Several months ago, Brian Michael Bendis shocked the comic world by announcing that he was leaving Marvel and writing exclusively for DC. Everyone began speculating what title or character he was going to write first. Now he is in the middle of writing Superman and Action Comics. While I’m incredibly thrilled to see him write Clark Kent, there was always one DC character that I wanted the crime comics master to tackle, The Question. Recently, on Twitter, he announced that The Question will be appearing in Action Comics #1005.
With The Question making his/her Post-Rebirth appearance, I thought it was high time to refresh my memory of my favorite character. The Question has had several different interpretations over the years, from the late Steve Ditko’s Objectivist original all the way to the popular Justice League Unlimted’s conspiracy theorist. But the one that stayed around the longest — and has even passed on the mantle to Renee Montoya — was Dennis O’Neil’s interpretation from the late 80s.
So, join me for the next six months as we travel through the six trade paperbacks collecting Dennis O’Neil’s spectacular run on the character. We shall begin with the first volume, The Question: Zen and Violence which collects #1-6 of the 36 issue run.
This retrospective is going to contain spoilers as it is a discussion of the story and themes from each issue.
Issue One: “The Bad News”
Hands down this is one of the best first issues of a comic book series I have ever had the pleasure of reading. O’Neil has stated repeatedly in interviews that when he decided to write The Question, he knew he would have to change the character due to him disagreeing with the Objectivism philosophy. Where a lesser writer would have used Crisis on Infinite Earths as an excuse to change the character, O’Neil takes it and makes it part of the story.
Charles Victor Szasz (no relation to the Batman villain) or Vic Sage as he is more commonly known is portrayed as a bit of a jerk. He is brash, rude, and impulsive. He is the antithesis to his name, he kicks butts and asks questions later. The only time he is not abrasive is when he is around his mentor Aristotle “Tot” Rodor. It is in their interactions that we see his inquisitive and intellectual side. This duality in his personality, anger, and curiosity, is a central theme of the series and will be his undoing.
This issue does something amazing that I seldom see elsewhere, especially in a mainstream superhero comic. On the opening page, the first caption has a dramatic ticking clock that tells us that the main character is going to die. Throughout the issue, we are reminded of Vic’s impending death eight times. You would expect there to be a cop out at the end, ensuring the main character will survive. O’Neil doesn’t pull his punches. This issue ends with the death of Vic Sage, both physically and metaphorically. That is how you do a cliff-hanger!
How Is The Art? That Is The Question
I would be remiss if I did not stop to mention the fantastic art by Denys Cowan. His art style is highly detailed with heavy shading. This gives the art an edgy almost gritty feel. The art matches the tone. The Question is a comic set is a harsh, dirty world that has all the moral ambiguity of a good noir crime drama. To continue the harshness of the world through the art, there are no sound effects during fight scenes. Denys Cowan leaves them silent, letting the art flow naturally which shows the brutality that Vic both gives and receives.
Issue Two: “Butterfly”
The second issue of the opening four-issue arc of The Question is the strongest part. Where the previous issue was about the hero being a failure both in life and as a superhero, this is a small intimate story about trying to be a better person. The title is significant to the theme of the issue for two reasons. First, Vic is experiencing a rebirth much like a caterpillar.
Secondly, Zhuangzi’s philosophical parable about a man dreaming he is a butterfly is symbolic of Vic’s journey. Vic thought he was a hero, fighting corruption both as The Question and as a journalist. What he was really doing was fighting just for the sake of fighting. He enjoyed the adrenaline rush, and let it fuel his anger. Batman even calls him out on this.
What the montage in the middle of the issue shows is how Vic is progressively changing not necessarily physically, but mentally. He is calming down, becoming inquisitive. His curiosity is taking the place of his anger. In a way, the montage can be seen as Vic overcoming the problems associated with toxic masculinity and not just an 80’s trope.
Lady Shiva’s interpretation of Vic’s journey is different. She believes that he is a warrior that lacked the control and discipline necessary to be the best he can be. The fact that she beats him in a duel is symbolic of Vic’s status in his spiritual journey. He is becoming something new but he has yet to conquer his anger fully.
Issue Three: “Suffer The Children…”
Dennis O’Neil is well known for writing socially conscious stories. After all, that is what made Green Arrow/Green Lantern such an important comic. He has mentioned in an interview before that the reason he did this was to ensure people were thinking about the issues. To wake them up and get them to do something about it.
This issue deals with a radical religious figure, Reverend Hatch, attempting to frame a black politician for the bombing of a school bus full of white children. One of the bombers, Junior, is abused by his gangster father, Benno because he is gay. Pretty heady stuff, and is still very relevant today. As this series finds itself, O’Neil will continue to tackle politics head on more frequently. O’Neil had something to say, and he never pulls his punches.
All of this commentary blends right into the central theme of the issue, childhood innocence. Junior lives in a world where he was abused for what he is and could never live up to his father’s expectations. Vic grew up an orphan that was abused in the orphanage by both the other kids and the nuns. They both never got to experience the innocence that comes with being a child, they had to grow up quickly.
Jackie, Myra’s daughter, represents what childhood should be about, living in the moment and having fun. Despite the horror that surrounds her, such as her mother being blackmailed into a marriage with the alcoholic mayor, Wesley Fermin, she just wants to build a snowman. This connects to something Vic learned in the last issue. That we only have the moments, the future is uncertain, and the past is gone, so learn to enjoy what you have now.
Issue Four: “The Sacrifice”
This is the conclusion to the opening arc for The Question. Lots of groundwork is laid for the future of the series while closing out the story of Reverend Hatch. At times this issue goes a bit too far into superhero territory but manages to pull out from that with a few clever inversions.
Now, I know what you are thinking: But Kyle, The Question is a superhero right? Yes, but I would describe his stories as more crime dramas with a political and philosophical bent that just so happen to feature a superhero. For instance, O’Neil has gone to great lengths to make Vic seem like just an ordinary guy.
He doesn’t have any gadgets besides the belt of binary gas that allows him to apply his mask. His car is a red VW Beetle that has a souped-up engine. Not exactly the Batmobile is it? It even breaks down in this issue, which is a clear statement by O’Neil that superheroics is not what this series is about. Vic’s refusal to kill Reverend Hatch, despite how much he wants to, demonstrates that he is afraid of himself.
That if he does this one act, all the growth he went through would be for naught. Which is why he tells Myra that it was better that she killed Hatch instead of him. Myra was acting out of the defense of her child, but that doesn’t make it right in her eyes. Myra is a kind, virtuous woman who will regret killing Hatch, Vic is afraid that he wouldn’t regret it.
Issue Five: “Cityscape”
This issue is where the series starts to evolve into what it is known for. This is the strongest issue in the trade and one of my favorites in the series. In the previous issue, our hero stopped the deranged villain, putting an end to his corrupt rule of the city and saved his one true love. Now is the point in the story where everyone is happy and the hero is rewarded, right? As I said, The Question is not a superhero comic. This issue is all about the consequences of the previous arc.
Hub City is in chaos. The government of Hub City no longer exists, there is looting, rioting, and people are dying. Francine is raped by a co-worker named Bernie because she can’t leave her office due to the rioting. Vic’s actions have consequences, and very little of it is good. Punching people and saving the day cannot solve complex issues like political corruption and moral decay. This entire issue can be read as O’Neil’s commentary on the very idea of superheroes being ineffective.
Questioning The Nature Of Humanity
The central theme of the issue is guilt. Vic feels guilty for toppling Hub City’s government, Myra feels guilty for killing Reverend Hatch, and Izzy O’Toole feels guilty for being apathetic to the problems in the city. They are alone in this feeling because the rest of the city refuses to accept the guilt. They keep passing the blame onto someone or something else.
Wesley Fermin gives a drunken speech in which he blames “the commies.” Bernie blames the rape on the fact that he is in need of love. The killers of Gaston Hubert, the founder of Hub City in 1818, blame the Indians. This refusal to admit fault and change is encapsulated in the character of Maud. She will never leave that bus stop because she always goes there and always will. Hub City will burn because it’s citizens refuse to change their ways.
Issue Six: “…That Small Rain Down Can Rain…”
This issue, while interesting, is the weakest of this trade. It’s not bad, far from it. It just suffers from coming directly after a very powerful issue.
The environmental message of the issue is tied to the theme of fathers and sons. Ian Angus McVey was apathetic to the environment, only caring about his business. This lead to acid rain and other products of industrial waste and pollution. This is strikingly similar to Benno and Junior’s relationship. Benno was apathetic to his son only caring about his business. This abuse leads Junior to pour acid on himself in order to impress his father.
Vic is at his prime right now. Order has been restored to Hub City, though it is an uneasy peace. He is working as a journalist again and he has attempted to reconnect with Myra. For once, things are looking up for him. Several times throughout this issue, O’Neil makes a point to call out Vic’s curiosity. Such as when he hesitates to save Farley McVey because he wants to hear what he was going to say in the interrogation or when he hears a gunshot at Ian’s house. It is his central drive, in a complete contrast to how he was in issue one. O’Neil is preparing us for the inevitable fall from grace.
Questioning The Question
The Question: Zen and Violence is a strong opening volume, with interesting characters and beautiful art. It’s social commentary and themes are still relevant today. But the best has yet to come in The Question. Join me next month as I discuss each issue collected in the second volume, The Question: Poisoned Ground.