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Wednesday, 3 August 2011

The Question: Zen and Violence

written by Dennis O'Neil
pencils by Denys Cowan
inks by Rick Magyar
colours by Tatjana Wood
letters by Gaspar Saladino and Albert DeGuzman
Publisher: DC

What's It About?Vic Sage is an investigative reporter in corrupt and rotten Hub City, using his secret identity as the mysterious Question to further his television career. He is arrogant, selfish and reckless and one day he finds himself lying on the bottom of the river. One lucky rescue later he goes into training to become a better fighter so he can survive his return to Hub City and maybe even become a better hero in the process.

O'Neil and Cowan's The Question is a potent mix of mystery, violence and philosophy written in the noir manner.

What's Good About It?
What sets The Question apart from a lot of other comic series is its philosophical complexity. O'Neil is a writer who loves issues. Another of his series, Green Lantern And Green Arrow (reviewed here) dealt with the issues of race and class in 1970s America, and The Question is similarly issue-led.

Hub City is a place of urban decay and moral corruption. The mayor is a non-functioning alcoholic controlled by his advisers, the police are on the take to a man and even the hero of the piece often can't claim the moral high ground. In a sense the whole environment of Hub City is Vic's enemy and Vic is just a normal man blessed with neither superhuman power (like Superman) or massive wealth and resources (like Batman). He isn't even blessed with a clear conscience. The Question also departs from the conventions of superhero comics by treating violence as something that has tangible consequences. Everyone in this book is human: they will die if shot, their bones break, they can be debilitated by the level of pain they're in. This is far from the traditional level of power fantasy at which comicbook violence usually operates.

That's the noir side of things dealt with so let's get to the real moneymaker of The Question: the philosophy. In place of the traditional “kid sidekick” Vic has Aristotle “Tot” Rodor, an aging PHD who acts as the hero's sounding board and as the source of much of the series' philosophy. This is a very literate series, more literate even than it seems from this collection (as we'll see in the What's Bad section). One of the best chapters in this book is the final one which deals with the story's fallout from the perspective of the ordinary citizens of Hub City and the feeling of impotence one person, even the hero, can feel in the face of chaos.

Zen And Violence isn't much for the spectacular set-pieces of superhero comics but it more than makes up for it with solid characters and the depth of its storytelling.

What's Bad About It?There is an utterly pointless appearance by Batman in this book. He flounces into the story, growls out some passive-aggressive advice at Vic and flounces out again. At the time this was a good marketing ploy to shift issues of a new and untried series but in hindsight it is a massive disruption to the plot that doesn't even fit the tone of the series.

There is also an unfortunate omission from the material collected in this book. O'Neil is a very well-read writer and he even wrote philosophy reading lists that were published in the letters pages so the readers could bone up on the ideas that went into the story. Sadly the lists weren't included in the collected editions, though I'm sure they exist on the internet somewhere.

What's the Art Like?
Hub City being such a dark and terrible place Denys Cowan and Rick Magyar's art is big on shadows: deep black voids in the world and the smaller bits of hatching that introduce shadow to everything.

Much of the book is drawn in this style: atmospheric backgrounds framing two people in conversation. The Question largely does away with the flashier aspects of comics: the colourful costumes, the magic superpowers, the spaceships and zappy ray guns. This book has to stand more on its characters and so real effort had to go into making the visual aspect of the series as interesting as the dialogue because if it wasn't then it begs the question: why not just write a book?

It's all about mood. This example here: shadows, smoke, darkness and fear. The art tells more than just the basic visual information of setting and set dressing, it's used to inform the reader of as much emotional as possible.

Fight scenes draw the eye to the action by largely removing the backgrounds so nothing is left but the physical choreography. The only background detail on this page is the snowman behind the girl being kidnapped, a symbol of the child's innocence against the innocence-shattering horror of her kidnapping.

Other InformationThe Question: Zen and Violence (ISBN 978-1-4012-1579-8) retails for £12.99 and is available from Amazon here.

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