Each week, one of Biff Bam Pop’s illustrious writers will delve into one of their favourite things. Perhaps it’s a movie or album they’ve carried with them for years. Maybe it’s something new that moved them and they think might move you too. Each week, a new subject, a new voice writing on…something they love.
That’s all that anyone ever wants. Regardless of age, ethnicity, religious or political persuasions, all that’s ever wanted by anyone, at some point in their lives, is a definitive answer.
In 1987, I was in high school, reading comic books alongside many of my friends. I wasn’t aware of the origins of the character called The Question, nor his storied publication history. At my local comic book shop, I’d regularly pick up a monthly newsletter that DC Comics produced and distributed to retailers. It showcased the various books they were publishing that month with story abstracts for each particular issue along with feature articles for new, important releases, or interviews with writers, artists and editors. I’d use that newsletter as a reminder and checklist for the comics I wanted to read, a sort of expanded precursor to The Wednesday Run column I write for BiffBamPop! every week.
In early 1987, there was a feature advertisement on a new monthly series called The Question. In front of a nighttime cityscape, it featured a man dressed in a trench coat, wearing gloves and a fedora, enveloped by mysterious smoke and having no face. No face!
Who was this man?
In 1987, I bought the first issue of The Question – and started to get my answer.
There have been a number of iterations of The Question over the years. Writers seem to continually find different uses for him (or, recently, her) in their stories, which attest to both the characters longevity, adaptability, and his (or her) timelessness.
Originally conceived by legendary writer-artist Steve Ditko in 1967 as a back-up feature to Blue Beetle (issue #1) published by Charlton Comics, The Question was a punitive and uncaring vigilante who expressed his brand of physical justice within the confines of moral absolutism. His alter ego was investigative reporter Vic Sage, who saw in The Question, the means to act in ways that his television persona could not. In everything, there was right and there was wrong and in the middle, deciding on those two philosophical outcomes, was The Question.
When DC Comics bought the rights to a number of Charlton Comics characters in 1983, Alan Moore immediately appropriated and conceived of a more fanatical version of The Question, and named him Rorschach for his groundbreaking Watchmen series. DC, meanwhile, set into motion a new monthly series starring the character, but left him to the interpretation of acclaimed writer Denny O’Neil and newcomer artist, the teenage Denys Cowan (who would later go on to found Milestone Comics).
The greatest, most brilliant hook I’ve ever read in a comic book occurred in the first issue of The Question. Here was a character borne of the 1960’s that many readers didn’t remember or even know, and on the very first page, O’Neil promised that Vic Sage, The Question, would die.
On the last page of that very issue, the writer kept his promise.
Beaten by fists and crowbars, shot in the head, and left to rot in the cold waters of the Hub City harbor, The Question died. How could there possibly be an issue two? Readers couldn’t wait to see what would happen next.
The old Question, the prickly, morally absolute and macho Question that Ditko had so successfully created, died. What came back from that death, in a well-conceived and entirely reasonable and realistic manner, was a Vic Sage who endeavoured to become something different.
O’Neil brought Zen philosophy to the character and Cowan gave the page layouts an extended sense of realism through studied martial arts action. A series of the times, a real sense of literacy came to the fore, with O’Neil even providing a monthly Recommended Reading List, highlighting novels that he was reading or had read that influenced his writing of that very issue. In regards to the art, panels and movement flowed, mirroring the story of Vic Sage’s metamorphosis or they were dirtily etched in pencil and pen, simulating the harsh back drop of the city in which the character existed. Over time, Sage was no longer the hard rock. Over time, he struggled and battled and, slowly, learned to be the water, ever flowing, ever mutable, ever surviving. All this occurred amidst the backdrop of the worst antagonist that life could offer: life itself. In a city rife with corruption, crime and murder, Vic Sage asked himself the most important questions: Who am I? Who will I become? Where am I going?
Aren’t these the questions we all ask ourselves during periods of extreme change: high school, marriage, parenthood?
The Question was the perfect story for me to be reading in 1987. Its messages still resonate with me today, twenty eight years later. The answer that Vic Sage came upon in the final issue was illuminatory, very real, and not at all consistent with any “superhero” comic book I’ve read before or since. And it makes this particular iteration of The Question so very special a story.
Two years ago, along with my friends Jason Shayer and Biff Bam Pop!’s Editor-In-Chief, Andrew Burns, I was lucky enough to attend the San Diego Comic Con where after some manic hunting, I got to meet Denys Cowan, the artist who had inspired me so much. While drawing my favourite character for me, the friendly and engaging Cowan regaled me with stories about his experiences during those early days of his career.
“What did you learn working with Denny O’Neil?” I finally asked him. Cowan smiled, his head down, still hurriedly sketching on the paper in front of him. “Everything,” he answered.
For those interested, the Denny O’Neil and Denys Cowan version of The Question has been compiled in six paperback volumes. It was, and still remains, on this particular writer’s Recommended Reading List.