Writer: Adam Beechen
Artist: Carlo Barberi (p), Walden Wong (i)
Publisher: DC Comics
While one 1960s Steve Ditko-created Charlton super-hero gets spotlighted in Countdown to Infinite Crisis, another gets spotlighted in Justice League Unlimited #8.
Think of Justice League Unlimited as DC Comics’ 21st century Showcase in which every issue features a 2nd or 3rd tier DC superhero (or several of them) in a self-contained story. Because it’s a “Johnny DC” book, each issue usually culminates in an aphorism for the kiddies to digest (i. e. “trust your friends,” “be true to yourself”), but don’t be fooled: JLU presents genuine “all-ages” entertainment to be enjoyed by anyone.
In this issue, a concise mystery gets played out with The Question trying to determine who planted a bomb in one of the ventilation shafts of the Justice League Watchtower satellite. Although I am by no means expertly familiar with how The Question has been portrayed since DC acquired the Charlton super-heroes in the mid-1980s, I see him as “Batman-Lite”: he’s a remarkable detective without super-powers who relies on his tenacity and analytical mind to get the job done, but he doesn’t get to play with the technological gadgets that Batman uses nor does he have as compelling a supporting cast. To distinguish The Question from Batman, various writers in the past amplified The Question’s paranoia, political conservatism (I’m thinking specifically of Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Strikes Again in which The Question is a right-wing conspiracy-obsessed kook) and isolation from the rest of DC Universe. (Hmmn. Considering how paranoid The Batman has been portrayed lately, maybe that aspect of the two characters is NOT distinguishable.)
Regardless, Justice League Unlimited mutes The Question’s most extreme characteristics. As such, the issue brings The Question back a bit too close to his Batman-impersonator role, almost to the point where you wonder if the story could succeed just as well with Batman as the protagonist rather than The Question.
That’s my ONLY complaint about the issue. Otherwise, it’s yet another engrossing issue of JLU which proves monthly that good stories CAN be told in only 20 pages, not unnecessarily ballooned to six issues. Carlos Barberi provides his usual stellar work. Yes, his style perfectly emulates the Justice League Unlimited cartoon, but it is a consistent, admirable comic book style in its own right as well. Flat out, Barberi knows how to tell a story with lines that are thick and clean. I’m glad to see he was given the opportunity to provide the issue’s cover which vividly encapsulates the Question’s dilemma within the issue.
Damn, but the Question’s mask is freaky.
I don’t normally read JLU. But I’m a fan of The Question, and I’m loving the Question mini-series by Veitch and Edwards. So I was curious to see the kid-friendly version of the character that inspired Watchmen’s Roscharch.
Beecher writes The Question as cold, logical, paranoid, and smart. In short, perfectly.
During a meeting on a JLA Watchtower satellite, The Question makes his usual tour of the ventilation systems. (Like I said-paranoid.) He finds a bomb armed with a nerve gas fatal to all life forms. Since no one but League members can gain access to the satellite, he deduces the culprit is either a shape-shifter posing as a Leaguer; can turn invisible; or is controlling the mind of a Leaguer. In any case, he can’t trust anybody. Again, paranoid, but his suspicions are right: Someone in the League is working to kill them.
The entire comic is narrated by the Question. This emphasizes the character’s isolated nature. Since every caption box is the Question’s thoughts, I don’t think it was necessary to include his tiny head on every box. Then again, this book is aimed for a younger audience. Subtlety is often lost on children.
The question’s character is revealed through little things he says and does. His files are kept in a lead-lined cabinet, locked with an 18-digit code, and wired to a napalm bomb. There’s a section labeled “Allies,” with quotes. He joined because, “they’d be suspicious of me if they didn’t.” He even holds his own in a fight against the Martian Manhunter by keeping cool and exploiting J’onn J’onzz weaknesses. The Question’s hunt for answers naturally lead to him busting a few heads. A scene where he enters a seedy bar and everyone backs away is both a reference to Watchmen and a testament to The Question’s rep. It all adds up to someone who is smart, anti-social, logical, violent, and absolute.
I also want to point out how Beechen makes Arkham feel like a home for dangerous madmen in an almost G-rated way. The sight of the Mad Hatter chained to a wall with 6 IV’s of drugs pumping through him, while a fellow inmate asks for, “a beautiful story about saws and razors” sufficiently conveys the feeling that Arkham is hell. A hero with a blank face only heightens the creepy feeling.
The art is easy to read and follow. It looks like the animated style, but Barberi and Wong wouldn’t have gotten the job if it didn’t. The Question’s blank face is disconcerting, as it was meant to be. And since he never takes it off, readers unfamiliar with the character might think he always looks that way. Freaky. The cover is also a great example of “less is more.” A lone figure against a washed-out background of hero’s without faces really stands out.
So Justice League Unlimited is a great “done-in-one” story. It’s a mystery with a twist I didn’t see coming. And best of all, it’s a dead-on portrayal of The Question.
I don't normally read DC books. I’m only vaguely familiar with the Question, and that’s mainly through Watchmen’s Rorshach. I don’t watch Justice League because we don’t have cable (although I catch it now and then at the in-laws’ place, and I loved the Superman/Martian Bloke Christmas episode). So why pick this up at all?
Well, here at SBC we have a TOP SECRET message board for reviewers where we all gather to decide which Bendis books we’ll be reviewing this week, and a couple of my colleagues were talking about this comic in glowing terms, so I thought I’d have a look.
I doubt I’ll pick up another copy of Justice League Unlimited, but this issue was a good fun read. The biggest irony of course is that the writers of the “proper” DC (and Marvel) books could learn a lot from this. Good characterisation and plotting in a self-contained package, and what’s more, it all makes sense. One advantage of writing for younger readers is that you don’t try to do twisty-turny plots that end up spinning out into nothingness, which I’ve seen again and again in the “grown up” books. This has to be accessible for the youngsters, so it’s hardly complex, although I do have to admit that I didn’t see the twist coming; I expected it all to be some sort of test masterminded by Batman as a rite of passage, or something like that. The other advantage of the simpler plot is that more time can be spent on characterisation. No Countdown To Bad Grammar style writing here, with characters acting bizarrely just because the plot demands it. I don’t know these guys well, but this seems like how Luthor and the Question and the Martian Bloke would all act.
The art is of the usual DC Animated style, and it’s clear without being simplistic. Again, some of the artists working on the top books could do worse than emulate the storytelling techniques here. It’s also pleasantly surprising to see how good the “Timm style” still looks, even after all these years.
So thanks to Michael Deeley and Reviews Overlord Keith Dallas for suggesting this one. I had more fun than I thought I would, and as a comic lover, it’s just great to read a simple yet solid comic story once in a while. No flashy tricks, just good art and good writing, with no sensationalism and no hype. Can’t say fairer than that.
Simply put. Justice League Unlimited features the best Question story ever written. It’s also a good mystery to boot, and will keep readers of any age guessing and guessing.
Barbieri, Wong and McCaig make the Question a pure figure of art deco style. His fedora, overcoat, three-piece suit and tie seem to be carved rather than worn. Despite the allusions to the past’s haute coutre, his animated counterpart still somehow fits in with this futuristic Justice League Unlimited universe. Maybe because that world still echoes back to the Timm Dark Deco of Batman: The Animated Series.
The eerie blank face look hides well the Question’s emotions, and the mask serves as double duty to enhance the mystery. Little quirks to the Question better portray him as a seeker of truth. His quarters, for instance, allude to Fox Mulder from The X-Files, and his file cabinet could have come from any old school reporter’s office. His violence reflects the methods used by Mike Hammer and others in the hardboiled profession. Most of the time though, the Question does not have to do anything to creep out the reader or his foes. All he need do is stand still with his hands in his pockets or calmly walk across a room. All he has to do is let the opposition see that he has no emotions and no face to express them.
Phil Balsman exceeds the definition of mere typist. He makes the narration of the Question look unique. His color-coded blocks of dialogue accompanied by little Question no-faces create a sense of paranoia that the character displays throughout the story. The only one the Question can trust is he.
Adam Beechen brilliantly makes use of the Question’s natural instinct to distrust; yet he does not over do the Question’s core. While the Question clearly deduces the unthinkable, Beechen does not steer that deduction toward cynicism. The mystery in the book offers a complex puzzle for the readers and the Question to unravel, and the positive message resulting from the solution does not come off as preaching but as a release that grows from the story itself.
This issue of Justice League Unlimited is as good as the first two episodes of the series, which I have finally seen this evening. It exemplifies how comics can compete with the quality in the best genre novels. It exemplifies that the basics of writing need not be thrown out the window just because the writing focuses on a different medium. It exemplifies that comic books, especially all-ages comic books, need not dumb down a story. Adam Beechen in fact does not question your intelligence.
What did you think of this book?
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