Trade Junkie: “The Question: Zen and Violence”

Hub City is one of the most despicable, crime ridden cities in the country. Some might say even worse than Gotham. It takes a certain kind of man to redeem something so filthy. What kind of man would want to though? That’s a good question.

Being beaten, broken and left for dead Victor Sage, The Question, finds himself not only in a need for physical  renewal, but mental as well. With The Question’s absence, though, what happens to the truth? What happens to Hub City’s defense against it’s own corrupt inter-workings? Is the city better off with him away? Are these really the questions that need asking or is there something bigger to the whole picture?

“Zen and Violence” is an interesting beast to tackle review style. It’s an origin story without actually being an origin story and don’t worry I’ll explain. This isn’t necessarily the birth of Victor Sage’s Question, within the confines of this story he’s already been at his escapades for several years. What this is, though, is more of the start to The Question’s development toward what we know as the character today. Even still, it’s not quite the same as origins we’ve seen of more iconic heroes such as Batman or Superman in that they go through the major change that leads them into being a hero. Rather, here we have Victor Sage beginning that development. He most definitely starts on his new path, with much of his future development being set up, but he’s still human and ultimately struggles not to fall back on his old habits. He still makes mistakes and is still in the process of learning.

As you can probably tell the story is largely set up for not only The Question as a character, but the city around him as well. It does an excellent job at showing the repercussions of Vic’s mistakes and the effect it has on both him and those around him. A lot of the series has set itself up for the long haul with a lot of the beginning arc being more glimpses into Vic’s inevitable future rather than being outright plot and development dumps. In probably another confusing notion I find the writing itself to be “simply dense”. The flow of the plot is easy enough to follow, while the dialogue takes a much more dense approach, as The Question is one to do. A lot of what characters say do have underlying meanings and I found that much of it didn’t become apparent until later reflection or further reading. To me this is a plus and is something I honestly expected out of a book relating to this character. That said, it may be a bit too dense or just outright boring to some.

Due to the story largely being set up within the first volume here the events that do take place end up feeling slightly unsatisfying. Vic’s recovery for instance feels like a far shorter and less meaningful journey than it should have been. In addition to this the villains set up within the first arc have an interesting motive, but are ultimately rather thinly written. Again, this is predominately on purpose as much of the growth of the story and Victor himself is slow going and only builds with time. In fact the villains for the first arc while interesting wouldn’t have sustained a full story and the author seems to have known this, wisely removing them through a show of The Question’s abilities early on. While the thin aspects of a few areas are noticeable I feel that for any reader already committed to the long haul they may in the end just be minor complaints.

Past the first arc we see a short one shot issue that serves to lay out the impact The Question’s action have had on the city. While it is a just simple vinyet it does wonders towards showing the more negative effects The Question has as well as showing it on several different levels. It does well in demonstrating the rippling effect of one simple action as well as helps flesh out just how down on it’s luck this city truly is. After this we see the beginning of another arc which expands on a more direct interference that The Question had. I can’t say much on this arc here as it’s only the beginning , but seeing the continued changes going on with the city and on the people thanks, or no thanks, to The Question is very interesting.

“What would you say if I asked who you are?” – Cop
“Something enigmatic.” – The Question

The art side of things is probably what will trip a lot of readers up. I would describe it as being very 80’s. The grungier look that was common throughout the 80’s is all over this book. It no doubt has a rather dated, somewhat unpolished, feel to it. This is largely just due to the differences between art styles used more frequently then and now. Many of the techniques developed over the last decade are of course not present and overall the book holds a fairly standard panel layout. This is definitely something that takes getting used to for those who are more used to recent styles of comic book art.

My biggest complaints related to the art are admittedly rather nit-picky. The colors are almost too subtle between objects and people and some things may blend into each other, an example being a scene in which The Question has a gun to his head and the point of view is so close I quite honestly couldn’t make out what it was supposed to be at first. Probably the biggest issue in terms of the color is The Question himself as his iconic suit, when it’s actually being worn, goes through such a subtle change from Vic Sage’s that without the mask it’s hard to notice at first what exactly has changed. Again this is something to get used to and once you start getting further into the series not only does the art become more consistent, but it becomes naturally easier to distinguish these changes.

The original series in which “The Question: Zen and Violence” takes place was released by DC Comics in 1987 with the collected trade not seeing a release until twenty years later in 2007. The writer of the book was Dennis O’Neil with the illustrations by Denys Cowan. Despite having a relatively recent release in trade this book is rather rare with most copies of it running for around double its original retail price. While it can still be found through eBay and Amazon it may very well cost you a pretty penny. I was fortunate to only pay slightly more than retail so the chance of finding a cheap copy is there. Curiously enough the later volumes of the series have seen far less inflation over time and have remained reasonable in their asking prices so there’s little worry to having the entire series break the bank.

While its rarity and cost may turn some readers off “The Question: Zen and Violence” is still worth the read if you can get your hands on it. It is an interesting look into the earlier days of The Question and is considered one of the definitive, and unfortunately only, runs of the character. While not technically an origin in the purest sense it it the best and nearly only jumping on point for the character with no prior reading necessary. The set up will throw some readers off with it’s dense nature and somewhat unsatisfying feel, regardless those committed to the series may very well excuse this in favor of later developments within the story. Overall “Zen and Violence” is a very good read and one I wholeheartedly recommend to anyone interested in The Question.

Retail Price: $19.99
Writer: Dennis O’Neil
Artist: Denys Cowan
Age Rating: Teen
Genre: Superhero, Crime Noir
Original Release: 1987/2007
Availability: Rare

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