01 January 2008

The Question: Zen and Violence vol. 1 (DC, 2007)

Released to coincide with the character's supporting role and death (oops, spoiler!) in the pages of DC's 52, The Question: Zen and Violence reprints the first six issues of The Question comic originally published in 1987. I never read the series when it first came out though I knew of the character. It's that mask. No eyeholes, no features, nothing. So simple yet so iconic. Now that's a vigilante's disguise. You want to go out at night and kick some bad guy's ass? You don't wear a domino mask exposing everything below your eyes. You wear a mask that covers everything. Scare the baddies and establish some coolness factor all at the same time.

The Question was actually a character created by Steve Ditko in the 1960s for Charlton Comics and when Charlton was bought by DC, all Charlton comic characters were incorporated into DC's own universe, the Question being one of them. In 1987, DC gave him his own series written by Dennis (Denny) O'Neil with Denys Cowan and Rick Magyar handling the art chores.

Unlike the rest of the costumed heroes, the Question doesn't go into battle with other costumed villains. His villains wear suits and ties and hold high office. The stories in The Question are akin to the Mike Grell era of Green Arrow where DC's modern day Robin Hood tangled with evil corporations and corrupt authorities. If you're looking for a good old fashioned superhero vs supervillain comic book, then Zen and Violence isn't for you. The story arc collected here focuses on the Question trying to save his beloved Hub City from the clutches of a drunken mayor who is being controlled by an insane and corrupt priest and there is also a family of hitmen who somehow get themselves involve in all this. The stories here are clearly more "down to earth" but are no less entertaining thanks to O'Neil's tight scripting and Cowan's almost noir-ish pencils.

The book opens with the Question suprising a bunch of hoodlums in their hideout. There is no origin story. O'Neil knew that the best way to hook readers to a relatively new character is to ignore exposition and dive straight into some action. And it worked, at least for me. I was intrigued enough to read all the way to the end even though I had no idea what was going on or who these people were (although I recognise Lady Shiva from reading the Birds of Prey trades). By the end of the first issue, though, the Question dies.

Grab your reader by the shoulders, don't let him go as he tries to familiarise himself with the people and the story and then when he's just about to root for the protagonist....you had the Question killed. Now how gutsy is that?

Of course he doesn't die. Almost but not quite and issue 2 is where Vic Sage's (Question's alter ego) prepares himself for the tough road ahead . It's his "Karate Kid" moment (the movie Karate Kid, not the superhero). His sensei is Richard Dragon, a wheelchair bound hermit, who teaches him some spiritual Zen stuff and also how to kick ass in a more effective way. Also, Batman makes a cameo to give Sage a literal wake up call and some sage (no pun intended) advice .

Overall, The Question: Zen and Violence is a very good book that should be in the collection of the discerning comic book fan. Unlike most of the comics in DC's stable, The Question delivered stories that had heart and made the reader think. Not to say that I don't enjoy the old school superhero hijinks but it is refreshing to read about a vigilante who doesn't have to figure out Riddler's puzzles or foil Luthor's latest nefarious plan to take over the world.

It is a pity that the Question comic only lasted about four years. Perhaps the lack of muscle bound toughs in gaudy costumes turned away most of the potential readers. Thanks to the rejuvenation of comic collecting especially in the form of collected editions, underrated series like The Question can now be enjoyed once again by those same readers who ignored it twenty years ago.

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