SDCC '08 - Talking BET's 'Black Panther' w/ Denys Cowan

[before reading this interview, you may want to check out the premiere of BET's Black Panther trailer, right here ...]

To say Denys Cowan was busy is putting it mildly.

“My phone didn’t start ringing until the day before Comic-Con,” BET’s Sr. VP of Animation quipped as he sorted through pencils of the Black Panther, separating them out from others of Hannibal. “Then it hasn’t stopped. Everyone wants to know if we’re going to be there.”

Busy? Look at it this way. He was doing the sorting to get final approval from Marvel for his network’s planned launch of the animated Black Panther series AS he was doing this interview. He had just come back from a meeting with the creators of another series BET is working on, The Cipha, which the network unveiled at 2007’s NY Comic-Con. Between statements to us he was giving instructions to various people in his organization.

Talk about multi-tasking.

Still, one has to admit the award-winning comic book artist, co-founder of the much missed Milestone Comics, and producer of The Boondocks has plenty to talk about. Next year, his young wing of BET will unveil three different series, and he was more than glad to talk about them before their unveiling at this year’s San Diego Comic-Con.

Here’s what he had to say:

NEWSARAMA: What is the ETA for Panther, Hannibal, Cipha? All this good stuff?

DENYS COWAN: The ETA for Panther and Hannibal, which we’re intending to do as a block, is, I believe, February. Let’s say first quarter, 2009, so we’re not quite nailed down. That’s what we’re aiming to achieve.

NRAMA: Do you have a specific day in mind? Would the block be on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, etc?

DC: Not yet. We haven’t figure out which day, but they will both be prime time series. They’re not Saturday morning.

NRAMA: So much more mature in content?

DC: They’re mature in content, both in action and in dramatic presentation. Not the sex thing, really.

NRAMA: No sex? What would some people say? Pardon me, I couldn’t resist.

DC: (Laughs). We’re developing much the same way Rome did, without the nudity.

NRAMA: How does it now feel from directly producing one series to supervising over at least three?

DC: We actually have many other things in development even though we have three series currently in production. That said, it’s great. It’s been a long time coming. Yes, I produced a few series over the while.

I also would like to say I really don’t know how it really feels until some of them are ready. We’re just about to that point now. I will feel it when people actually get to see the series air.

NRAMA: But it’s not like you’re doing The Question or Hardware anymore. The scale is much, much bigger.

DC: It is different. I’m creative but in a different way. I’m not drawing. I’m not writing the stories. Yet, all the skills I developed from drawing and writing stories, working with other people on comics, do come into play in this.

NRAMA: In other words, you’re drawing on your past experience.

DC: I’m drawing on my past experience to produce and direct animated series. Remember I also built companies and have done other things.

NRAMA: Yes. Like comics, animation is a collaborative affair, but on a much larger scale.

DC: Yes. You are dealing with a lot more people, and you are trying to get them all to move in a certain direction. Still, what I learned from doing Static Shock and The Boondocks is you build a box. The box should be pretty big. Inside the box you can do anything you want. Outside the box is where you don’t want to be. That’s the structure. That’s the certain way and look we want to see. The same things I applied as a producer I now apply as a department head for BET.

NRAMA: Now did you ever work on a Panther comic?

DC: Yes I did. I did a four-issue miniseries. It was all about the Black Panther in South Africa.

NRAMA: Dealing with Apartheid and all that?

DC: Yes, which was huge back then. This was the late 80s/early 90s. In fact, I did it in 1987-88, but it didn’t get published until something like 1990. Marvel did that because certain people said that we sold too many comics in South Africa. That was my first sobering experience about the business. I was saying ‘Black Panther lives in Africa. He should be fighting Apartheid,’ but certain people at Marvel said ‘We have to pause for a second and consider where we are.’ Now it would have been right out. It’s different times.

NRAMA: So opening up this Panther box, are we seeing a bit of Kirby? A bit of yourself?

DC: Nope. I’ll tell you exactly what you are going to see. For the first series, “Who Is the Black Panther,” which the comic, of course, is written by our president Reggie Hudlin, and is being drawn by John Romita Jr. So the series is going to look exactly like he drew it.

NRAMA: Does Romita’s style transfer well to animation? I mean Romita is classic Marvel all the way, but is that too detailed for the small screen?

DC: Romita is a super, superstar in this industry. He is a personal favorite of mine. A great guy and I like him a lot. More important than that, I admire his art. So for me it is a thrill to do it in his style.

NRAMA: But did you have to strip out some of his detail?

DC: Let’s say we found a way to keep what he does and animate it. Take a look at the preview and you’ll see. It looks like John Romita Jr. doing an animated film. He’s seen the trailer and he’s thrilled.

NRAMA: So are you and Reggie the supervising producers?

DC: We have a studio named Titmouse.

NRAMA: The guys who do Metalocalypse.

DC: Right! They’re great. They do all kinds of stuff. They are doing The Black Panther.

NRAMA: So I would say it’s safe they aren’t doing it in the same style as Metalocalypse. That’s a completely different style.

DC: No. It has a totally different vibe, a totally different feel.

NRAMA: More full animation?

DC: Well, to me, Metalocalypse is full animation. You get everything you need out of it. Any more animation would probably limit it. Now Panther will be fuller and richer. That’s because we’re talking about a totally different subject matter, too. Also, while I’m sure you’re used to all kinds of superhero animation, from Bruce Timm to all the Marvel styles, again this will look like something you’ve never seen. It also won’t look like Afro Samurai or any anime-influenced. It will have its own look.

NRAMA: So who is the voice of the Panther?

DC: That we’re figuring out right now. We have several different names in mind. I won’t say exactly yet because they haven’t said yes or no. We’re definitely going for some superstars.

NRAMA: Are you talking about the likes of Keith David or Phil LaMarr?

DC: I worked with Phil on Static Shock. Keith is one of my favorites and let’s not forget Kevin Michael Richardson or Cree Summer. There’s a lot of great and upcoming black voice talent out there. They will find a place in BET Animation, Black Panther and Hannibal. But none of these people are being discussed for the lead. We’re looking for someone new. Not Denzel Washington, but something.

NRAMA: What about directors?

DC: Chris from Titmouse is going to be directing them himself. He has a great crew over there, so we feel very confident. There are no names that comic fans might recognize like Bruce Timm or Frank Paur or such. We got our own team of guys.

NRAMA: I do not want to forget Hannibal. How is that shaping up?

DC: Fantastically! We got Matt Wayne as our story editor and head writer. We also have writers like Stan Berkowitz of New Frontiers working on it, which was one of my favorite animated movies, period. We also have a science fiction writer named Stephen Barnes who is just great. They are turning in some fine, fine stuff. Titmouse is going to be the studio for that as well.

NRAMA: Based on the pencils I saw way back in NY Comic Con, Hannibal is going for a very lush, classic, detailed style.

DC: It’s a much more lush style. It’s classic heroic stuff. Still, it’s going to be an unconventional look. That’s because our thing is to do things that don’t look like anyone else’s. We looked at a number of different styles and asked ourselves, how are we going to be different? That’s been our thing.

NRAMA: Now Hannibal is an interesting character. Why did you choose him?

DC: It’s a story that hasn’t been told except on the History Channel. It’s fun to take what some consider the Black Conan or Black Spartacus and tell his real story. What many people don’t realize is he was one day away from conquering Ancient Rome. If he didn’t stop, he would have done it. As it was, he ran them to the ground with 17 years of harassment. His name is synonymous with the boogie man in Rome.

NRAMA: So you’ve chosen one incredible general and one incredible monarch as your first two subjects.

DC: Two African Kings! One is future and the other is the past, but both still relevant now.

NRAMA: I guess you can say so with Barack making some noise now.

DC: You can say that…just a little (laughs). We feel the timing is right.

NRAMA: Now the series that really blew my mind was The Cipher.

DC: That’s a little further down. It’s not as developed as the other ones. We got a great showrunner attached to it. He’s developing all the concepts with Drew Massut, the creator of the series. It’s really a hip hop X-Men.

NRAMA: So you are ready to stand San Diego on its ears?

DC: We think so.

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