REVIEW: DC UNIVERSE CLASSICS - THE QUESTION
In Wave 11 of Mattel's popular and highly impressive line of DC Universe Classics action figures, we have the first "Fans' Choice" figure, based on a poll which was conducted in ToyFare Magazine. The character in question is -- well, The Question.
It didn't really surprise me that The Question came out on top, though. The character has managed to garner a fair amount of popularity in recent years, due as much as anything to a number of appearances in the Justice League Unlimited animated series, in which he was voiced to great effect by Jeffrey Combs, known to science-fiction fans as the actor who portrayed both the Ferengi Brunt and the Vorta Weyoun in Star Trek Deep Space Nine, and later the Andorian Shran in Star Trek Enterprise. Combs' voice was a perfect match for The Question as he was portrayed in the animated series.
The Question is one of a number of characters that were originally created by Charlton Comics, ultimately bought out by DC, and integrated into the DC Universe during the course of the Crisis on Infinite Earths. Other notables included Blue Beetle and Captain Atom, both of whom have also had DC Universe Classics action figures.
Let's have a look into the background of The Question:
The Question (alias Vic Sage, real name Charles "Charlie" Victor Szasz) was created by Steve Ditko, and first appeared in Blue Beetle #1 (June 1967). Originally created for Charlton Comics, he was acquired by DC Comics and incorporated into the DC Universe.
For many years, the Question has been one of the more philosophical superheroes. As a tireless opponent of societal corruption, the Question was an adherent of Objectivism during his career as a minor Charlton hero. In an acclaimed 1987-90 solo series from DC, the character developed a Zen-like philosophy.
During his Charlton days, Vic Sage made his mark as a highly outspoken and aggressive investigative journalist based in Hub City. Not long after starting his TV appearances, he began to investigate Dr. Arby Twain.
Sage was approached by his former professor, scientist Aristotle Rodor, who told Sage about an artificial skin he had co-developed with Dr. Twain called Pseudoderm. Pseudoderm was intended to work as an applied skin-like bandage with the help of a bonding gas, but it had an unforeseen toxicity which was sometimes fatal when applied to open wounds. Rodor and Twain agreed to abandon the project and parted ways, but Professor Rodor discovered that Dr. Twain had decided to proceed with an illegal sale of the invention to Third World nations, regardless of the risk to human health.
Sage resolved to stop him but had no way of going after Dr. Twain without exposing himself. Rodor suggested that Sage use a mask made of Pseudoderm to cover his famous features. Armed with information, and more importantly a disguise, Sage eventually caught up with Dr. Twain, stopping the transaction and extracting a confession, then leaving Twain bound in Pseudoderm.
Sage decided that this new identity would be useful for future investigations, and partnered with Professor Rodor, who supplied the Pseudoderm and eventually modified the bonding gas to change the color of Sage's hair and clothing.
Compared to other superhero characters of the Silver Age of Comic Books, The Question was more ruthless in his methods. For example, when he was fighting some criminals in a sewer and knocked them into a deep and fast moving water flow, he declined to pull them out despite their real danger of drowning. Instead, he left to notify the police to retrieve them in case they survive the ordeal.
The Charlton characters were acquired by DC Comics while the former company was in decline in 1983. DC gave the Question his own acclaimed solo series in 1987, which was written by Dennis O'Neil and primarily drawn by Denys Cowan. The series was published for thirty-six issues, two annuals, and five "Quarterly" specials. In Question #1, the Question was defeated in personal combat first by the martial arts mercenary, Lady Shiva, beaten near to death by the hiring villain's thugs, shot in the head with a pellet gun, and thrown into the river to drown. Heck of a first issue, if you ask me... I mean, would YOU show up for your second issue after that!?
Lady Shiva then rescued him for reasons of her own and gave him directions to meet Richard Dragon as soon as he recovered enough to get out of bed. Once there, Sage learned both martial arts and eastern philosophy. When he returned to the city, he resumed his journalist and superhero careers with adventures that tended to illustrate various philosophic points.
In the O'Neil series, Victor Sage is an investigative reporter for the news station KBEL in Hub City, who uses the identity of the Question to get the answers his civilian identity cannot. Unlike other vigilante superheroes, O'Neil's Question is primarily focused on the politics of his city, and rather than hunting down the perpetrators of petty theft, he tends to fight the corrupt government of Hub City.
O'Neil's Hub City is noted as being "synonymous with venality, corruption, and violence", perhaps even outranking Gotham City as the most dismal city in the DC Universe version of the United States. Despite the impoverished and scandalous nature of Hub City, O'Neil insisted repeatedly that it was based on an actual US city, though for most of the series' run he refused to comment on which one that might be. He eventually confirmed, near the end of the run, that Hub City was based on East St. Louis, Illinois.
Sage dons the guise of the Question, acting as the city's only form of justice for a short while. O'Neil's Question is very conflicted on how far to go in enforcing justice, often feeling tempted to kill. He resists this temptation during his time in Hub City, realizing that part of his desire to go so far is just to see what it feels like to take a life. His relationship with his mentor, Aristotle Rodor, is one of many things that keep him from going over the edge and back towards the darkness he had shown in his youth on the streets of Hub City.
The Question Annual #2 retroactively altered the character's origin by revealing that Victor Sage was originally Charles Victor Szasz, an orphan who had a reputation as a troublemaker. Szasz prided himself on defiantly enduring the physical abuse of the orphanage where he was housed. He eventually managed to get into college where he studied journalism.
The 2005 Question mini-series, authored by Rick Veitch, reimagines the character as a self-taught urban shaman whose brutal and at times lethal treatment of enemies now arises from a warrior ethos, rather than Objectivist philosophy.
The character's difficult ethical history, and the character himself, were laid to rest by DC in its year-long weekly title, "52," in which Sage recruits and trains Gotham ex-cop Renee Montoya as his replacement before dying of lung cancer. In this incarnation he is wry, cheerful and avuncular, although still enigmatic, and displays no discernible philosophical commitments aside from a determination to recruit Montoya and to have her decide who she is and who she will become.
As to his abilities and certain trademark characteristics, The Question's mask is made from Pseudoderm, a substance made by Doctor Aristotle Rodor. According to the revamps of 52, this substance was developed using technology lifted from an old Batman foe named Bart Magan (Dr. No Face) and Gingold Extract, a fruit derivative associated with the Elongated Man. The Question's series by Denny O'Neil presented Pseudoderm as Rodor's attempt to create an artificial skin for humanitarian purposes. The Question is able to see out clearly through his mask. In early appearances, the mask was described as containing air filters.
The Question's specialized belt-buckle releases a binary gas that binds his mask to his skin and temporarily recolors his garb and hair. The binding element is adjusted to Sage's specific body chemistry. The binary gas Rodor created reacts with chemicals in Sage's treated clothing and hair, causing them to change color. Sage's hair would change from red to black, or later to a darker red. Sage's treated clothing would change to light blue and orange, or later to dark blue. The faceless mask, combined with the color change of clothing, was sufficient to disguise Sage's identity to most onlookers. All of Sage's clothing was similarly treated.
Early in his career, the Question used seemingly blank calling cards with a delayed chemical reaction that after a specified time caused a question mark to appear in a burst of gas. Other writing could be similarly treated to reveal itself at the pre-determined time.
While the binary gas has no other known properties, the Question often used the gas to enhance his image and intimidate criminals into confessing by implying that the gas would cause anyone exposed to it for extended periods to lose their face permanently.
The Question was a major recurring character in the animated television series Justice League Unlimited, voiced by Jeffrey Combs. Like his comic book counterpart, he uses a special mask (bonded to his face by a gaseous chemical) to conceal his identity. He is portrayed as a conspiracy theorist, not too far removed from Fox Mulder of the popular television series The X-Files. His character design is similar to the O'Neil/Cowan revamp of the character.
The Question of the DC Animated Universe is a completely obsessive, darkly comic loner — skeptical, eccentric, paranoid, antagonistic and somewhat unpredictable. He is given to believing in abstruse conspiracy theories and is suspicious of even his fellow League members; despite this (or perhaps because of it), he is one of the Justice League's best detectives. In the episode "Fearful Symmetry", he mentions that Supergirl eats peanut butter sandwiches before going to bed, to which she asks him whether he goes through her trash: he responds, "Please... I go through everyone's trash."
The Question's various conspiracy theories, which he insists are a single, tied-together theory, are usually portrayed in a humorous manner. He claims the motives and purpose of aglets (the plastic caps at the end of shoelaces) are "sinister", that the government is brainwashing people through "secret messages coded in amino acid chains in low-carb cereal bars". In the episode "Fearful Symmetry", he claims there's an ominous link between boy bands and global warming. He believes that the Girl Scouts are either the cause of or connected to the crop circle phenomenon", and that fluoridated toothpaste doesn't prevent tooth decay, but renders the user's teeth detectable to spy satellites. It should be noted that several of these comments were made under the duress of torture, and he may have made those claims to spite his torturer.
I'll admit I never followed the character's comic book exploits all that closely -- seems he was more peculiar than I thought he was. The animated incarnation came across very much as stated, and was peculiar-but-amusing at the same time. Mattel has produced a figure of The Question for the Justice League line, as well.
So, how's the figure? Very cool, really, and honestly a good bit more distinctive and individual than I expected.
The Question does not dress in traditional superhero garb. Instead, he wears a dark blue trenchcoat and fedora, an orange shirt with a black necktie, and a dark blue suit. Now, to date, there have been two figures in the DC Universe Classics collection that have worn suits -- Two-Face and The Riddler. Both figures used the same molds, and the suit coat aspect of it was accomplished by making the main body of the coat a sort of "vest" which slipped over the body of the figure during assembly, while the arms of the figure were the sleeves of the coat.
I was of the opinion that The Question could be accomplished through similar means, pretty much using the same molds -- just making the coat a lot longer. However, this is not at all what's been done. Indeed, it would appear as though The Question is an entirely unique figure, not using any of the body molds that were used from Two-Face and Riddler, or anybody else, obviously. I thought briefly he might have had the same hands as The Joker, but even that isn't the case.
The figure certainly looks like his classic incarnation -- trenchcoat, fedora hat, dark blue suit. The Question is not a typical muscular, spandex-wearing super-hero. He looks like he got his wardrobe from the same rack as The Green Hornet or a few other non-super-powered mystery crusaders.
Of course, one is immediately drawn to the face -- or rather the lack of it. That Pseudoderm substance gives The Question a completely blank face that has less detail to it than Odo from Star Trek Deep Space Nine. Although there is the basic form of a face -- indentations for eyes, a raised area for the nose, a bulge for the mouth, there are no visible eyes, nostrils, mouth, or anything else especially identifiable. It's creepy in it's own way, which was no doubt the intended effect.
The Question's ears are normal in appearance, and he has fair short-cropped black hair emerging from underneath the hat. I cannot help but wonder if the masterful sculpting and design team of The Four Horsemen saw The Question's face as a greater challenge than usual, or perhaps an easier time than most?
One thing I can say -- I think the lack of facial detail made them just antsy enough to throw in as much detail on the rest of the figure as possible. And brother, did they ever.
The upturned collar of the coat has extensive stitching around the entire edge until it folds into the interior of the coat slightly below the waist. There is a superbly sculpted belt tied off on the back of the coat. The gloves have an insane level of sculpted detail to them, making them look like stitched leather. The shoes have a similar level of detail to them, in stitching and laces. There are tiny buttons all over the place -- on the shoulders, on the sleeve cuffs, and on the front of the jacket underneath the coat.
The overall design of the figure, from an assembly standpoint, is interesting. I might have expected that the main body of the trenchcoat was a separate piece, with the rest of the figure representing The Question in a fairly standard suit. This isn't quite the case, however. While the main body of the trenchcoat is indeed a separate piece, an additional part of that piece is the visible portion of the suit coat underneath the trench coat! I can only imagine that factory assembly of this figure was not especially easy as such. I think it would be necessary to assemble almost the entire figure, slide the coat section on, and THEN attach the arms and the head.
Even more unusual, the necktie is a separate piece, glued to the top of the shirt! And it's a little tough to get it to hang straight, too. But still -- that's an interesting additional bit of detail.
The fedora hat was also molded separately, but is attached to the head and is not designed to be removable.
Still and all, the end result is a superb figure of this quirky but popular character known as The Question, which no doubt all of the fans who voted for his inclusion in the DC Universe Classics line will be very pleased to add to their collection.
Of course, The Question is superbly articulated, as one would expect him to be in order to be part of this line. He is fully poseable at the head, arms, upper-arm swivel, elbows, wrists, waist, legs, upper leg swivel, knees, and ankles.
The upper arm swivel is a little more obvious on him since it could not be worked into the musculature as it would have been on most figures, and he lacks the mid-torso point of articulation, as well. The long coat is generously flexible, and is not a major hindrance to leg articulation, although his movement range is probably not quite the same as a standard male hero figure in the line. Not a complaint at all, just a comment.
Painted detail is excellent, where it appears. Obviously, painting the FACE wasn't a major problem for this guy, and that's probably a near-first for just about any action figure line on the planet. I am pleased that at least the molding of the face went smoothly. Given the "mold-crease" problem which comes up every so often on this and other action figure lines -- that could have been a serious issue for The Question. Most of the painted detail comes down to accents -- the buttons on the coat, that sort of thing. The shoes have been given a nice glossy black polish.
So, what's my final word? The Question is certainly one of DC's quirkier characters, but he's also a sufficiently notable one, if only due to his Justice League animated appearances. I really can't comment that much on his comic book history, and from the sound of it, it sounds pretty bizarre, and even -- dare I say it -- a bit questionable here and there.
However, the character has a lengthy history, and has certainly established a notable reputation. He's certainly earned a place in the DC Universe Classics line, and I am very pleased to say that Mattel really turned out an excellent figure of him.
The DC UNIVERSE CLASSICS figure of THE QUESTION definitely has my highest recommendation!