Friday, June 13, 2014

Legacy Character Study: The Question

On this day, 365 days ago, I posted my first Character Study on one of my favorite Steve Ditko-created characters, Captain Atom. And my last Character Study was done in 2013, so I think we're due for another, seeing as how Character Studies were the original point of this blog.

Go figure. 

Anyway, to commemorate this occasion, I feel it necessary to examine one of Ditko's other creations. But which one? Which character has had enough impact on both myself as well as other people to warrant such attention?

That is the Question.
Character Conception
The Question was not actually the first blank-faced character. Not even the first one by Steve Ditko. I mentioned in my Ted Kord Character Study that Steve Ditko was a fierce believer in Ayn Rand's Objectivism philosophies. His Objectivist beliefs would more often then not find their way into his stories and characters. Honestly, the only reason that Spider-Man wasn't just John Galt in spandex is probably because he had Stan Lee to tone him down a bit. Influenced by his strong beliefs in the difference between right and wrong, he created the right-wing, no-nonsense, metal-faced character called Mr. A. And by that, I mean that his face was literally an unmoving metal mask.

You thought Dave Sim's comics were poorly disguised personal philosophy? Ditko did it first and best.
Mr. A's stories were little more than preachy Objectivist tracts. Heck, Mr. A's main gimmick was leaving cards around that were black on one side and white on the other, representing how there is only good and evil, with no grey area in between. Ditko reworked the character to make him more compatible with the Comics Code Authority's guidelines, and took inspiration from the blank-faced Dick Tracy villain known, fittingly, as the Blank. Mainly, he made the still, metal mask more expressionless by making it a blank face. In Blue Beetle #1 (June, 1967), we got the debut of not only Ditko's reimagining of the Blue Beetle, but also his reimagining of his own earlier character. 

Secret Origin
Vic Sage was a Hub City reporter. An acquaintance of his, Dr. Aristotle "Tot" Rodor had invented a substance called "Pseudoderm." Pseudoderm was developed to be an artificial skin that could be applied to burns or cuts to help them heal. (When the rights transferred to DC Comics, it was retconned that Tot had been doing research on the masks used by the villain "No-Face," as well as Gingold, the substance that gives Elongated Man his powers.) The problem was that Pseudoderm was so toxic that if you put it on an open wound, the recipient would likely die before the any sort of healing could begin. But Tot's partner, Dr. Twain, was already in the process of selling the faux-miracle cure to third world countries. Equipped with a mask made out of Pseudoderm to hide his features, Sage brought Twain to justice. And the Question was born!

Oddly enough, this guy with no face is just a regular human. He has no above-human powers, but has more than a few skills that can come in handy. More than just being able to see through a mask that has no eyeholes.

First and foremost, his skills as an investigative reporter grant him gifts of observation and reasoning. Along with his mental skills, he was trained in the martial arts by Richard Dragon, a kung-fu master. Most interestingly, in honor of his Objectivist creator, Question is a darn tough nut to crack; letting him resist interrogation and even mind control by way of his rigid beliefs and opinions. Finally, there was a point in his history where he experimented with drugs and meditation, allowing him to see the vibes of his city and let him instinctively understand it in unseen ways. 

...what the heck did I just type?

As for equipment, he has the aforementioned Pseudoderm mask, along with a gas dispenser in his belt. See, his mask will only attach to his face under exposure to a certain gaseous compound, and will then only unattach under exposure to the same gas. Sage has treated his clothes with a special chemical that makes them change color upon exposure to the gas, and has special shampoo that does the same for his hair. Thus, the brown-suited, red-haired Vic Sage becomes the black-haired, blue-suited Question. Though the colors involved with the transformation change depending on the colorist. If they change at all.

Pastel blue will never go out of style.
-Lady Shiva 
One of the world's greatest assassins. She's a more-than-competant schemer, and is no stranger to political corruption. But even then, she sometimes works with the Question towards mutual goals. Sometimes, she appears in cartoons as a completely non-threatening villain. But we won't hold that against this version.

Other than that, gangsters, robbers, etc. The Question really doesn't have any real nemeses to speak of. The only "name" villain I can talk about is a sometimes-ally. The character primarily focuses on corruption, petty crimes, drug traffickers, and other "realistic" crimes.

I guess you could say that his main enemy was Hub City itself. At its peak, Hub City was said to be even worse than Gotham in terms of crime. At least Gotham has Batman. Hub City had no one before the Question came along. You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy. At least Mos Espa has a military presence.

Character History
Vic Sage, born Charles Victor Szasz (sharing two of his names with a DC serial killer, so no wonder he changed it) was violent young boy who was always picking fights in the Catholic orphanage where he grew up. When he entered college, his violent tendencies manifested once again when he beat up his drug dealer for giving him LSD. Not being able to trust his own senses made his trip go bad, and he took it out on the dealer. He went into journalism alongside Lois Lane, and quickly gained a reputation as a loudmouth. Specifically, one who was aggressively fierce in his opinions on right and wrong. Albeit one with a history of drug use.

At the urging of his eventual friend, Aristotle Rodor, he investigated Dr. Twain's dirty dealings in Pseudoderm while disguising his features with a Pseudoderm mask. Realizing the potential for good he could do anonymously, he kept the mask to use as Hub City's defender: the Question.

He briefly relocated to Chicago, then came back to his home city, where he got a job as a newsanchor alongside love-interest Myra Connelly. During a mission, the Question got beaten up and shot in the head with a pellet gun, but was rescued by the villain responsible for putting him in such a state. Said villain was legendary assassin, Lady Shiva. She instructed Sage to find Richard Dragon, the legendary fighter. Sage did so, egged on by a hallucination of Batman, and came to realize that his stark black-and-white philosophy didn't really hold up in a world built upon shades of grey. If you guessed that Steve Ditko was not writing the character at this point, then you were paying attention to the bit on Objectivism. You get a cookie.

It's pretty amazing how Ditko put his opinions in the mouth of someone without a mouth.
At this point in his life, the Question changed his focus from street crime to white collar crime. He realized that Hub City was corrupt all the way to the top, and began his work to stem the corruption. Myra, at this point, had married the corrupt mayor, Wesley Fermin, so Sage got her onto his side to keep an eye on the inner workings of the city. Fermin, being alcoholic and mentally ill, was pretty much completely dependent on his wife to run the city. Realizing she could cut out the middleman, Myra ran for mayor in the next election. At the same time, she started having affairs with both the Question and Sage, even though she didn't know they were the same person. Her first clue should have been that both Sage and Question liked piƱa coladas and getting caught in the rain.  Long story short, she lost by one vote but still won because her opponent was killed by a freak tornado. 

(I'm not pointing fingers, but let's just say that, having pondered the situation, I have my own theories as to the cause, natural or unnatural, of this odd weather phenomenon. I'll admit that I'm most likely completely wrong, but heck, it's more than a mite suspicious for this to have happened all of a sudden. I mean, don't you think?)

Anyway, her husband shot her during her victory speech for being a dirty Commie, the cops shot and killed her husband, and Myra was in a brief coma before taking the reins of the city. With the eventual help of Lady Shiva, the Question was able to meet with gang leaders and start nipping crime in the bud. But at the same time, he was having a personal crisis reconciling his black-and-white original beliefs with his newfound philosophy. His violent urges began to return, and he had to fight off urges to kill someone, just to see how it felt.

Thanks to drug-induced hallucinations, his mother told him to leave the city. He, Myra's daughter Jackie, and Tot did so, helped by Lady Shiva. He wanted to start his life over in a place where he could give up crime fighting. Naturally, he chose South America. Unsurprisingly, he got caught up in a drug war. To save Jackie's life, he ended up killing a man, fulfilling his bloodlust. His philosophy changed again. If he had to, he would kill another person without question. (No pun intended.) But Jackie died on the trip back to Hub City anyway, because karma, I guess.

Sage wandered for a few years, being little more than a guest star in various stories. He went to Gotham after its devastating earthquake, and had a fling with the Huntress. After experimenting with drugs, he began to be able to "feel" the city, as I described earlier. Surprisingly enough, Grant Morrisson was not responsible for this character change. Otherwise, it would have edged out Marvel Boy for the number ten spot on this list. Maybe.

He defended Metropolis in Infinite Crisis, but this would soon be the end for him. Victor Sage, you see, was a smoker. And he had developed lung cancer. And it was terminal. You know, when you take the brutal deaths of the Question and the second Blue Beetle into account, I'm beginning to think that the universe hates Objectivism.

Before he died, he defended Gotham while Batman took a year off. Teaming up with Gotham cop Renee Montoya, the two of them got caught up in weapons deals that led them to save the lives of Kahndaq's dictator, Black Adam, and his wife. They returned to Gotham, where Renee discovered the truth and had him hospitalized. When he failed to get better, she took him to the legendary city of Nanda Parbat, in an attempt to find a miracle. But she was too late. Victor Sage died in a snowy mountain pass. In pain, and nearly alone.

Victor Sage may have died then and there, but the Question lived on.

But that's a story for another time.
For now, we've got retcons to talk about.

New 52 Character History
In the New 52, the Question is more than a bit different. 

Thousands of years ago, the three worst sinners in history were brought to the Rock of Eternity to stand trial for their sins. For opening the box, Pandora was cursed to walk the Earth forever, with scars on her face that continuously burn. For betraying Jesus, Judas Iscariot was cursed to be bonded to his thirty pieces of silver and ever walk the Earth as a stranger to all. For a an unknown crime, a man of questionable identity was cursed to forever walk the Earth with no face, no identity, and no memory of who he truly is.
Yeah, the faceless face? It ain't a mask anymore.
Currently, this unknown man guards Hub City as a vigilante, all the while having his own agenda against his fellow sinner, the Phantom Stranger.

Alternate Versions
Firstly, Rorschach from Alan Moore's legendary Watchmen.

"Hurm. Don't see resemblance."
Although Rorschach's stark philosophy and brutal methods have more in common with Mr. A, Moore only created the character after being unable to secure the rights to use the former-Charlton Comics characters. Interestingly enough, the Question was later depicted reading Watchmen in-universe. He tried out Rorschach's methods, but that didn't really work out well for him.

But probably most beloved of all, the version from Justice League Unlimited. Voiced by uber-talent Jeffrey Combs, this version is just nuts. Recursively, he's more like a child-friendly Rorschach, but this version of the character has more fans than any other.

Just look at that possibly handsome man.
This version is a conspiracy nut. Some of his theories include a thirty-second Baskin Robbins flavor, a magic bullet forged by the Illuminati to kill Kennedy, and a "sinister" true purpose for aglets. Although, that last one may have been made up under torture. But he gets the job done, mainly due to his... quirks.

Supergirl: "You go through my trash?"
Question: "Please... I go through everyone's trash."

Final Thoughts
I had an interesting thought in the shower, as I was coming up with my final thoughts. The Question isn't really that great of a character in his own series. Relatively speaking, I mean, don't attack me. With a couple exceptions, his supporting cast and villains aren't really as memorable as many other DC characters.

Having said that, the Question is an utterly amazing character in an ensemble piece. 52. Trinity of Sin. Justice League Unlimited. I'd honestly guess that over 80% of his fans aren't familiar with his solo series, but came to love him thanks to his guest appearances in 52, JLU, and suchlike.

Want to make any comic better? This character is the best guest-star you could possibly include.

No question.


  1. "Richard Dragon, the legendary fighter" sounds like an 80s arcade beat-em-up.

    - That One Anon

    1. RICHARD DRAGON The Legendary Fighter!
      Make a attack, play to fight! Again?
      Save a day as you be the man with great justice for making!
      Win twice!