Rorschach by Dave Gibbons
Whenever people talk about the best comics ever made, Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons always ends up near the top of the list. Probably the most iconic character in that series was the brutal, trench coated vigilante, Rorschach. Rorschach consistently makes lists of the most iconic comic book characters of all time due to the character’s black-and-white morality mirrored in his trademark mask. In many ways he was the introduction of the philosophical superhero to the mainstream American comics publishing world. The obsessive monologues would rather infamously go on to serve as a rather tired trope in the years that followed. What is perhaps less well known is that Moore intended Rorschach as a pastiche of an earlier character by creator Steve Ditko, “The Question.” In its way, the Question, would be possibly more revolutionary than Moore and Gibbons’ seminal work.
Vic Sage, the Question
Steve Ditko is best known today for the creation of one of the most famous superheroes of all time, the Amazing Spider-Man. In the period from 1960 until 1966, Ditko was one of the hottest creators in comics. In addition to Spider-Man and his unforgettable supporting cast and villains, characters like Doctor Strange, Captain Atom, and the Creeper were the brainchildren of Steve Ditko. Iron Man and the Hulk both owe key elements of their appearance and most successful iterations to Steve Ditko’s run on those features. At Marvel he had become one of the most successful artists, second only to Jack Kirby. Despite his success, Ditko would walk away from Marvel and his most famous creations.
Ditko had gradually become more and more invested in the political philosophy of Ayn Rand, objectivism. As an objectivist, Ditko felt that characters like Doctor Strange, a sorcerer promoted false belief in mysticism. He and writer Stan Lee had fallen out over the direction of Spider-Man as well. Both wanted the character to be more politically involved in the turbulent era of the 1960s, but Lee was generally left leaning while Steve Ditko’s objectivism was a strictly right-wing philosophy. Ditko felt the morals he was trying to impart to the audience were being diluted or reversed entirely by Lee. Besides creative differences, Ditko apparently believed that his creative impulses were being exploited by Lee for the financial gain of Marvel.
After his departure from Marvel, Ditko began to work freelance for Charlton Comics, a Connecticut based publisher, a comparatively small third-party company. Steve Ditko had worked for Charlton before Marvel doing an assortment of horror and sci-fi comics and creating the nuclear superhero Captain Atom. Charlton knew that a creator with as much draw as Steve Ditko had coming off of Spider-Man and Doctor Strange in 1966 should be given a virtually free-hand creatively. He returned to Captain Atom, both as writer and artist, where he invented new heroes like Nightshade and the latest iteration of the Golden Age character the Blue Beetle. While Ditko’s objectivist philosophy was apparent in all of these books, the one that most heavily focused on it was The Question.
The Question Debuts as a Back-Up Feature
Initially the Question was a back-up feature in the Blue Beetle’s solo comic beginning with the first issue in June 1967. In story, The Question was an uncompromising investigative journalist named Vic Sage, out to expose the wrongdoing in Crown City, his hometown. By night he donned a fedora and trench coat along with a mask made out of a fictional skin like material called pseudoderm which was invented by his scientist friend Aristotle Rodor. Engulfed in a cloud of special gas the mask would seal to his face, making him appear faceless and emotionless.
In this feature Ditko gave an open statement of his rather extreme political beliefs. Unlike most square jawed superheroes of the 1960s. The Question was quite vicious in his way. Ditko believed that there were ideas like evil and corruption that could never be measured in degrees. If someone did bad things, they were corrupt and deserved no sympathy. The Question frequently forced his enemies into situations that were likely fatal with no remorse. Vic Sage would launch into tirades against the evils of the weak people who did nothing to stop the actions of evil people. The comic was politically extreme, and can easily make many modern readers uncomfortable.
The Question Striking Fear
When the Blue Beetle title went on hiatus with issue #4 in December 1967, it became apparent how much more enthusiastic Ditko was for The Question than his other creations because of how much of the feature he had already made ahead of time. Three of these interconnected back-up features were published together as Mysterious Suspense #1 in October 1968, the only comic which featured Ditko’s Question as a solo feature. It seems likely Charlton Comics was using this to gauge popular interest in the character to see if he could carry his own ongoing solo series. The fact that one never materialized seems to denote that it couldn’t.
The Question’s first solo comic: Mysterious Suspense #1
The following month, November 1968, the Blue Beetle comic would return for one final issue, featuring a crossover between its two features. In the Blue Beetle feature, Vic Sage was a supporting character who helped the Beetle face down a hippie modern artist calling himself Our Man: The Destroyer of Heroes. In the back-up feature, The Question defeated an art critic who had praised the work of Our Man in the Beetle feature and was revealed to be homicidal in the Question feature. This would be the final issue of the series, and the last time Ditko would make a Question story.
The Question was not a successful character. The original run only ran for five back-up stories, and one solo issue spread out over a year and a half. The loss of Lee as a scripter was felt in the direst way. Sometimes Ditko got a Charlton staffer to script the feature but then took issue with phrases they used as being too soft or compromising. When Ditko himself wrote the lines, they came off very stilted. The Question was preachy and lectured the reader about the corruption of modern society.
The Question was the first superhero published by a large publisher that adhered to a larger political agenda. Ditko named The Question Vic Sage, by which he fairly obviously meant that he was a Sage Victor, a wise winner. His mask made him appear faceless. By removing the ability for the character to visually convey emotion, one of the hallmarks of comic book storytelling, he was reflecting the idea that all decisions should be entirely objective and rational and not based on emotion. His foes consisted not only of criminals, but also people that Ditko saw as inherently decadent: artists, critics, mass media moguls, and the idle rich. Ditko was trying to inform the readers moral sensibilities based on Ayn Rand. Characters that opened the world to objective truths like Sage (an investigative journalist) or Rodor (a scientist) were good. People that didn’t create anything of value were invariably wholly evil criminals in Ditko’s stories.
The Question in his Natural State: Lecturing
There seem to have been a few things rattling around behind this comic. One was Ditko’s frustration with his time at Marvel. He had created some of their most famous character but felt that others had corrupted the intent of his work and profited from his ideas. He left the company as he felt the intent of his work there was corrupted, and so he created a character whose entire philosophy was based around unwillingness to compromise.
Another was a larger issue Ditko had with western society in the 1960s. As the counterculture picked up steam, Ditko was repeatedly contacted by fans who interpreted his earlier work as being counterculture oriented. Hallucinogen enthusiasts believed that his Doctor Strange comics were inspired by drugs and in fact the character was perhaps best received by the counter culture. Spider-Man had become wildly popular because he was a neurotic teenage superhero that wasn’t a sidekick during a decade in which teenagers were at the apex of their political activity, and Spider-Man became a symbol for them. The fact that his characters were so popular with the counterculture made the ultra-right wing Steve Ditko feel uncomfortable and maybe more than a little responsible. In response, he created a character with a strict moral code and a rational outlook. Ditko was attempting to stem the tide of the artistic movements of the time in The Question.
There may have also been a degree of self-loathing behind the comic. Randian Objectivism focuses on the superiority of people who actively produce things and advance the progress of human society over ‘leeches’ who live off of the fat of their activities. It is hard to imagine that in a rigid interpretation of Objectivism a comic book artist known for a quirky art style would be seen as a producer, and not a degenerate. Ditko himself likely has more in common with Our Man than the Question.
Despite the failure of the feature, the Question would have a surprising and lasting impact. When Green Arrow became a politically active, left-wing superhero in Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams’ Green Lantern/ Green Arrow in the early-seventies, the precedent for a political superhero had already been set by the Question, even if the two characters came from opposite ends of the political spectrum. Ditko was the first to open superhero comics to making political and philosophical statements. When Watchmen came out, the only significant difference between The Question and Rorschach, other than the level of gore they portrayed, was that Moore’s more realistic world viewed a brutal uncompromising vigilante as he more likely would be viewed in the real world, a psychopath.
Vic Sage becomes the Question
The Question would eventually be purchased along with the other Charlton Comics superheroes by DC Comics in the 1980s, and the character would be re-imagined by Denny O’Neil and Denys Cowan. If there was any doubt that O’Neil’s creation of a philosophical superhero was derived from Ditko, that can be dismissed thanks to O’Neil’s perfecting that model in a modernization of the Ditko character. O’Neil’s run on The Question would show a near death experience result in Sage’s gradually shifting from Ditko’s hard-case objectivism into a more introspective, nearly Buddhist outlook in a maelstrom of urban chaos in Hub City. One of DC Comics best publications, part of the appeal and success of the comic must be derived from The Question’s origins as the first philosophical superhero.
Though no one would have been able to tell at the time, short-lived back-up feature by a frustrated and politically extreme artist has become, in retrospect, one of the comics which contributed the most to the development of the medium into a higher art form. There can be no doubt that (if Ditko ever peers out from his self-imposed hermitage he has spent the last few decades in after being frustrated by the failure of his political comics to gain more popularity) he would be disgusted by the comics influenced by The Question. He would think the work of O’Neil and Moore was nothing more than decadent navel gazing. It is also the logical progression of the process that he started with his comic. By creating a superhero comic where morality was actively discussed, he opened up the world of superhero comics to a moral complexity that didn’t exist before Ditko entered the scene. Therein lies the genius of Steve Ditko. It is easy to look on his unique art style or famous creations and point to his genius as a creator. What is harder to appreciate is that, even after his work took on his extreme philosophy, he continued to influence the comic industry in a profound way, even though many creators found his beliefs distasteful. Perhaps then, on an objectivist scale, Ditko might yet be viewed as a ‘producer.’ His comics helped transform a cheap entertainment medium into an altogether more vital industry that could contribute to the moral and philosophical growth of its readers. But perhaps descriptors like genius and producer don’t quite fit Ditko. Perhaps the term ‘sage’ would fit better.