The Question #1 (2005 series). By Tommy Lee Edwards, Rick Veitch, and John Workman. DC.
If they don't die first, all superhero comics wilt eventually. Energy dissipates, creators get subbed for or replaced entirely, editors commercialize, crossovers interfere... it's a nasty business. One way or another, I can't think of a single hero book published in the past two decades that's started with a high standard of quality and kept it up -- let alone improved on it -- over more than 25 issues. (Even X-Statix, the closest contender, starts to flag a bit before the two-year mark.) Strangely enough for a genre whose senior citizens have issue numbers in the high 800s, the superhero game is ill-suited for long runs: when it's good it's about the quick bangs, the one-liners and bone-crunching fight scenes and whoa look at the colors on that panel and the intensity that builds hot and hard between pages one and 22, then cuts off abruptly and repeats itself verbatim next month. If I may, reading superhero comics is like doing any other kind of drugs: short blasts are great and most effective, but the more there is after a certain point it gnaws you, and you start to think about why you're subjecting yourself to this.
So, if the end is almost always less than the beginning, why read superhero comics at all? Because, to stretch a metaphor, that first high is a killer. I don't have fingers to count the great superhero issue 1's I've bought that have tipped off into boring rehash after promising greatness -- and while the comedown's always a bummer, those 1's are memories I cherish, even sometimes keep in boards and bags to reread before I offload them on the neighborhood kids.
As a serialized hero comic, Rick Veitch and Tommy Lee Edwards' 2005 Question miniseries fares a lot better than most. The plot twists itself up enough to bypass any story-decompression pitfalls, the art stays front and center on the same quality benchmark for every page in the book. It's liberally spiced with futurism, extreme violence, psychedelic interludes, just-beyond-the-pale conceptualizing, and uh, John Workman letters. It's a rock-solid superhero story, the kind of thing you wish they'd refuse to put out any worse than, or at least friggin' collect in book form. (Check your back issue bins, kids!) But despite the liberal helping of Good Stuff slathered over issues 2 through 6, this series is a textbook example of the lightning in a bottle an issue 1 can catch before surrendering, however pleasantly, to formula.
The Question issue #1 is a shockingly virtuosic display, the creators involved straightup attacking the 22-page DC pamphlet format to force down as much formalism, expression, and genuwyne forward-looking innovation as its gullet will take. The book starts out in media res, no introductions necessary, page one shoving its way into your face with a brute force that's too surprising to resist. Edwards slices up his tightly gridded, self-colored panels into two unequal halves, the slivered gold-and-silhouette left sides giving way to full-color line art on the wider right sides. In robustly stylized Workman letters over fluid technicolor phototracings that give the proceedings the air of a particularly avant Italian fumetti comic (or some bizarre arthouse Question movie, or hell, even dream itself), Veitch gives the hero's narration all he's got, weaving strings of broken-glass words around the percussive breaks of panel borders:
Inner ear's cocked to the background murmur.
Overloaded with the buzz of a cluster hive.
I'm inhaling the psyche of the city.
The only one paying attention.
The rest are hypnotized.
Enthralled by pre-packaged gossip.
Mesmerized by manufactured dreams.
Ignoring the unspeakable.
Denying the unknowable."
-- Rick Veitch, The Question #1, 2005
And that's page one, all we get before it switches scenes entirely. This is all our heroic narrator gives us to explain himself and his world -- a blast of oversaturated glo-fi panels, an arrow of malevolent beatnik word-abstractions. This isn't reverent, this is new. This isn't entertainment, this is provocation. This isn't a sightseeing tour, this is art. It's all perfectly echoed by Edwards' compositions, which zoom in and out on the black shape of the Question while fading the urban panorama that surrounds him into a blurred, near-abstract haze of digital light and ticks, scratchy line (below). It's a hell of a brave way to kick off a comic, basically daring the reader to handle this much pure style before it shifts into plot-mode on page 2.
And page 2 is something else entirely, a bright nine-grid of POV shots that trace the Question's alter ego, crusading reporter Vic Sage, on a train ride from Chicago to Superman's stomping grounds in Metropolis. From the muddy, glowing, impressionistic muck of the Question scenes, we're catapulted into an almost-too-real world of human figures with lines drawn over them, bits of Sage's hands or the newspaper he's reading moving into his sightline every once in a while to give the proceedings the surrealistic air of a first-person shooter video game. What Sage sees, we see. What happens to him, happens to us. And nothing more. It's a supremely effective way of placing us in this enigmatic, prickly guy's shoes, but even more impressive than the story conceit is the formal one. Save for a killer post-Steranko splash, these two pages' elements compose the entire issue's structure, as the Question's dark, rock-hard scat-narration action pages (set "yesterday") alternate with Sage's sparkly, eye-squinting realist views (set "today") for every page left in the comic.
The layouts pulse arrhythmically between sixes and nines, counterpointing one another in the particularly vigorous fashion that only plot-independent structuring can achieve, somehow managing to tell us a white-knuckle action/suspense thriller as they go. There's tension in Veitch's plot, sure -- the dude knows how to write a good comic book -- but the real gripping meat in this thing is watching the pages' high-wire act, waiting for the inflexible layouts to cause a breakdown in formula or story. Never happens. This comic is on its game. As a reading experience it's less akin to typical superhero comics than pre-20th century poetry, in which the weighty Alexandrine structure was a non-negotiable fact of life and the best not only worked in it but exploited its idiosyncrasies to slam harder or float lighter. Like amphetamine-addled, postmodern, medium-transplanted Baudelaires, Veitch and Edwards stride right into the lion's den of ironclad structure and make it work for them, their story warping and pretzeling into a totally unique shape around its building blocks. Increasingly surrealistic dialogue tradeoffs with a mysterious young boy who seems to be riding the train alone shoot the mounting grit and violence of the action plot through with dislocation and the all-important, ever so difficult-to-achieve sense that there's more going on here than we can see.
Like the Toys'R'Us souvenir Vic Sage works on above, this comic is a puzzle, a jigsaw full of knife-cut pieces that we won't be able to assemble until issue 6 (the villain's seeming escape from being trampled to death by cattle in a brutal heavy-industry stockyard fight scene, for example, turns out to be something even more interesting 100 pages down the line), and like all good puzzles the joy here isn't seeing the superhero-story picture completed. No, this issue is all about working it, ideas tossed around in a million directions, the art more jarring than nice to look at, the reading itself an inevitable road to a provocation. Like the Ayn Randian morals that Question creator Steve Ditko imbued the hero with lo those many years ago, this comic is completely uncompromising -- no trace of concession to the pure-hypothetical new or younger reader who'd never pick this particular book off a rack anyway, and no time for sly continuity checks or bland shared-universe apportioning either. It's hero comics done raw: violent, populist, aggressively intelligent, unstoppable.
Yeah, unstoppable, and that sense of total forward motion is particularly impressive when you consider just how loosely the component parts of this -- after all -- work for hire, division-of-labor comic hold together. Edwards' art, which incorporates "drawing" on nothing even approaching a panel-to-panel basis, is the book's most obviously problematic element. Photoreferencing is bad enough, but this thing is very obviously constructed from a lot of digital-camera shots that got run through a photoshop filter or two and then scored with a few lines where Edwards thought it appropriate. As such it's stiff in the body language as well as the transitions between the frames, the usual flow of action comics cut out and replaced with the stop-motion grind of machinery at work. Too, there's little room for cartooning in Edwards' visual world: this art is too constructed, too subtly lit, too real to get into the kind of contortions that comic book body language and facial expressions use to tell their stories.
Somehow, though, it works perfectly. Veitch's relentless staccato narration turning the herky-jerky quality into an asset, strings of panels never running together, but hitting like a succession of juddering sledgehammer blows. Workman's resolutely handmade, idiosyncratically shaped lettering adds a much-needed dose of immediacy, as well as the missing sense of drawing, of shape and line sprung straight from human inspiration. And Edwards himself quite obviously knows what he's doing, achieving plenty of motion with deft figure animation, tweaking the colors into floaty smears of blue and white or truly scary redgray slicks, slashing the photos with a blazing marker line to rob them of the delicacy that's got no place in this comic. It might be too real, but this is reality through the fog of drugs or fiber-optic transmissions or mental illness -- way more interesting than what we see, as is appropriate for comics. It hangs together somehow, and like its wade through the unforgiving structure, this struggle enlivens the book, makes it hum with an electric tension.
That tension is the real draw of this comic, what separates it out from the pabulum it shares a genre with. Like the Ditko stories that came before it, this version of the Question feels like superheroes let off the chain. The protagonist kills, often gruesomely. The writing has a style all its own, one that takes the desire not to sound like anything we've read before as its guiding light, but still ends up being so comics. The art puts you front and center in a world too crazy to dream of, the filters of fantasy art stylisms -- and even line -- stripped away all but entirely. This is what the best hero comics are all about, the strain between escapism and the feeling that it's all too much and you'd rather just be a spectator. It's gripping, immediate, and it doesn't let go until you're long past finished -- all those things that the Marvel/DC books of the years since have promised and failed to deliver. There's no mire to this: it just keeps blasting until it runs out of pages.
All the uneasy futurism makes it very much a thing of its time (that is, the days of the Bush Administration's Senate majority and high approval ratings), the clear light of America's ice-cold post-9/11 conviction and drive battling with the blood red shadows of the new millennium darkness no one could quite ignore. I mean, remember experimental superhero comics? In the exhausted, drunk, ugly 2010 world of increasingly ridiculous spandex fantasia merry-go-rounds this thing reads like a bullet from a gun pressed right to your skull; but a while ago it wasn't crazed outsider art, it was the next step from Joe Casey's Wildcats or Grant Morrison's 1234 or Brian Azzarello's Batman/Deathblow. The issue is titled "Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow", in self-reference to the headings separating the Vic Sage and Question segments. The promised "Tomorrow" doesn't come until the end, though, as Sage gets off his train with more mysteries than solutions and the Question watches the end of a miserable punk's wretched life. The crimebusting reporter inhales some superscience gas to get high, then walks off into the sunrise of a new day. There's no "To Be Continued", no huckster promises of what the next issue holds -- instead, the bottom of the last page blares "Tomorrow" in massive op-art Workman letters, throwing down a gauntlet just like every page previous. Are you going to be here to see the future?
And then... the subsequent issues abdicate their torch, succumbing to above-average adventure and contemplation. Which is cool. It's what we hope for when we go to the counter for our hero comics. But that's the problem, this first issue opens up and screams and gives with something no one could have expected, much less hoped for, and it blazes a trail right off into the unknown, a trail that no one since has bothered to follow down. DC in 2005 -- as I read it that was Seven Soldiers, All Star Superman, Solo, Kyle Baker's Plastic Man, Seth Fisher's Batman -- a place of hope for what came next. In that time no one could blame Veitch and Edwards and Workman for shrinking from the limelight, for trusting someone else to pick up go as hard as they did while they wrapped up their little punching plot in peace. It wasn't the brave choice, the real thing to do, but no one could blame them. And yet five years down the line it's gone to piss, DC is a suppurating embarrassment, Marvel is Marvel, superhero comics offer nothing but some good art once in a while. I found this comic in a quarter bin with the rest of the discarded futures. It didn't belong there. Or maybe it did, I don't know. All I know is that we never saw The Question #1's tomorrow, and I would have preferred it to what we got instead.