Binge This: O'Neil & Cowan Reinvent THE QUESTION... by Killing Him in the First Issue

Alex Jaffe

Alex Jaffe

June 11, 2020


With over 23,000 comics in our digital library spanning over 80 years of history, the greatest mystery of all might be exactly where to start. But if you’re in the mood for stories about systemic inequality, exploitative power, a city rotten to its core, and one man who still fights for truth despite a world which rejects it at every turn, then there may be only one answer: THE QUESTION.





In 1967, Steve Ditko created a faceless hero for Charlton Comics as a backup feature in a new Blue Beetle comic. After every Ted Kord adventure was the story of journalist Vic Sage, who valued his objectivity over all else as a champion of complete moral absolutism. Sage donned the featureless visage of The Question to continue his fight for absolute morality when it crossed paths with legality, holding himself to a higher moral imperative than the laws used to keep a corrupt system in place. Then, in the 1980s, DC acquired The Question along with a number of other Charlton heroes. Bronze age super star and Batman bigwig Denny O’Neil was tasked with writing duties, and all-time great artist Denys Cowan was put on art. Together, they completely redefined the character by granting him the ultimate question: “Who am I?”






O’Neil and Cowan filled in The Question’s backstory by presenting even more questions. Vic Sage was a name for broadcasting; his legal name, Charles Victor Szasz, was given to him by the orphanage where he was raised. He never discovered his parents. And after receiving a stern warning from Batman himself about his reckless path for answers, The Question runs afoul of Lady Shiva. He is beaten, shot, and drowned in the bay of Hub City.


This is all in the first issue.


What follows is a journey of self-discovery as The Question recuperates in the home of the reclusive master Richard Dragon. His return to Hub City is one which warrants a new zenlike, holistic approach to fighting crime not just in the streets, but where it lurks in boardrooms, city hall, and even the church. The Question of Denny and Denys isn’t one that demands answers from those who break the law, but from the universe itself to justify its own existence.




* DENNY’S GRAND SLAM: Denny O’Neil is correctly regarded as the master of DC’s street level crime fighting comics, from the 70s stories which truly made Batman the Dark Knight to the Hard Traveling Heroes saga which got Green Lantern and Green Arrow in touch with America. But Denny’s run on The Question represents some of his finest work, with a hero whose major villains aren’t in colorful costumes, but the people in power we answer to every day.


* THE UNCOWABLE COWAN: When Jeff Lemire began writing The Question: The Deaths of Vic Sage for Black Label, there was only one artist who could do the series justice: Denys Cowan, the man who brought The Question to life in the 80s. Perhaps even more so than Ditko himself, Cowan’s art gives The Question a range of emotion and atmosphere you’d never believe capable of a hero with no face.


*  THE TOUGH QUESTIONS: With its gormless politicians, rotten police force, and so-called holy men who fleece their trusting public for money and power, the travails of Hub City make Gotham look like a vacation to Metropolis -- and yet, the problems it presents have never been more relevant. The Question presents no face, because he stands for us all: the questions he asks of the world are the ones each and every one of us should be asking in turn.


* GUEST STARS: While The Question’s stories mostly stand apart from the DC Universe, it does make occasional room for interaction with characters from O’Neil’s other signature titles, like Batman and Green Arrow. Lady Shiva herself, a creation of O’Neil’s Richard Dragon, Kung Fu Fighter, really makes her mark on the DC Universe in this series, which showcases her as one of the deadliest and most alluring fighters you’ll ever encounter -- right before your final breath. If that’s not enough, there’s also an issue where The Question completely humiliates The Riddler, and another where he reflects on the legacy of his most famous tribute: Rorschach, of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen.





With its hard-boiled noir style and its socially conscious themes, reading The Question presents questions of its own. Like, why aren’t ALL the comics from this time period this good? Where has this series been all my life? And why isn’t there more of it? Even with annuals and crossovers, 36 issues just isn’t enough. Luckily, the stories we do have are special enough that they warrant coming back to again and again. Denys and Denny’s Question will never provide you with all the answers you seek… but it just might get you to start asking the right questions.



Have YOU read Denny O’Neil and Denys Cowan’s masterpiece series yet? Why the heck not? Get on that right now, and report in at our community!