“The Question” of Revision; Or the Difficult Case of Renee Montoya

Editor’s Note: Today we are honored to publish Dr. Vincent Haddad’s third post on The Middle Spaces examining both an issue of the brilliant new The Other History of the DC Universe series and O’Neil and Cowan’s classic 1980s run on The Question, considering both the limits and promise of revision.

No character has a more thought-provoking history of revision than the Question, a fact that has made the character both representative of the politics and processes of comics writing as well as adept at speaking to the cultural moments it appears alongside. In February 1987, Dennis O’Neil with artist Denys Cowan (re)introduced the Question (a character created by Steve Ditko and formerly published by Charlton Comics) to DC Comics readers by creatively and dramatically “killing” Vic Sage in The Question #1, when he is shot, beaten, and tossed into an icy river. In issue #2, Vic startles awake and learns that he was narrowly saved by the mysterious Lady Shiva and a rare bodily reaction to cold water known as the “diving reflex” that helped him survive her ten-minute underwater search—thus setting up the transformation of the character from Ditko’s Randian philosopher to O’Neil’s Zen meditator and making the act of revision in comics-writing a pronounced feature of the character for decades to come. During the 2006 series 52, Vic Sage mentored his replacement Renee Montoya, a Gotham PD officer introduced in Batman: The Animated Series (1992-1995), elevated in stature in Ed Brubaker and Greg Rucka’s Gotham Central comic series (2002-2006), and finally portrayed on the big screen by Rosie Perez in Birds of Prey (2020). Queer, Catholic, Latinx, cop, vigilante, self-sabotaging drunkard, and self-sacrificing philosopher, Renee’s history as a character is a mess of contradictions. In issue #4 of The Other History of the DC Universe (2020-2021), John Ridley offers readers the most sensitive and incisive interior account of Renee to date. Ridley’s masterful series of revisions re-mediates the history of DC Comics through the perspectives of six minoritized and under-developed characters, Jefferson and Anissa Pierce (Black Lightning and Thunder), Mal Duncan and Karen Beecher-Duncan (one-time Guardian and Bumblebee), Tatsu Yamashiro (Katana), and Renee Montoya. Whereas O’Neil’s revision of Ditko’s character presaged how many contemporary overtures to liberal or even radical politics obscure and enshrine the most conservative impulses of the superhero genre, Ridley’s revision is different. He positions Renee to reconcile the contradictions of multiple writers and histories into her own single story and, by doing so, paradoxically creates the first opportunity for the character to break from the past and feature in new and more nuanced stories.

Steve Ditko created the Question in 1967 as an avatar for Ayn Rand’s Objectivist philosophy, with emphases on the hero’s “right to kill” and individualistic triumph over the mob. As Zach Kruse explains in his excellent monograph Mysterious Travelers (2021), Ditko developed the Question as a vehicle for expounding philosophical thought experiments such that he “is not to be read as a character; he is a fully formed idea—a state of mind—that other characters, and the reader, respond to” (146). Kruse observes that the red-haired Vic Sage visually evokes Howard Roark from Rand’s The Fountainhead (1943), clear-eyed and assured in his response to thematic conflicts, as in his right to exercise retaliatory force “against anyone who initiates force against anyone else” (163). Denny O’Neil, in his words, transformed the character “180 degrees” because “[he] couldn’t do Steve’s Question, by [his] own morality [he] would be crossing a line.” O’Neil was a fierce pacifist, and how a vigilante-hero doles out violence was at the heart of this revision. In issue #2, Batman preaches to Vic about the sanctity of all life, and re-orients Vic, contra Ditko, towards an altruistic giving of one’s entire self to heroism. Then, with some Orientalist intervention from Lady Shiva and Richard Dragon, Vic’s new “way of the warrior” is clearly shown as an act of self-defense, redirecting the power of a goon’s punch against them. As a result, the first four issues repeatedly sees Vic questioning and denying his “right to kill” the villain who ordered Vic’s death in issue #1.

Even considering these stark differences, the symbolic death and resurrection of Vic Sage obscures how Vic’s meditative practices are not so dissimilar from Ditko’s “mystic liberalism,” wherein, as Kruse again argues, “survival and progress mean adaptation and coping with hardship, and those changes can only be made, and success achieved, by turning inward” (Kruse 65). O’Neil’s emphasis on inner peace, calm, and balance may be an improvement on Rand or Ditko’s emphasis on reforming the self into a rational and generative engine for capital, but while O’Neil’s Question’s turning inward may differ from Ditko’s in that it favors a faith in, as he says in The Question #4 (May 1987), “[trusting] the moment to provide” over a fetishized rationality, the underlying reliance on the individual’s instinctual, guiding sense of right and wrong remains intact.

Centering the revision on Vic’s internal growth, personal (mis)behaviors, and hero traits results in many stories that, while socially relevant, are anti-sociality. In other words, while several stories mention the structural forces affecting Hub City, including corruption, crime, bigotry, and sexual predation, Vic is too entrenched in a cycle of philosophical stasis—re-hashing the same philosophical arguments about vigilantism with his sidekick and mentor Tot every few issues—to focus much on any of those forces or the people affected. For one quick example, in The Question #15 (April 1988), “Epitaph for a Hero,” Vic investigates a series of lynchings of Black men in Hub City. Yet, Tot accurately points out that it is not any moral or ethical commitment to racial justice that motivates Vic, but his characteristic of curiosity: “And you won’t be able to rest—you won’t even be able to eat—until you learn what [the mystery] is. Yours is a unique curse, my friend. I don’t envy you” (15). The way that Vic’s personal intrigue serves as his driving motivation predicts how race and racism ultimately serve the plot. The broader issues of racism become distilled into Vic’s competition with an out-of-town, bigoted private investigator whose incessant racist jokes push Vic to his boiling point.

Panels from The Question #15. Vic shows emotion when a bigot’s heroic act challenges his own moral compass.

The issue ends with a rare Vic Sage tear, but this emotion is not elicited by an empathic relation to the victims of racial terror. Rather, Vic is emotional because his Manichean philosophy has been challenged when the private investigator ends up sacrificing himself to save Vic’s life. Angered and devastated that this bigot approached narrative redemption, Vic weeps, “Maybe there is not one damn villain in the world”—though one wonders if examining a context beyond his personal experience of the bigot and instead speaking to families on whose behalf he is solving his lynching “mysteries” would elicit a different philosophical conclusion about villainy (27).

From his collaboration with Neal Adams on Green Lantern/Green Arrow in the mid-1970s, Denny O’Neil was known as a talented writer of highly entertaining and tightly organized three-act plots,  colloquial dialogue, and rounded characterization but was made famous as a writer who deftly linked superheroes with issues of social relevance. Heightened by Denys Cowan’s stunning pencils and layouts, The Question is the most unrestrained, adult-oriented version of O’Neil’s socially-relevant hero. Like the issue on lynching, readers encounter similar explorations of socially relevant topics like sexual violence, public housing, drug addiction, blight, community policing, and even police abolition across his iconic 36-issue run on the character. Yet it is perhaps surprising how conservative the resolutions of these provocative topics are when mediated through the internal quest for meaning and Zen philosophy of a comfortably liberalized and struggling-to-stay-enlightened protagonist. This model of revision, wherein a dramatic, left-leaning revision inadvertently enshrines the conservative impulses of the genre, is arguably as much a legacy of O’Neil’s The Question as its brilliantly entertaining stories and gorgeous artwork. Challenging this model of revision, so prevalent now that it seems natural to mainstream superhero comics, is Ridley’s task in The Other History of the DC Universe, and he succeeds completely.

Renee Montoya had a much fuller history as a character for Ridley to compile, shape, and revise than O’Neil did with Vic Sage, of whom Ditko had only written a handful of issues at Charlton Comics. Ridley’s material predominantly draws on Renee’s appearances and featured stories in Batman: No Man’s Land (1999), Gotham Central (2002-06), 52 (2006-07), Batwoman: Elegy (2009-10), and Batwoman (2010-15), where her character had been developed and shaped by a who’s who of the mostly white, mostly male writers who dominated DC Comics: Paul Dini, Marguerite Bennett, Geoff Johns, Grant Morrison, Mark Waid, Ed Brubaker, and especially Greg Rucka. In these stories, which Ridley re-mixes into a coherent arc, Renee grows up in a working-class, Catholic family and must hide her queer identity. She becomes a police officer in the GCPD in part because of her sense of justice but more because of the limited career opportunities afforded someone with her background. Renee remains in the closet while with her first girlfriend Daria, but this relationship is threatened when she wades into the more spectacular conflict between Two-Face and Batman. Renee expresses sympathy for Two-Face’s approach to fix Gotham, and she is repaid with Two-Face obsessively stalking her, outing her, and framing her for murder. Compounding the shame of her fellow male officers’ snide jokes and ostracization is that her new captain Maggie Sawyer is openly gay, a fact made easier by her confidence, her whiteness, and Commissioner Gordon’s new anti-discrimination directives. In her depression, Renee self-sabotages her relationship with Daria by abusing alcohol and cheating on her several times, including a doomed relationship with Kate Kane, Batwoman. Ultimately, Vic Sage, dying from lung cancer, mentors Renee in Zen philosophy, self-discovery, and becoming, and passes the mantle of the Question on to her, where Renee finds her a new sense of liberation behind the blank Pseudoderm mask.

52 #48 (June 2007). cover by J.G. Jones and Alex Sinclair

These disparate Renee Montoya stories pushed the envelope at the time of their publication. Yet, what Ridley immediately recognizes about these envelope-pushing stories, and any reader of Ridley’s issue will immediately recognize, is how Renee was an object in these narratives and not the subject. In The Other History of the DC Universe, the pages feature striking mural-like splash pages and creative layouts by Giuseppe Camuncoli with Ridley’s narrative strategically and aesthetically overlaid on the images in mostly full paragraphs. The novelistic delivery of Renee’s interiority, accented by familiar iconography and scenes from DC comics history, transform what is essentially piecemeal summation one could read on Renee’s fan wiki-page into a fully formed character giving a retrospective account of her life experiences in and around Gotham. Yes, impinging many of those experiences are the clichés, tropes, and limitations of the superhero genre. These clichés include: that trauma is necessary to build strong female characters; that her Latinx, Catholic and professional identities force her into the closet; and that, as Esther De Dauw argues, her closeted and racial identity prevent her from performing the homonormativity necessary to feature in a successful or happy queer relationship in a superhero comic (112-113). However, in Ridley’s version, Renee interrogates these tropes and shares sharp insights on the historical, economic, and political factors that shape and affect her hero’s journey and the broader communities of Gotham.

How Renee understands her profession as a police officer as it relates to justice and heroism is a productive counterpoint to Ditko and O’Neil’s Vic Sage. A common occurrence across O’Neil’s run is that the Question allows Vic to investigate cases in ways his role as a journalist cannot, but his role as a journalist offers a better way to impact a broader collective good than his role as the Question. Yet, in instances where the social forces appear to become too unwieldy for Vic’s philosophizing or punching, O’Neil, who worked as a journalist prior to writing comics, substitutes one fantasy of the hero vigilante for another fantasy about the transformative power of journalism. For example, when in The Question  #5 (June 1987) the city is consumed by social unrest, he resolves that he cannot “muscle [the city] into shape” as the Question, but rather needs “to tell the truth” as a journalist (25-26).

While the constraints of genre force Vic immediately back into Kung Fu action in the following issue, there are other reasons to be suspicious of this cathartic notion that he can best enact social change by simply applying himself to his journalism. In issue #5, when Tot and Vic drive through the looters and rioters downtown, Vic declines to get out, “I’d be outnumbered a hundred to one. I wouldn’t last ten seconds. Drive on…we’ll find something I can handle” (9). Given the structural corruption and abuses that the prior issues had outlined in Hub City, an organized, collective action if not an expression of outrage seems a predictable response. What is particularly shocking is how incurious Vic is about the motivations or demands of the people of Hub City. Instead, the racialized bad actors, “particularly downtown,” are represented as without rationale outside of being opportunistic, greedy criminals acting out in a vacuum of law-and-order who endanger multiple white women throughout the issue. These underlying assumptions are never questioned as he embraces his journalistic role as a truth-teller—counting himself among other apparently truthful professions like scientists, philosophers, and beat cops. In this sense, Vic’s heroic belief in journalism does not substantively stray far from Ditko’s, wherein the journalist not only symbolized the individual’s investigation for truth and meaning but also, as in his first solo title, Mysterious Suspense #1 (October 1968), a bully pulpit for the conservative firebrand to blame his audience and their mental weakness for the social ills and corruption that now plague them.

In Ridley’s telling, Renee has no such delusion about her role as a police officer and the pursuit of social good. In her view, “Funded by the white collars, staffed by the blue collars, the cops of the GCPD…maintained the status quo. Protect the rich, punish the bad, and make sure the workers don’t get so drunk and disorderly on Saturday night they can’t show up back in the mines on Monday morning” (5). Renee pairs this social and political understanding of policing with her reflection on its impact on her character development. As she explains,

The first thing you figure out is that when you’re in a uniform it doesn’t matter who you are or where you come from. If you’re going to be a cop you better learn to think like a straight white man because to the prevailing culture there really isn’t any other kind of cop. Not Black. Not Latinx. Certainly not queer…

You had to learn to accept their straight white man biases and not wince at their matter-of-fact comments about ‘those people.’ In that regard I was a quick study. I’d already spent a grip of years faking like I was something I wasn’t. And once I understood getting ahead as a cop meant burying my identity even more deeply, then, brother, you better believe I got to digging. I owed it to [my brother] and my parents, and I guess I figured I owed it to Jesus to be honorable, and to do some good with myself.

More good, anyway, than just being closeted…

They gave me the highest compliment a straight white guy can lay on someone who is an ‘other.’ ‘Renee,’ they said to me, ‘you’re one of the good ones.’ (7)

Renee’s articulation of the related racial, class-based, and patriarchal forms of power that both guide her profession and create the conditions of her misery and isolation is astounding in its clarity. This layered understanding also gives Renee a unique perspective on the superhero genre, her role in it, and what it can, if anything, offer her. In a tidy reversal from Batman helping along Vic Sage’s revision into an altruistic hero, Renee sees her sharp rebuke of the social function of policing as applying even more so to “the Bat” and his unregulated, authoritarian brand of justice. Renee’s self-awareness of the positionality of both policing and vigilantism allows her to create something new from her role as the Question. As Renee explains,

In my life I’ve had many identities. None was more true to my nature than the Question. The mask’s lack of features and the suit and tie that amounted to a costume added an element of queerness to my character. It went against the notion that everything must fit a label that already exists. To the contrary of that, there is something lovely about placing yourself beyond definition… (44)

Inasmuch as being the Question transforms Renee’s self-understanding, her identity, experiences, and views all transform the characteristics ascribed to being the Question: being curious, being featureless, wearing a suit and tie, etc. The costume is not queer until Renee puts it on. While the featureless mask allows the celebrity Vic to sneak into places unnoticed and skirt legalities, the mask allows Renee to move from the private into the public sphere “beyond definition.”

Final page from The Other History of the DC Universe #4. [click to enlarge]

Moreover, Ridley does the work of showing the reader how Renee’s understanding of herself and the structures of Gotham suggest the possibility of a different kind of hero. Renee’s first questions as the Question are about who she is in relation to others: “What’s the nature of forgiveness? What is the disposition of mercy?” (45). Unlike Vic’s personalized, existential questions about who he truly is, Renee’s questions entail how she will treat and love herself as well as how she thinks about criminality more broadly. In responding to these questions, she goes to speak to and forgive Two-Face, the villain who stalked her and outed her sexuality to the Gotham PD. Renee’s philosophical conclusions about evil and criminality read differently than Vic’s musing about the bigot who saved his life, “Maybe there is not one villain in the world.” In a closing page that I will share in full because it is so good, Renee says, “And if anyone ever chooses to write about me, I hope they’ll say I learned from my mistakes, I stood up for what I believed in, and I cared about people for whom the rest of society could otherwise find no sympathy” (46). Given all that she has said and experienced in the stories compiled in The Other History of the DC Universe #4, the reader understands that “the rest of society [who] could otherwise find no sympathy” centers those crushed by the same racial, class-based, and patriarchal forms of power that crushed her and extends to those who might otherwise only be defined as villains.

Renee asserts this philosophy within a metafictional and reflexive reference to Ridley’s own act of writing about Renee, a character who has already been written about by several authors in several iterations. “And if anyone chooses to write about me” can be read both as a preamble to Ridley’s recommendations for future writers working with the character and as a reference to how true revision is open-ended and creates the possibility of new, better representations for the character. More than most superhero characters, when I read these lines, grounded as they are in Ridley’s re-articulation of this character’s history, I am excited by their possibility.

Published just one week after The Other History of the DC Universe #4, readers were treated to a glimpse of those possibilities for Renee in DC Pride #1 (August 2021). In the short story “Try the Girl” by writer Vita Ayala and artist Skylar Patridge, Renee goes to save Valeria Johnson, a progressive defense attorney and City Council candidate gone missing. Renee, who “can’t resist a crying woman,” finds that her damsel in distress had saved herself (21). The next day, Valeria wins her election, and Renee’s curiosity leads her to check in after the election party. The two flirt and Valeria nudges Renee to walk her home. The scene culminates in one of my absolute favorite panel sequences: Valeria’s kiss leaves a lipstick imprint on the Question’s iconic blank Pseudoderm mask, which then helps accentuate Renee’s emotional register from swoon to surprise at her identity being known. The simplicity and sweetness of this story is the perfect ellipsis to punctuate Ridley’s story, inviting future writers to continue to revise and build stories with a character that finally “[gained] agency over [herself].”

Concluding panels from “Try the Girl” in DC Pride #1.

Vincent Haddad is an assistant professor of English at Central State University. His writing on comics and culture has appeared in Los Angeles Review of BooksPublic BooksBlack PerspectivesPost45, and The Rambling. He has an article forthcoming in INKs titled “Detroit vs. Everybody (Including Superheroes): Representing Race through Setting in DC Comics.” He has contributions on race and comics in the forthcoming edited collections BOOM! #*@&! Splat: Comics and Violence and The Comics of Karen Berger: Portrait of the Editor as an Artist.

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