DC Comics has won lots of acclaim for how it’s wildly reimagined iconic Hanna-Barbera characters over the last few years, including crossovers like Batman/Elmer Fudd or Green Lantern/Space Ghost. One upcoming team-up will pair heroes from the decade of bell-bottom pants, but don’t dare think that Black Lightning/Hong Kong Phooey will be a laughing matter.
Written by Bryan Hill, Black Lightning/Hong Kong Phooey comes out on May 30. It’s pencilled by Denys Cowan, inked by Bill Sienkiewicz, colored by Jeromy Cox, and lettered by Janice Chiang. A 40-year veteran of the comics and animation industries, Cowan is known for his dramatic, angular compositions and for being a co-founder of multicultural Milestone Media, where he co-created characters like Hardware and Static. Hill writes for comics, TV, and movies, including Michael Cray, Ash vs. Evil Dead, the Titans TV show, and an upcoming turn on Detective Comics.
When I spoke to Hill and Cowan on the phone last week, they discussed approaching the Black Lightning/Hong Kong Phooey project with a straight-up serious tone, despite the fact that there’ve been comedic interpretations of each character out in the world.
In the interview that follows, the two creators talk about what it’s like tackling one of DC’s major black heroes across two eras and their mutual love for the martial arts.
io9: There’s a huge tonal difference between these characters. Especially if we’re talking about the 1970s iteration of Black Lightning, who was an angrier character in that ghetto-avenger mode. Hong Kong Phooey was a goofy action cartoon character. So, is this project going to make Black Lightning more goofy, or Hong Kong Phooey more angry?
Denys Cowan: Oh, that’s interesting.
Bryan Edward Hill: I think, neither. Honestly, in order to answer this question, I need to explain a little more about my relationship to Hong Kong Phooey. So, about maybe eight years ago, I pitched a take on Hong Kong Phooey that was a fairly serious take on the character where he was this martial artist/talking dog in a world of normal people. And it had like a Shane Black/Lethal Weapon tone, because people were looking for, “What are we going to do with these Hanna-Barbera things?”
This was back in the day before they were kind of doing various projects, sort of trying to figure out how to update these cartoons. I was way ahead of my time. So, I came in, “What if the Shaw Brothers and Tarantino were to do Hong Kong Phooey?” And that got me the meeting. And then I came in and pitched it, and they were like, “Oh that’s awesome, but we can’t do that.”
Cowan: Hey, we knew we couldn’t do it when we called Jim [Lee]. He wanted to meet you.
Hill: So I was working with [DC editor] Marie Javins, who’s great, over on Michael Cray and she was also editing the Hanna-Barbera stuff at the time. And Denys was doing covers for lots of different things. I was already stoked [when his name came up], because I had grown up on Denys’ work when I was a kid, man. I read [his] Question miniseries probably every six months. And the weirdest thing about comics is you end up working with your heroes way sooner than you think you should. It’s like jumping into a movie and suddenly Scorsese is producing your first feature. Comics is crazy.
Cowan: Make sure that gets in the interview. He says I’m like Scorcese.
Hill: So, to answer your question, I was working with Marie on Michael Cray. She asked me if I was interested in Hanna-Barbera stuff, because I was talking to her about that really, really great Tom King Batman/Elmer Fudd issue. That was dope. And she was like, “Well, what would you be interested in?” And I said, “Hong Kong Phooey!” And then she looks at me and was like, “Really?” Out of all the characters, they assumed that was one nobody wanted to do.
I happened to have this really great take on Hong Kong Phooey—so, she kind of put it in her back pocket. Eventually [editor] Jim Chadwick, who’s also awesome, came around and was like, “Hey, Bryan. What’s that Hong Kong Phooey thing? I think we might be able to get Denys interested in doing it.” And I was like, you mean I can work with Denys Cowan on storytelling, on panels? Yeah!
So, they asked me if I could put Black Lightning in it. I turned in a pitch to them. Met with [DC Entertainment Co-Publisher] Dan DiDio about it. And when I met with Dan, he had a kung fu movie on in his office. I don’t remember what it was but it was a deep cut.
That sounds like a real good omen.
Hill: It was! Dan was super friendly and actually pushed me to make it more absurd. What I turned in at first was a little muted, and he was like, “No, I can see that you have a story you’re a little scared of telling me about. But I want you to tell me that story. I can smell it on you. Give me that story.” So, then I re-pitched him the Shaw Brothers version of the thing that was really in my heart. Dan liked it and shared it with Denys. Denys can talk about how he came on to it but I was just elated with the process.
Cowan: Well, when I heard about the project for the first time, Dan DiDio and I went to lunch. We’re just sitting around talking about different projects that I wanted to do then he says, “I got something I want you to do... are you ready for this?” I said, yeah, I’m ready. He goes... Black Lightning/Hong Kong Phooey.”
I just stared at him for a long time, I think. I just kind of looked at him and I blinked. I said, “What did you just say to me?” He goes, “Black Lightning and Hong Kong Phooey.” I said, “Dan… what is that?” And he said, “It’s the best story ever. You gotta do it. “ Dan, what is Black Lightning/Hong Kong Phooey? Is this the same Hong Kong Phooey as that cartoon dog?” Scatman Crothers did the voice? And is this Black Lightning with the afro wig? He said, “Yeah! That Black Lightning!” So I’m like, “What in the world...”
You’ve been doing really hard-edged stuff like covers and interiors for the Priest run on Deathstroke. This probably sounded like the polar opposite.
Cowan: Yeah, right? It’s like, what do you take me for? Are you talking to me? I’m, like, Mister Black Power in comics. [laughs] Why are you talking to me about Black Lightning/Hong Kong Phooey? This ain’t good for my image.
So, he told me, I said, “Look—this is a totally true story—I said, “Dan, I’m not drawing Black Lightning. Is Black Lightning’s name Static Shock? Cause if his name is Static Shock, I’d be happy to draw Static Shock/Hong Kong Phooey.” He said, “No, that’s not going to happen right now. Let’s just talk about Black Lightning.” Ultimately, how he pitched it to me and got me to read it—because I didn’t understand what he wanted me to do with this material—was to say “This is the Bruce Lee story you were dying to see that he never got to make.”
I was like, “Whoa. What?” This is that story. “You know that sixth movie he should have made? This is it.” I’m like, “Holy shit, now I’ve got to read this thing.” So, I read it, and I’m like... “Wow, this is like a ‘70s kung fu movie. And Hong Kong Phooey is Bruce Lee...” And Black Lightning is Jim Kelly, but hyped. I can do this book.
Hill: Yeah, those were my references, Denys. I’ve always had a real special place in my heart for films of that era. You know? And there’s a lot of kitsch involved with those movies, and the exploitation elements are a little strong and stiff when looking at them through 2018 eyes. But, you know, those characters always meant something to be because they were of the neighborhood, for the neighborhood, and that mattered to me. That always stuck with me. And so I put little things in there, like the idea that Hong Kong Phooey was a Vietnam vet.
Cowan: So dope.
Hill: Just a little drop of that in there. That Jefferson Pierce [Black Lightnng’s alter ego] and Phooey probably knew each other from a little bit of the service work that they used to do. They were both kind of fighting those battles the same way. The same way that martial arts can provide self-esteem and community. Those were the ideas that really mattered to me.
Cowan: It all came through. When I read the script, I was just blown away because it’s concise, tightly written, action-packed. You know, there’s some scripts you can read and not get any kind of visual sense of what the writer wants, or what you’re supposed to draw here. But this script was just excellent. So I was like, “I can draw this, I think.” And the other thing was that the approach was dead-on straight. So it’s not the cartoon Hong Kong Phooey, it’s Hong Kong Phooey imaged as a ‘70s kung fu movie. Now, the thing about ‘70s kung fu movies, I grew up on those. So, when you say those are neighborhood movies for the neighborhood, yeah, those were our neighborhood movies, for real.
There weren’t a whole lot of black ones, but there were a whole lot of Chinese ones. So when we went to the theater to see all these Jimmy Wang Yu and Bruce Lee and Sonny Chiba movies, to us, it wasn’t exploitation at all. To us, it was just movies. That’s how movies were made, and we’re going to the movies. So Bruce Lee in Enter the Dragon was the epitome of movie-making, to me. It wasn’t Hollywood trying to do a kung-fu flick; it was enormous movie making. So was Fists of Fury. So was Return of the Dragon. All of them. So doing this was like, “Okay, we’re just going to do this straight-up movie.”
Hill: That struggle, that meant something to me as a kid. Watching those movies—Sonny Chiba, The Street Fighter movies, even the Shogun Assassin movies or the Shaw Brothers stuff—I started studying martial arts because of Bruce Lee. I know I’m like one of 10 million people who did that. But it helped me balance myself. So even though this is a fun story, an action story, beautifully drawn by Denys, I also try to put in some ideas about how martial arts is about balancing the forces in your spirit and mastering those destructive forces within you.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Big Trouble in Little China. I’m a huge John Carpenter fan, so I put in a couple subtle nods to that in there. But, to go back to your previous question, Evan, it was very important to me—and I’m sure to Denys, too—that neither character be a novelty in the story. That’s the mission I had. Okay, yeah, there’s a certain level of absurdity to this, but the inherent absurdity will play much better if you don’t lean into it and just write the story.
Cowan: Don’t try to be cute. Just do the story. And it’ll usually work out with the intent that you want it to. Because I don’t draw funny things. I can’t go off in comedic style. I don’t draw in a cartoony style and I’m probably the last person you’d call for that. But I can pretty much draw a straight-up action/kung fu movie story.
Hill: When I knew Denys was onboard, I deliberately made people wait to see Denys’ Hong Kong Phooey for a little bit. Because I knew it was going to be dope. I was like, “You know what? I’m going to make them wait a few pages.” And it does not disappoint. It is awesome. You see it, and you want that toy, you want that t-shirt, you want that poster...
Denys, if I remember correctly, you have a martial arts background, too. I remember in the letters pages there was mention made of a DC Comics Capoeria club? And you and Denny O’Neil were part of that?
Cowan: I would probably leave it up to other people to say whether I have skills or not. But I’ve been studying different martial arts my whole life. Damn near since I was like, 11, 14, 15, or something like that. Started out with Judo and then did taekwondo—everyone does taekwondo—and studied different kenpo styles. You never you lose your base, but, now it’s a lot more Krav Maga, self-defense, you know, practical applications of all the things that we learned that work in a real-world situation. So, I have studied. Back in the Question days, I was studying, of course, and I tried to use as much of that in The Question as I could.
Those are some of the best fight scenes of any comics, ever.
Hill: Totally. I started off with taekwondo, like Denys says, everyone starts there because there’s a billion taekwondo schools in St. Louis. But my instructor—he also knew some hapkido, he knew some Chinese boxing, so, we’d do the taekwondo in the normal class.
Then, when the class was dismissed and if we wanted to hang around, he’d show you stuff. He had a second who was a former Korean military guy. So he was all, like, practical stuff. Disarm, here’s this. Here’s how you do a choke. He had jiujitsu. And even before Brazilian jiujutsu was a thing, he was showing us what it was. He didn’t know what it was called, it was more like how to use your size, and all that.
While I was going to all this stuff, I was reading that Question book, and that series was the first time I can recall noticing a character’s actual technique on the page. Where Vic Sage knew how to fight and you saw it. You saw the form. His hip was lined up right. His balance was right. He was striking with the right surface. All that stuff was so precise.
And that’s why that series is just burned into my consciousness over so many years, you know? Even in what I’m going to be doing on Detective Comics, you’re going to see Denys’ work as an influence in Batman and Cassandra Cain in fight scenes, because I remember that stuff. To me, The Question is the gold standard on how you do hand-to-hand combat in comics. I don’t think anything has beat it yet in more than 30 years.
Bryan, what’s the framework for the Black Lightning/Hong Kong Phooey story?
Hill: We start off in Metropolis 1976. The year of the dragon. This combination of bad guys—Bronze Tiger, Cheshire, and one of Hong Kong Phooey’s villains, Professor Presto—are in the middle of acquiring the pieces of an ancient artifact [which] Professor Presto believes will grant him the mystical power of the Godfist. The Godfist has a whole legend behind it: Anyone who can wield that power might be able to command life and death itself. Since that happens in Metropolis, Jefferson Pierce/Black Lightning says, “I got crazy martial arts people and some mysticism in my department. I’ve got to go over to Hong Kong Phooey.” He knows HKP as Henry, from the war—and he says, “Hey, I got this problem. It sounds like something you know how to handle.” And Hong Kong Phooey is like, “Yeah, I do. We gotta do this together.”
It’s really in the framework of a buddy movie. It’s about two characters who come from different worlds, but they do the same thing. Protect the innocent people from bad guys. And I really tried to frame it all into that 1970s vibe, maybe even a touch of early ‘80s in the tone… you know, the odd-couple pairing trying to balance the scales and make sure extreme evil doesn’t win in the world. When you see the art and the texture and the way it’s visually articulated, it’s so much more than evil what I had in my head.
Cowan: The reason for that is because I’m old now, and that’s the only way I know how to draw.
Denys, did you do anything different visually to try and put a time-stamp on the era of the comic?
Cowan: No. Like I said, if you try to get too cute, for me, it’s hard to do that. You find yourself outside the story when you’re focusing on the wrong things. So, I just told the story. My concern, to tell the truth, was, “Am I making this too boring? Is this exciting enough?” Like, constantly just questioning myself. “Is this the right angle? Am I showing these characters to the best advantage?” And then I had the horrible thought that they’re only hiring me because I can only draw in a 1970s style. That’s terrible! So then I started feeling really bad.
At my lowest point, I felt like I had totally ruined this man’s story. Then Bill Sienkiewicz—he’s inking it but we talk all the time—hits me with a text. “Yo G, this the best stuff you’ve done in a long time! I had just a great time reading it, and these are all the reasons why it’s great!” I’m like, oh my God, my friend just called to rescue my ass. He was like, “Denys, this is your best stuff.” That guy was my anchor. It got me through the book. I can’t lie and say, “I had so much confidence in this book, it’s going to fucking awesome!” No. It was more like, “I don’t want to mess up this great story and all the hard work he put into constructing this by really not doing it right.”
Hill: Those pages, they were giving me life because I was in Toronto working on Titans when the artwork started to come in. We were shooting on set, it’s like, minus eight degrees outside. It was miserable the entire day. You’re shooting on a show that takes place at night. So you’re just freezing and you’re just ending at sunrise. I’d get these pages and I’d open them up on my phone and be like, “Okay, this is awesome. This is great.”
Seeing that stuff made those long chilly nights a little easier for me. The first panel where you see Jefferson out of costume, he looks totally smooth and cool, just like you need him to be. That’s a dude that I want to go out and dress like! I want to get that tie with the wide windsor knot. I want to get that tie in my crispy collar.
I have questions about Jefferson Pierce/Black Lightning, and the first one is for Denys. You mentioned the idea you had in your head about Black Lightning when Dan pitched you. In the past, the work you, Dwayne McDuffie, and your partners all did at Milestone Media was a reaction to the stereotypical way that black characters like Black Lightning were portrayed in comics back in the day. Was it weird to draw him now?
Cowan: Yes. Because of that and a couple of other things. I was around when Black Lightning was created. So, we can go way back. I was friends with Trevor Von Eeden. Not so much Tony [Isabella], but Trevor. So we were running buddies when he was doing Black Lightning. He’s a 16-year-old kid, I was about 17 or 18. We’re just running around and I was always insanely jealous, because Trevor could draw probably as well as any professional I knew at that young age and was already doing full comic books, not backgrounds like me. He was awesome.
So I saw Black Lightning from a long time ago. Never, ever thought once in my life that I would ever draw that character. Because to me, that was Trevor’s character. This is my first time drawing Black Lightning. Never done it before. I’m not a regular Black Lightning artist, I just seem like a regular Black Lightning artist. I drew Luke Cage, I drew Power Man—I drew all the characters [like them], but I never drew Black Lightning. I never thought of myself as drawing that book. So it was kind of a thing to finally do it.
Bryan, you’re writing Jefferson Pierce in two very different eras. You were probably well under way on your Detective Comics run—which hasn’t launched yet but will feature a modern-day interpretation of Black Lightning—and were writing the 1970s version of Jefferson at the same time. What stays the same and what changes in these different iterations?
Hill: Well, the ‘70s incarnation of the character, I sort of play him as a bit of a veteran around the superhero game, the game of dealing with the strange and threatening occurrences that happen. He’s a soldier who’s been in the country awhile. You need a character who is essentially the reader, in that they come into this story behind, and they have to play catch-up a little to the kung fu mysticism and all that. But you also want a character who is not naive, who can kind of get into the rhythm of it pretty quickly.
I thought it would be an interesting dynamic to have HKP be a little less forthcoming about things. Like, I see HKP as a house of secrets, man. You just don’t know what this dog is protecting you from day-to-day. You go into his office and there’s something sitting on his desk? Don’t touch it. It might be holding some ancient evil in there. I see him almost as a combination of Stephen Strange and Hong Kong Phooey. So, for the ‘70s one, I wanted to portray that Jefferson.
For the more modern one, because he’s showing up inside of a Batman comic, I think it’s more interesting to have a Jefferson that’s still figuring himself out when he’s dealing with a powerful adversary like Batman. That makes that more interesting for me. In the HKP/Black Lightning crossover, Jefferson is a tough guy and he’s certainly there to mix it up. He just needs to know, “Okay, who are the bad guys?” and “What’s at stake? Okay, got it.”
Alongside Batman, I think there’s an opportunity for Jefferson to be a source of compassion, patience, and perspective when you have a character like Bruce Wayne. When you look at Batman and then Hong Kong Phooey, Hong Kong Phooey is way more enlightened and wise than Batman. I love Batman, but Batman is basically what happens when you never have to hear the word “no.”
“Grief counseling? What’s that? Oh, hey, look; a bat just came through the window. Time to make a costume…”
Hill: If you’re Bruce Wayne, you can make “yesses” happen for everything. There’s one stage of grief: vengeance [laughs]. I like to look at Black Lightning as a character and think of his role as an educator. I used to be a teacher. It’s one of the jobs you take when you’re coming out of film school and you have a degree no one cares about, but you got a lot of bills that care about being paid. So I did substitute teaching for a long time. And when you teach, you invest in the kid. That’s a job you take home with you.
You’ll see in the one-shot, Jefferson and Henry can relate to each other because they’re both educators in their own way. Henry’s got his Kung Fu school; he’s working with the kids in the neighborhood. You can imagine he’s not charging them anything. They can come there and work that aggression out with Rosemary teaching them how to punch with the first two knuckles rather than going out there and mixing it up and getting into trouble. Jefferson is also coming from an education perspective, too. He’s a teacher. He gets that. So, those aspects of the character are really interesting and kind of unexplored territory, really. There’s definitely shades of similarity between them.
In the modern day incarnation of Jefferson Pierce, you’re going to see a guy that’s really looking at his destiny and wondering, “What am I? Am I supposed to [be the] Justice League? A guy from the neighborhood? [I’m] not really sure.” But in the crossover one-shot, you got a guy who knows, “All right, if we don’t take care of things that happen around us, nobody else will. So, I gotta go to one of my best friends and ask him what’s going on.”