The Question — that is, Renee Montoya — is my favorite DC comics character. The Answer, on the other hand, is a new superhero from Dark Horse comics, co-created by rising star Dennis Hopeless and Eisner-winning “Battlepug” creator Mike Norton. It will be tough for their new character to top one of my favorites, but I have a hunch that if anyone can, it will be these two.
Written by Dennis Hopeless
Illustrated by Mike Norton
Devin McKenzie is an insomniac librarian with a knack for solving puzzles. The Answer! is a masked crime fighter with a giant exclamation point on his face. Aside from a penchant for late nights, they share nothing in common . . . until both become embroiled in a deadly mystery surrounding a sinister motivational speaker!
One of the most common flaws you see in the standard writer/artist split in comics is that the writer will sometimes feel the need to do too much. This was especially true in the early years of Marvel — Stan the Man and other writers from that era, as revolutionary as they were, sometimes had the tendency to “over-write” a page, cramming it with dialogue and narrative captions, hampering the visual storytelling. While these days we will often dismissively say “Oh, that’s just how it was done in those days,” this sentence implies an inverse: that is not how we do it these days. As such, I can understand if seeing those pages in “The Answer” #1 that are filled with text fill you, dear reader, with a sense of trepidation. Have no fear, though — Dennis Hopeless can write. On the one hand, his prose is a delight to read; the page where Devin studies her mother’s thoughtful, if eclectic, birthday gift may be packed with twenty-three (!) caption boxes, but the cadence in his language is enthralling enough that he could throw in a dozen more. It isn’t just a matter of knowing how to write in general, though. Hopeless knows how to best fit his words into a comic book: how to divide dialogue and narrative between panels, what quiet visual moments allow for heavy text, and, most importantly, when to be quiet. While some pages of this book certainly have a lot more text than some of today’s “widescreen” comics, it never feels excessive.
In that same page with twenty-three captions, letterer Chris Crank deserves special mention. Part of the aforementioned cadence and flow is driven by Crank’s truly spectacular job of lettering a page that surely would have been a nightmare to a lettering novice. I’m not sure if the breaks from caption to caption were directed by Hopeless or a choice of Crank’s own, but it is pulled off spectacularly. People like to say (myself included) that lettering is something you don’t notice when it is done well, but this is an exception to that rule.
Hopeless also pulls a dastardly trick in this first issue. Much of the interior monologue through the issue has to do with solving puzzles, particularly both the anxious thrill one has when attempting to solve one and the wave of pleasure brought about by solving them. First of all, Hopeless gets this desire right on the button; even if the average reader may not be as addicted to solving complex problems like Devin, our lead, her interior monologue hits all the right beats that appeals to one’s senses of a job well done. We have all encountered some sort of challenging puzzle in our life that, while frustrating, felt well worth the reward when solved, and Hopeless’s language in these segments is general enough that we can remember that most maddening yet satisfying debacle in our life. The kicker is that this is a book filled with mystery. Who is The Answer? What exactly is the Apeiron? What is so special about Devin? Sometimes writers use unanswered questions as a crutch to get readers to check out the next issue, but Hopeless’s approach is anything but — it’s goddamn clever. Nearly the entire issue, Devin speaks of puzzles; Hopeless effectively appeals to that problem-solving side of his readers; the issue ends with many questinos still left unanswered. I see what you did there, Dennis. With readers’ brains fully engaged in problem-solving mode, there is no way they could say no to picking up issue number two.
Mike Norton’s illustration is very difficult to say anything negative about. Any character who doesn’t have a big exclamation mark on her or his face is highly expressive, and while his body language isn’t quite as nuanced — compare the faceless Answer to anyone else in the book — it still works very well in conjunction with his faces. His smoothly stylized artwork gives his panel-to-panel motion ease and grace, resulting in a comic that flows from cover to cover without a single hitch. What sticks out most in this issue, though, are his background. Unlike many top-name artists who take the opportunity to drop their backgrounds whenever it won’t be glaringly obvious, Norton includes detailed backgrounds in nearly every panel he pens. There are, of course, exceptions, particularly when it comes to more nuanced or expressive motions; excessive background detail would confound the panels where Devin twists the Apeiron to and from, and dull the impact of The Answer’s satisfying clobberings. Nearly any other time, though, backgrounds are present in Norton’s panels, and those that are present are drawn with a well thought-out level of detail; never so detailed that the boundary between subject and dressing become obscured, but enough to create an immersing atmosphere.
Lately, Dark Horse has been working hard to reclaim the title of #1 third-party publisher from the usurping Image Comics, and “The Answer” only adds more fuel to the fire. Denis Hopeless and Mike Norton have crafted a superhero tale that we can buy simply because it’s great, rather than because we feel obligated to keeping up with continuity, and I can’t thank them enough for it. “The Answer” #1 is devilishly clever, and sure to leave you wanting for more.
Final Verdict: 8.7 – Buy it!