I continue my trek down memory lane as I revisit my favorite comic book series with my favorite fictional character, The Question by Dennis O’Neil. Here is Part 1 and Part 2. This month we have some guest appearances by some big names and absolutely fantastic issues.
This is being done in anticipation of The Question making his/her post-Rebirth appearance in the Brian Michael Bendis penned Action Comic #1005. Today, we are looking at the third volume in the series, The Question: Epitaph for a Hero which collects issues 13-18.
Issue Thirteen: “Be All That You Can Be…”
This issue starts a two-issue arc that intentionally parallels the journeys of Vic and Myra, as well as being very introspective. The core theme O’Neil is playing with in this arc is discipline and the lack of it in selfish people.
When a bridge collapses the cops refuse to go save a little boy that was trapped in a car. The construction worker for said bridge did not repair it due to the report coming in fifteen minutes before he got off work. People watch military personnel get brutally murdered in front of them and they treat it as a show to watch.
This is in contrast to both Vic and Myra, who demonstrate great discipline and selflessness in their jobs. Vic even dives into the water to save the little boy. Sadly, he is too late as the kid is dead. Which within of itself is symbolic of the type of heroism that O’Neil writes in The Question. Vic has changed to be a selfless hero, but unlike classic superheroes, there are rarely happy endings. In this issue, we are introduced to Colonel DeBeck, an American military officer that is dissatisfied with the current state of the military.
In a scene that is clearly framed to be a reference to the movie Patton, he states that the military has become about benefits and showmanship rather than honor and sacrifice.
He believes that because the military has no honor, they are weak. And in a classic might makes right mentality, the weak must perish for the strong to survive. Interestingly, Vic earned the respect of DeBeck by saving the kid. DeBeck may be a horrible person but he respects discipline and the ability to take action.
Issue Fourteen: “Saving Face”
Perhaps one of the most interesting issues of the series, as O’Neil does something very different from what he has done before. Following on from the cliffhanger from the last issue, Vic is buried up to his neck in the middle of nowhere surrounded by DeBeck’s fanatical group.
We keep cutting between Vic’s interaction with them and Myra dealing with all the problems that come with running for election. The clear symbolism is that they are both up to their neck in dirt, one physically and the other metaphorically, and it’s taking its toll on them.
Myra begins to find out that politics is not actually about addressing problems, it’s all about showmanship. Her manager, Cobb, is defining her entirely by her gender and not her stance on certain issues. He insists that she has to be under tons of make-up despite her objections because she has to have sex appeal. During her speech, reporters keep asking her about Jackie, her child she had out of wedlock.
Questioning Gender Roles
The nightmare she has later in the issue is indicative of this misogynistic treatment. Her nightmare is her stripping in front of reporters and politicians as all her secrets are exposed. Myra is not seen as a serious politician. She is seen as a woman that is married to an alcoholic and can’t take care of her child. She desperately wants to be able to campaign on her stances on problems, to be a real politician, but Hub City is not progressive enough.
Vic begins realizing he can’t tough the situation out. He has a flashback to when he was an orphanage, was locked up in a closet, and when released told the nun to go to hell. This is indicative of his old personality, the macho one, the kind of one DeBeck believes in. When Richard, in the guise of a scorpion, appears, he finally understands that being tough will not work. In order to get rid of the pain, he must first accept it. The point being, that if you stop fighting and live in the moment, life will be a little easier.
Issue Fifteen: “Epitaph For A Hero”
This issue is one of the most hard-hitting and prevalent issues in the series. Vic is forced to partner with a private investigator named Loomis McCarthy. Loomis is a horrible, bigoted person and that is shown throughout the story. We are even introduced to him making a lynching joke.
He will regularly use derogatory terms for many different minorities and makes jokes about killing black people. Remember how I said that The Question would tackle politics head on? Well, this issue is about racism, its causes, and how it affects people. So, to say Loomis’ dialogue is hard to read is putting it mildly.
However, that is the point, as Vic is just as uncomfortable with him as the reader is. As they are working the same case, he has to put up with him, but in the captions, we see how much Vic despises Loomis. At one point, Loomis makes a racist joke in front of Lou, a black cop, who proceeds to understandably beats the crap out of him. Vic does not interfere and even tell Loomis that if Lou hadn’t done it, he would have.
Because they are investigating a series of race-related murders, Vic believes that Loomis is behind it. What makes Loomis even more disgusting is what is in his apartment. Vic finds a jingoistic magazine that teaches racist ideologies. And despite all of this, Loomis claims to be religious, the sheer hypocrisy of following a dogma that preaches acceptance while being racist is on display. Vic couldn’t find any evidence that Loomis was behind it. This annoys Vic as Loomis is a despicable person and is the clear and obvious villain.
Questioning What Defines A Villian
In a clever inversion by O’Neil, Loomis is actually innocent of the entire affair. It was actually an attempt to connect Royal Dinsmore to the KKK by a former business partner. At the end of the issue, the reader is given a gut-punch by O’Neil that is pure masterclass writing.
Loomis, a man that both the reader and Vic have grown to hate, saves Vic’s life after an attempted assassination. The reader is left questioning everything about life when Loomis is called a hero. Vic’s reaction is perfect:
“There are no heroes – and no villains, either. There is not one damn villain in the world…”
Issue Sixteen: “…Who Was That Masked Man?”
After that heavy issue, O’Neil knew he needed to lighten the mood while not breaking the overall tone of The Question. This issue starts a three-issue arc that is over the top but so much fun. The focus of this issue is Izzy O’Toole, the now acting chief of the police, and former corrupt cop.
The point of Izzy O’Toole is that no matter how bad things get and how horrible a person someone is, they can still change for the better. Izzy may be crass and rude, but he is now the cleanest cop on the Hub City police force. He was a product of his environment, becoming a corrupt cop because it was expected of him.
With Vic changing, setting an example, and personally saving Izzy’s life, it was only natural that he would change to become a good person. He is beginning to be respected as the everyman of the city, which is why Myra needs him to endorse her.
The villians of this arc are Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. No, not literally those people, but two gun smugglers that dress up like cowboys and at least one of them thinks he is a decendant of the original Butch Cassidy. Sundance is unhinged, he takes perverse pleasure in killing and causing destruction. Butch is the people person, preferring to talk through situations rather than fight.
Their plan is to turn Hub City into a modern “Hole-In-The-Wall”, which in the old west was a haven for criminals that was safe from law enforcement. It’s a very interesting idea, as Hub City is so corrupt I can easily see it becoming that.
Issue Seventeen: “A Dream Of Rorschach”
This issue opens with a plot point ripped right out of the headlines of the time, something O’Neil was quite famous for doing. There was a fear that certain guns, which were replacing metal parts with plastic as it was cheaper, would be able to get by metal detectors.
This led to the United States Congress passing the Undetectable Firearms Act in 1988. So, this issue starts with Butch passing through a metal detector at the police station, giving Sundance a plastic gun, and them making their grand escape to the helicopter on the roof.
Vic runs after them, trying to be the hero with or without the mask. However, he loses his grip on the helicopter and falls presumably to his death, but his fall is broken by an old man standing on a roof. The man dies, and Vic begins to blame himself. If he hadn’t acted like the hero, he wouldn’t have fallen on the man and killed him. Accidental or not, he has killed someone and he can’t stand it. He is relapsing back into the old Vic Sage from #1.
Questioning How Rorshach Is Used By O’Neil
All of this leads to this issue being one of the most revered and remembered issues. While on a plane to Seattle to track down Butch and Sundance, Vic reads Watchmen. In a clever bit of metafiction, O’Neil comments on the fact that Rorschach is based on Ditko’s original version of The Question. While fun to see the two characters be combined in a dream sequence, it is actually used for the purposes of Vic’s character arc.
He starts trying to act like Rorschach throughout the issue. He’s aggressive and makes dumb mistakes trying to be a badass. It gets him beaten, and nearly killed. This is used to comment on O’Neil’s own distaste for Rorschach as a hero and to show that Vic is pushing against the teachings of Richard. In his internal monologue, he even comments on the fact that he keeps learning the same lesson over and over. This all culminates in one of my favorite lines of all time. When a thug that is about to kill Vic asks if he has any last words, Vic replies with “Yeah. Rorschach sucks.”
Issue Eighteen: “Desperate Ground”
This issue is the most hilarious and fun in the series, while still inverting tropes and keeping the grittier tone. Picking up from the cliffhanger from the previous issue, Vic’s life is saved by nonother than Green Arrow, who during this point in continuity was residing in Seattle. It’s worth noting that O’Neil redefined Green Arrow back in the 60’s and 70’s.
Classically, when superheroes meet they tend to fight until they inevitably unite in a common cause. O’Neil plays with this trope by having Ollie not trust Vic at first, by they never come to blows. Ollie keeps him tied up, and it takes Vic proving that they are very similar before he unties him. When they do team-up, it’s my favorite superhero team-up of all time.
The interplay between Ollie and Vic is so much fun but also interesting. Ollie is a superhero take on Robin Hood, and that is clearly represented in his personality. He is fun, adventurous, but has subjects that he will get very serious about. Sometimes that adventurous part of his personality takes over, he takes the theatrics to far just for a thrill and makes dumb mistakes.
Vic uses this to compare each other, clearly showing that they have similar habits when it comes to superheroics. They even use their sense of humor and sarcasm for the same purpose, it’s a defense mechanism to cope with the darkness that is constantly in their lives.
Questioning The Ending
The ending of this issue is beautiful. After the big climactic fight, Ollie and Vic take the remaining villains into a cottage, start a fire, and talk about the nature of good and evil into the wee hours of the night. This entire issue feels like a morality tale that would be told at Christmas, and that ending helps with that feeling.
Questioning The Question
This volume has it all. Introspective character pieces, politically charged social commentary, metafictional connections to the titular character’s publication history, and an over the top adventure with one of DC’s most recognizable superheroes. This volume contains some of the most memorable issues and many of them are revered by people to this day.
Next month I will be taking a look at each issue in the fourth volume of the series, The Question: Welcome to Oz. Myra’s mayoral campaign will come to its shocking conclusion leading to my favorite arc in the series, Election Day. Additionally, I will also be covering the crossover event between Detective Comics, Green Arrow, and The Question entitled Fables.