Tuesday, October 23, 2007

The Question

I was going to write a curmudgeonly post today about factual misrepresentation on Internet message boards, but I decided that life is too short. I’d rather write about something I like.

The Question (1987) is one of my all-time favorite comic book series. Written by Dennis O’Neil and drawn by Denys Cowan and Rick Magyar, the series takes a new view of an old Charlton character created by Steve Ditko. In the original version, Vic Sage was a hard-hitting Hub City journalist who had an alter ego created by placing a false skin over his face and bonding it to his skin with a gas invented by Aristotle Rodor.

In this newer version, Vic Sage investigates corruption in Hub City, as the sinister Reverend Hatch has sunk his influential claws into the drunken mayor Wesley Fermin. Sage but meets an untimely demise at the hands of Lady Shiva and the Reverend Hatch’s goons by the end of his first issue. They break most of his bones, shoot him in the head with a small-caliber handgun, and dump his body in the river. For all intents and purposes, Vic Sage and the Question are dead on the last page of issue #1.

In issue #2, many of Ditko’s influences are replaced by O’Neil’s as Sage is seemingly brought back to life by Shiva’s healing skills. He wakes in Richard Dragon’s mountain home. Richard Dragon, whose comic book series in the 1970s was also written by O’Neil, trains Sage from a wheelchair. The acerbic, violent Vic Sage slowly transforms into a zen warrior-philosopher whose central personality trait is curiosity.

I didn’t read the Ditko version of the Question, so I didn’t have the background to make any comparisons as did many vocal readers who complained that this version of the character was too radically different from the original. Instead, I saw this character as a refreshing change from the dark and gritty post-Dark Knight pantheon of superheroes. The Question (who never called himself that, by the way) weaved his way through adventures seeking answers to fundamental questions about himself and the world, resorting to violence only when it was necessary.

Denys Cowan’s artwork ranged from polished to downright sketchy as the series progressed. Rick Magyar’s inks really helped them for the first two years, but when he was replaced by Malcolm Williams III, the inks got just as sketchy as the pencils. One of the highlights of the series for me was the authenticity of the martial arts. I recognized some of the techniques used in the series from my own brief Karate training (two and a half years). Denys Cowan also paid attention to men’s fashion, which was extremely unusual for a comic book artist. Since Vic Sage basically just put a mask on and changed the color of whatever clothes he was wearing to become the Question, Cowan often had him dressed very well. The length of the Question’s hair grew as the character continued to evolve over the three-year run of the series. That added a level of believability to what was normally considered to be a two-dimensional art form.

The 36 monthly issues of The Question were supplemented by two annuals, the first of which are among my favorite issues of the series. Question Annual #1 was part of a three-part crossover among Green Arrow, the Question, and Detective Comics (featuring Batman). At that time, they were the three main non-powered heroes in the DC universe and I thought it was pretty cool to team them up and explore their philosophical differences. Readers also got to see Batman from another character’s perception:

Green Arrow: “I just thought you swung down from rooftops and cleaned bad guys’ clocks.”

Batman: “Sometimes I do. That accounts for about four percent of my activity. The rest of my time is spent finding out things.”

The Question was written like a 36-issue limited series. It had a definite ending planned. When the series concluded, it as followed by The Question Quarterly, which followed the main characters beyond the scope of Hub City. It didn’t engage the reader in the same way the series had, and ended after only a few issues.

My enjoyment of this character flowed over into our long-running Champions campaign. When the gamemaster at that time, Craig Merrick, killed off our world’s version of the Question to advance a storyline, I was upset. I had requested an appearance by the character because half the fun of playing a game set in a comic book world is having your character meet other characters of whom you are a fan. Once that happened, Craig bumped him off. From that point on I sought revenge. Craig had a way of beginning an interrogative statement. He would look at a person and say something like, “Question—what is your character doing right now?” or “Question—what color is your character’s costume?” Every time thereafter that he began a sentence that way, to anyone, I would interrupt:

Craig, looking at Eric: “Question—“

Me: “He’s dead.”

Craig, looking at Doug: “Question—“

Me: “Still dead.”

I’m sure that got annoying after a while, but back then I was that guy. I’m not that guy now, and a lot of that has to do with this comic book series.

I learned a lot from The Question. It opened me up to philosophy that I had not previously considered. I read books from Denny O’Neil’s monthly recommended reading list. I tried a little more introspection. I questioned my childhood and my adult reaction to it. I started studying Karate, and maintained that study for two and a half years, reaching brown belt (I got injured and had to stop for a long time. Then I moved away.) I was amazed at how much a comic book series could change a person.

When the Question returned in the recent Huntress: Cry for Blood miniseries, I saw hope for the first time in over 15 years that this version of the Question was back. When the Huntress crossed a line by accidentally shooting Batman with a crossbow bolt, she realized that she needed help. Vic Sage took her to Richard Dragon for training. He recognized some of his formerly angry self in her. The Question and Huntress began a relationship after that, but it was unfortunately doomed as her inner demons proved too strong for the training to overcome and she went back to her killing ways. To me the Huntress was doomed, but it looked good for the Question to get another shot at comics.
Naturally, DC starred him in a universe-wide crossover event and killed him off by giving him lung cancer.

This event would have made me really upset fifteen years ago. I can just see myself in the audience of a panel at a comic book convention:

Moderator: “We’ll now take questions from the audience.”

Me: “You can’t. He’s dead!”

Now, though, I have to look at it like this: Denny O’Neil has retired from comics, Denys Cowan has moved on to produce animation, and the character would have only been a shadow of his former self anyway. It was probably for the best. Sadly, though, this is symptomatic of what DC has been doing lately. Right now they’re killing off the New Gods, from what I understand. Jim Starlin, master of comic book death (a future blog post subject) is calling it “a mercy killing.” I can’t help but think that’s what the Question’s death was too.


Lowell said...

Probably my favorite DC character. I loved the series, though byy the middle of it when it started to come out irregularly I didn't follow it as much. Besides Watchmen, it was the biggest influence on my thinking when running street-level supers games.

I remember you doing that to Craig, but I didn't know why.

I'm curious about your reaction to two other takes on The Question-- I guess there was a Vertigo-esque series where he's some kind of shamanic dude? Did you read that? I assume it is crap, but I'm wondering if there were any redeeming ideas there. Also what did you think of him in Justice League Unlimited. It is a far cry from the original, and probably owes more to Rorsach, but it was neat to see him in there. They made his character work in that context, but it certainly wasn't the original.

Jim McClain said...

I didn't read the shamanistic version, but that was too far to travel for me. I did like the way he was portrayed on JLU. I think that was closer to the way the Ditko version was done.