Sunday, August 22, 2010

The Question #1 (February, 1987)

Hub City, Friday, November 21, 10:45 P.M.:
Charles Victor Szasz has exactly 25 hours and 15 minutes to live.

A nearly silhouetted figure stood in the pouring rain outside a run down urban shack. Fedora. Trench coat. Tie. Gloves. No face. The figure kicked down a wooden door, demanding a tape cassette. Thugs were playing cards inside. They put up resistance. They took a beating. In a corner of the single room, a well dressed Asian woman stood. "You're staying out of it, lady. That's smart." She replied, "I despise violence!" No-Face was knocked down from behind and double-teamed. The goons tried to remove his fleshy, featureless mask, but "It ain't comin' off. It's his face!" No-Face freed himself, and battered his captors. "Barbaric," said the woman. A black thug, Donny, gave up the tape-- but asked who No-Face was. Donny was given a blank card, upon which a symbol slowly appeared. "Question mark?" The woman replied, "You are half right."

The Question drove away from the shack in his red Volkswagen Beetle, releasing gas from a compartment on his belt that dissolved the special adhesive of his mask. KBEL investigative reporter "Vic Sage" was underneath. The Bug was doing sixty when some bored cops tried to pull it over, but they gave up when it suddenly surged to over 100 mph. Sage had just under twenty-five hours left to live.

Vic Sage was due to appear on the television news for a report in six minutes before showing up at the station, all arrogance and orders. Sage would ab-lib without make-up. "I'm beautiful just the way I am..." Sage lambasted local politicians, and ran the tape he had acquired of the school commissioner snorting coke, which had been used to extort a huge building contract out of him. "Like I said, it stinks. The decent people in this town are paying for services that don't exist while the political slugs get fat. Why doesn't Mayor Wesley Fermin do anything about it? Is he lazy, stupid... or worse?"

The mayor didn't care to turn the television off, as he was enamored with the anchorwoman, Myra. "She's... quite attractive. I wonder if I could meet her." Middle-aged, graying, balding, with a pot belly and sad mustache, Myra was well out of his meager league. "Ask and ye shall receive," said the lean gray reverend, his black eyes glimmering. Donny wanted to know when they were going to do something about Vic Sage. "He's only been in town a couple months and already he's rained on our parade plenty. Sage was too popular to get fired, but perhaps Lady Shiva could teach him a lesson? Donny wondered where she was during the fight in the shack. "I provide my services for a fee. I do neither less nor more than I am requested. I was not requested to protect a videotape-- nor to nurture the inept." Meanwhile, the fellow who tipped off No-Face about the tape was murdered by Baby Gun, who liked to employ a quiet little air pistol directly to the temple.

Next morning, Myra was in Vic's bed, talking about the hornet's nest he was stirring. For every point Myra made, Vic had a quick, curt, firm and cocky answer. "That's important to you. To be good at what you do. To prove you're good." Vic was an orphan; feelings of inferiority; blah blah blah was his brush-off to the familiar psycho-babble Myra was hinting at. Vic had gotten dressed to visit a friend. He had a bit over sixteen hours to live.

"Come in, Charlie, come in."
"It's Victor now-- but you know that... 'cause we have this conversation every time we meet."

Aristotle Rodor, PhD, saw this intentional irritation as a rite of reassurance. Vic complained that his mask's adhesive, tied to special aftershave and chemicals in his hair, was loosening up when triggered. Tot studied the problem while Vic smoked, a vile habit dropped many years prior, but recently resumed. Things were tougher in Hub City, where Vic was probably born and definitely raised, than they had been in Chicago, Gotham, St. Louis... Decent back in the day, it was an utter cesspool now. Tot pointed out that the smoking was affecting Vic's body chemistry, and thus the mask's adherence. Vic promised to cut down.

Twelve hours to live. Vic met an old wino, who pledged to dig up some information for him. A cop tried to roust the bum, but Vic forcefully explained this was Moe Fredericks, once among the best reporters in town, until his wife and kids were murdered. During the argument, the cop was shot by Donny, who was aiming for Vic. Sage pursued, and caught the trigger man. Vic berated the cops when they arrived, pointing out that a private citizen had done their job, that he couldn't be a cop himself because he passed the IQ test, and "Read this loser his rights, if you know how to read."

Outside KBEL, Vic was met by the Reverend Dr. Jeremiah Hatch, "the mayor's pet sky pilot." After an exchange of barbs, the reverend offered a televised sermon while recalling his time in Vietnam, although he failed to mention that he discarded his cross in the face of that war's horrors.

One of Fermin's thugs fed Moe info that would lead Sage into an ambush, then hopped into a car with Lady Shiva, who he figured owed him for standing around while No-Face kicked his ass. Making the mistake of putting his arm around Shiva, it was dealt a swift, serious hurt in one motion. "If you ever touch me again, I shall shatter three bones in your arm: the humerus, the radius, and the ulna. I shall shatter them in such a way that shards will protrude into the nerves, causing intense pain! I shall shatter them in such a way that no western doctor will be able to repair them. Your arm will thereafter dangle from your shoulder like a dead fish. Do you understand?"

Four and a quarter hours to live. Vic got the call from Moe, but smelled the set-up from miles away. Regardless, Sage would be at the abandoned pier at midnight, as he told Myra, "babe... I can handle it."

Mayor Fermin was concerned Reverend Hatch might kill Vic Sage, but he was in no condition to put up any real fuss. "Go home to the mayor's mansion, brother Fermin-- go to your television and your bottles and your dreams. I shall deal with the ugliness of the world and of the flesh. For is that not my calling?"

Vic Sage didn't show, but the No-Face guy did. "Excellent! We shall use him to send Sage a message. Sister Shiva-- harm him. Humiliate him. Fill him with woe and lamentation." Lady Shiva strolled up to the Question, under a dim street light, snow blowing through the air, and asked his preferred style of combat. The Question requested that she stay out of the business again as she'd done before, because he didn't want to her her. "Don't you?"

Shiva seized the Question's arm and doubled him over, then twisted it in back around and flipped him over her. Shiva repeatedly struck the Question about the face and neck with her elbow and fist. Shiva swept his legs from under him, slamming him hard enough to the ground so that he did not stir. The Question never managed to raise the slightest offense or defense. Reverend Hatch decided that Lady Shiva should not kill him herself. "He has darkened the days of our brethren with shame. It is fitting that they admonish him." They did so with brutality and a lead pipe, all of which Shiva found "Barbaric." She wondered if it amused the reverend, and he confirmed this. Once No-Face was sufficiently broken, Baby Gun shot him in the head. The body was cast off the pier, and after ten minutes in the freezing depths, the Question's mask drifted off the shell that had been Charles Victor Szasz

"The Bad News" was by Dennis O'Neil, Denys Cowan and Rick Magyar. "The Answer..." was the name of the letter column presided over by editor Mike Gold, who used it in this instance to give a brief history of Steve Ditko's original Charlton creation. Gold also offered some behind the scenes information. While an entirely different source and text, Don Markstein covered a lot of the same ground with his Question Toonopedia Entry.

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