Every week this summer, we’ll be bringing you a new installment of a 12-part series of reviews of meaningful comics found in the collection of our writers. “Long Box” refers to the lengthy, white cardboard boxes most comics find themselves stores within – bagged, alphabetized and numerically ordered.
These reviews, then, are the tales of those collections: illuminating characters, artists, writers – even eras – in additionto the personalities of the very owners of those fine collections.
What do you do for an encore when you’ve already savagely beaten, shot in the head with a bullet and dumped into a freezing river, the beloved, if not cult-favourite, main character of a new, monthly superhero comic book – all in the first issue?
That’s a good question.
If you’re acclaimed writer, Denny O’Neil, you continue the fascinating, ongoing evolution of that character, an engaging human study on what it means to be a hero in late twentieth century America, for over three more years.
And that was, perhaps, the greatest success of the rough and tumble hero, aptly named the Question.
DC Comics purchased the Question, along with a number of other comic characters such as Captain Atom and Blue Beetle, from defunct publisher Charlton Comics in the early nineteen eighties. Most of those characters would find themselves in their own monthly series but none would be as highly regarded as The Question.
Originally created in 1967 by Steve Ditko, the infamous co-creator of Spider-man and Doctor Strange for Marvel Comics, the Question found himslef in the back pages of Charlton Comics’ Blue Beetle #1, quickly moving into another title called Mysterious Suspense. Envisioned first as a right-leaning, no nonsense, outspoken investigative television journalist named Vic Sage, the Question, concealed by his psuedoderm putty-covered face, would be able to ask “the questions” that the public star Sage could not. For a 1960’s audience, the character of the Question was quite brutal towards his opponents with many inferring Ditko’s own objectivist political persuasions in the character. In fact, many of the personality traits inherent in the Question would pop up, albeit neutered, in other, later Ditko creations, namely The Creeper and Hawk and Dove.
A 1980’s audience demanded something different than what the character reflected in the 1960’s. Denny O’neil’s take on the character, twenty years after his first publication, was that of an inquisitive, if hard man, formed through the guiding hand of Zen philosophy. Here, the Question was a hero not necessarily in search of answers in the pursuit of crime but rather a man in search of himself through the pursuit of crime. In understanding criminality and sometimes – but not always – triumphing over it, Vic Sage was better able to understand who he was in a 1980’s American landscape. The Question, as published by DC Comics, written by the veteran O’Neil, was one of the first ongoing series that actually had a conclusion in mind – something that in today’s twenty-first century comic book world seems very much a popular motif.
Hub City, the metropolis in which Sage operates, is a city full of political corruption and terrible crime that teeters on the brink of anarchy. O’Neil has said that it was based on a real American city but only divulged his inspiration at the end of the story, revealing to readers that it was, in fact, a version of St. Louis. At the time, I remember thinking that from what I had read of the fictional Hub City, no American city could be that vile a place. And although Hub City was, perhaps, taken to an extreme as a literary function, the trials and tribulations of a politically corrupt St. Louis, the “Gateway to the West” as it’s referred, is often listed as one of the top American cities in per capita crime.
Indeed, one of the main characteristics of Vic Sage, as the Question in the first issue, is his penchant for violence, even if it’s hidden, deep within his own subconscious – a nod toward the Steve Ditko version of the 1960’s. When in combat with a female antagonist, the Question states: “Lady, last time we met you stayed out of it. Do yourself a favor and follow your own example. I don’t want to hurt you.” The chauvinistic tone aside, the “lady” in question is, in fact, Lady Shiva, a martial arts expert that Denny O’Neil created a decade earlier in the pages of Richard Dragon, King-Fu Fighter. (Incidentally, Richard Dragon also appears at various points in the series.) Lady Shiva, so in tune with who she is and what she does – and with more understanding of Sage’s character than even he knows of himself, flatly says, “Don’t you?”
The fact that her answer is actually a question is not lost on the reader even if it is lost on the her opponent. As she goes on to destroy the overconfident hero in hand-to-hand combat, this statement would conflict the Question for three more years of stories.
One of the most interesting and engaging aspects that O’Neil added to the world of The Question did not find itself in the pages of the comic. Instead, it was found in the back of the letter column, the last words written in any given issue. O’Neil created, for readers, a monthly “Recommended Reading List” in order to “help expand upon the philosophical points” behind each issue’s story. The recommended reading for the first issue was Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, a road tale that speaks to both the intellectualizing of the universe and the direct Zen-like viewing of it. In the context of the first issue of The Question, and indeed, much of its thirty-six issue run, Vic Sage swims upstream in the search for justice and understanding in his city of corruption and anarchy, all the while leaning to flow downstream in order to achieve the same ends.
The Question is one of my most beloved comic book series and it has stood the test of time, most recently compiled in six trade paperback books and finding a new audience. Fans everywhere clamor for Vic Sage, so engrossed were they in his search for the understanding of himself – a truly personal tale that invites study, contemplation and rereading – all of the best characteristics of great storytelling. In a time that gave us Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns, the thirty-six issues of The Question stands shoulder to shoulder with the very best of comic book fiction.
Whether Vic Sage, the Question, does find illumination, I won’t say here. The final issue is one of two answers to that question – a perfect ending to the series indeed and one that should be read by all lovers of story.