[11 March 2010]
PopMatters Comics Editor
With The Question #37 the 80s creative team of writer Dennis O’Neil and artist Denys Cowan pick up right where they left off with the original Question monthly series. Issue 37 is an almost a direct follow on from the series finale ‘Or Maybe Gomorrah’, issue 36 cover-dated April 1990. Longtime fans are treated to appearances by Professor Aristotle, ‘Tot’, Rodor, the villainous (and complicated) Lady Shiva and even to a reappearance of Charles Victor Szasz (or the more news-anchor ‘Vic Sage’).
But of course much has changed in the 20 years since the original series was cancelled.
The faceless mantle of the Question has been passed from Szasz to his protégé Renee Montoya, erstwhile of the Gotham City PD. The Question has relocated to the West Coast. And since the events of “Final Crisis”, has become the regular backup story in Detective Comics. Writer Greg Rucka, who took point on the Question story that wound its way through the pages of the phenomenal 52 (the series that first brought together Szasz and Montoya), has now become regular writer for the character. And of course, Charles Victor Szasz has died from lung cancer in the pages of 52, allowing Montoya to inherit his title.
Szasz’s return to the title in a “Blackest Night” installment, is not the warm reunion longtime fans might have hoped for. Like other passed characters in the DC mega-event, Szasz’s corpse is resurrected by an alien force bent opposing a spectrum of seven color-based emotions (Green for Will, Blue for Hope, Orange for Avarice and such).
Yet for all the character’s accumulated history in the past two decades, there are several O’Neil-era touchstones readily available to longtime readers. O’Neil’s storytelling really prepared the way (a ‘prehistory’, as French sociologist Louis Althusser might put it) for the kind of iChat/ cellular phone text-speak that Wes Anderson has perfected in films like The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and Fantastic Mr. Fox. With writing duties shared between the two iconic Question writers of O’Neil and Rucka, this readily accessible and radically innovative (for the 80s at least) storytelling style is repeated to great effect.
But other O’Neil ‘genre’ make themselves known as well. There is a languid brooding to the story’s tone, and an almost lurking malevolence. Characters parade about the issue in the civilian identities, rather than their costumes. And the drama is driven through dialog, rather than action.
On a visit to Hub City, the Question interrogates Professor Aristotle Rodor, a close friend of her predecessor. Who was Charlie Szasz? What drove him to don a faceless mask and fight crime? In a three-page recap of the first 36 issues of the volume one series (a recap focused on Szasz’s characterization), readers are quickly brought up to speed. But with the appearance of Lady Shiva (the original series’ recurring villain), and her challenge to duel with Montoya in mortal combat, the philosophical musings quickly become a ‘moving meditation’. The battle is of course interrupted by the appearance of the resurrected Szasz, now a so-called Black Lantern. Like so much from the original series, things are just left hanging. And the comicbooks themselves become a kind of Zen meditation for readers.
There is a real sense of the passing of the torch with The Question #37. Rucka’s more psychologically intense storytelling style takes over just as O’Neil’s languid philosophy-through-action begins to fade. Similarly, Renee Montoya takes the stage just as Charlie Szasz exits. Rucka is the man to carry forward the legend, albeit with a new character under the faceless mask, this issue seems to say. But for all the legacy and history, there is a secret price to be paid.
There is a sense of an interregnum, a brief interruption of just two decades. The financial difficulties of the original series, the character’s move from a monthly publication to a quarterly seems to be ‘forgiven’ in a certain sense. And there is a great feeling of a prodigal having returned. But the Question being welcomed back into the fold seems equally to exclude the character’s history from that period.
The time Szasz spent away from Hub City is easily forgotten, perhaps even ‘forgiven’. Maybe this is not too harsh a fate. Even the 1997 single-issue special The Question Returns reads like a road-trip that has lost touch with the basis of the original series. What does seem like a genuine loss though, in this bold era of renewal, is the 2005 limited series penned by Rick Veitch. In the six-issue “Devil’s in the Details”, the Question plunged into moral (and verbal) ambiguity, reminiscent of the original Steve Ditko vision of the character. Moreover Veitch’s unique vision of the character integrated shamanic elements wherein the Earth itself spoke to the Szasz. The outright creativity of this version of the character genuinely appears as a kind of missed opportunity.