Comic Review – The Question: Deaths of Vic Sage #1

This one’s been a long time coming.

The Question started as a Blue Beetle backup character from Charlton Comics “Action Heroes” line created by Steve Ditko and famously adapted by Moore & Gibbons into the Watchmen characters. Question himself was Vic Sage– an investigative reporter with a “blank” facemask & color changing suit: Better Crimefighting through chemistry. He was fueled entirely by righteous indignation, probably a Dry Run for Ditko’s later black & white and even more polemic hero Mr. A and advocated the Death Penalty for Scooby Doo villains. He only had 1 solo story in this whole Ditko run, after 4 appearances in Blue Beetle.

When DC Got to working on the recently-acquired Charlton characters after the Crisis on Infinite Earths in 1986, The Question once again showed up as a supporting character in Blue Beetle before getting his own title, while Watchmen with Rorschach was still running monthly mind you. The first thing Dennis O’Neil did to The Question was an “everything you know is wrong” type approach that said Vic Sage was a stage name for Charles Szasz (Charlie to his friends) and his Two-Fisted moral crusader approach gets him shot in the head and dumped in a river by the end of issue #1. This series ran from ’86 to ’91, first monthly then quarterly. Since then the character’s had a couple more oneshots, a standalone miniseries & Short crossovers with Green Arrow, Azrael, Steel, Batman and Huntress and finally gained a successor in Detective Renee Montoya after his death in the weekly series 52.

It’s hard to avoid comparing the new Deaths of Vic Sage book to the 80s series, since the penciller for the bulk of that one Denys Cowan has returned to draw this series.

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The Question meets with Professor Rodor in Deaths of Vic Sage [left] and 1986’s Question #1 (Right). Pencils by Denys Cowan.
The inker for Deaths of Vic Sage is Bill Sienkiewicz, Cowan’s collaborator on the covers of the 80s title and my personal favorite cover artist working today. The colorist is Chris Sotomayor. Sadly, the 80s inker and colorist – Rick Magyar and Tatjana Wood- have since passed away. Prolific (I think he has at least 8 monthly book still going either as writer or artist) writer Jeff Lemire scripts the Deaths of Vic Sage. He’s hard to pin down in one genre, but most of his books have to do with some kind of cult or conspiracy, a Gothic feel and he’s a big fan of the weird B-List DC heroes like Black Orchid, Creeper, Metamorpho, Doom Patrol and of course The Question. Lemire also drew the alternate cover for this issue.

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I bought the Cowan/Siekniewicz one for Old Times sake but I might see if Lemire is selling a print of his cover and slipping it in the bag & board with the issue.

The book opens with The Question trashing a brothel that’s running underage sex trafficking. Kicking ass and taking names, and videotaping the city councilman who he finds there to expose later on his news broadcast. The Councilman is a friend of mayor Wesley Fermin, which makes Vic’s guest on the show angry. His guest is Myra Fermin; in this version of the story Myra is the mayor’s sister and a city alderman.

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The Question here is a relatively young looking Vic Sage, but he’s already operating as The Question in Hub City for some amount of time. It’s not a “Year One” or an origin. This Vic has his own timeline (or maybe several of them?) He trained with Richard Dragon before tangling with Fermin, doesn’t mention Lady Shiva or being shot so his near-death experience from the 1st O’Neil issue might not have happened. This is the third version of the Hub City/Fermin Question story, as O’Neil also wrote a prose novel in the early 2000s called Helltown that provided a remixed “real world” version of the first 15 or so issues of The Question.

At the point we see him, he’s still a very Black and White morality angry crimefighter. Vic’s hair is short, there aren’t many lines on his unmasked face and his suit changes color very drastically as opposed to subtler shades of blue, all hallmarks of the Ditko original. There’s a little bit of Rorschach and animated JLU question thrown in for good measure.

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He also starts a lot of his sentences with “Question:” which as far as I can tell is an invention of Lemire’s. The issue comprises 3 stories happening at the same time in Hub City: Myra, whose past with Vic is hinted but not explicitly romantic, “discovering” her brother is corrupt, a police officer filmed (by his partner?) beating and shooting 2 black teenagers during a traffic stop. I hesitate to call any of this ripped from the headlines, as politial corruption, police brutality and underage sex trafficking are perennial problems.

Hub City was originally Blue Beetle’s home, but it’s been The Question’s stomping grounds for a while. In the O’Neil series it was a depressing urban hellscape described as “worse than Gotham”. Every official from high to low was both corrupt and incompetent, and the city was so poor that basic utilities weren’t there and people were more vulnerable to weather disasters than they were in the Old West. Hub City is called Corrupt in this one but we’re only 1 issue in so the pervasiveness of it hasn’t really had time to get established in Deaths of Vic Sage.

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There’s not that much to mark this as a “Black Label” book comparing it to the 80s series. The Question was a Mature Readers title from the start in 86 as far as I know, the only real difference in this one is the occasional F-bomb. With DC canon still in flux from Rebirth and unfinished Doomsday Clock fallout, I don’t know if any of this is “canon”, what Question stuff if any is, or if this will explain why Vic is alive in Rucka’s Lois Lane when Renee Montoya Question in that book acknowledges his death in 52.

The Question visits his friend ‘Tot’ for guidance. Aristotle Rodor Pee Aitch Dee is still a voice of moderation for The Question, who he calls “Victor” and not “CHarlie Szasz” in this one. He’s been the Question’s confidante since the original Ditko stories. A chemistry professor who designed The Question’s mask and suit. He’s less of a polymath in this version than others, calling himself a “failed chemist and community college teacher”.

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We get to meet Myra’s brother Mayor Wesley Fermin. In this one Fermin a sleazy authoritarian a-la 80s villain Royal Dinnsmore, and not a Roosevelt idolizing alcoholic. He has a Special Counsel who Vic immediately clocks as a mob lawyer, as he’s accompanied by Hired Goons. The Counsel is wearing a mysterious ring that Vic also found on the councilman.

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The Question’s investigation of a recurring symbol on various city official’s rings leads him into the occult history of Hub City. There’s a funny bit where Vic is at a loss for how to describe it so he just googles “Weird Symbol + Hub City” and laments how easy the internet has made detective work. His search for the secret society takes him into what I would call Lemire’s comfort zone: A pit under the city with the “weird symbol” painted around it and skeletons by the edge.

Vic starts having visions/flashbacks of a ghostly horse, and a genuinely terrifying panel of a cubist nightmare of teeth and eyes that he sees in the pit.

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Myra follows Wesley Fermin and discovers the city councilman who The Question videotaped at the brothel in the beginning tied to a chair by Wesley, his lawyer & their goons. They’re planning to kill him before he can roll on them, and now Myra too for witnessing it. Mayor Fermin claims Myra always knew he was corrupt and just ignored it for her own purposes. While The Question is in the pit and Myra is at Wesley’s, the video of the police officer murdering one or both -it’s unclear- of the teenagers is leaked, sparking a riot in Hub City. Tot tries to call The Question back but he’s found something at the pit: A skeleton with a blank mask just like his on it, except this one has a bullet hole in the forehead. Rather than go back to Hub City, Vic takes the mask to his old sensei Richard Dragon to get some answers.

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Dragon talks to him about his visions and metempsychosis, before the art gets trippy as neither The Quesiton nor the Readers can be sure if the mask & ring symbol have transported him somewhere or Dragon gave him psychedelic drugs.

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I understand Jeff Lemire is a big fan of the O’Neil run -because it’s great- but this doesn’t feel like just a tribute to that. Except the Richard Dragon parts: Richard Dragon, with white hair and still in a wheelchair, is about the same guru he was in the 80s, a welcome change from when Lemire replaced him with his own original character “Ricardo Diaz” (yes that one) in his Green Arrow run.

The art is really good. Cowan’s shapes and the fluidity of his martial arts panels are still there.

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Sienkewicz’s “scratchy” style works well for Gritty Urban Detective and Lemire’s Gothic Horror. The more expressionistic drawings though mean that sometimes it’s hard to tell characters like Fermin, his lawyer or Rodor apart. At least they more or less held back from going overboard on the shadow outlines on The Question’s mask. I get that a completely blank blotch of color for the face is boring but if you do too much shading where a nose, eyes & mouth would be under the mask you’re just drawing a face on him and that defeats the whole purpose (looking at you Bill Wray & Eduardo Barreto).

There’s a 2-page spread of Talking Head TV screens that recalls Dark Knight Returns, with a fun touch that the exchange seen on TV monitors is the most vibrantly-colored in the book. The magazine size means that the grids look a little different but they don’t do too much non-traditional work with panel layouts. There’s one page of Vic and Myra arguing, pictured above, where a lack of a panel border makes it look like Vic’s giant face is somehow reflected on the tile floor of the panel above.

The shape of the mystery comes together a little as the issue ends with a splash page of a lost, confused Question in a cowboy hat. The next issue is set in the Old West, and I’m hoping the first panel is Vic (or whoever he is) giving one of his classic snappy replies to the last line of #1 “You ain’t got no face!”