Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Into the Neon Abyss: The Question #9

I started reading the second volume of Denny O'Neil and Denys Cowan's run on The Question recently.  The trade paperback is titled, "Poisoned Ground", and it collects issues 7 through 12.  I was two issues deep into the book, and although I was enjoying what I read so far, it was issue 9 that blew me away and completely sold me on the series.  

The cover of The Question #9 is dated October 1987, and it immediately drew me in with an image of The Question's mentor Dr. Aristotle Rodor strapped to a tree in a decidedly Christ-like way.  Why would Aristotle "Tot" Rodor be tortured in this way?  What could the scientist confidante of The Question do to deserve this, and is this cover metaphorical and not literal?  These were thoughts that came to me while absorbing this image of The Question, blank faced and giving no cues to the reader to indicate how he feels about this, as he looks up at his friend Rodor strapped to a looming, almost mystical tree.

The story opens on a tight shot of The Question wringing his hands while overlooking a drug deal from a rooftop.  The title is at the top of the page in stark yellow letters, "Watchers", and it brings Watchmen to mind, which features an obscure and forgotten character Rorschach who was inspired by The Question.

The narration in this opening page skirts the edge of metafiction.  O'Neil says, "It's as though he's looking at himself play a scene that's been in at least a dozen movies he's watched, including some good ones".  This narration draws attention to the idea that The Question in this series is the prototypical grim and gritty vigilante, but it bucks the clich√© by having the narration admit to this.  The narration is reacting to this stereotypical scene of the hard edged hero in the crime ridden "Hub City" watching a coke deal go down, and by doing so it creates a feeling of deja vu ("The plot is thickening, maybe even congealing--") rather than a sense that we've seen this all too many times before.

Of course, the deal goes sour, and the (former) corrupt cop who appeared to be accepting "Twenty kay in unmarked bills and a kilo of blow" is in fact busting these dealers.  The two criminals stall the cop while their third unnoticed friend creeps up behind him with a pistol.  The Question steps in and takes care of business, as he is wont to do, and saves the cop.  The scene ends with a masterful moment of sequential storytelling as The Question watches Izzy O'Toole, the cop who came alone to this deal just in case he actually did want to take the bribe, drive off into the night with the handcuffed criminals.

No words, blank face, silent night, and empty streets as O'Toole drives away.  Then, we have one of Cowan's transformation sequences where The Question reverts to Vic Sage using Rodor's patented "binary gas" which conveniently changes the color of his hair and clothes.  He uses these transformation sequences throughout the series, and they are, in a word, awesome.  This is isn't even one of Cowan's more spectacular transformation sequences where the panel lay out will often be fractured into triangles, like the panel gutters are radiating outward from a single point on the page.  The sequence is punctuated with the narration, "There's a part of Vic Sage that feels this melodramatic ritual, this changing of identity, is silly--and another part that loves it", and you can't help but sense a bit of commentary from O'Neil about their frequently used device of transformation in clouds of binary gas.

Vic Sage returns to his home where Rodor is toiling away at his microscope.  They have a nice little conversation about philosophy and science that revolves around whether or not the microbes that Rodor is observing are affected by his observation like quantum particles (spoiler alert: they're definitely not).  This sort of tone of mysticism and science merged together is typical of what I've read so far of O'Neil and Cowan's run on the series.  There's also something interesting in the partnership of these two characters; Rodor the Scientist, and The Question the Zen Warrior, the method of science and the aim of religion.  It's a partnership that's reflective of the themes of the series as a whole.

I could probably write another huge essay about that idea after I finish reading this series, but this moment of light conversation is interrupted by canisters of knockout gas that crash through the windows.  Cowan illustrates a kinetic, fast paced fight scene as Vic Sage fights a gas masked intrude while holding his breath.  

O'Neil couples this fight sequence with interesting narration that reveals that Sage is holding his breath throughout the fight scene ("It isn't lack of oxygen that tightens the chest...It's the accumulation of carbon dioxide in the blood caused by physical exertion"), but ultimately, he can only fight without air for so long.  Sage passes out and progressively slides down the page, the panels decrease in thickness, and the colors fade into darkness until we have one final, wordless panel of black, and it all amounts to another amazing use of sequential storytelling by Cowan.  

Sage wakes up in his trashed home to find that he's been out for over three hours, Rodor has been kidnapped, and for some reason, he can't shake the overpowering smell of oranges, of all things.  Sage leverages his position as a television news anchor to run a story about Rodor, he follows up on a lead and hunts down information on Rodor's whereabouts, he even visits Izzy "I swear I'm not corrupt anymore" O'Toole to run the license plate of a suspicious van he spotted before the kidnapping, and it's all pretty much boiler plate investigation narrative...but throughout, Sage is haunted by the smell of oranges.  

Sage tracks the van and follows it to a compound on the outskirts of Hub City, and we are treated to another of Cowan's transformation sequences.  Again, these sequences are awesome, and they're like a refrain echoing throughout O'Neil and Cowan's run.

The Question breaks into the compound only to have the man who kidnapped Rodor attempt to run him down with the same van that he was tracking.  The huge smears of black ink express the violence and intensity of the scene like no words could.  They're like tire skids in the massive gutters of the page.  The arcing layout of the panels, almost like an arrow on the page, and the framing of each shot, particularly the extremely tight frame on The Question's legs barely evading the barreling van, is perfect.  O'Neil knows when to let the images breath, and he has just three panels of intensifying color, font size, and boldness, "Closer.  CLOSER.  CLOSER".  This page is stellar sequential storytelling.  

The fight begins to go badly for The Question, and suddenly and without explanation, the plot of the comic descends into complete incoherence.  His attacker disappears in a swirling haze of color, and The Question is confronted by the sight of Rodor strapped to a massive orange tree.  His scientist mentor asks him who he is, and The Question, for a moment, is vulnerable and human.  He says, "Who am I, Tot?  I mean, Who am I?  I'm not Vic Sage...that's a name I made up...and I'm not Charles Victor Szasz...that's a name they gave me at the orphanage."  The faceless facade of The Question has melted away, and we're left with just a man wracked with an identity crisis.

Finally, this nagging smell of oranges ("Must be a citrus grove nearby.  Smells like oranges") pays off.  

At this point, it's clear that The Question is experiencing a powerful hallucination, but it's unclear what has triggered it.  We learn in the next issue that the gas used during the kidnapping was an experimental drug that Rodor developed, and it has strong hallucinogenic properties.  The reader can easily assume that the gas was the source of the hallucination, but it's never explicitly stated in this issue.  This hallucinatory odyssey comes out of nowhere and without warning, shattering the linear narrative into a surreal dreamscape.  What seemed like your standard issue, grim and gritty investigation plot has metamorphosed into a psychedelic confrontation with the neon abyss.  Colorist Tatjana Wood's work adds a great deal to this issue, but it's her feverish, hot colors that make this particular sequence soar.

The Question attempts to traverse the neon abyss to save Rodor, but he slips into it.  He clings to a branch jutting out of the side of the cliff, and the narration flirts with the metafictional once again, "What we have here is a real cliffhanger--the damn movie motif again."  O'Neil references a famous zen parable here as The Question notices a single strawberry dangling from the branch.  

He plucks it, and the narration tells us, "Best strawberry he ever ate...tastes a little like an orange.." before he plummets into darkness.  We are left with an elongated black panel devoid of even a "The end..?" or "To be continued".  These five panels of The Question descending into the inky void conclude the issue.   As I said earlier, I read this issue in collected format, and I immediately read the next issue...but I imagine that if I had picked up this issue on the comic stands in 1987, this ending would have made my head explode with anticipation for the next month's installment.  It's both a masterful ending scripted by O'Neil, a cliffhanger that is actually a cliffhanger and explicitly references this trope, and a beautiful piece of sequential art from Cowan depicting the lost and helpless Question tumbling away, almost like he's weightlessly drifting off into outer space.

The Question #9 appears to be a run of the mill detective story for the first two thirds of the comic.  The narration addresses this directly in what would be a self-conscious way if the story didn't mutate into something else entirely in the climax.  O'Neil and Cowan lure the reader in and make them comfortable with investigation scenes that they've seen in, "at least a dozen movies... including some good ones".  Then, right when the reader thinks that they're going to get their resolution, O'Neil and Cowan turn everything upside down and let their narrative spiral into a gaping chasm of madness.  Their protagonist begins the story as a supremely confident and hard edged vigilante, and he devolves into a lost man consumed by existential questioning.  The Question #9 is an example of comic book storytelling at its best, and it's convinced me to read O'Neil and Cowan's run from start to finish.

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