What was the question again?

question22This is the second in a series of dialogue-posts by me and Steve Long about vigilante characters in comics, mainly during but not completely restricted to the 1980s. More 80s TMI about me too!

RON CARRIES ON

The later reader can be forgiven for a little puzzlement about the Question during 1987-1990. He or she might know about Steve Ditko’s original character from the 1960s and 70s, or as the model for Rorschach insofar as Alan Moore was prevented from using the newly-acquired Charlton characters for Watchmen the second an editor glanced at the script. The striding, almost gliding, dapper-suited, trenchcoated, fedora’d, faceless, ruthless, spooky vigilante detective – you know it, I know it, we all know it …

Except that in this case, now instated at DC and authored by Denny O’Neil, you can see in the lead image that he’s … count it, (1) wearing an only-in-the-80s combo of street-tough and aerobics workout togs, (2) doing anything-goes martial arts vs. bikers and goons and corrupt cops, (3) got a semi-visible face, (4) sporting a big ol’ longhair mane that would have fit in nicely a decade prior to publication, and (5) on the inside, spouting a patter of pop Zen that would make Ram Dass blush. What on earth?!

I can explain this to you because I was totally gay for this comic book, as only a straight guy can be: a serious man-crush on the main character, revelry in the beatdowns which Denys Cowan depicted with surreal beauty, and a deep desire to see something valuable espoused, via both plot and dialogue. I was once scolded for my regard for Vic by a naked woman who was lying on my futon, itself situated on the floor, because I was paying more attention to issue #22 than to her – that’s what I’m talking about.

Here’s a quick look at the prior history only to establish context for just how way-out this is. Ditko created and published a number of Mr. A stories from the late 60s through the late 70s. Mr. A was Rex Graine, who fights corruption and hypocrisy by day as an incorruptible journalist and by night with a steel mask and fist-things (ouch!). His foes were not only criminals, but also the foolish larger society as well, who collectively would not face the truth that there is no such thing as a moral grey area. Much text clarifies that the character was inspired by and exemplified Objectivism, as defined by Ayn Rand. It should not surprise you either that this was smack in the middle of The way underground; the image is from witzend.

More or less simultaneously and in parallel, Ditko created The Question for Charlton Comics, who was visually similar to Mr. A although with a flesh-looking almost-faceless mask. Although the text was less explicit or as some might say ranty, the character, real name Vic Sage, was also an ardent Objectivist, a hard-hitting newspaper reporter, and a bit of a meanie.

DC acquired the Charlton characters in 1983 and at first suggested them to new hire Alan Moore, who proposed the early version of Watchmen, at which point, or so the casual narrative goes, DC seized them back in horror and told him to use expys instead, which is where Rorschach comes from. The “real” Charlton characters were then introduced into DC continuity, or what passed thereas as they frantically tried to make some, and The Question became one of the many post-Dark Knight dark-and-gritty launches of 1987.

Like this, or best as I know anyway

Like this, or best as I know anyway

O’Neil’s and Cowan’s run, and if I’m not mistaken, this entire iteration of the title, comprises 36 issues and a number of annuals and specials. It begins by unambiguously throwing down a gauntlet. Sage (now retooled as a pen-name for Szasz) goes out to do more-or-less random tough guy stuff on people he doesn’t like, much as in Ditko’s original portrayal, or at least O’Neil’s version thereof, and promptly gets shot in the head. In case you had any doubts about the author’s view of righteous-rationalist vigilantism. A medically-accurate if unlikely save later, a lecture from a curiously coherent Batman (it makes sense if I interpret him as time-traveling from 1971, as written by one D. O’Neil), a montage of a year’s martial arts training by Richard Dragon plus California Zen 101, and the Question returns to Hub City in very different form.

At first he still uses his suit and tie, but gradually it all shifts: the hair grows out, he gears up more and more in tank tops and cargo pants, and before long the whole look has changed completely. The art style shifts with it, almost certainly deliberately, from the stark newspaper-like naturalism at the start to something almost more like a fever dream than an illustration. The middle period, roughly the teens of the title numbers, is breathtaking. The stories had already changed drastically, to mood-pieces and portraits of really really fucked-up people and social-political problems, all to exemplify the greyness of morality and especially moral judgment, as cruelty and corruption are rooted in understandable human torment.

Giving Berni Wrightson and Frank Miller a run for their money, no small thing.

You see what this is about, right? The title is furiously swimming against the tide which had been gathering since the Punisher-Daredevil story in 1982 and which became a tsunami with The Dark Knight Returns. Let’s get autobiographical: this one pushback was important to me because I was amazed and disgusted by the glorification of the 80s vigilante, and its close kin, the semi-berserk but heroic spat-upon Vietnam vet, the loyal military man who is somehow going his own way because he cannot follow orders, the “here’s your fuckin’ warrant [wham]” cop, and similar. In this, The Question is very ambitious and straightforward in completely defying the black-and-white of Mr. A with the swirling smoke and murky morals, answering “the question” not with the in-your-face answer which is supposed to be obvious to any right-thinking person, but instead with the phrase, “yes, that is in fact a very good question,” and expecting that to be the answer. He’s fighting corruption and dishonesty all right, but from a completely different perspective: humility, the search for identity, and the mastery of violence tempered by distrust for it. Most importantly, he’s genuinely anti-establishment rather than merely borrowing its trappings.

In case the unit circle has not yet been fully drawn, marked with quadrants and angles, and inked, there’s also the passage in which Vic buys the collected Watchmen for an airline flight read, then tries out “what would Rorschach do?” in his next fight, and gets his ass beaten sideways. (Comics should be fun! discusses it in detail). One might ask whether Watchmen‘s Rorschach celebrates or represents the original Question or subverts it in turn (see my A hero shall appear), but as far as Rorschach’s own view of himself early in that story is concerned, there’s no mystery here. Say it after me: The 1987-89 Question despises the original Ditko concept and presents a full ethical and political defiance thereof. It’s also posed in direct defiance to the contemporary trend in Batman and many other comics, especially its political content, which draws directly upon that same historical concept. This is the anti-vigilante vigilante comic.

Back to me. I saw it very much as Cain in Kung Fu + the best of Spider-Man (notwithstanding O’Neil’s deriding the latter character in this very title’s letter column). The virtuous, often maligned or at the very least “weirdo” outlaw brings both verbal and physical justice/insight + the guy struggles to find identity both as a man and as a societal presence. All this happens in the presence of a genuinely wrenching and difficult struggle in the larger society to arrive at some notion or narrative of law and lawlessness. As far as I was concerned, and since my own perspectives and experience were being treated as Martian by everyone I encountered, it was a light in the darkness. I wanted Vic to exist. I wanted him to like me.

The title featured almost no connection with the rest of DC, but no one there could avoid Batman’s lurking intrusions, and I think the intersection matters a lot. One might think that three significant re-imaginings by O’Neil would be a match made in heaven, and in some weird place in my mind it is, but not in the comics. Start with the observation that regardless of one’s personal preferences, by the end of this Question’s first year, he did definitely defy and subvert the current vigilante paradigm … but that both Batman and Green Arrow, far from harking back to O’Neil’s interpretations of them fifteen years before, were now walking brooding avatars of that very paradigm. It shows up most in “Fables,” a notably poor crossover across their three annuals.

Instead of posing the question to the others which he might well have done, the Question was portrayed as a goofish amateur compared to the Grellerized, “no punching bag arrows” Green Arrow, whose previous hippie days had been thoroughly sent into the memory hole. Let alone compared to the absurd Batman of the day, who managed to retain “he’s such a good guy” status with “oh my he’s such a ruthless psycho” via the power of Mary Sue plotting, resulting in an intellectual black hole. … and in the counter-defiance as the dominant archetype.

That exact reverse-subversion penetrated The Question as a title, too, and ultimately rendered it incoherent. For once, I’d really like to ask a comics pro about “what the hell went down, man,” to O’Neil and Cowan. Sadly and weirdly, the entire defiance, and significantly the contrast with Ayn Rand’s narratives, fell apart and ultimately became merely a mess during the title’s final year.

Let your conscience be your guide

I’m more interested in this striking breakdown than in the faintly-ridiculous details of the era, which include the eventual mullet from hell and the nearly intolerable orientalism, both in general and as embodied in Lady Shiva. I think I see it now, textually anyway. It might have begun with some inherent limitations in character: advanced if intuitive sage, or stumbling seeking beginner? At the title’s height, which I’d suggest is from about the middle of the first year to the middle of the second, he seems to have achieved the first, but round about 18 or 20 or so, he seems to backslide and become all gormless. For a book predicated so hard on seeking identity without taking on “a face” to spoil the process, the character became surprisingly scattered.

To examine the same issue from a different angle, the explicit philosophy throughout every issue never gelled. Half of it was earnest but relentlessly beginner-level, to the point of patronizing the interested or appreciative reader, and old hat indeed to this young reader of Zen Flesh, Zen Bones. The other half was an unpredictable mix of rather good and sophomoric, the former usually embodied in a plot outcome rather than a speech. Unfortunately the latter became more frequent and the Question as both character and title inexorably lost his/its point, even as a koan.

Therefore Vic as an active figure became less effective or relevant to the conflicts. He begins (meaning after #1-2) seeking to dive in and fix stuff, then moves to a catalyst role, sometimes merely a witness, sometimes lending a fairly precise helping hand. But ultimately he becomes a mere bystander, and through most of the third year, almost irrelevant.

Given this lack of protagonist center (arc or not, doesn’t matter), the plot first focuses mainly on portraiture for this or that whacko, which is fine although obviously not going to last forever. When it does get character-centered plot going, it’s for Myra, who rises far from her stereotyped roots to become mayor, which is actually a pretty cool idea. But here the second major problem kicks in.

Hub City, you see, is in fact a nigh-apocalyptic wasteland, full of human scum, psychos, and plain evil, among whom, significantly, black people are inarticulate barbarians. It’s the most vicious and repulsive portrait of ordinary humanity and its institutions I can think of in comics, the more so in the more story-ish, multi-issue sequence during which Myra is shot and out of commission for a while, and the whole place descends into chaos that makes Robocop‘s Detroit or any depiction of Gotham City look like fun & games.

What this means – textually, not by intent – is just weird. Is this a “heart of the kingdom” thing? Or similarly, a strongman must impose rule thing? It’s similar to Rand’s perfervid fantasies of urban and cultural chaos emerging from dreaded socialism (or lack of strong warrior-poet inventors, or whatever passed for a cause in that absurd woman’s mind) – what in the world is that doing in the anti-Mr.-A title of all time?

However, all that is text and reader experience thereof. DC remains closed to the historical and critical observer, so exactly what office dynamics, personal thought processes, and cultural miasmae were involved in this ultimate failure remains an open … (not gonna say it!)

AND STEVE, HE SAY

I was just as captivated by this comic as you were, Ron. When it started coming out I knew about Rorschach, of course, but not about Mr. A or the Charlton version of the character. But I was instantly intrigued by Denny O’Neil’s layered storytelling with its weird villains, philosophical musings, and treatment of the ethics of vigilantism. The Cowan and Magyar art, combining a gritty realism with a touch of weird caricature, fit O’Neil’s characters and Hub City setting to a T — or perhaps a Q.

What fascinated me later, delving back into the history of the character, was how Ditko created the Question and Mr. A pretty much simultaneously (both debuted in 1967). The former was a “mainstream” character published by Charlton while the latter was confined to fanzines and other more or less amateur publications. (All in all I count less than two dozen Mr. A stories from 1967 to 2015.)

I’d always assumed Ditko created both because the Question was basically a watered-down version of Mr. A intended for general consumption. But my research for this blog — the first time I’ve ever sat down and read all the stories at once, rather than here and there — shows me that I’m wrong. Mr. A and the Ditko Question are virtually the same character:—both are uncompromising reporters disliked by their bosses and most of their co-workers —many (if not most) of the panels in their comics are one-third to one-half filled with dialogue; reading these comics word for word takes forever. Hero, villain, and supporting cast members alike go on… and on… and on….—both share the philosophy of Objectivism and talk about it in the same phrases (their virtually identical statements about the UN spring to mind) —their only superpower is mulish stubborness in pursuit of that which is true and right — their utter unwillingness to compromise their ideals even one iota, regardless of the cost to themselves and those around them —each of them uses a smoking, symbolic business card as a gimmick —neither of them spend much time in costume; they focus more on their investigative reporting, resorting to costume only when absolutely necessary —both wear masks with a sort of featurelessness (literally in the Question’s case; in Mr. A’s a form-fitting steel helmet with unmoving facial features)

In short, the Question isn’t watered down at all; he’s pretty much exactly the same as Mr. A, except for not being quite so long-winded all the time. But both engage in such heavy-handed polemics that Mr. A might as well be called StrawMan — and that’s the real shame. There’s nothing wrong with the concept of using a character to explore the moral and ethical ramifications of a philosophical viewpoint (or the lack of one). In fact, done well it can be intensely interesting. (I imagine our upcoming discussion of the Foolkiller will touch on this.)

But Ditko, for all his wonderful artistic skills, cannot write well — or at least he can’t write these characters well, because he’s too much of a zealot. He’s haranguing us from the comics page instead of a soapbox on a streetcorner. (And I say that as someone who’s much more sympathetic to the tenets of Objectivism than most comics readers, I think.) In the end both characters are one-dimensional, always right Mary Sues. They never face any moral or ethical dilemmas at all — not even the common vigilante one of “is it just for me to kill this person?” because neither of them uses lethal force.

Contrast the later, O’Neil Question — and my gods, what a contrast! The O’Neil character constantly questions things, is nigh-obsessively driven by curiosity, and is prone to philosophical ramblings and thoughts (though as you say, a fully coherent view of world and self never truly seem to evolve; in the end the comics, as great as they are, sort of ramble over the landscape motivation-wise). This is perhaps most entertainingly expressed in #26, “Riddles.” In this story the Question, in a rare interaction with the rest of the DC Universe, confronts the Riddler at his most pathetic. Rather than just beating him into submission, the Question boggles the Riddler with such true riddles as, “If the universe is benevolent, why is there evil? Or if the universe is evil, how can men be good?” and “What was your face before your parents were born?”.

I think O’Neil’s Question fascinated (and influenced) me the most was in the presentation of civic corruption, civic decay, and civic apathy/selfishness as a villain. Hub City is indeed a quasi-wasteland, not just physically but mentally and spiritually. As such it, rather than any individual adversary, is the true villain here. The cast of weird, strange, and even eerie opponents the Question faces — a sadistic torturer who wants to achieve divine status through modern-day alchemy; a general who thinks the military has “gone soft” and wants to “strengthen” it; terrorists for hire; a son driven to insanity by his father’s relentless criticism and abuse — are all manifestations of the city itself. And thus, much like we’ll see with the Foolkiller in a later blog, the Question fights against not just street crime, or comic book crime, but the deeper causes of society’s ills. That made me think a lot harder about the setting of what would become Dark Champions and see how The City can be more than just a place to stage robberies and gunfights.

RON’S COOL STARE

“The rest is silence.”

Links: Gone but not Forgotten (describes another misty, well-dressed, vengeance-y fellow from 50s/60s comics)

Next: The game you never heard of

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About Ron Edwards

Game author and publisher via Adept Press / Biology author and former professor

Posted on January 21, 2016, in The 80s me and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 11 Comments.

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