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“That is the Question” by Michael Eury

Amazing Heroes #108 – Dec. 1986

Michael Eury is a comics and pop culture historian, having written a number of articles and books on the subject of superheroes, comic writers and artists and Captain Action. He currently edits the TwoMorrows magazine Back Issue.

This hero’s name immediately evokes many… (ahem) …questions from comics readers: Just who is the Question? Where has he appeared before? What is DC publishing a comic book about a punctuation mark?

Created by Steve Ditko in 1967 as part of Charlton’s “Action Hero” line, the Question is secretly Vic Sage (nee Szasz), a hard-hitting TV news journalist who has devoted his life to exposing crime and corruption in high places. (He would have worked overtime during the Watergate era.) The total number of stories published about this character can be counted on the fingers of two hands, yet the Question’s uncanny appeal — and his raw, untapped potential — earned him a cult of loyal fans who have anxiously awaited his return.

Why The Question?

The Question, the newest series in DC’s “deluxe format” is a title that the company has wanted to publish since it acquired ownership of the Charlton heroes. According to writer Dennis O’Neil, the book is also the result of “a desire on the part of [editor] Mike Gold and myself to do something that was only nominally super-hero, something we could go in new directions with. This character seemed to be what we were looking for. If we hadn’t used the Question, we would have made up somebody very much like the Question.”

Denny O’Neil is known for his punctilious development of the human element in his characters. After two decades in the comics business, he has learned that “one of the basic tricks in writing is that you’ve got to find a way to connect with the characters, to make the characters symbolically real for yourself. I always had a lot of trouble with Superman, for example, because I don’t have fantasies of omnipotence. My fantasies run along the lines of human perfectibility, not god-like power.” This is evidenced in his work on the Batman and Green Arrow, two heroes he is closely associated with. “I don’t want to imply that we’re doing Paddy Chayefsky super-heroes. I’m talking about a very high degree of human perfectibility — something that is within the realm of human possibility, rather than in the realm of magic or, in the case of a lot of super-heroes today, something very very close to divinity.”

Initially, DC had offered O’Neil another, more mainstream super-hero book to write, but he was reluctant to accept the project. Mike Gold states that “Denny isn’t the guy you turn to when you have one of the basic stereotypical super-powered heroes. His approach is a little more subtle and a lot more street-oriented.”

Gold, O’Neil and penciller Denys Cowan have extrapolated from Steve Ditko’s foundations for the Question and have recreated the character. “Ditko did not leave us much material, only a few short stories,” Gold says. ” I thought that it was very easy to maintain the spirit of the Question while being able to put a lot of weight and meat on the character and to run with it in a permanent series.”

Cowan and inker Rick Magyar are the artistic team on The Question. Cowan, who at the age of 25 is already an eight-year veteran in the comics field, recently came to DC after working at Marvel Comics, where he was best remembered for his run on Power Man and Iron Fist. He left Marvel after problems over his never-released Black Panther limited series. “I put a lot into it,” he reflects.

After “bumming around” for a few months, Cowan got back into comics at the invitation of DC editor Andy Helfer, who literally ran into Denys on the street one day. Cowan hopped from drawing DC merchandising material to penciling miscellaneous fill-ins (like Vigilante and Batman), and finally landed the Question assignment — but not without some difficulties.

The Question was originally slated to be drawn by veteran Ernie Colon, but Colon was forced to drop the title after overextending himself. Cowan then received the project, but admits “I had no idea who the Question was, except that Steve Ditko drew him. I’d never read any of the original stories, so I decided to take the strip the way I thought it should go.” Cowan, then, is an integral force in the restructuring of the Question and is quick to add that “the reason the book looks as good as it does is because of Rick Magyar, the inker. He is so good, and he adds so much to the book — he enhances it, and in some cases improves a lot of what I do. He’s really responsible for the way the book looks.”

Who is the Question?

Every hero in comics and popular culture has a motivation for his actions, be it a quest for justice, an avenging mission, or a joy-ride in violence and thrills. However, the Question exists for none of those reasons, but rather…to question what is around him.

“The Question’s motivation is curiosity, a curiosity that is so deep that it becomes an obsessive need to know,” says O’Neil. Mike Gold adds that “this is a costumed crimefighter who is not in it out of vengeance, as are most costumed crime-fighters or super-heroes, or not out of some greater responsibility like Spider-Man, The Question is in it for himself, but not from greed. He wants to know why things happen.”

Beginning with the first issue, O’Neil establishes “psychological underpinnings” into the Question’s behavior. Vic Sages, or Charles Victor Szasz, “doesn’t know who he is. He was left on the steps of an orphanage.” Sage is plagued by “the very basic questions found in almost all humanistic philosophy, which are ‘who am I? What is a human being? What are we doing here?’ In terms of one individual, that’s what he’s trying to answer, and the need to answer [those questions] leads him to investigate. So we are taking our cue from the character’s name.”

After being reared in an orphanage, Sage received a scholarship to a major university where he became, according to O’Neil, “a brilliant loner of a student. He was one of those guys that was always challenging teachers, always trying to prove that he was smarter than anyone.” This attitude eventually led to his expulsion.

Sage followed his college dismissal by securing employment at a local television station, where O’Neil says that “he was such a workaholic and such a competent and relentless investigator that he rose very rapidly.

“We also have to assume that the camera likes him and that he’s a good-looking guy. He’s charismatic and he’s controversial. Once Sage got into the news business, he made a lot of enemies along the way, because he is an abrasive and self-righteous guy.”

Calling Vic Sage “abrasive” is an understatement. From his characterization in the first issue, he makes Mr. T look like Mister Rogers. Sage verbally assaults policemen, politicians, and virtually any authoritative figure who crosses his path.

Sage’s inquisitive nature eventually led him to adopt the Question guise, which consists simply of a faceless mask, a plain business suit and a hat. Editor Gold believes that “becoming the Question was a logical part of Sage’s professional evolution. The Question does what Sage wants to do but is prohibited from doing by law.

“What I enjoyed out of Ditko’s Question was the fact that clearly here was a guy who had a secret identity but no alter ego. Vic Sage does the same thing the Quesiton does. Sage does it as a TV reporter and the Question does it as a costumed crimefighter.”

Is There Life After Death?

At the end of the first issue, the Question is brutally beaten and then tossed off of a pier into freezing water in what O’Neil calls “the most violent scene I’ve ever written in my life.” In the final panel, Sage looks quite genuinely dead, but since The Question isn’t a one-shot series, he apparently survives. But how?

O’Neil explains: “Let me only say that I had it figured out before I wrote the scene, and it’s possible. The drowning part, which is the part a lot of people are going to have trouble accepting, is documented — it happened in New York. Last winter, a little girl was underwater for 42 minutes and survived. I did some research into it, and it’s one of those million-to-one things that has happened. There’s a name for it — the diving reflex — but they don’t have an explanation.”

Mike Gold reiterates by stating that through Sage’s apparent “resurrection,” “we do not violate the real world atmosphere in resolving this issue.” Apparently the Question is made of Timex parts — he “takes a lickin’ and keeps on tickin’.”

Who Is Professor Rodor?

Professor Aristotle Rodor, Vic Sage’s friend and confidant, is the only supporting character carried over from the original Charlton Question series. Rodor is the scientific genius who created the gimmicks that Sage uses as the Question: the faceless mask which gives the crime-fighter not only a mysterious visage but also represents his empty background; the gas pellets stored within Sages belt buckle, which interact with chemicals in his hair and clothing to change his appearance; and his ominous calling cards, which display a smoking question mark.

According to O’Neil, Rodor once invented a device “that generated a lot of money and enabled him to become a delettante, but in the best sense of the word; a polymath, a guy who can afford to spend all of his time tinkering and experimenting and doesn’t have to make money.”

Rodor apparently did not approve of the manner in which his invention was used, so he now refrains from marketing his subsequent creations, which includes “the binary gas gimmick which enables Sage to have the Question mask adhere to his flesh and do the color-changing trick. To call my knowledge of chemistry ‘rudimentary’ would be to vastly overstate the truth, but it would work something like this: you impregnate two things with solutions that are themselves neutral until a catalyst is introduced. The catalyst is the gas from the belt buckle.

“That [invention] is something that Rodor could make several million dollars from if he wished to market it, but he doesn’t — he’s very disillusioned with capitalism. So as long as he doesn’t need the money, he just tinkers with his stuff.”

Professor Rodor met Sage while Vic was a student at the university. It is probably at this time that Sage decided to masquerade his identity, and, knowing of Rodor’s invention and ingenuity, asked the scientist to create his crime-fighting gimmicks. O’Neil contends that “it is one of my personally convictions that technology always freceeds art, and in a way, the Question is Sage’s work of art: it’s his creation.

“So I think that the technology that enables Sage to become the Question was first, and then there arose a situation which a use for that technology occurred to him.”

Complementing the relationship between Rodor and Sage is Rodor’s astonishment at his friend’s motivation. In the premiere issue, Rodor comments that “watching you [Sage] work out your destiny is the most fascinating spectator sport in town.”

Would You Want to Live in Hub City?

The Question operates in the mythological metropolis of Hub City, a place so filthy it makes Gotham City look like Oz. Artist Denys Cowan asserts that “Hub City is like a really bad South Bronx. Imagine the worst of that, then multiply it.”

In the Question #1, Vic Sage laments the fact that his hometown has become a “cesspool.” The city government has decayed to an abysmal low, with a puppet mayor who is manipulated by a dictator minister. Even the Hub City Board of Education is tarnished with drug abuse and adultery, as exposed in Sage’s “Shame of the City” television news reports.

Editor Gold states that he and Denny O’Neil have striven to create “a very strong environment of urban corruption based on a real city — not one of the major metropolitan areas, but a real city, and then we add to it. We use that as our starting point.

“In the first four issues, Sage tears down the city government because of his quest for knowledge. He wants to know why this corruption exists.”

In issue #5, described by O’Neil as “the most experimental thing I’ve ever done for a comic book in terms of structure,” the history of Hub City is revealed. “I figure it’s one of those American cities that has been decaying for 50 years; since the ’30s, it’s been on a downward slide, which explains why a guy like Fermin, who is basically unsuited to be mayor, could get elected in the first place.”

Hub City’s Mayor Wesley Fermin is a pathetic creature: an alcoholic figurehead who is oblivious to the fact that he is being used. “I’d like to get into Fermin’s head sometime down the line,” says O’Neil. “I don’t think of him as a bad guy, but as a victim. I think of him as extremely politically reactionary, but that doesn’t make him a bad guy.”

Fermin is “definitely a part of Hub City’s problem, but he’s not what I’d call evil.” O’Neil adds that Hub City represents “everything that’s wrong with inner cities. We’re also trying to suggest that there aren’t easy answers to the problems.”

Through the eventual collapse of the Fermin administration, O’Neil and Gold plan to show how a city’s degeneration proves disruptive to its ordinary citizens. “It is my thesis,” he says, “that when a city fails to provide a comfortable environment, it is failing in its basic job. Well, Hub City has failed with a capital ‘F.’ We get into that as much as we can in 27 pages.” In issue #5, O’Neil has taken four average people and “basically shown how the breakdown of the city has affected them. The Question doesn’t have very much to do in that story — he sort of walks in at the beginning and at the end.” Just like Rod Serling.

If He’s A Puppet, Who Pulls His Strings?

Hub City’s corrupt governmental body is controlled by the Reverend Doctor Jeremiah Hatch, a tyrannical minister who gives new definition to the word “despicable.” He manipulates people, money, a religious image, and any other means at his his disposal to achieve his goals.

“I knew that I wanted a character who represented what I consider some unhealthy strains in American life,” reflects O’Neil, “and also represented a lot of things I dislike, such as sanctimoniousness, smugness, and narrow-mindedness, as well as the tendency we have had for about 2000 years to use Christianity as an excuse for simply giving vent to the most evil impulses of our nature.”

Although Rev. Hatch is a heartless man who is by profession a spiritual figure, his characterization is not intended to be an attack against religion. As Mike Gold mentions, “there are many municipalities where the church, either formally or informally in the role of one individual, is very highly wired to the political structure. That sort of thing is not a condemnation of the church or of preachers or of priests, rabbis, monks or anything like that.

Hatch, with his fire-and-brimstone ideology, considers Vic Sage a major threat to his rule of Hub City, therefore establishing the continuing conflict which will be present in the near future in The Question.

Denys Cowan adds that Hatch will, in upcoming issues, grow “harder and meaner, more puritanical, and more obsessed and crazy. You’ll even see this visually!”

Do You Remember Shiva?

According to Mike Gold, only “about eight fans” will recall Lady Shiva, a lovely Eurasian martial arts assassin-for-hire that Denny O’Neil created back in the 70s in the pages of Richard Dragon, Kung Fu Fighter. Shiva, named after the Hindu goddess of destruction, is a coll, calculating professional who is employed by Reverend Hatch — and is also quite possibly the most dangerous woman alive. Even more dangerous that Joan Collins.

In the first issue, Lady Shiva warns an amorous aggressor that “if you ever touch me again, I shall shatter three bones in your arm — the humerus, the radius and the ulna.” Judging from her stern facial expression, we know she means it.

When O’Neil realized he needed such a character in The Question, he decided to revive the little-known Lady Shiva, taking advantage of this opportunity to finally develop the character to her fullest potential. If you are one of the “eight fans” who remember Shiva, you will notice that her visualization has been altered. Denys Cowan states that “with Denny’s approval, I ignored what had gone on before and made here into a Lady Shiva that I would want to see.” Cowan also borrows from his 13 years of martial arts study to make the conflict scenes as accurate as possible.

He adds that Lady Shiva predates Marvel’s Elektra by quite a few years. “Most people think that Elektra was the first martial arts lady around, but she wasn’t.

“Lady Shiva is the best in the whole world — there’s nobody better. She anticipates her opponents’ moves before they can make them.”

What About The Supporting Cast?

Vic Sage shares a physical relationship with Myra, the news anchor at his television station. O’Neil promises that “she is as important as Sage is himself o the development of the [current] story. Without blowing my storyline, I can’t tell you much about Myra. She’s a very level-headed, very sensible woman. She’s very, very good at what she does, but we find out that she does have a past. She has a retarded child that also plays an important part in the story. Sage doesn’t know about this and resents it when he finally finds out — ‘why didn’t she tell me?’

“I can’t say at this point if they’ll ever get romantically involved, but Myra is, as I said earlier, as important as Sage is to the resolution of the Jeremiah Hatch plotline.”

Another supporting cast member who will appear on a recurring basis is Finch, the station manager of KBEL-TV. Also, the disgustingly slimy hit man called “Baby Gun,” who was introduced in the first issue, will eventually return. “Sometimes a character will come on stage because you need him for the story,” O’Neil muses, “and after the story is over, you think, ‘there’s more I could have done with that guy…he was pretty interesting!’ That gives you the springboard for another plot.”

To Whom Will The Question Appeal?

Denys Cowan describes The Question as a very dark and moody book. “There’s always heavy weather in the Question’s city. He’s one of the few characters that always gets rained on or snowed on.” Cowan, an avid film fan who cites Alfred Hitchcock’s movies as an influence on his layout style, is preforming his finest illustrative work to date in the pages of The Question. “I like good storytelling, even above good drawings. Storytelling is the most important thing.”

Denys succeeds at “good storytelling” with his inventive, cinematic style. In this series, you will notice an absence of lettered sound effects. The illustrated action needs no “pows” or “krunches” to get its point across.

The Question is targeted to the same readership of Watchmen and Dark Knight. It is a very violent series. “Denny and I discussed that the violence in the Question is going to be ugly and as brutal as possible,” adds Cowan. “There’s nothing pretty about violence in this book — and there shouldn’t be.”

The violence in The Question is not exploitative…it is realistic and gut-wrenching, painting a hauntingly graphic depiction of the sickness of Hub City. “The Question is very clearly intended for mature readers,” O’Neil says. “I would like to tell people ‘don’t give it to your six-year-old.’ It’s very violent emotionally although it’s less violent than many comics physically.”

What Lies In The Question’s Future?

After examining the corruption of Hub City, the Question will also investigate other aspects of the DC Universe. “I am planning a story where the Question gets involved with the Wayne Foundation, which will probably lead to a confrontation with the Batman,” says O’Neil. “I see them duking it out on a rooftop.”

Mike Gold proposes that the Wayne Foundation opens numerous questions that would intrigue Sage, such as “Where does it get it’s money? What does it do with it’s money? Where does it invest it’s money? What does it give its money to and for what reasons? Where should it be giving its money to?”

O’Neil adds that “S.T.A.R. Labs would be another fair game for the Question. A possible theme might be the limits and responsibilities of research, of basic science. When people do gene splicing, for example, are they helping humanity or are they creating a whole new kind of potentially lethal disease? It opens up a lot of questions concerning the possibility of research getting out of hand.”

Although the Question will interact with the rest of the DC Universe, don’t expect him to become a Brave and Bold-esque team-up partner for your favorite super-heroes. His style doesn’t lend very well to that type of story.

“There are a number of characters who will cross paths with the Question in a very natural conflict.” Gold states. “We’re not doing real super-hero stories here. But you will see how these people fit into the environment of the Question and into his quest for knowledge.

“The Question is very much about the DC Universe though. We’ll use that when it’s important, but we won’t force the connections.”

As the hero’s name implies, The Question will constantly pose queries to the readership. Gold adds that “some of those questions will be resolved in the course of the issue where they’re introduced. Some questions will be resolved at the end of the overall story. But there will be a few questions that will never be resolved.”

In our society, where virtually nothing is left to the imagination, it’s rare to find a medium of visual storytelling that leaves us with prospects to ponder and reflect upon. The Question will do just that, and is a breath of fresh air in the comics market.

Our thanks to Mr. Eury for allowing us to run this piece!

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