The Nostalgia Test:

Re-examining Denny O’Neil, Denys Cowan, and Rick Magyar’s The Question

It was late on a Thursday afternoon many years ago and I was standing in a dingy comic book shop, rummaging through all the newish titles on the metal spinner racks.  Since the books weren’t placed in any kind of order, the trick to finding what you wanted was to rake your fingers across the tops of each cluster of books, bending them down to a 45-degree angle, and then release the pressure so that as they grazed across your fingertips to snap back into place, all the logos flashed like individual frames of a movie.  That way, if something caught your eye you could sift back through and pull out the one you wanted.

Comic book shopping was a much more tactile experience in those days; you learned to do it physically rather than intellectually.  For readers like me who weren’t “in the know” enough to have a pull file, picking a comic wasn’t about hype or anticipation—it was discovery.  And the only way to discover a book was to touch it.  In fact, you had to touch all of them.  That was part of the experience.  Didn’t matter if you read Marvel, DC, or even Archie, in order to find what you wanted you had to physically connect with each and every comic book in the store—if only for a millisecond.  Maybe that’s why you felt a connection to all the books—even the ones with characters you never liked and never read.  It was like part of them had rubbed off on you.

On this particular day, I was fanning through all the books, oblivious to the small creases forming just above the top staple on each spine.  Choosing a book was tough—especially for someone living on a fixed income—a monthly allowance in my case—and the electric hum of the overhead fluorescent lights didn’t help much.  It was like being serenaded by Muzak, only with less soul.

But none of that really mattered when I saw The Question #1.  The cover was fully painted by Bill Sienkiewicz, and it was magical.  Sienkiewicz had a way of making a book not only look better than any other comic on the market, but also better than any TV show, movie, or album.   And even though the title character, the Question, was new to me, he had a fedora, which pretty much meant he had to be cool.  I mean, there was the Shadow, there was Rorschach, and now there was this guy.  As far as I could tell, nothing screamed quality in a comic book like a superhero in a fedora.

And so I became a dedicated reader of The Question.  Over the course of the next three years, I would read other titles that I knew were probably better, but The Question was my book.  It was like adopting a baseball team.  When they’re great, you cheer; when they come up short, you stay true.  Only in comics, the disappointed refrain is, “Just wait till next month!

Yet, despite what The Question meant to me, I’ve never really gone back to read those issues.  It’s hard to explain, but when something—a movie, a book, a comic—affects me profoundly in a very immediate way, I often don’t go back.  Maybe it’s the feeling that I’ve already gotten everything from it.  Maybe it’s because I don’t want to spoil it from overexposure.  Or maybe I’m just scared it won’t hold up to the test of time.  All I know is that there are a number of things that have moved me profoundly—Dead Poets Society, J.D. Salinger’s Franny and Zooey, The Question—that linger in my mind like unsullied moments of momentary perfection.

So why am I about to blow it all this week by revisiting The Question?

It’s always nagged me that no one seems to pay much attention to this book.  It took DC years before they finally collected it in trade paperback, and I hardly ever hear anyone talk about it.  Was The Question really not that good?  Am I just another comic book reader fallen into the nostalgia trap?

Personally, I’ve never been a fan of nostalgia.  Sure, most of us have stumbled upon an old toy, watched an old cartoon, or visited some old haunt that reminded us of a childhood long since past.  As a momentary bit of curiosity, nostalgia is fine—it’s human.  But when nostalgia begins to color our perception like some pernicious hallucinogen, dictating our current tastes and distorting our understanding of history, then it does more harm than good.

So this past week my curiosity got the better of me.  I braved the wilds of our house’s basement, dug through my modly longboxes, and pulled out the first four issues of The Question.  And you know what?  They hold up pretty well.

The Question was created by Steve Ditko for Charlton Comics back in the ‘60s.  The title character, Vic Sage, worked as a reporter who wore a featureless mask when he needed to get down and dirty.  While not as extreme as Ditko’s Mr. A, the Question was still prone to expressing harsh, judgmental attitudes reflecting the philosophy of Ayn Rand—the philosophical novelist whose ideas seem best suited to teenagers and certain politicians suffering from arrested moral development.  The Question wasn’t hugely popular, and when Charlton went out of business, the Question stopped looking for answers.

Obviously, when I bought The Question #1, I knew none of this history, nor did I realize that Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons had used the Charlton heroes as models for the characters in Watchmen.  I just thought the Question and Rorschach shared an impeccable taste in outfits.

The Question #1 was written by Denny O’Neil, who had tried to modernize almost all of DC’s marquee characters in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s.  O’Neil had a knack for integrating the admittedly iconic but annoyingly flat Silver Age characters into the real world.  O’Neil was to the future revisionist writers of the ‘80s, what the poet William Carlos Williams was to the Beat writers like Jack Kerouac, Alan Ginsburg, and William Burroughs.  He was the forerunner, the writer who had first shown what could be done with a mainstream comic.  He had always been ahead of his time, but with The Question, it seemed the comics industry had finally caught up.

Art by Denys Cowan and Rick Magyar

The stories no doubt posed a challenge for the art team of Denys Cowan and Rick Magyar, who were required to master the subtleties of illustrating long, talky conversations on one page and detailed martial arts combat on the next.  Cowan had a rough-edged, unfinished look to his pencils that made the book feel different from the more slick, polished, and somewhat homogenous look of the era’s most popular superhero artists—George Perez and John Byrne.  Cowan’s was an effective style for communicating that The Question was not going to be like other books, and it matched the more mature subject matter of O’Neil’s stories.

The opening story arc covers four issues, the first two of which are easily the strongest.  O’Neil’s scripting is tight, and he’s not afraid to make Vic Sage relatively unlikable at first.  Sage is a crusading TV reporter out to expose the corruption of the municipal government of the fictional Hub City.[1] Those first two issues take Vic Sage on quite a journey—both physical and spiritual.  In the beginning, Sage comes across as angry, reckless, and violent.  I should also note that his on-air reporting features the worst moment in the first four issues as he delivers an editorial that is so over-written that it could have passed for a parody of the Ditko-era Sage.  And perhaps it was.

But O’Neil quickly rights the ship, taking Vic through a series of events that results in his “death” by the end of the issue.  The first issue is well-paced and plays like a great pilot episode of a television series, taking us seemingly to a conclusion, but with the hope of finding a new direction in the future.

Script by Denny O'Neil, Art by Denys Cowan and Rick Magyar

The second issue helps establish the uniqueness of O’Neil’s new approach to the Question.  The basic narrative—a resurrection story and a spiritual rebirth—isn’t all that original, with Vic undergoing training reminiscent of everything from television’s Kung Fu to The Empire Strikes Back to The Karate Kid.  But it clarifies the direction for the rest of the series, transforming Vic into a spiritual seeker, someone who would question his own motivations as a vigilante, his attraction to violence, his arrogance, and his narcissism.  In so doing, the series would also interrogate many of the key elements of the superhero genre.

As another indicator of the experimental approach to the series, O’Neil also offered a book as recommended reading in each letters column.  The first in this book-of-the-month club was Robert Pirsig’s cult classic, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.  I was so intrigued I eventually got the book and read it.  It’s essentially a philosophical novel—a rare mode for fiction found in the works of writers like Herman Melville, Jack London, and, more dubiously, Ayn Rand.  But the novel was a perfect selection, for just as Pirsig’s Zen aimed to be a philosophical novel, O’Neil’s The Question aimed to be a philosophical comic.

While the stories can sometimes feel awkward, it’s refreshing to be reminded that superhero stories can transcend the basic plots that define the genre.  The Question strove for subtext—it was more about Vic’s spiritual journey than whether he could defeat a villain or escape a burning building.  That’s a distinction that still seems largely absent from the mainstream market today.  Plenty of books are professionally rendered, but far too many seem lacking in subtext.  Why haven’t more comics followed O’Neil’s lead?

I guess that’s a question for another day.


[1] Later in the series, a letters column would unofficially confirm that O’Neil’s vision of Hub City was based on East St. Louis, Illinois.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Greg Carpenter is a writer, teacher, and recovering coffee addict. He is the author of The British Invasion: Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison, and the Invention of the Modern Comic Book Writer. In addition to producing a weekly column for Sequart for almost two years, he has also written for RogerEbert.com and PopMatters. He has published essays on a variety of writers and artists including Moore, Gaiman, Morrison, Jerry Robinson, August Wilson, and Tennessee Williams, and he has taught a wide variety of classes, including Comics, Shakespeare, Modern American Literature, and Screenwriting/Playwriting. He currently teaches at a university in Nashville.

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The British Invasion: Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison, and the Invention of the Modern Comic Book Writer

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5 Comments

  1. Mario Lebel says:

    Nice article, Greg.

    Don’t worry, you’re not alone. I’m a fan of The Question. I was introduced to it when the trade paperbacks came out. I first discovered the character on Justice League Unlimited. I liked him. I liked him when he showed up in 52 and I liked when Renee Montoya took over from Vic Sage and became the Question. For the most part, I like the character but I also like this particular run. It really is unfortunate that few people ever write about it online.

    As for nostalgia, it’s a trap. An easy one to fall into. I like to see it as the simple distinction of liking something because it’s familiar and liking something because it’s good. There are things I enjoy because it’s soothing to me when I read/watch/listen to it, but it doesn’t hold up to critical examination. I find some people do when re-examining something from their past, something that has nostalgic value, they overemphasize the good and deemphasize the bad. I think that a comic like The Question avoids the trappings of nostalgia because there is more good than bad. It’s skillfully executed, even during the weaker storylines.

  2. Greg, I also read the series as it came out and recently revisited it. I think it holds up in a way that much of O’Neil’s other work doesn’t. Here I’m thinking of the famous Green Lantern/Green Arrow run with Neal Adams that now seems dated and heavy-handed. In many ways, the Question feels to me like a culmination of O’Neil’s previous body of work – stylized realism, social consciousness, the hero’s self-examination etc. presented in a more subtle, artful, nuanced way than he had in the past. And maybe because he took a blatantly allegorical, philosophical approach in the Question, in which his themes were relatively free from the pretense that he was writing a mainstream super-heroic adventure, it avoids the pitfalls of blunt, broad-strokes commentary from which some of his other work suffered.

    On a side note, I also appreciated that he created a sort of “O’Neil-verse” mini-continuity by having the Question crossover with Green Arrow and Detective Comics, all of which he was writing at the time, and resurrecting characters he had created or developed earlier in his career.

  3. B Smithy says:

    Just saw this, great article and yes, big fan of O’Neill and Cowan’s “Question”. Nostalgia aside, it was a magic time at DC – the Giordano years I believe. Lots of experimentation and variety.
    The first 36 issues, plus the Detective-Green Arrow-Question Annual events were the highlight (and those Annuals should really be collected); the Question Quarterly was kind of hit and miss before it tapered out.
    But I agree with you and some of the commenters; really holds up. Career highlight.

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