The Question: Poisoned Ground

I need to have a talk with Mistah J.

Primarily, about how he’s seriously messing with my psyche by not warning me when a trade on “the shelf” is the second in the series and leaving me completely confused until I go back and check the introduction for a little clarification.

He’s going to drive me to a mental institution, that one.  He’s lucky he’s so cute.

Anyway, my knowledge of The Question was, shall we say, severely lacking before this trade, a.k.a. non-existent.  I think I recall seeing him appear briefly in a few old Justice Society comics, but even then I was pretty lost as to who his character was exactly.

After the aforementioned confusion, I was able to gleen enough about The Question from this trade to have a decent enough understanding of the character, which is really saying something because he seems to be a pretty complex fellow.

That seems to be the one driving force behind this comic, at least in my eye: Vic Sage, alias The Question, is a complex, morally ambiguous man, and therein lies the intrigue.

Throughout this trade there are a handful of references to Vic’s moral or ethical beliefs, specifically how ever-changing those beliefs may be:

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It was refreshing to see an anti-hero speak so openly about this.  It can be very difficult for a reader to understand such a character’s mindset; how do they justify what they do and how they do it?  Vic’s brief explanation provides a glimpse into his methods and motive.  The reader doesn’t necessarily have to agree with them, but such depictions help bridge the gap between reader and comic.

The stories are slick enough to not beat the reader over the head with the question of moral ambiguity; instead, it is subtly mentioned in a few key scenes, at one time being reversed and referring to a sadistic madman who wants to be a saint.  This comic poses all of the right questions (I couldn’t help it) without drawing flashing arrows to them saying, “Look, look what we did! We provided existential, self-aware commentary!  Aren’t we so clever??”

I respect a comic when it’s able to be subtle.  If the story’s good on its own, it will speak for itself.

This trade closes with another nod to The Question’s morality, as he is shown dragging a near-dead criminal from a house:

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I love the ambiguity of this closing scene, with no one knowing if The Question actually saves this criminal (the very criminal who tried to kill him two years prior, no less).  As a hero, saving this man is what’s expected, yet as a human, could anyone really fault him for leaving his would-be assassin to die?  After all, Vic isn’t responsible for his current state, why should he be responsible for this man’s life?

Therein lies the major distinguishing characteristic between heroes and villains; or rather, heroes and anti-heroes.  Heroes will save anyone, good or bad, because they believe it’s the right thing to do.  Anti-heroes are more like heroes with a healthy dose of reality: they’ll save the innocent, and have a moral code when it comes to killing or causing undue harm to criminals, but they won’t necessarily go out of their way to save the life of a man who is a victim of his own corrupt behavior.  The fact that we don’t know which path The Question chose in this scene shows that he himself is ambiguous; he could be the hero, but he could just as easily be the anti-hero.  Maybe he’s somehow both, depending on the situation.

After finishing this comic I was struck by how often I didn’t compare The Question to Batman while reading.  The basic premise of their characters is relatively similar: orphaned boy grows up into a morally ambiguous but ultimately righteous man, dons a mask, and fights to make his city a better place.  No superpowers, just him.  Batman has more gadgets and is much flashier than The Question, but they still share numerous similarities.  It was surprising, then, that I didn’t read this entire trade thinking, “This guy is basically Batman minus the cool hideout.”

I’ve certainly thought that once or twice while reading about other heroes.

No, I didn’t make that connection once while reading this trade, and that may speak to one of its biggest strengths: in a Batman and Co. run world, The Question can still be a unique and engaging character.  In the hands of a deft storyteller (in this case, the incomparable Dennis O’Neil) a comic which might otherwise be characterized as a Batman knockoff is instead its own original story.

I’m sad now that I didn’t get to experience this Question series from the beginning.  I’m sure O’Neil’s storylines were just as good in that first collection as they are here.  At this point I’m seriously considering just buying all the trades I want to read that Mistah J doesn’t have yet, and eventually between the two of us we’ll have basically every DC story ever.  And then one day I’ll wake up completely ensconced in comics and ask for an intervention.

I guess I’ll just deal with not knowing EVERYTHING about every single DC character.

Or I’ll just start buying comics…

-Jess

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