In 1966, Steve Ditko left Marvel Comics disillusioned — by the end, his working relationship with Stan Lee had deteriorated until they never spoke at all, with Steve simply providing any artwork he wanted and Stan writing whatever dialogue fit (often including liberal moments as a jab to the deeply conservative Ditko). So Ditko left Marvel and went back to Charlton Comics, a company that had existed since 1931 and which Ditko had done some of his first work for back in the day.
With Ditko’s help, Charlton Comics began publishing what they called their “Action Heroes” line, revitalizing superheroes from previous decades, starting with Captain Atom. When Captain Atom’s backup strip, Blue Beetle, got a comic book of his own, Ditko was faced with a question: what should the backup strip for Blue Beetle #1 be about?
A faceless man in a blue trench coat, fighting against crime and corruption. A man without a face, with only one name: the Question.
The Question was actually Victor Sage, a TV reporter who covered the news during the day and beat up criminals at night, with the help of his friend and scientist Aristotle “Tot” Rodor. Tot had developed an artificial skin called “pseudoderm” in order to help burn victims, but found that it sometimes became toxic when exposed to open wounds (which, you know, was pretty much the point of it). His partner, Dr. Twain, decided to sell pseudoderm to Third World nations anyway and so Tot went to Vic Sage to stop him — and provided Sage with a mask made from pseudoderm and later a gas that would change Sage’s hair and suit color in order to better switch between identities.
It’s hard to say if the Question would have been popular had it been published by Marvel or DC. Certainly, Charlton Comics had problems — by the end of 1967, it had cancelled all of its superhero line and had gone on to publish licensed comics from Hanna-Barbara and King Features Syndicate. However, the Question was a different type of hero from most of those published in the Silver Age. While Batman and Robin had their bizarre and silly adventures, the Question was kicking criminals in the teeth and nearly killing them, often spouting semi-Objectivist philosophy.
In fact, Ditko, a hardcore Objectivist, had toned down the Question. In the same year that the Question first premiered (1967), Ditko published a story in Wallace Wood’s witzend #3 about “Mr. A.” Mr. A was a man in a metal mask, nearly identical to the Question...except he did kill criminals, spouting off about how there was black and there was white, but there was nothing in-between. (If this reminds you of Rorschach from Watchmen, congratulations: this is where Alan Moore took his inspiration.)
After Charlton shut down their superhero lineup, the Question wasn’t seen much until 1983 when Charlton sold all of their superheroes to DC Comics. The Question made a small appearance in Crisis on Infinite Earths, where the Charlton Earth was one of the five Earths combined into a single Earth in the end. He then made an appearance, like his first, in the pages of the new Blue Beetle. And then, finally, in 1987, he was given his own comic book at long last.
The book was written by longtime Batman writer and editor Denny O’Neil and drawn by Denys Cowan. And the first thing they did was kill the Question. Well, they nearly killed the Question — instead, they killed who the Question was and completely remade him:
In the very first issue, the Question found himself up against Lady Shiva, one of the world’s greatest martial artists. She proceeded to give him an enormous beat down, followed by a group of thugs nearly beating him to death, and that was followed by being shot in the head with a pellet gun and dropped into the river to drown. Lady Shiva then, however, saved his life and led him to Richard Dragon, where Vic not only healed and trained, but got a new outlook on life, one tinged more with Eastern philosophies. The Question had moved from Objectivism to Buddhism.
The stories around the Question became a lot more interesting, especially in regard to Hub City (a city even more corrupt than Gotham) and mayoral candidate Myra Fermin, who also happened to be the Question’s love interest. But as everything around the Question grew darker, the Question began to wonder if he had it in himself to kill someone — a question he surely would have answered easily in the Ditko days. At one point, after saving the life of a killer, he said, “I’ll never be played by Arnold Schwarzenegger. Or Chuck Norris. Or Charles Bronson.”
This was in deliberate contrast to Alan Moore’s depiction of Rorschach in Watchmen. In fact, in one memorable issue, Vic Sage actually found and read Watchmen and decided that he should emulate Rorschach. When this only lead to him getting beaten up, he concluded, “Rorschach sucks.”
O’Neil and Cowyn stayed on the book for five years, finishing out their run with a series of Question Quarterlies. After that, the Question again sank into obscurity. There was one special written by O’Neil and a six-issue mini-series in 2005 by Rick Vietch that was so weird, most everyone simply ignored it (it made the Question able to “talk” to cities and involved Lex Luthor trying to kill Superman with feng shui). The next appearance of the Question wouldn’t be until after Infinite Crisis, in a weekly series called 52.
52 followed numerous plotlines and is widely considered one of the best DC comics of the past decade. The Question’s part of the story was written by Greg Rucka and it also included one of Rucka’s other characters from the recently ended Gotham Central: Renee Montoya, who had left the police department after the murder of her partner and was now an alcoholic. The Question’s story began when he found Renee and roped her into investigating a new group called the Religion of Crime.
Over the next fity-two issues, as Vic and Renee’s friendship and investigation deepened, one thing became clear: Vic Sage was dying. After years of surviving gunshots and knife wounds, he was now succumbing to lung cancer. In one heartbreaking issue, as Renee tried desperately to bring him to Nanda Parbat to be healed, he told her that they all have to change and then died.
And so she did change: she became the Question. As the new Question, Renee fought against the Religion of Crime, as well as human traffickers in a backup strip (what else?) in the post-52 Detective Comics (the main story was Greg Rucka’s Batwoman: Elegy). Eventually, the Question and the Huntress went up against Vandal Savage himself.
And then the backup strips ended and then the universe ended, replaced by the New 52. And in the New 52, the Question existed...but not like he had. Instead, the Question was a faceless entity, similar to the Phantom Stranger, who had done something that caused him to be punished by having his face taken away. He wasn’t in any way at all similar to the pre-New 52 Question. He had no identity as Vic Sage or Renee Montoya. He was basically the Question in name only. (Vic Sage would later show up as the head of the Suicide Squad in New Suicide Squad and Renee Montoya would return to the GCPD in Detective Comics.)
But, with the crossover Convergence, readers were able to get another adventure with the Renee Montoya Question that provided action, but also resolution.
In addition to the Question’s comic book appearances, Justice League Unlimited also gave us a version of the Question that was at once both awesome and hilarious. He sings pop songs as he breaks into buildings, he digs through everybody’s trash, and he believes in the big Conspiracy! Which includes everything, even boy bands! JLU’s Question was a mixture of both the Denis O’Neil Question and Alan Moore’s Rorschach, although toned down, going from “homicidal killer” to “lovable conspiracy theorist.”
And yet, in one scene...
...the Question tells Lex Luthor what is basically Objectivist philosophy, that Luthor will always be Luthor no matter what universe, and even quotes from Ayn Rand: “A is A.” The law of identity. Which is where Steve Ditko got the name “Mr. A” from.
So I guess it all comes back around. Hopefully, DC will bring the Question back in some way — personally, I would love a Renee Montoya Question series by Greg Rucka and Cully Hamner, but I would also love to see Vic Sage show up on Arrow. So where will they show up next?
I guess that’s the question.