresh talent like Christopher Williams (aka, ChrisCross), Ivan Velez Jr., Humberto Ramos, the late John Paul Leon, and more. Of the many heroes inhabiting Milestone’s “Dakotaverse,” its most popular is Static, a nerdy teenager with electric powers. In addition to his comic books, Static starred in his own popular animated series, Static Shock, which ran for four seasons starting in 2000.
At Comic-Con, during the Jim Lee & Friends Panel (a de facto DC panel focused on comics), DC and Milestone announced the continuation of its current Static comic books. Titled Static: Shadows of Dakota, Cowan says the book is a direct sequel to last year’s Static: Season One.
“Shadows of Dakota is really Static: Season Two,” Cowan says. He bluntly explains: “We can’t call it Season Two. People don’t buy Season Twos. They buy Season Ones. And they buy things like Shadows of Dakota.”
Written by Vita Ayala and illustrated by Nikolas Draper-Ivey and ChrisCross, Cowan confirms Shadows of Dakota reintroduces Ebon, a villain who originated in the Static Shock TV series.
“We’re bringing a character from the animated show into the comic books, and letting him wreak havoc,” Cowan says. “Nicholas has done a lot of redesigns, but Ebon is still Ebon. You’ll recognize him. He’s got his face in shadows, he’s still got dreadlocks. It’s gonna be a lot of fun.”
Milestone also released its first movie, of sorts, after Comic-Con. Released on July 29, Milestone Generations is a one-hour documentary on HBO Max that chronicles the rise, fall, and revival of Milestone. Narrated by Wu-Tang’s Method Man, the documentary puts into context the history, economics, and significance of Milestone against the backdrop of an era when Black artists everywhere were finding and harnessing their creativity.
Shooting the documentary was hard for Cowan, who puts more of a premium on the future than on the past.
“I'm not a person who likes to live in the past,” he says. “Examining why you did what you did, and when you did it. We were 30 years old, making decisions. Now, looking back, I go, ‘I don’t know why I did any of that.’ We were so busy just trying to work and get stuff done.”
In the thick of Milestone’s original operations, there were few opportunities to pause and take stock. “None of us took time to go, ‘Wow, we really accomplished something.’”
“They wanted to do movies with the characters, they just couldn’t come to terms with DC.”
While Milestone is back, how things work in 2022 is very different from how things worked in 1992.
“We had an office on 23rd Street [in New York City],” Cowan says. “We had a bullpen, the whole thing. A place people come to visit.”
Cowan recalls when legendary music producer and film/TV producer Quincy Jones visited Milestone’s office. “He wanted to check out what Milestone was about,” Cowan says. The visit left an impression, and movie deals for Milestone were almost set in place.
“Right after their visit, if you look at the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, all of a sudden, he has Milestone posters on the wall. You can Google it. He kept them there until the show was over because he visited us. They wanted to do movies with the characters, they just couldn’t come to terms with DC. But that was so good when we had a place where people would come.”
2022 isn’t without its own perks. “People consume comic books in different ways,” Cowan says. “One of the most exciting things for us is technology and what we can do in those spaces.”
He adds: “You’ve got people reading comics, standing in line at Starbucks. They’re not reading comics like we know them. In the ‘90s, there wasn’t anywhere near the capabilities of getting things into people’s hands that you have today.”
Originally, Milestone set out to introduce heroes of color, specifically Black heroes. In many ways, Milestone’s legacy lives on, with plenty of Black heroes on comic shelves. But how can Milestone compete in a culture it created?
“The landscape is different,” Cowan says. “But how many original characters are out right now? How many iconic, original characters? Looking at the landscape now, there’s still opportunity. There’s still stuff that needs to be done. It can be done. We’re in a unique place to do it. We have original characters and a lot of ideas where to take these vertically.”
“The scripts are still being worked on.”
Does that mean Milestone’s own cinematic universe? A live-action Static movie has been in development since 2020, with an update a year later that Michael B. Jordan is on board as a producer. At Comic-Con, Cowan gives Inverse a minor update: “There isn’t a whole lot to talk about. The scripts are still being worked on. All that is still in development.”
Whatever the future holds for Milestone, there is a future. “We want to be in the spaces where there aren’t many characters of color, and Static is uniquely positioned to do that,” Cowan says. “There’s animation, there’s live-action. I can’t tell you what exactly they’re going to be.”
All Cowan knows is it will be a shock to the system, just as Milestone always intended.