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Who Is The Question?: A Retrospective On The Dennis O’Neil Run (Part 6)

The Question

The main purpose of this retrospective on Dennis O’Neil’s The Question has been fulfilled. This was all for the purpose of building up the hype towards The Question making his/her debut in the current Rebirth continuity. This happened not too long ago in Action Comics #1005, and we were left with more questions than answers. Quite fitting when you come to think of it. But this retrospective still has one more part after this, so we will continue on.


If you missed the previous bits of this retrospective, here are parts 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5.


This month, I’m covering The Question Volume Six: Peacemaker, which collects #31-36 of the Dennis O’Neil and Denys Cowan run. It’s the end of the main series. The characters would pop up from time to time in other books, often written by O’Neil himself, but we will get to those later. These six issues contain some of the series’s most emotionally heavy moments and the ending to an incredible character arc.

Issue Thirty-One: “Boom. The End.”

This issue is a big indicator of what is to come in the finale. The central idea of this issue is letting go of the past. This is symbolized by Myra making the decision to have Hell’s Acres blown up. This is the neighborhood that Vic grew up in and in many ways never left. We see a lot of his problems being developed here, from the assaults to other such horrible events.

As Izzy points out, it was built on top of a landfill. It’s the perfect metaphor of what it did to people living in it. It looks promising, but the garbage underneath will eventually find a way up.

The narration in this issue is written by O’Neil to seem like a fairy tale. It has an almost poetic quality to it, especially the ending. The moment that Vic and Myra kiss and embrace each other is one of the most beautiful moments in the entire series. The irony, of course, being that they are in a sewer pipe surrounded by the remnants of a now-destroyed building. That is O’Neil’s point. That no matter what, life is about connection and companionship. Even in the worst possible situation, if you have someone you love, it will make it easier to cope.

Questioning The Lady Shiva Subplot

One of the subplots involves the demolition man who is ready to destroy Hell’s Acres. He enjoys his job and the destruction it brings. The destruction results in an unpredictable situation that makes his life interesting. It’s chaos. So is it really surprising that Lady Shiva agrees to go out for coffee with him? It’s a small moment that really adds a new dimension to Lady Shiva. If you hadn’t understood that she is an agent of chaos at this point, then it is driven home. She is not evil nor is she good, she simply is.

Issue Thirty-Two: “The Peacemaker”

The main focus of this issue is neither one of our main characters. Vic and Myra’s part of this issue takes up little of the page count and seems more like a subplot than anything else. But it adds to the thematic implications of William Palmer’s main story.

One thing I love about Vic and Myra’s part of this issue is how O’Neil subverts the classic superhero trope of the love interest being oblivious to her lover’s double identity. Myra was a reporter and now she is a politician; she can tell when someone is hiding the truth. She knows Vic is connected to The Question in some capacity.

The main thrust of this issue is that sometimes people are too quick at coming to the conclusion that they have to kill. William Palmer was a soldier in the Vietnam War, and he is considered a hero despite him feeling anything but one. He made the mistake that got most of his unit killed and then went on a killing spree. He went berserk, red with rage, which is why he continually sees a man with a red shirt even though there isn’t one. Due to the neighborhood watch programs set up by Myra, he can now be set off again. One of the people he is with even calls Hub City a “jungle.”

Questioning What Makes The Question Unique

In a normal superhero comic, if the situation got so dire that neighborhood watch programs had to be set up, it would go on without a hitch. They have a hero to look up to and guide them. This isn’t the case with The Question. The civilians are using it as an excuse to cause more violence or simply to get their hands on weapons. The situation is very dire, and there is no way anyone would come out of this without losing.

Issue Thirty-Three: “Harold”

This is the first appearance of Harold the mechanic, a Batman supporting cast member. A lot of concepts of O’Neil’s have often got their start in The Question if you haven’t noticed that trend so far. It was a very underground book that, despite being well regarded, had low sales. O’Neil has talked about how the freedom he had with this series was more than he had before. Thus it became his most personal work and the testing ground for the ideas of his more mainstream work.

What is fascinating about this issue is that Tot asks Vic a question that every reader has asked themselves at some point. Does Vic love Myra? Their love is obvious to anyone on the outside but not to them. They are so scared of the future and feel like they must suffer for the betterment of others. Therefore, they are scared to even admit their love. If you haven’t noticed, they have never said the words to each other, even if their actions show the truth.

Cathy Fregosi is a character in the series that is being used to make a point about the superhero genre. He is a one-note villain with no personality, an affinity for saying one swear word over and over, and is heavily implied to have superpowers. The point O’Neil is conveying, since this is the final standalone issue before the three-issue finale, is that Vic doesn’t fit into normal superhero comics. His villains are more complex, and they don’t compensate by having powers. Everything in The Question is about analyzing Vic’s psychology, not about fight scenes.

Issue Thirty-Four: “…Were It Not That I Have Bad Dreams…”

This is the beginning of the end of the main series of The Question. And it really shows in the themes of this issue. The issue focuses on people’s past decisions coming back to haunt them in some way.

We open with Myra having a nightmare where she is put on trial in hell for committing several sins, including the murder of Reverend Hatch at the beginning of the series. She defends all the charges against her by explaining why she did what she did. She knows she is guilty and accepts it. Her only rebuttal is the centerpiece of this entire finale, she is human and therefore flawed.

Meanwhile, Vic has been drugged and is hallucinating being a child talking to his mom. His mother is faceless, demonstrating two things. He never knew who his mother was and it hurts him that whoever she was abandoned him as an infant. And that the only part of his personality that he truly listens to anymore is The Question.

He is denying himself everything by doing this. He is trying to prove that living in Hub City will make him stronger, that he can save it all by himself. But that is not true, something he refuses to accept, so these hallucinations bring him to his lowest point. The scene where he is beaten and dragged from his car intentionally mirrors the scene where he is beaten and thrown into the river at the end of the first issue.

Questioning O’Neil’s Point About The Self

Myra seeks help from a psychiatrist, but this being Hub City, the only one left is insane and tries to rape her. She defends herself and escapes, which is a particular point that O’Neil is trying to convey. The only person that can truly save you is yourself.

Issue Thirty-Five: “Let Nothing You Dismay”

Things continue to get darker as we hurdle ever so closer to an incredibly depressing finale. But that is not to say this ending isn’t without its own sense of optimism and hope. The situation everyone is in is hopeless. Vic is drugged, beaten, and could die in the cold. Myra can’t do anything as the mayor of Hub City has lost its financing, meaning everything is shutting down. And there is a criminal running around in Vic’s coat, hat, and mask, which causes Izzy to go down a dark path again.

But Richard Dragon pushes against this idea that all is lost. He sees that life continues regardless of what is going on around people. Myra, in particular, shows a tenacity for survival and a willingness to do what is necessary. He points out that if people give in to hopelessness, they doom themselves to hell, but if they fight it, then they can get out of the abyss.

Questioning Vic’s Revelation

Vic gets a revelation in this issue via his hallucinations. He has to leave Hub City. Richard Dragon points out that Vic is addicted to the violence and chaos that Hub City represents. That he never truly learned the lesson he was trying to teach him. It was never about martial arts, it was about finding his true self.

Hub City corrupts those that live in it, as we are personally affected by those around us. Vic is at a crisis point. He either changes and becomes something more, or he regresses and becomes like the people in Hub City who refuse to help a bleeding man. Can we, as humans, a flawed creation, fight against our savage nature? And even then, how can you really be sure you are sane? That is the theme, and O’Neil writes it beautifully.

Issue Thirty-Six: “Or Maybe Gomorrah”

The end of the series is masterfully crafted. There isn’t some desperate fight against an evil villain who is destroying the city. The Question is not a superhero book, something I reiterate over and over again. This issue is intimately focused on the characters making one decision that will affect the rest of their lives. Do they leave Hub City?

In a classic inversion of the superhero tropes, O’Neil has his main character choose to leave. He even says that Hub City is beyond saving. This isn’t the action of a hero; it’s the action of a human being who is tired of taking a beating for the wrong reasons. Vic is so wonderfully human, perhaps the most human of all the DC characters, and this demonstrates that. Myra, in contrast, chooses to stay.

I have been pointing out that she embodies a more heroic personality, despite not having a costume or powers, than anyone else in the series. She believes she can save Hub City, even if she will suffer for it. But one of the things that define a hero is the capacity to sacrifice oneself for the betterment of others.

While the series ends on a rather depressing note, there is a hint of hope. Richard Dragon states that all of this is the result of people lacking the ability to believe in the idea of believing in hope. Lack of faith in the goodness of others and the belief that everything will never get better. Pessimism is the true enemy, some succumb to it and others fight it. You must never give in because if you don’t it doesn’t exist. Anything is possible with hope.

Questioning The Biblical References Throughout The Series

The biblical allusions that O’Neil has been putting in since the very first issue come to a head. Hub City is quite literally compared to Sodom and Gomorrah. The storm they experienced in Welcome to Oz was representative of the fire and brimstone that killed everyone in those cities except the righteous. The Question is ultimately a story of redemption. Vic trying desperately to fight against his worst instincts and become a better person. So the question becomes: Was Vic one of the righteous?

Questioning The Question

We have reached the end of the main series of The Question. O’Neil’s run is a massively underrated series that deserves more recognition than it gets. But the good news is that we are not fully done with it yet. Next month, we are going to be covering The Question Quarterlies as well as any guest and cameo appearances he made that were specifically written by Dennis O’Neil. There will be some exceptions to this, such as the Showcase issue, as the story isn’t long enough to warrant talking about, even if it is good, and O’Neil doesn’t write the entire issue.

Greg Rucka has often said that he thinks that #36 is the end of the series as it puts a nice cap on Vic’s character arc. I’m inclined to agree with him. The stuff that comes after never had the same feeling as the main series and sometimes seemed superfluous. However, there are some good stories in there, so I look forward to the final part of this retrospective.

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Kyle Scher
Kyle Scher is a graduate from the University of Winchester and he was the Chair of the university's Comic Book Society for two years.

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