Sunday, August 10, 2008

Super-Powered Prose: Helltown by Dennis O’Neil

I picked this one up a few months ago on the cheap at my local Half Price Books. Being a fan of Richard Dragon and, to a lesser degree, the Question I decided to pick it up. Even with the mixed bag of Dennis O’Neil’s recent career, I figured he couldn’t go wrong with a story that mixed them with Lady Shiva and Batman for an all out rumble.

What I got was a retelling of the Question’s origin. The problem I have with this is the problem I have always had with Denny’s Question. I know when he wrote The Question and Question Quarterly in the late 80’s and early 90’s he was much loved and critically acclaimed. People loved his take on the character, though not enough to actually buy the book in numbers enough to keep it alive.

But I am not really a fan. Having since read Steve Ditko’s original Question stories from his later day issues of Blue Beetle I can easily see why so many original Question fans were so mad. Ditko’s Question was a hard-line Randian, obsessed with the destruction of evil for good’s sake. I don’t pretend to know all the philosophy of it; I probably do not want to. But he worked as an enigmatic vigilante with a decidedly crazed, right-wing bent. Which Denny turned in to a liberal propaganda piece. Now I can’t blame Denny for espousing his own views by any means, but it does a disservice to the traditions of the character just to throw them away like that. It is wrong for the character and the general reading public.

While Helltown does not succumb to the hard political and sociological viewpoints of its forebear, it still makes Vic Sage in to a far more wishy-washy character than he should be. The Question’s only power should be his ability to tell right from wrong; to know inherently that someone must be punished for their transactions. This Question shows very little of that vibe. To make matters worse, the story spends little time at all away from Question. Batman, Richard Dragon, and Shiva seem to be here only to help drive up the value of the story itself for casual fans. They play a part only as plot points to continue the Question’s narrative onwards.

The story itself is fairly typical crime fair: kidnapped children, a crime ring pumped to take over the city, and a poor abused woman caught in it all that only our hero can save. It’s by no means bad, just not right for the Question.

Personally I think the Question has been reinvented numerous times, always with his original tradition as a sort of weird know-it-all stuck in place. Rick Veitch’s Question limited, Justice League Unlimited’s version of the character, or even Alan Moore’s Rorshach in Watchmen are all far superior looks at a great Silver Age character. Denny’s version... not so much for me.

Anyway, decent piece of superhero prose crime fiction. I give it a thumbs in the middle, but if you are a fan of Denny’s question you should rush out and buy this immediately!

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