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Comics Watch: How DC's 'The Question' Fits Into a Post-'Joker' World

The new comic could be fertile ground for a mid-budget, character study-style film.
Denys Cowan/DC Comics
The new comic could be fertile ground for a mid-budget, character study-style film.

Welcome back to The Hollywood Reporter's weekly Comics Watch, a dive into how the latest books from Marvel, DC and beyond could provide fodder for the big screen. This week looks at DC's The Question: The Deaths of Vic Sage, so be warned of spoilers ahead.

What’s the answer to a question yet to be asked? This, it would seem, is the very thing writer Jeff Lemire and artists Denys Cowan and Bill Sienkiewicz are exploring it the latest DC Black Label miniseries, The Question: The Deaths of Vic Sage. Though he has long been something of a cult character amid DC’s lineup, best known for his 43 issues series by Dennis O’Neil and Cowan that ran from 1987 to 1990, and even better known for his influence on Watchmen’s Rorschach, The Question is once again stepping out of the shadows into the spotlight. While most of Black Label’s output thus far has been Batman centric, The Question is a refreshing look at a character who exists outside of the mainstream but is just as worthy of our attention. Lemire, who helped revitalize Moon Knight for Marvel, teams with two legendary artists to deliver an opening steeped in the noir-laden intrigue of the past and the political urgency of the present. It’s the kind of book with a character who not only feels made for the movies, but feels made for a particular brand of movies that could arise at Warner Bros. following the billion dollar box office gross of Todd Phillips’ Joker.

Created by Steve Ditko, The Question first debuted as a Charlton Comics character in the pages of Blue Beetle No. 1 (1967), before he and the rest of the Charlton characters were acquired by DC Comics in 1985. Known for his faceless mask, and blue suit and tie, the vigilante detective known as The Question became defined by his black and white view of the world, his strict categorization of good and evil, and a sense of moral objectivism that didn’t see him pull punches on criminals. Unlike fellow detective-vigilante Batman, The Question’s series took a strong political stance, and in the character’s base of operations, Hub City, his alter ego, Vic Sage, operated as an aggressive investigative journalist concerned with the city’s corruption, and moral degradation. It’s easy to see how Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, who originally wanted to use the Charlton characters for Watchmen before creating their own, brought these characteristics to Rorschach and pushed them to their extreme. In a post-Watchmen world, O’Neil created a greater gap between the two characters, indoctrinating him in Eastern philosophy under the tutelage of Richard Dragon and Lady Shiva, and depicting him as a socially progressive cynic. It’s within this space that the first issue of The Deaths of Vic Sage take place, with many of the character’s from O’Neil’s run making an appearance, though modernized.

Like most DC characters, The Question has had his share of continuity changes over the years thanks to DC’s many Crises event storylines. Much in the way that Lemire tackled all of the many personalities and origins that Marvel's Marc Spector/Moon Knight has had over the years, his take on The Question appears to take a similar approach with Sage being forced to reconcile the many lives and deaths his character has experienced over the years. But not only is Sage dealing with his own identity, or lack thereof, he’s also confronted with a city on the verge of collapse in the face of political corruption and a cop’s murder of an unarmed black college student, both events sending Hub City into a wave of riots. Sage is simultaneously approached as a character essential to our present-day politics, and as a man of the past, influential on the comic book medium as a whole. The meta-textual nature of this book feels like the kind of bold storytelling that will ultimately define Black Label as the spiritual successor of Vertigo. It’s more than curse words and ultra violence, but an approach to DC’s continuity outside of continuity, reminiscent of the work Moore, Frank Miller, Grant Morrison and Neil Gaiman were doing in the '80s and '90s.

Within the primary DC continuity, The Question has become a prominent supporting player in Brian Michael Bendis’ Action Comics and Event Leviathan. This kind of multi-book approach for a character who isn’t a Justice League member suggests that there may be larger plans for the character within DC Entertainment. In 2017, Marc Guggenheim, a key voice behind The CW’s Arrowverse, revealed that he wanted to include The Question in one of his series, but that Warner Bros. had other plans for the character. The most obvious direction these other plans could take is a smaller film a la Joker. A noir-influenced consideration of moral objectivism within the 21st century feels right in line with the kind of mid-budget, non-superhero, director-driven, one-offs that Phillips has discussed turning into a brand. That seems like the best possible outcome for seeing Vic Sage onscreen. But there is another option, because there is another Question.

In the 2006-2007 weekly series, 52, frequent Batman supporting character and alcoholic ex-cop, Renee Montoya became the second Question, with Vic Sage training her passing on his mantle before succumbing to lung cancer. Although Sage has resumed the identity of The Question in the current DC Rebirth era, Montoya also still operates under the name and has also played into Bendis’ latest DC mystery. The character, who debuted in Batman: The Animated Series, before making her comic book debut, is set make to make her cinematic debut in Cathy Yan’s Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn), where she will be portrayed by Rosie Perez. While there hasn’t been any indication that Perez’s Montoya will don a mask or a code-name, the trailer does show her quitting her job and looking for a fresh start. Given the code-named heroines she finds herself teamed up with, it doesn’t seem implausible for her to take a name of her own, and hide her identity from the cops she formally worked with while she teams up with vigilantes and a former criminal. Whether it’s within Birds of Prey or a future DC movies entry, there’s certainly room for Montoya to become The Question, even if there are different plans for Sage.

In the same way that Warner Bros. has allowed for multiple Jokers within separate continuities, a similar approach could allow for multiple Questions. Even before the release of Todd Phillips’ film and Joaquin Phoenix’s stunning turn, audiences wondered what would be next for Warner Bros’ R-rated comic book ambitions following Birds of Prey. And now, with Joker, have exceeded all expectations both critically and commercially, there’s even more cause to wonder. Additional films focused on the psychology of DC’s most iconic villains seemed like the obvious choice, but perhaps obvious isn’t the way to go. There is reward in the unknown after all. Perhaps The Question is the answer we, and Warner Bros., have been looking for.

  • Richard Newby
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