The Copper Age of comics is often understood as shifting the industry towards Mature Readers titles in the 1980s, aiming for adult audiences rather than capitalizing on the medium’s recent history of campy, kids entertainment. Gone was your Adam West Batman, today we have Frank Miller’s Dark Knight taking on Reagan’s America! While this was certainly true to an extent, there was still a wide spectrum of storytelling that often made use of camp or even targeted a younger demographic to introduce them to more complex topics. The Question is far from a safe read for children, but it does operate under Dennis O’Neil’s own guiding philosophy of writing comics in the hopes of starting conversations from a young age.
In an interview for the documentary, Comic Book Superheroes Unmasked (2003), O’Neil discusses his work with Neal Adams on Green Lantern/Green Arrow, stating “My theory was it was probably too late for my generation. But maybe you get a real smart 12 year old, and get him thinking about racism.” Despite the Mature Readers warning, I think The Question is best understood in the context of O’Neil’s desire to cultivate an adolescent fascination with politics and philosophy. It’s a series that tackles religious zealots, alcoholism, corruption and the cost of violence from page 1 and never trades impact for subtly. When your protagonist’s best friend is named Aristotle, there really isn’t any point in trying to beat around the bush. The series is a perfect time capsule of what signified the Copper Age, but what helps it stand the test of time is how it marries the old world and the new. Dennis O’Neil doesn’t simply remember what it’s like to read comics as a kid, he also knows how to write comics specifically for kids. Meanwhile, Denys Cowan came to prominence in the Copper Age and represents a fresh take on the world O’Neil has inhabited his whole career.
While there are noticeable problems in a modern context, The Question’s reputation as an ’80s classic is largely warranted. Once this series has you in its grip, it rarely lets go. Oftentimes, it’s not entirely clear to me what the take away from specific stories ought to be. It simply raises questions about all aspects of philosophy, politics, and human nature as it goes along. The results are mixed, but more often than not worth the price of admission.
The series is a sort of reboot of the Question, originally created by Steve Ditko. The Question and Mr. A were Ditko’s avatars to investigate complex moral and political problems through the use of Randian philosophy. As I have written about before, Ditko’s understanding of Rand is more complicated than is often presented. Question stories were less about realpolitik, and more abstract in nature. Ditko’s aim was to interrogate the choices people made, or the gravity of their failure to choose.
In O’Neil/Cowans’ reinterpretation, Vic Sage opens the series in familiar Hub City before being killed and thrown in the river. Lady Shiva resurrects him, and he trains for a year in the art of Zen. Once he returns to Hub City, the series becomes about the relationship between personal peace, moral obligation, and violence. In Issue #18, Vic explains his guiding light is quite simply learning how to become. He relapses, he waxes philosophical, and he often gets beat within an inch of his life, all the while our faceless man faces the mirror.
Zen according to Vic Sage’s interpretation centers on learning how to be at peace in the moment, how to flow with what is around you. Unfortunately, the problem he often runs into is that his definition of Zen and how he chooses to organize his life is largely incompatible. Vic is an orphan, he was originally named Charles Victor Szasz by the nuns who raised him before choosing his own name, and eventually donning the mantle of the Question. As a result of his death/resurrection, he has temporary amnesia and spends the early part of the run playing the parts of Charlie, Vic and the Question attempting to figure out who he wants to be, and whether he can sustain the boxes he’s put himself in. Vic sets himself up for complete failure, as he tries to find peace while looking for violence as the Question, tries to be in the moment while running from his past, and chooses who he wants to be without ever committing to the personal responsibilities that would entail.
Vic Sage is not the only one trapped in this vortex of trying/failing to be better. A host of characters populate the corrupt world of Hub City including love interest and mayoral candidate, Myra Fermin; corrupt cop gone straight, Izzy O’Toole; and former professor turned philosophical adviser, Aristotle “Tot” Rodor. Each of these characters factor into different story arcs or one-shots, often as conduits for Vic’s changing outlook. The prospect of whether a corrupt city can be saved, and the means by which it ought to be preserved are embodied by Myra and Izzy who are thrust into responsibilities that they perhaps are not best equipped for but are morally obligated to pursue. Meanwhile, Tot plays the second largest role in the series by chastising Vic for his half-baked plans and inconsistent ideology.
Tot is another holdover from the Steve Ditko era. Just like Ayn Rand claims lineage from Aristotle, Vic Sage was originally taught by Aristotle Rodor. O’Neil, however, has flipped the script slightly by having the two operate more as equals with Tot claiming to be a Positivist (another cute reference to traditions which claim Aristotelian lineage), while Vic operates more as a contemporary Existentialist. The relationship between Tot and Vic is illustrative of the highs and lows of this series, where O’Neil is more concerned with the act of thinking, rather than the specifics of our thoughts.
There is not much that Tot and Aristotle seem to have in common, outside of superficial references. The series, rather than trying to put Aristotle in modern conversation, simply wants to raise philosophical issues regardless of who they might be attributed to. This is where O’Neil is strongest. His vision is of a “real smart 12 year old” who can pick up this book, hear names like Aristotle, Nietzsche, Yeats and Sun Tzu, and endup nurturing a fascination with the broader questions of philosophy. It’s hard to say this approach is without merit, seeing as I discovered The Question as a 12 year old and ended up with a philosophy degree. I was never able to meet Dennis O’Neil, but I did dream of introducing myself to him as one of his 12 year olds.
The trouble ends up being that raising philosophical questions is not sound in and of itself. Nowhere is this more clear than in the infamous The Question #15 “Epitaph for a Hero.” This story follows Vic Sage as he investigates a corrupt mayoral candidate with possible ties to white supremacy, and runs into a bigoted private investigator who makes liberal, uncensored use of various racial slurs. The character is painted as completely morally reprehensible, called scum and disassociated from Vic as much as possible…until the very end where he gives his life to save Vic Sage.
Vic immediately resists eulogizing him, and ponders the nature of evil in an extremely haunting and confusing issue that doesn’t have any easy answers. This is ultimately the series’ formula: rarely if ever do these stories end with any firm, emotional catharsis. Instead it opts for big swings at uncomfortable ideas, and the hope that the lack of closure prompts an attempt to find your own meaning.
This is all well and good, but where do we draw the line? Reproduced here, a reader in the letters pages asks O’Neil if, regardless of intent, he is unknowingly giving power to bigotry; justification in the form of unclear answers. O’Neil naturally denies this, but it’s not a question he’s equipped to answer. One problem here is whether the use of racial slurs is ever justified, even in contexts where the morality at play is clear. And if so, who ought to be responsible for deploying these words in a way to minimize harm and enhance meaning? Unfortunately, that is no longer the question at play, as like it or not the story is here with us, and whether O’Neil should have done this is now replaced by what exactly this means in the wider context of the story. And again, the answer is not much. A series famous for lacking easy answers is great until it runs up into questions that are ill formed. The broader issue then is why DC felt the need to leave a slur heavy issue uncensored?
Additionally, one can’t help but feel uneasy about the social class disparity that O’Neil never seems to question. Vic and Tot discuss ideas like a professor and his TA at university. The criminals, the villains, and the corrupt use slang, phonetic speech, and are often presented as largely uneducated. O’Neil spends more time humanizing a white, racist private detective than he does poor, black, boarding on stereotyped, criminals that populate the streets anytime Vic needs to punch someone.
Despite these occasional hiccups, The Question is often quite profound, deeply empathic, and masterfully constructed. Denys Cowan draws a majority of this omnibus but even when he isn’t the primary penciler, he has defined the style and format of this book for everyone else to follow. Each time Vic dons his iconic Question suit, smoke circles around him in the form of a question mark. Keeping with the Zen influence, his combat is also fluid, formally precise and kinetic. Dialogue rarely intrudes on scenes where Cowan is able to show martial arts in action. But flashes of violence, and stylistic heroes is not what makes him such a strong artist for this series. Rather, it’s his ability to draw people who look like absolute hell.
The Question #5 is a contender for best issue of the series, as it deals with various characters in the city surviving riots, looting, and a failed government. We meet all manner of civilians along with some major recurring characters, and while these could all be forgettable faces, Cowan does not waste a single panel. Everyone is filled with life and deeply flawed, right down to their posture. In particular, the face of Maud sitting alone on a park bench in the snow, hopelessly waiting for a bus to work that will never arrive is burned into my mind’s eye.
O’Neil and Cowan are a perfect match for this style of storytelling. O’Neil wants to write intellectual references, and Hammet-esque pointed dialogue. He’s a veteran of the industry by 1987, and carries with him familiar tricks of the trade to allow the action to speak for itself. However, Cowan takes every opportunity he can to present each dialogue exchange from creative angles. We get intense close ups of sketchy faces, wide shots of a city beat to hell, and an atmosphere to match the noir-journalist influences the series wants to convey. All this adds up to a series that is rightly revered for its political commentary and technical craft.
However, despite the popularity and legacy of this run, it has never been properly collected. A print run of 6 trade paperbacks were initially released collecting Issues #1-36 but have remained out of print for over 10 years, leading to astronomical second hand prices. After the original 36 issues and two annuals, the story continued in 5 oversized Quarterlies, and a Blackest Night tie-in special. The annuals, quarterlies and tie-in were never collected in trade. The original run of paperbacks also skipped over the crossover story, “Fables,” told in The Question, Green Arrow and Detective Comics annuals.
This new omnibus collects The Question #1-27, The Question Annual #1, Green Arrow Annual #1, and Detective Comics Annual #1. Because of the awkward length of the run, there really is no perfect way to pace this series in an oversized hardcover. Presumably, the second volume will only contain #28-37, the quarterlies, and the second annual which seems slightly short for the format. However, if this first collection was any shorter, it would end far too abruptly. And if it was any bigger, it would realistically be unreasonable to read.
Overall, I’m more than happy with how this collection is structured but the most exciting element is the recreation of O’Neil’s Book Club. During the original run of single issues, the letters page of the series included a famous reading list. O’Neil would propose books that inspired the series, or were quoted directly in the issues. The result was a rather comprehensive list of novels and philosophy texts that discussed zen, epistemology, existentialism and martial arts. And lucky for us, those pages are reprinted here.
The Copper Age’s legacy of gritty, politically engaged comics has always had mixed results, and The Question is no exception. It is a classic for very good reason, but it can often be plagued by its inability to decouple the value of questioning from the presumed virtue of the questioner. Certainly, O’Neil’s desire to have 12 year olds think about issues in a more complex way than his generation is a worthy goal, but there’s only so much even he can do as a product of his time and circumstances. I certainly would not be here talking about the quality of O’Neil’s philosophical musings if it were not for these stories. And where the topics of discussions can sometimes falter, the art, the empathy, and the need to interrogate who we are never does. This is a powerful tome, and one worth owning now that it has finally been re-collected in an oversized omnibus.
Trade Collection Review: The Question by Dennis O’Neil and Denys Cowan Omnibus, Vol 1
Writer: Dennis O’Neil
Artist: Denys Cowan, Klaus Janson, Tom Artis, Rick Magyar, Rick Stasi
Inker: Rick Magyar, Tony DeZuniga, Tom Dzon, Malcolm Jones III, Terry Beatty
Colorist: Tatjana Wood, Adrienne Roy, Julia Laquement
Letterer: Gaspar Saladino, Albert DeGuzman, Steve Haynic, Willie Schubert, Todd Klein, Milt Snapinn
Publisher: DC Comics
Comics legends Dennis O’Neil and Denys Cowan reinvent DC’s faceless detective in this massive hardcover collection of the acclaimed 1980s series The Question!
Just a few short years after co-creating Spider-Man, artist and writer Steve Ditko created the Question, who worked as an investigative journalist in public and a vigilante in secret.
Two decades later, writer Dennis O’Neil and artist Denys Cowan unleashed their acclaimed reinvention of the Question for the late 1980s, coinciding with one of the most creatively thrilling periods in comics. While retaining familiar elements of the character—including his faceless mask—O’Neil and Cowan also imbued Vic Sage with a Zen philosophy and forced him to ask vital questions about his methods employed while fighting crime in the corrupt town of Hub City.
But with deadly martial artist assassins and political intrigue to contend with, will one man—even a master of unarmed combat—be able to make a difference?
This volume collects The Question #1-27, The Question Annual #1, Green Arrow Annual #1, and Detective Comics Annual #1.
Publication Date: June 28, 2022