the question vol 1 featured image

Conclusions with Questions – The Narrative Structure of O’Neil and Cowan’s The Question

In the first issue of 1986’s The Question, Denny O’Neil kills the Question.

the question dies

O’Neil kills Vic Sage simply and unceremoniously. There is no pomp to Sage’s death. There is no promise or even hint that the Question will revive. There is just a man lying at the bottom of the river, dead.

I assume it takes a lot of guts and/or confidence to kill your comic’s main character in its first issue, especially without signaling that everything is not what it seems. But with The Question, I think O’Neil knew exactly what sort of reader he was writing for. And I think he wrote the first issue’s ending in a way that those readers would be drawn to read next month’s The Question, while those looking for clean victories, tidy endings, and over-the-top bombast would see they should move on.

It turns out, even when a story arc or plot point resolves in The Question, the story isn’t over. The word END at the bottom of each issue’s last page is meaningless, because just like in real life, there are always unanswered questions left to be explored – even if you don’t yet understand what those questions are.

If you aren’t curious enough to ask questions (“Will Vic Sage live? How? And what will he do next?”) yourself, O’Neil and Denys Cowan’s The Question doesn’t want you. But if you are, you’ll be rewarded with a series that feels full, rich, and consequential, because The Question builds on itself in a way few other superhero series do.

Vic Sage, of course, returns alive in The Question 2. He hunts down the man who ordered him dead, and The Question‘s second issue ends not with the question of whether Vic Sage will live, but whether he’ll take a life.

the question 2 ending

The issue’s ending is bold, yes. Dramatic, yes. But again, it’s understated. It has more in common with an HBO drama than a typical superhero book, and I would say the same holds true for The Question as a whole. It is a series that thrives on exploring nuance, motivation, and consequences. And it often does so in ways readers might not expect.

(By the way, I’m not going to tell you whether Vic Sage kills that man. Consider that an unanswered question of my own.)

For example, one of my favorite digressions in The Question is a story in which the Question, having previously apprehended criminals who used a plastic gun to bypass a metal detector, goes after the company that is creating the guns. That sort of next-step exploration, of considering not just immediate problems but the problems that caused those problems, is what O’Neil and Cowan excel at.

why are there plastic guns the question

In other superhero series, our hero would have moved on to battle another exciting, flashy villain. But Denny O’Neil had questions (“Where did the plastic gun come from? Why are plastic guns even a thing?”) left to explore – questions that his readers might not have considered, had O’Neil not taken the time to ask them.

The Time and the Space to Ask Questions

Of course, it helps that The Question is a lengthy series (at least by today’s standards), and that it sat in its own corner of the DC Universe. Because O’Neil and Cowan had time and space to flesh out The Question, they were able to return to and deepen characters that other series may have had to leave behind.

One of those characters is Junior, a mob boss’s son who appears in The Question‘s first volume but then does not reappear until volume four. In a shorter series, or a series that does not care about its side-characters as much as The Question does, Junior would never have gotten a chance to reappear. And he would never have gotten a chance to learn the answer to his most pressing question.

junior the question

Another is Izzy O’Toole, who besides Vic Sage and Myra Fermin, may be The Question‘s most compelling character. In The Question‘s first volume, we learn that O’Toole is Hub City’s most rotten cop. But a run-in with the Question leaves Izzy wondering whether he can change. We, the reader, spend the whole series watching Izzy try to be a good cop and rooting for him to succeed … which leaves us anxious and perturbed when he begins to backslide near the series’s end.

izzy's dilemma the question

The Question‘s length also allows it to simmer and season sub-plots for longer than other series might. Particularly gripping is the lead-up to and conduction of Hub City’s mayoral election, which takes place across over a year’s worth of issues. Other stories take place within those issues, but as the election draws near, it consumes The Question – because it has the potential to single-handedly sink or save Hub City.

is a system preserved by savagery worth saving the question

One Last Unanswered Question

The correct candidate wins the mayoral election. But of course, their victory doesn’t actually solve anything. Instead, it just sparks a new set of questions. The Question is like that.

When thought of this way, as a series of questions that lead to answers that lead to more questions, The Question is actually just one story. And that story has a unifying question, which is: Can the people of Hub City rise above their circumstances and natural predispositions to create something good?

As you might have guessed, O’Neil doesn’t answer that question. Because in The Question, every conclusion must leave questions unanswered. Which is why, if you read it, The Question will stick with you – far beyond the last time you read the word END.

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