In between writing the last review and this one, writer Dennis O’Neil passed away. This is one of the very few books by him I’ve actually read so I can’t speak to his greater body of work but considering he ushered in one of the biggest eras in “Batman” history, I’d say his impact was large. So, here we are. An unofficial tribute to the man, looking at one of his most distinctive non-Batman works through the lens of four stand-alone issues that paint a picture of a dying city and the people who have to find their way through it.
Written by Denny O’Neil
Pencilled by Denys Cowan
Inked by Rick Magyar
Colored by Tatjana Wood
Lettered by Gaspar
Hub City descends into chaos and it’s up to Vic to keep the order!
Before we get into the nitty gritty, I gotta say: Denys Cowyn and Rick Magyar make this book look so fucking good. I love Cowyn as an artist in his own right but Magyar really makes his pencils shine here. They pack every page full without missing a trick, clean and clear but never losing the grime or the claustrophobia of the city. Close-ups and mid-shots are utilized with variety and precision so that we’re always gathering information from the characters’ faces and the framing of those faces. The downside to this claustrophobia and density of faces though, is that Gaspar has to letter around their art in ways that break the page flow at times, particularly in “The Question” #8.
Additionally, Wood has some coloring flubs this time around — some eyes are yellow in issue #8, Vic’s hair changes color in shadows to brown rather than a dark blonde, the muggers at the start of “The Question” #5 are, uh, purple, which is especially problematic considering the characters are generic, stereotypical Hispanic and African-american muggers, though the old woman, who is white, is also purple — though on the whole, they are supportive of the grit, while keeping everything clear and moody.
Plus, the hot pink jackets remain, which is all I need.
Those issues aside, the art remains a strength of the series and one of the reasons “The Question” lasted as long as it did, and has held up as well as it has. Another reason is O’Neil isn’t afraid to get introspective but also clearly has a grasp on the ideas he chooses to engage with, providing more than a popcorn philosophy. He has a point to make and questions to ask. He doesn’t treat the audience, or the characters he’s using, with disdain like some current writers do (looking at you TK). He recognizes their flaws and faults and uses them, questions them, and confronts them.
These four issues best exemplify that approach.
The Question is the very definition of a street level hero. Muggings, sexual assault, murder, suicide, torture, looting, riots, police corruption, systemic corruptions — all are fair game topics. The people he fights aren’t super-villains or mad geniuses or aliens but instead a drunk mayor rambling about conspiracy theories about Communists, crime bosses squabbling over territory, or a killer of killers, making the undesirable. . .disappear. Sure, The Deacon from last time is a pulpy version of the corrupted priest who plans to hasten the advent of the apocalypse but he is still motivated by human events, and acts in simple, human ways.
He was damaged by the Vietnam war and the atrocities it accepted and perpetrated in the name of freedom. He twisted his faith to believe that to harm and to hurt and to kill was his highest calling. It would be sad if it weren’t so damaging and, that might be the refrain for most of the antagonists in “The Question” #5-8.
Each issue is a stand-alone, as opposed to the previous four issues, which were a cohesive arc. Although, having said this, I have to immediately walk that back because issue #8 ties us back to an innocuous scene from issue #6, one where Vic has just been discharged from the hospital after being patched up for “mugging” injuries, providing a framework for these issues as a sort of “day in the life,” a taking stock of Hub City after the destruction of the Mayor’s manor. We get some insight into Vic and proof of his own personal growth, but Hub City is more the central character for this arc.Continued below
Issue #6 returns to Junior, from issue #3 and the bus bomb, examining the consequences of his father’s toxic masculinity and the inferiority complex it instills in Junior, so much so he feels he has to disfigure himself to gain his father’s love. Issue #7 has a dubious presentation of a Roma character, though not stereotypical or offensive, but the underlying idea of the cruelty of humans versus the surprising kindness of nature is well realized through Volk while issue #8 asks us to look at our desire for punishment and question when our ideals of justice and redemption conflict with our capacity, our thirst, for in-kind revenge; the use of a mask from The Mikado deeply uncomfortable to look upon now but provides an interesting discussion of what the use of a mask means within the context of the issue, the mask’s racist origins notwithstanding.
Issue #5, in contrast, takes a wide look at the city and examines the stress and strife and the everyday cruelties of normal people, from a boss sexually assaulting his secretary (and then getting taken apart for the act by the narrator AND the secretary) to wanton fights to stealing off of the aforementioned boss’s fresh (like 5 seconds dead) corpse. Additionally, it examines and is in conversation with Myra’s guilt over her killing of The Deacon, an act which clearly shapes the person she’s becoming throughout these four issues, even more so than having to take up the duties of mayor without the title thanks to her husband.
In fact, the strongest character work in these four issues is Myra’s. Vic had his arc and his death and rebirth but here we have Myra’s, who’s in the previous arc had gone from being a reporter and the lover of asshole Vic to damsel stuck in a marriage she never wanted to a man who barely has the presence to notice the bottle in his hands, to killing the one who robbed her of her agency. Now that she’s been freed from The Deacon Hatch’s threats, but still shackled to Mayor Fermin, she’s figuring out how to use that connection to keep the city from imploding.
The person she was before was destroyed in an act of violence, in an act of death, and rebuilt in light of that act. The result of this can be seen in “The Question” #7. Myra’s soul searching in issue #5 centers her values, leading her to say “because if we don’t keep our word, we betray.” She said she would kill Hatch, and she did. She said her vows to marry Mayor Fermin, and so she cannot get into a relationship again with Vic, no matter how much she wants to; not because of who they used to be to each other but because of who they are now. She is fully aware of herself and the consequences her actions may hold, and acts accordingly.
Now that she has, what will she do next? And what will Vic do to save a city he feels he failed? Next time, those questions and more.