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The Question: Zen, Violence & Questions (A Retrospective on O'Neil & Cowan's Run)

Updated: Jan 25, 2020

While some of you may not be that familiar with The Question.   With The Question making his/her Post-Rebirth appearance, I could think of no better time than the present to share my fondness for one of the greatest and underrated run in comics, THE QUESTION by Dennis O'Neil and Denys Cowan. It's the perfect time to shed some light on one of the most intriguing and underrated characters in comics.

Not to mention one of my absolute favorites.

The Question's origins go back to the days of Charlton Comics where the legendary Steve Ditko created him. He later became a part of the DCU following DC's purchase of Charlton's library of characters. Which following CRISIS ON INFINITE EARTHS, led to his inclusion in the DCU proper.

Some of you may only be familiar with The Question from his appearance in ACTION COMICS a few months ago or even his role in EVENT LEVIATHAN. You may be asking yourself, "Who is this dude with no face?" Or if you've been reading LOIS LANE, "Why is there a woman with no face also?" The woman I speak of is Renee Montoya — whom Vic had passed the mantle too in the early 00's. But that's a tale for another day.

So..... Let's stop right there. This article, like I said earlier, is going to be focusing on THE QUESTION run from the late eighties which focused on Vic Sage.  As comics are famous for- reboots and earth shattering events- Vic is set to make a return in his own book once again THE QUESTION: THE MANY DEATHS OF VIC SAGE.

The Question has had several different interpretations over the years, but it was my introduction to him on Justice League Unlimited that made me want more. I loved the conspiracy theorist aspect of the character and I knew I need to learn more. I couldn't believe I had never heard of this run. After painstakingly hunting down all the single issues -since the trades were out of print- I fell in love with the character all over again.

This retrospective is going to contain spoilers so beware.

From the first issue of Question we were introduced to a man who was defeated at every turn. First, by the martial arts mercenary Lady Shiva. He was then beaten nearly to death by the villain's hired thugs, shot in the head with a pellet gun, and thrown into the river to drown. Lady Shiva then rescued him for reasons known only to her and gave him directions to meet wheelchair-bound Richard Dragon as soon as he recovered enough to get out of bed. Once there, Sage learned both martial arts and eastern philosophy. When he returned to the city, a new man, he returned to his journalist and superhero careers.

The stories that followed tended to illustrate various philosophic points, which Dennis O'Neil used the letters pages to further expand on those ideas by giving the readers recommended, further, reading  each issue.

In the O'Neil series, Vic Sage is an investigative reporter for the news station KBEL in Hub City. He uses the hero identity to get the answers his civilian identity cannot. Unlike other superheroes, O'Neil's Question series is primarily focused on the politics of the city. Rather than hunting down the petty criminals, Question often fights the corrupt government of Hub City. O'Neil's Hub City is synonymous with corruption and violence, sometimes even surpassing Gotham City as the most dismal city in the DC Universe.

This is one of the more intriguing aspects of this series, while it's set in the DCU, it's so far removed from the usual superhero tropes that we're used to seeing. At the time this was coming out, it was really unique in that respect and makes sense why it has garnered such a cult following the past 30+ years.

Throughout the course of the series, Sage often assists Myra Fermin, his former girlfriend, to win the seat of Hub City Mayor. But this isn't your usual "love" interest, his interest in Myra goes beyond admiration. Like I said, the two shared a relationship before his near-death experience with Lady Shiva and his training under Richard Dragon. When he returned, he discovers she married the corrupt alcoholic mayor of Hub City, Wesley Fermin. This dude was a complete scumbag. Eventually Myra loses the election by one vote but becomes mayor when her competition is found dead

O’Neil's Question is a man very conflicted on how far to go when enforcing justice. He often feels tempted to kill, but holds back. It's his relationship with his mentor, Aristotle Rodor, that often keeps him from going over the edge.

Throughout this series, we are given glimpses into this dark city and learn that villains don't always wear costumes. I think that is one of my favorite aspects of the series. With the exception of a few Green Arrow appearances, THE QUESTION is in it's own little corner of the DCU. It stays away from the "fantastic" and gives us a hard look at society and the true evil that plagues it.

It wasn't just the great writing of O'Neil that made this series special. It was also the deft art by Denys Cowan. He was able to cleverly orchestrate fight scenes in a way that no other artist can, in my opinion. If you go back you'll notice that he never uses sound effects, instead letting the motion and imagery put those sounds in your head. Cowan isn't the only artist on this series, but when I think back on this series as a whole, it's his name and art that flashes in my head. I challenge anyone to find an artist that choreographs a fight scene as well as Cowan does, you won't find one.

At the conclusion of the series, during a massive hallucinogenic trip, Sage's subconscious tells him through images of his mother that he has to leave Hub City to ever be able to live happily. Which is one of the best issues in the series. This viewpoint is reinforced by the complete societal collapse of the city.

It's also around this time that Richard Dragon convinces Vic that living in Hub City is killing him. With Vic and Aristotle deciding to leave with the help of Lady Shiva and Richard, Myra decides to stay. The series goes on to continue certain plot threads in QUESTION QUARTERLY. But this was the end of the series proper.

I for one think this should have continued on, but who know the real story of why it didn't continue. Maybe it should have gone over to Vertigo, with many of the other "Mature Readers" books. I think this series while a product of it's time, holds up very well 30 years later. So before you check out the new series from Jeff Lemire and Denys Cowan, I highly recommend you seek out this amazing series. It' one of the most underrated runs in comics and I think more people should have it in their collection.

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