Who Is The Question?: A Retrospective On Dennis O’Neil’s Run (Part 2)
Today I continue my journey in refreshing my memory of my favorite character in this long forgotten gem from DC Comics in the 80’s, The Question by Dennis O’Neil. If you didn’t catch the first part, you can find it here.
This is a lead up to The Question making his/her post-Rebirth appearance in Action Comics #1005, thanks to the ever wonderful Brian Michael Bendis. This month I will be looking at the second volume in the series, The Question: Poisoned Ground which collects issues 7-12.
Issue Seven: “Survivors”
This issue sets the tone for the next few issues. The Question is a grounded comic but it is inherently unrealistic due to being set in the DC universe. Applying realism to superheroes is a dumb move and O’Neil knew this. To quote him: “The Batmobile never gets stuck in traffic.” What The Question does so well is it takes the unreal and uses it to talk about a philosophical theme that relates to something real.
This issue deals with Volk, a man raised by wolves and may or may not live in both a human body and a wolf body. This is used to explore the theme that we all have a primal side and a rational side. However, what could potentially be a bit of on-the-nose symbolism, is turned on its head. Volk wants to die because he has seen the horror that humanity can unleash due to being beaten by the Nazis for being Romani. The wolves showed him kindness, fed him, and kept him warm, in complete contrast to the humans. He then concluded that his primal side is his human body.
This issue continues Myra’s arc in a beautiful way. She felt guilty after killing Hatch and desperately wants to make amends. Without anyone to help him with things, Wesley Fermin is too drunk to act as a mayor. So she steps in to assist him and becomes the mayor in all but name. She is a kind woman that is taking on a great responsibility because she promised herself to be better. Her need to keep her promises is shown when she says “We have to stand by what we say” and refuses to divorce Wesley. Like Vic, she is willing to suffer for the good of others.
Issue Eight: “Mikado”
This issue is where the series fully evolves into what it’s known for. This is one of the best issues in the entire series. The Question is a comic that doesn’t have many memorable villains. It’s not about the big fights, but about the main characters trying to be good people in a city that is hell on Earth. Mr. Mikado is the exception to the rule. He is utilized to contrast Vic and doesn’t reoccur so he is never overused. What makes him interesting is that he is a vigilante that believes that he is doing the right thing, but is starting to become the very thing he is fighting against. He’s exactly like Vic before he had his rebirth.
Which is why the ending scene between them is so interesting. It’s a discussion about morality and how no one can truly be innocent. In a way, it can be read as the Ditko version of The Question having a discussion with the O’Neil version. In this discussion, several central themes of the series are re-examined. These themes are how we define sanity and what defines a good person. That is what this series is, as I have said before The Question is not a superhero comic.
Vic makes a comment that represents a fundamental part of his character in this issue. He quotes Lord Byron by saying “If I laugh at any mortal thing, ’tis that I may not weep.” He lives metaphorically in hell and believes he is the one to protect it. Vic sees the worst humanity has to offer on a daily basis, and at one time was heading down a dark path himself. Humor is a defensive mechanism for him, which makes this statement both impactful and depressing.
Questioning The Rating Change
If you have seen the cover of the issue, you may notice something that is not on the previous seven. A tag that says “suggested for mature readers.” This tag was put on comics not submitted to the Comics Code Authority, and usually had content that was similar to an R-rated movie. It is widely believed that the success of The Question along with a few other books with the mature readers tag lead to DC forming the Vertigo imprint specifically to publish R-rated comics.
Issue Nine: “Watchers”
This issue begins a three-issue arc which is the trippiest story in the series. The main crux of the story is analyzing Vic and Tot’s relationship. When Tot is kidnapped, Vic comes to realize that he never really learned anything about his mentor/best friend.
That feeds into his guilt, and he starts regressing. When someone he deeply cares about is put into trouble and he believes he is responsible for it, Vic begins to react impulsively. What is interesting about this issue is that the writing style changes due to the personal nature of the story. Previous issues had third-person narration but this issue starts a blend of having both third-person and first-person captions.
There is a running movie motif throughout this issue and it is used to show that Vic is starting to regress. The movies that are brought up are usually highly clichéd action movies. Starting next issue, when this motif is brought up again these movies will often star the fictional Randy Violent.
This comic was written in the 80’s, and some of the most popular movies at this time were stories that featured a hyper-masculine male character that embodied a macho personality. In other words, what Vic was trying to be in the first issue. Vic’s own distaste for the clichés that are brought up shows that he is still trying to fight his impulsive nature.
Using the drugging of Vic as a way to put Vic into the parable of The Tiger and The Strawberry was a genius move by O’Neil. The themes of that parable are very relevant to the journey that Vic went on in previous issues. He is letting his emotions get the better of him and needs to remember what he has in the present.
Questioning The Art
A special shout-out needs to be given to Denys Cowan this issue. His art is always great, but this issue is special due to the drug trip at the end. He structured the panels in such a bizarre manner that it gives the reader the same sensation that Vic is feeling, confusion.
Issue Ten: “Santa Prisca”
This is the second issue in the arc and I think its also the strongest. The end of the drug trip from #9 is used to give us a brief flashback that informs a lot of Vic’s personality. Vic, when he was a junior in college, was drugged with LSD by a bully named Marty Basin.
The next day he angrily punches Marty in the face and screams “I couldn’t tell what was real!” Vic was abused at his orphanage, which left him fueled by two emotions. Anger at his abusers and curiosity as to why he was an orphan. He desperately wants to live a normal life, have a sense of reality. Having that reality taken away from him, only made him even angrier.
In Vic’s sparring match with Marty in the present, we get some interesting insights. First is that Tot is not the infallible scientist that he seems to be. He was a boy genius, yes, but he did concoct a formula for a tranquilizer that he sold away. This formula ended up getting people killed. He had gotten cocky and thought he could do no wrong. Sound familiar to anyone? Greg Rucka, who is an excellent writer in his own right and has worked on The Question before, is a fan of the theory that states that Tot is actually Vic’s father.
The second insight comes when Vic stoops to Marty’s level. He stops dodging his attacks and lets Marty hit him. His intention is to get on Marty’s good side to get information. However, it symbolizes that Vic is starting to ignore Richard Dragon’s teachings. Later when he beats the crap out of Marty just out of spite, we see that the regression is starting to become a problem.
Questioning Comic History
Worth noting for people interested in comic book history, this is the first appearance of the fictional country of Santa Prisca. Yep, Bane’s home first appeared in a comic few people read and that didn’t feature Batman. Dennis O’Neil clearly had an idea that he kept messing with, as the strength-enhancing drug, Venom, would appear a few years later. All of this was before Bane made his terrifying first appearance in 1992.
Santa Prisca is utilized to show that Vic is drawn to places where moral decay is the normal status quo. It can be read that Vic feels at home in places like this because he can feel like a good person and the hero despite his flaws.
Issue Eleven: “Transformation”
The arc concludes with an ambiguous ending that adds to the story’s strange trippy feeling. Hector Gomez, the villain of the arc, just wants to be a good person. We saw in the last issue that he takes pleasure in hurting people. He even calls himself a monster. His plan is to use alchemy to turn himself from a monster to a saint.
This continues the theme of questioning sanity and what defines a good person. In #8, it is brought up that many of the saints were not models of mental health. This feeds into the theme of nature vs. nurture. In the end, there are hints that Hector was turned good, but they are only stories.
This issue provides some interesting political commentary. Vic sneaks into El Forteleza by disguising himself as a military captain. He witnesses the fear that the mere presence of the uniform creates. He notes that someone could get used to the power held by the uniform. It’s a clear statement by O’Neil about privilege and the scary notion of a police state.
Another bit of commentary is funny while also being biting. When Vic isn’t sure what hall to go down, he goes right because of the recent presidential election. He realizes it is a bad choice and encounters some guards. O’Neil is known for his leftist sensibilities so this is a very humorous take on the fact that the current president was Ronald Reagan who was to the right.
Vic and Tot’s relationship fully evolves in this issue to be a clear father/son relationship. They care about each other deeply, and Vic took care of Tot while he was in a coma-like state. This is aided by Tot’s new character design which makes him seem older.
Issue Twelve: “Poisoned Ground”
I’ll be honest, Baby Gun is not a character I ever really cared to see again. As a consequence, the main plot of the issue suffers, as he is the villain. But the plot isn’t the point of this issue, it’s the characters of Vic and Myra that are the centerpiece. Vic’s involvement in the plot doesn’t really change the events all that much. The main difference if he wasn’t there would be that fewer people would have left Parson’s Acres.
The fact that Parson’s Acres was built on ground poisoned by chemical waste is the perfect metaphor for what Hub City is like. At first, it seems nice and wonderful, but once you understand what it really represents, it is hell. This theme is reinforced by the fact that the issue is set during Halloween. The night when monsters roam the streets, but instead of the monsters you expect, it’s looters coming to rob abandoned houses. Many of the people that live in Hub City are monsters, and if they aren’t right now, they soon will be.
The beginning of the issue is Vic and Myra sneaking off to a sleazy motel to sleep together. What is interesting about this is that it is a twist on the normal superhero love story. Normally the hero and the love interest get together and stay together. But in The Question, they can’t be together at all. Myra is in a marriage that she will not break, and is about to run for mayor so she needs to keep her reputation as clean as possible. The fact that this isn’t a usual love story is represented by the fact they don’t say they love each other. They are both afraid of being in love.
Questioning The Question
The seeds have been planted for future storylines in a fantastic way in this volume. These issues are when O’Neil started to stretch his writing muscles and tried some new things, and it paid off. In this volume, the series has evolved into what it is known for and why I keep coming back to it time and time again. It’s about the characters and the philosophical discourse.
Next month, I will be looking at each issue in the third volume, The Question: Epitaph for a Hero. Some of the most revered issues of the series are in there. Look forward to seeing the appearances of a certain Watchmen character and a character Dennis O’Neil is famous for writing, the Emerald Archer himself.