Who Is The Question?: A Retrospective On The Dennis O’Neil Run (Part 5)
Today, I continue my trek down memory lane as I revisit my favorite comic book series of all time, The Question by Dennis O’Neil. This was being done as the lead up to Action Comics #1005, however, that will have come out by the time this article comes out. As I said last time we will be continuing this retrospective anyway.
In case you missed them, here are parts 1, 2, 3, and 4.
This week we take a look at The Question Volume 5: Riddles which collects #25 – 30. As the name would suggest it contains a special appearance from a particular Batman rogue. We will also be looking at the two-part crossover that details The Question’s origin in the annuals of The Question and Green Arrow.
Issue Twenty-Five: “Skells”
This issue is easily in my top 5 issues of the entire series. This is the moment that Vic drops all his training and all his attempts at being a better person and cracks. This feels like O’Neil doing his rendition of Daredevil: Born Again. Vic stops feeling, stops thinking, and is merely acting on instinct. He’s become paranoid, seeing enemies everywhere, around every corner. In his mind no one is innocent. Anyone that talks about something contrary to what Vic believes is going to be punched, hard.
The reason Vic has fallen into such a pit of despair is because of what happened the last issue. Myra has been gunned down at her inaugural ceremony by her own husband. Only one person stood up to defend her, and he wound up dead. Of course, that person wouldn’t have been there if Vic hadn’t asked to not be at the ceremony due to personal reasons. Vic was selfish and now he blames himself. In addition, the love of his life and the one true hope for Hub City is in a coma and might die.
If you thought the events of Election Day were massive, then watch as the aftermath happens and anarchy is loosed. Tot even quotes William Yeates poem The Second Coming implying that Hub City is indeed turning into hell. Hub City, much like Vic, was very close to breaking they just needed an excuse. So Myra’s shooting is the straw that broke the camel’s back. Matters only become worse when one of the people responsible for this entire mess of the city, Wesley Fermin, dies and will be remembered as a hero.
Issue Twenty-Six: “Riddles”
The artist for this issue is Bill Wray, who has a more stylized look to his characters than Denys Cowan. As a result, many of the characters including Izzy and Vic seem off model. He does a very good Tot though. His art still maintains a sense of grittiness that is needed for stories involving The Question, it just feels a bit lighter. Which fits the tone of the story, as it is relatively simple and features an actual supervillain which is not something that has or will ever appear in The Question again.
The central idea of this issue is that we all need someone to help guide us from time to time. Tot is that for Vic. Tot is the voice of reason, calling Vic out on his stupidity and trying to get him to think clearly. The interactions between them are one of the highlights of this series but this issue has a lot of their best quips and banter. Meanwhile, Sphinx is the example of how that guidance can go wrong. Eddie may have finally gone clean this time, who knows? But with her there, he was guaranteed to fall back into his familiar pattern of crime as The Riddler.
One thing I find interesting is this is the first time Vic has ever gone up against a costumed villain. The Mikado was his parallel, complete with the costume being only a mask. But The Riddler is a real bonafide supervillain. But Eddie never wears his costume, and it’s mentioned several times that he’s just an ordinary criminal with a gimmick. He would never fit into Hub City and that’s the point. He’s a villain that requires theatricality, Hub City is just an ordinary place going through a rough time.
The Question has always had a few metafictional elements to it. O’Neil was using the character to talk about tropes of the superhero genre and invert them. Vic’s ordinary and constantly malfunctioning car, having the heroes win doesn’t mean it’s a victory, the love interest who is more the hero than the titular hero, are all example of this. But this issue takes it to the furthest extent in a fascinating way.
The central theme of the issue is that fiction can change the world. When Tot’s brother claims he won WWII because of his comics, he is being literal, but as Vic interprets it at the end, it’s more metaphorical. Comics were sold in the millions during the war, being shipped off to soldiers and in many cases were their only source of happiness in such a bleak situation. These comics inspired these soldiers and helped keep them sane as they fought for people’s freedoms. There is a reason the Golden Age-esque cutaways feature Captain Stars and Sergeant Stripes, clear parodies of Captain America and Bucky.
O’Neil once said that if he was reading about particular social issues when he was twelve, perhaps he would have come up with solutions. Which is why his comics are always socially and politically conscious. It’s to get people to wake up and smell the roses. So that hopefully a new generation is inspired to do something about that problem.
Worth noting is that Vic’s fighting style has gotten more aggressive. It lacks the style and polish of previous issues, harking back to #1. He even almost kills someone out of apathy because he believes they deserve it. He, much like Hub City, has lost his moral compass, Myra.
Issue Twenty-Eight: “A Place For The Arts”
Lady Shiva loves chaos. She is unpredictable, can change allegiances without a moment’s hesitation, and revels in violence. Naturally, she returns to Hub City, not to see Vic again, but merely to experience a city destroy itself on its own sin. The two things that are consistent about her is the fact that she is only out for herself and that she is always true to her word. Lady Shiva is such a fascinating take on the femme fatale archetype.
Speaking of watching a city destroy itself, no one in the government wants to help Hub City. As far as they are concerned, Hub City barely gave them any votes so why should they care? As we saw in Election Day, politics is a dirty game and is treated like a business. A corrupt one at that.
What I like most about this issue is that O’Neil takes the opportunity to show that in times of great struggle, labels mean nothing. Vic and Myra take shelter at Harry’s Pizza which is full of people that either didn’t vote or voted for Royal Dinsmore. The city has descended into complete anarchy and there only two sides, those that are dead and those that are the survivors. They are playing by a new rule set, as the old rules don’t matter anymore. This feeds into Myra’s big game plan that the reader can only guess but will be revealed next issue.
Notice how Vic has become more quippy with the bad guys since Myra was revived. The past couple of issue he tended to remain silent with a few exceptions. But now that Myra is back, he has hope again. The cracks are starting to heal and soon he will be back on his redemption path.
Issue Twenty-Nine: “The Slaying”
I talked about in part 1 of this retrospective how Vic’s journey can be read as someone overcoming the problems associated with toxic masculinity. This is made clear at the beginning of this issue. Vic has reverted back to his old ways, his fighting style being barbaric, he is unfocused, and is clearly not even close to being a match for Lady Shiva. He talks about being defeated by her again when he thought he had gotten very good, humiliated and emasculated him. Which is exactly what he needed. His old self was arrogant, this brought him down and got his head out of the clouds. With Lady Shiva and Myra back, he is now on his redemptive path again.
Vic is back to trying to find non-violent ways of dealing with situations. His curiosity is taking hold again, he figures out his enemies weaknesses and exploits it. Worth noting he goes in and negotiates with Benjy as Vic, not The Question. The point being as we are nearing the end of the series is the fact that his identity issue isn’t a simple answer. He is neither just Vic or The Question, he is both. They come together to form a cohesive whole that is his identity.
Questioning Myra’s Plan
Myra’s plan is to use the warring biker gangs as cops. She wants her citizens to be able to walk the street again, and the real cops aren’t capable of restoring order. It harkens back to the vigilance committees of the 1800s. Order at the barrel of a gun isn’t perfect and could easily break, but it’s better than nothing. Myra is smart about it, admitting that it’s likely a bad idea. But as demonstrated before, they have to create new rules as Hub City is a war zone at this point and not a city.
Issue Thirty: “Whodunit”
I’ve mentioned before that I love the fact that The Question isn’t a superhero book. It’s a book about people just trying to do the right thing in a horrible situation. O’Neil has made it very clear that this is the mission statement of the series. He takes it a step further with two inversions of classic superhero tropes that work rather well. The first and most obvious one is Myra’s situation. She is kidnapped and the hero must do one job for the villain in order to rescue his love. Well, in The Question that is set up and then is broken. Myra, do to being a smart and resourceful person, saves herself. She didn’t need Vic, who was getting ready to go on a suicide mission to save her.
The other inversion is the hero looking for justice. Vic is out for the truth, justice is merely a side effect that he likes but doesn’t need. When it is revealed that Harry is the true killer of Loosh and he is responsible for the hell that was unleashed in the last issue, Vic merely tells him he knows. He got his truth, and now Harry has to live with the consequences of his actions. His punishment is his choice.
Questioning The Theme
The main theme of this issue is how far are you willing to compromise your morals and can you live with the consequences. Vic is left with a moral quandary of whether he gives Benjy to the Huns knowing full well they will kill Benjy despite him being innocent, but it means Myra will be set free. Or he lets Benjy go and the Huns kill Myra. Meanwhile, the doctor in the hospital is faced with whether to keep the Huns under sedation and keep his oath or to kill them as they are one of the many reasons the city is as bad off as it is. These all echo Myra’s plan as revealed in the previous issue, which has gone up in flames thanks to the death of Loosh.
The Question Annual #2: “Losing Face”
Bill Wray returns to do the modern-day portion of this issue. His art feels a bit different than in #26, but that may have to do with the fact that Malcolm Jones III is not the inker on this issue. As a result, his portions of the book seem looser and have a less gritty feeling than the main series. The flashback sequences are done by Sean Anton Pensa. His artwork feels a bit blocky, with characters having very distinct chins but it works. What he clearly was trying to do was evoke the classic Steve Ditko issues from Charlton Comics in the 60s.
This issue is the definitive origin for The Question. As a matter of fact, it’s the only one. No other version of the character was ever given a full origin. The most that we’re given was a few remarks in dialogue about the history of the characters but never how the identity of The Question or the Pseudoderm came about were ever mentioned. What makes it definitive is that it ties in various concepts of Ditko’s original idea for the character into the origin. Making O’Neil version of the character simply an older, wiser, and changed Vic who had experienced many of the things in Ditko’s run.
The attention to continuity in this crossover is great. Callbacks to previous crossovers as well as particular arcs such as the one that took place in Santa Prisca. This aids the reoccurring theme of sins of the past. Vic’s past decisions and actions are catching up to him and he’s beginning to realize he has changed quite a lot. He’s become a better man, as we see in the flashbacks he was a complete jerk.
Green Arrow Annual #2: “Saving Face”
The concept of using the binary gas to eradicate awareness and therefore eliminate greed, hatred, and other sins, is a great way to show how Vic differs from many heroes. He thinks this might be a good idea, he walks the streets of a place eating itself alive on sin. He’s a pessimist, but Ollie is kind-hearted and knows people can be better. But the way Vic sees it if suffering is ended isn’t that good in the long run?
Gomez states clearly that they would still be suffering. They wouldn’t be aware, they would be the walking dead. But life is suffering. You need pain, pain is what drives humans ability to survive and adapt. Pain is what is needed to grow to understand. No matter if you get rid of all that is wrong with humanity, people would still suffer as they wouldn’t be human anymore.
What I like about Gomez showing up, is the fact that we take that trippy arc and ground it again. Gomez didn’t magically become a saint, nor does he admit to being one. He saw the errors of his way and made the choice to become good. Just like Vic. It proves beyond a shadow of a doubt redemption is possible.
Questioning The Question
These issues are powerful. As I’ve said before, The Question by Dennis O’Neil is masterfully well written. It is character driven and makes even the smallest conflict deeply personal for the characters. Each story adds layers to something, even if you don’t notice it at first. And every issue has a lesson to be learned both by Vic and by the reader.
Next time will be our penultimate part, in which we will be looking at The Question Volume 6: Peacemaker. This is the final trade that collects the main series but we will continue in another part to talk about the quarterlies as well as his guest appearances that O’Neil wrote himself. Get ready for one of the bleakest and depressing ends to a Big 2 comic you have ever seen.