Question (Charles Victor “Charlie” Szasz)


The Question is the name used by a number of comic book superheroes in the DC Comics universe. The original one was created by Steve Ditko, and first appeared in Blue Beetle #1 (June 1967). Originally created for Charlton Comics, he was acquired by DC Comics in the early 1980s and incorporated into the DC Universe.

The Question is one of the more philosophically complex superheroes. As a tireless opponent of societal corruption, the Question was an adherent of Objectivism during his career as a minor Charlton hero (much like Ditko’s earlier creation, Mr. A.   In an acclaimed 1987-90 solo series from DC, the character developed a Zen-like philosophy.

Fictional biography

 Charlton Comics

Based in Hub City, Vic Sage made his mark as a highly outspoken and aggressive investigative journalist with a reputation for obnoxiousness. Not long after starting his TV appearances, he began to investigate Dr. Arby Twain.

Sage was approached by his former professor, scientist Aristotle Rodor, who told Sage about an artificial skin he had co-developed with Dr. Twain called Pseudoderm. Pseudoderm was intended to work as an applied skin-like bandage with the help of a bonding gas, but it had an unforeseen toxicity which was sometimes fatal when applied to open wounds. Rodor and Twain agreed to abandon the project and parted ways, but Professor Rodor discovered that Dr. Twain had decided to proceed with an illegal sale of the invention to Third World nations, regardless of the risk to human health.

Sage resolved to stop him but had no way of going after Dr. Twain without exposing himself. Rodor suggested that Sage use a mask made of Pseudoderm to cover his famous features. Armed with information, and more importantly a disguise, Sage eventually caught up with Dr. Twain, stopping the transaction and extracting a confession, then leaving Twain bound in Pseudoderm. On television, Sage reported on Dr. Twain’s illegal activities.

Sage decided that this new identity, partially inspired by The Spirit, would be useful for future investigations, and partnered with Professor Rodor, who supplied the Pseudoderm and eventually modified the bonding gas to change the color of Sage’s hair and clothing. The two men became good friends, with Sage affectionately referring to Rodor as “Tot”.

 

DC Comics

The Charlton characters were acquired by DC Comics while the former company was in decline in 1983. DC gave the Question his own acclaimed solo series in 1987, which was written by Dennis O’Neil and primarily drawn by Denys Cowan. The series was published for thirty-six issues, two annuals, and five “Quarterly” specials. In Question #1, the Question was defeated in personal combat first by the martial arts mercenary, Lady Shiva, beaten near to death by the hiring villain’s thugs, shot in the head with a pellet gun, and thrown into the river to drown. Lady Shiva then rescued him for reasons of her own and gave him directions to meet Richard Dragon as soon as he recovered enough to get out of bed. Once there, Sage learned both martial arts and eastern philosophy. When he returned to the city, he resumed his journalist and superhero careers with adventures that tended to illustrate various philosophic points.[2] To further illustrate those ideas, Dennis O’Neil had a reading recommendation in the letters page of each issue.

In the O’Neil series, Victor Sage is an investigative reporter for the news station KBEL in Hub City, who uses the identity of the Question to get the answers his civilian identity cannot. Unlike other vigilante superheroes, O’Neil’s Question is primarily focused on the politics of his city, and rather than hunting down the perpetrators of petty theft, he tends to fight the corrupt government of Hub City. O’Neil’s Hub City is noted as being “synonymous with venality, corruption, and violence”, perhaps even outranking Gotham City as the most dismal city in the DC Universe. Despite the impoverished and scandalous nature of Hub City, O’Neil insisted repeatedly that it was based on an actual US city, though for most of the series’ run he refused to comment on which one that might be. He eventually confirmed, near the end of the run, that Hub City was based on East St. Louis, Illinois.[3]

For the majority of the series, Vic Sage is covertly assisting the good-hearted Myra Fermin to win the seat of Hub City Mayor. His interest in Myra extends beyond admiration, as the two shared a relationship before his near-death experience with Lady Shiva, and his training under Richard Dragon. Upon his return he discovers she has married the corrupt drunkard, Mayor Wesley Fermin. Despite Myra’s losing the election by one vote, she becomes Mayor when her competition is found dead as a result of what is called “the worst tornado in history.” At her victory speech, her husband Wesley shoots her for supporting what he believes to be Communist beliefs, putting her into a coma and sending Hub City further into chaos. Sage dons the guise of the Question, acting as the city’s only form of justice for a short while, before the Mayor wakes from her coma. Gang warfare in the weeks following the election leads Sage to Lady Shiva, first as a combatant, and then enlisting her help as an ally of sorts to get in a position to talk to the gang-leaders. As Myra adjusts into her role as Mayor of Hub City, she and Sage begin to rekindle their relationship, though Myra tells Sage she will not act on her feelings until she leaves office. Despite their long-term friendship, she never connects that Sage and “the man without a face” are one and the same until the very end of his time at Hub City.

O’Neil’s Question is very conflicted on how far to go in enforcing justice, often feeling tempted to kill. He resists this temptation during his time in Hub City, realizing that part of his desire to go so far is just to see what it feels like to take a life. His relationship with his mentor, Aristotle Rodor, is one of many things that keep him from going over the edge and back towards the darkness he had shown in his youth on the streets of Hub City.

Eventually, during a massive hallucinogenic trip, his subconscious tells him through his mother that he has to leave Hub City to ever be able to live happily. Around the same time Richard Dragon comes to see Vic, as Richard has sensed that Vic is on the verge of a major turning point in his life, and convinces Vic that living in Hub City is killing him. In an agreement with Richard, Lady Shiva arrives with a helicopter to usher The Question and Aristotle Rodor away, at which point she decides to stay in Hub City and embrace the chaos. Vic nearly convinces Myra to come with him and escape the chaos of the city, but she is unable to leave. She leaves her only daughter, Jackie, and wanders back to the city alone to meet her duties as Mayor and do her best to stand for what she believes in.

After leaving Hub City, Vic takes Jackie with him to South America, hoping to rid himself of his “No Face” alter ego and find a land free of the clutter and corruption that filled Hub City. However, Vic quickly gets drawn into a drug war which ultimately forces him to kill a man in order to save Jackie’s life. This marks a major turning point in the Question’s career as he thinks to himself that he didn’t feel anything and would kill again if needed. Though it is not entirely clear what the Question’s current view is on murder, he kills again in the 1991 Brave and the Bold mini-series and the 2005 Question mini-series.

The Question Annual #2 retroactively altered the character’s origin by revealing that Victor Sage was originally Charles Victor Szasz, an orphan who had a reputation as a troublemaker. Szasz prided himself on defiantly enduring the physical abuse of the Catholic orphanage where he was housed. He eventually managed to get into college where he studied journalism. However, his higher learning did not mellow his violent tendencies, such as when he beat up his pusher for giving him LSD which caused the frightening experience of doubting his own senses under its influence.

The 2005 Question mini-series suggested that the Question’s long experience and practice with meditation had led him into shamanic trances, and later into a more permanent state of shamanic awareness, in which he was able to interpret coincidences and thus “talk to the city.” In this state, he was also able to sense chi, or life force. He is now able to “walk in two worlds” for an increased awareness of his surroundings and of any disturbances in a city’s natural order.

“52”

While Batman disappears for a year following the events of Infinite Crisis, the Question takes over as the protector of Gotham City. Partnering with ex-Gotham police detective Renee Montoya, the two investigate an invasion of Gotham by Intergang, as well as the appearance of a new Batwoman in Gotham. The Question reveals his civilian identity to Renee, as well as how he transforms into the faceless Question, as a sign of his trust in her.

Having gone to Khandaq to further investigate Intergang, Montoya and the Question are arrested by the local authorities, but manage to escape. While in hiding Montoya figures out that Intergang is planning on bombing Black Adam and Isis’ wedding, and the two are able to avert the threat. Awarded the Order of the Crescent medal from Black Adam, the Question gains the help of the Black Marvel Family against Intergang. Finally, the Question leads Black Adam and Isis in the Intergang lair in Khandaq, where they manage to free kidnapped children (including Amon Tomaz, Isis’ brother) from being brainwashed into Intergang operatives.

Parting ways with Black Adam and his family, Renee and the Question travel to Nanda Parbat so Renee can train with Richard Dragon. The Question reveals that he is dying of lung cancer (he confesses to being a former smoker, and that he didn’t quit soon enough), and is grooming Montoya as his replacement.

During Week 28, he along with Renee Montoya return to Gotham to save Kate Kane.[4]

A few weeks later he is forced to enter hospice care at Kate’s, but is moved to a hospital after not breathing for three minutes. He continues his descent in near-death madness, reliving moments from his original series and singing “Danny Boy” as the New Year approaches. Renee opts not to perform assisted suicide, as death is the one question he has left. Finally, Renee decides to take him back to Nanda Parbat, in the hopes of saving his life. However, The Question does not survive the journey and dies after asking Renee whom she “will become.”[5][6]

Renee Montoya

Months later, Renee assumes the mantle of the Question as she and Nightwing search for the captured Batwoman and retains the role afterwards. After the recreation of the Multiverse, an alternate version of Vic Sage is shown to be alive on the new Earth-4.

Equipment

The Question’s mask is made from Pseudoderm, a substance made by Doctor Aristotle Rodor. According to the revamps of 52, this substance was developed using technology lifted from an old Batman foe named Bart Magan (Dr. No Face) and Gingold Extract, a fruit derivative associated with the Elongated Man. The Question’s series by Denny O’Neil presented Pseudoderm as Rodor’s attempt to create an artificial skin for humanitarian purposes.

The Question’s specialized belt-buckle, which releases a binary gas that binds his mask to his skin and temporarily recolors his garb and hair, is similar to that of the Spider-Man villain Chameleon. In his initial appearances, which were drawn by Steve Ditko, the Chameleon had used a device in a belt buckle which emitted a transformation-enhancing gas. It is possible that Ditko used that as inspiration for the Question. The binding element is adjusted to Sage’s specific body chemistry.

The binary gas Rodor created reacts with chemicals in Sage’s treated clothing and hair, causing them to change color. Sage’s hair would change from red to black, or later to a darker red. Sage’s treated clothing would change to light blue and orange, or later to dark blue. Some later versions of the gas caused no color change whatsoever. The faceless mask, combined with the color change of clothing, was sufficient to disguise Sage’s identity to most onlookers. All of Sage’s clothing was similarly treated. Originally Sage favored trench coats, business suits, and fedoras. Later he expanded his treated wardrobe, giving him a less standardized look.

Early in his career, the Question used seemingly blank calling cards with a delayed chemical reaction that after a specified time caused a question mark to appear in a burst of gas. Other writing could be similarly treated to reveal itself at the pre-determined time.

While the binary gas has no other known properties. the Question often used the gas to enhance his image and intimidate criminals into confessing. The implication was that the gas would cause anyone exposed to it for extended periods to lose their face permanently.

 

Inspiration, homages and other versions

Inspiration

The Question’s appearance — ordinary clothes, fedora hat, and a face with no eyes, nose or mouth was very similar to two other similarly-attired and blank-faced characters who appeared in comics in the late 1930s:

  • “The Blank” — A Dick Tracy villain who first appeared in the comic strip in October 1937. He was a former gang leader whose face had been destroyed by gunshot and covered it up while killing off his former associates. The Blank also appeared in the 1990 film Dick Tracy.
  • Charles Maire — Appeared in an early Batman adventure by Bob Kane, published in Detective Comics #34 in December 1939. He was the featureless victim of a villain who used a ray that cut away his face. Batman helped Maire and his sister get their revenge.

 

Homages

  • Rorschach — When Alan Moore was unable to use Charlton Comics characters by name in his comic book series Watchmen, he patterned Rorschach after the Question, making him a merciless and faceless trenchcoat-and-fedora-clad vigilante who took moral absolutism to its most violent extreme.
    • In “The Question” #17, Vic picks up a copy of Watchmen to read on a trip, and initially sees Rorschach as being quite cool, but after he is beaten up trying to emulate Rorschach’s brutal style of justice, he concludes that Rorschach sucks.[8]
  • The Question was featured in Frank Miller’s Batman: The Dark Knight Strikes Again as a libertarian, anti-government conspirator. Frank Miller’s interpretation of Sage — as a nod to Ditko and Alan Moore — is Randian and preachy, at one point going on television for a series of humorous “Crossfire“-style exchanges with the liberal archer Green Arrow. Additionally, he is shown as a technophobe monitoring the dark conspiracy Batman and his allies must face.

[edit] 52 Multiverse

In the final issue of 52, (52 #52, published 2007) a new Multiverse is revealed, originally consisting of 52 alternate realities, including a new “Earth-4”. While this new world resembles the pre-Crisis Earth-Four, including unnamed characters who look like the Question and the Charlton characters, writer Grant Morrison has stated this is not the pre-Crisis Earth-Four.[9][10] Describing the conception of Earth-4, Grant Morrison alluded that its’ interpretation of Vic Sage would resemble the classic Charlton incarnation, with tones borrowed from Rorschach and Watchmen.[10] A number of other alternate universes in the 52 Multiverse may also contain versions of the Question from DC Comics previous Elseworlds stories or from variant “themed” universes, such as the gender-reversed world of Earth-11.[11]

 

Other versions

  • Question has appeared in the Justice League Unlimited spin-off comic book.

 

Other media

 

The New Batman Adventures

In the episode “Beware The Creeper“, the Creeper knocks over a thrift shop mannequin cleverly dressed to resemble the Question in costume. The shop was named “Ditko’s Vintage Clothing”, an homage to Steve Ditko, who create both Question and Creeper.

 

Justice League Unlimited

The Question is a major recurring character in the animated television series Justice League Unlimited, voiced by Re-Animator’s Jeffrey Combs (who previously voiced the Scarecrow on The New Batman Adventures). Like his comic book counterpart, he uses a special mask (bonded to his face by a gaseous chemical) to conceal his identity. He is portrayed as a conspiracy theorist, a blend of Rorschach from the Watchmen comics and Fox Mulder of the popular X-Files series. His character design is similar to the O’Neil/Cowan revamp of the character.

The Question of the DC Animated Universe is a completely obsessive, darkly comic loner — skeptical, eccentric, paranoid, antagonistic and somewhat unpredictable. He is given to believing in abstruse conspiracy theories and is suspicious of even his fellow League members; despite this (or perhaps because of it), he is one of the Justice League’s best detectives. At one point, he mentions that Supergirl eats peanut butter sandwiches before going to bed, to which she asks him whether he goes through her trash: he responds, “Please… I go through everyone’s trash.

The Question’s various conspiracy theories, which he insists are a single, tied-together theory, are usually portrayed in a humorous manner. He claims the motives and purpose of aglets (the plastic caps at the end of shoelaces) are “sinister”, that the government is brainwashing people through “secret messages, coded in amino acid chains in low-carb cereal bars”, believes in ominous links between boy bands and global warming, the Girl Scouts and the crop circle phenomenon, and fluoridated toothpaste and spy satellites. He also believes there was a literal ‘magic bullet’, forged by Illuminati mystics to hide ‘the truth’ (although as this was said under torture, he may have been mocking his captor). In recent investigations, he also discovered that Baskin-Robbins in fact has thirty-two flavors of ice cream, and is concealing the thirty-second for dubious reasons. All of these theories are apparently tied to a single, vast conspiracy by a hidden cabal dating back to ancient Egypt, which has supposedly ruled the world from the shadows for millennia, aided by the common man’s ignorance of it.

After the events of “Fearful Symmetry“, in which Supergirl encounters her clone Galatea, Batman assigns Question to investigate and find out whatever he can about those responsible, much to the chagrin of the other League founders. (Batman concedes that Question is “…wound up a bit too tight” and obliquely indicates that the Question’s detective skills may even exceed his own when he states that “If anyone can find a link between Luthor and Cadmus, he can.” Batman himself had failed at the task.) The title, “Fearful Symmetry“, is a reference to Watchmen (Specifically a chapter centering on Rorschach), and is derived from William Blake’s poem “The Tyger“.

In the episode “Double Date“, the Huntress (recently kicked out of the League for making a failed attempt on the life of Steven Mandragora, the mob boss who killed her parents), appeals to Question for help tracking him down, in exchange for information she claims to have on Cadmus. He agrees, knowing in advance she’s lying. After being pursued by Green Arrow and Black Canary to the dock where Mandragora was meeting his son, Question talks Huntress down from killing Mandragora, whom she instead pins under rubble to await imprisonment. Afterwards, he reveals to Huntress that, despite having known the outcome of the encounter far in advance, he helped her because he likes her. In response, Huntress kisses him and drags him away, presumably to show her appreciation; the two would continue to be an item throughout the rest of the series, the Huntress dubbing him with the nickname “Q”. (This episode was probably inspired by the Batman-Huntress comic book mini-series Cry for Blood, though in that story the Huntress deliberately lures an enemy into what she knows will be a fatal trap and the Question turns his back on her in disgust.)

In the episode “Question Authority“, the Question discovers Lex Luthor’s plot to instigate a full-scale war between the government and the Justice League. He also learns of an alternate universe (seen in the Justice League story “A Better World”) in which Luthor becomes president, has the Flash killed, and is murdered in the Oval Office by Superman as revenge, an act that eventually leads to the renamed Justice Lords taking over the world. Convinced that the history in this alternate universe was in fact a predestined time loop that would eventually repeat itself, the Question decides the only way to derail this possible future permanently is to kill Luthor himself, before he can become president and before Superman can kill him. Furthermore, he was confident that his reputation for being a paranoid ‘crackpot’ would deflect any suspicion that he was doing this on the orders of the Justice League, allowing the League and Superman’s legacy to survive his actions.

However, Luthor, now augmented with super-strength thanks to Brainiac (who, in the Superman episode “Ghost in the Machine”, had planted a nanotech copy of his programming in Luthor’s body), delivers a savage beating to the faceless vigilante while admitting that his presidential campaign was nothing but an expensive ruse to keep Superman on edge, “a small part of a much grander scheme.” Question is turned over to Project Cadmus for interrogation by Dr. Moon. After almost a week of torture (with Captain Atom as his warden) without caving in, he is rescued by Huntress and Superman and transported to the Watchtower for treatment. Although still weak from the torture when the Ultimen invaded the Watchtower, Question subdues one of the clones by hitting him over the head with a bedpan.

“Question Authority” has several homages to Ditko’s Objectivist beliefs, as well as to Rorschach, Alan Moore’s infamous Question pastiche. As he recoils from the information he’s downloaded from the Cadmus files, he begins to speak in monotone sentence fragments, as Rorschach did. (“Not alternate reality,” he quavers. “Time loop.”) In the same episode, Huntress’ comments indicate that, while spending days at his research, Question has neglected everything else, including his personal hygiene — another Rorschach trait. In his room on the Justice League satellite is a poster warning of a global fluoridation conspiracy, a reference to the last page of Watchmen, which in turn references Kubrick’s black comedy about nuclear war, Dr. Strangelove, in which mad General Ripper believes that it is part of a Communist plot.

Later, as Question confronts Luthor at his penthouse office, he declares that; “Everything that exists has a specific nature, and possesses characteristics that are a part of what it is. A is A… And no matter what reality he calls home, Luthor is Luthor.” This is an explicit statement of the Law of Identity, upon which Ditko based certain characters and their opinions. Additionally, in the episodes follow-up “Flashpoint” shows the injured Sage without his mask, with bruises and injuries to his face similar to those suffered by Rorschach during his capture and imprisonment by the police. He notes that Huntress was right when she said “he had to be the ugliest man in the world” to wear his faceless mask; Rorschach, since childhood, had been teased and bullied because of his appearance.

The Question makes cameos in the episodes “Flashpoint”, “Panic in the Sky” and “Grudge Match”, as well as the series finale “Destroyer“. In the battle between the League and the forces of Apokolips, he is seen fighting off Darkseid’s Parademons by running them over with his car (an Pontiac GTO), while Captain Atom, Hawk and Dove and the Creeper battle them on foot and in the air; each of these characters was created by Steve Ditko. His last appearance, in the same episode, is running down the steps of the Metro Tower alongside his fellow Ditko/Charlton era Leaguers.

 

Merchandise

Both versions of The Question had have been turned into toys with a Vic Sage action figure[12] and the Renee Montoya version as a Minimate.[13] In fall 2008, The Question (DCAU version) debuted in Mattel’s “Justice League Unlimited” line as part of an action-figure three-pack with Wonder Woman and The Flash.

Toyfare magazine held a poll in 2008 to decide on a character that would be included in the DC Universe line of action figures. Fans could vote on who should be included. Among the nominees were Starman (Jack Knight), Vixen, Ragman, Huntress, Cat Man, and the Question. In the end, The Question won the majority votes and the action figure is expected some time in 2009.




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