Question: When is a character not a character?
Answer: When that character was created by Steve Ditko.
It is standard and accepted practice for characters to be tweaked and altered every time they are relaunched or resurrected. There’s usually a new hook, some new twist or idea added to the original genesis in order to give the character a new lease on life.
But at the same time, the crucial defining elements of the character have to be retained. Ultimately, it’s a fine line to draw. There have been some extraordinarily wild reinterpretations of characters over the years, but respectful creators have always managed to keep healthy connections to the characters’ original incarnations. As much as Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing was a different book than Len Wein and Bernie Wrightson's, it was still essentially a book about a macabre half-human swamp monster finding his way in the world. Grant Morrison’s Animal Man was a long way from Dave Wood and Carmine Infantino’s conception of the character, but Animal Man was still recognizable as a super-hero with animal powers. Neil Gaiman’s Sandman was an entirely different Sandman than any of the previous incarnations. Although there were connections between the previous characters and the new version, Gaiman took great care not to undo any of the work that had preceded him (although you can certainly make an argument that he wasn’t kind to Kirby’s Sandman).
Imagine, for a moment, if Marvel decided to launch a new Silver Surfer book where the “hook” was that the Surfer was now an aggressive, militaristic social conservative? Wouldn’t the fans scream bloody murder about the character’s essential traits being altered beyond recognition? Regardless of your political creed, everyone knows and respects that the Silver Surfer is the prototypical bleeding-heart liberal.
Imagine, for a moment, if DC decided to launch a new version of Dr. Fate, wherein Dr. Fate was replaced with a knife-wielding maniac in a trench coat. Wouldn’t the fans bristle at such an obvious and unflattering deviation from the core concept? (This one actually happened, and the fans did reject it, as the book only lasted 22 issues.)
Imagine, then, if DC decided to field a relaunch of The Question. Imagine, just for a moment, that the character’s trademark hard-right moral creed was replaced by an interpretation that made the character seem semi-psychotic and far-left liberal. Then imagine that such an insulting revamp was actually embraced by fandom at large.
I want to make one thing clear: I am not an Objectivist. I am not even slightly conservative in any way shape or form. I am about as liberal as you can get. But part of being a liberal, to my understanding, is respecting all rational creeds, regardless of whether or not you disagree with them. I disagree as vehemently with many of the tenets of Objectivist thought as it is possible. But I would never dream of whitewashing history so that the theories or the literature didn’t exist. Part of a productive civil society is the creation of a healthy and reciprocal dialogue on these matters of such grave importance.
One of Steve Ditko’s greatest contributions to the field of comics – if not his single greatest contribution – is the strident and consistent marriage of art and polemic. You can’t separate a Ditko creation from their moral underpinnings without changing the characters beyond recognition. To do so, as DC has consistently done with the character of The Question for almost twenty years (including another well-regarded run with the character by Denny O'Neil) , is an artistic insult of the most egregious caliber.
I would argue that the moral absolutism that defines the Question’s world is as vital to Ditko’s original conception of the character as the mythological trappings behind Thor. Take away Asgard and Odin and all that, and Thor’s just another strong man with a hammer. Take away the Objectivist philosophy, and the Question is just another mentally-ill costumed vigilante.
The writer of the revamped Question series, Rick Veitch, was quoted in an interview at Comic Book Resources as saying:
"We all agreed back in the very beginning that the Question needed some tinkering with to help him stand out a little more on his own while being true to his roots. He needed to be even crazier than Rorschach, but in a different and more creative way. I envisioned a Question who's spent so many years prowling the mean streets of Chicago in his lonely vigil that he's begun to see Chicago as a living entity. He talks to it and it communicates to him through his intuition. Like a native shaman who converses with nature spirits through the rivers and the mountains, the Question is in a dialogue with his city. He thinks that he walks in two worlds, the world of concrete objects that you and I perceive, and a hidden shadowy spirit world that only he a few others enter. He uses this knowledge to find criminals and bang heads in the name of truth and justice. But we never quite know if he's off his rocker or not."
The most fundamental tenet of Objectivism is the belief that reality exists independent of individual perception. There are hard-and-fast realities that govern the way we live and interact. There are no layers of perception in Objectivist theory: there is Right and there is Wrong, Black and White. The ambiguity that the existence of multiple, mutually exclusive perceptions allow for is anathematic to the very bedrock of Objectivism, and goes against the very heart of Ditko’s conception of the character.
Rorschach is one of the most memorable and fascinating characters in mainstream comics history, and his relationship to The Question is definitely an important facet of his genesis. But he was also a distinctive character in that he represented Alan Moore’s very pointed criticism of the right-wing vigilante archetype. Rorschach is definitely a more popular character than The Question, but that doesn’t mean The Question has to change.
I suspect the problem lies in the fact that the vocal majority of comics fans and creators have traditionally been liberal. Perhaps there has been little resistance to the liberalization of The Question because many comics book fans and creators are alienated and repulsed by Ditko’s hard-line conservatism. Well, I’m alienated by these ideas too, but that doesn’t mean that they aren’t valid or deserve to be swept under the rug. If you have enough respect for Ditko to keep his character and his visuals in circulation, you should have enough respect to keep him at least slightly true to his origins.
The recent Spider-Man movies have presented a subtler - but no less insidious – transformation of their title character’s motivations and worldview. It’s common knowledge that the controversy over the Green Goblin’s secret identity was a large part of the rift that eventually tore Ditko and Stan Lee apart. The fact that the Goblin mythos, with the Osbourn clan and all their machinations, is regarded as the central axis of the Spider-verse is proof that Ditko’s conceptual contributions have been almost entirely forgotten. The second movie makes the greater sin of introducing Doctor Octopus – perhaps Ditko’s greatest villain – as a sympathetic and, ultimately, misunderstood character. Ditko’s villains are never misunderstood – they are evil, they are amoral and they are insidious, but they are very plainly wrong on a deep moral level. The one-dimensional nature of so many of the early Spider-villains is part of what makes the early Spider-Man stories so damned appealing. Peter Parker is a lone hero being set upon by an amoral world. He does what is right because it is right (“A=A”), not because he is rewarded or idolized for his activities. By the same token, his villains are gleefully macabre forces of nature, dedicated solely to their own avarice and egotism. Stan Lee was exploring shades of moral ambiguity wit hJack Kirby over in Fantastic Four, but Spider-Man was as much Ditko's baby as Lee's. By making Doctor Octopus not only a misunderstood and temporarily insane sympathetic figure, but a friend of Peter Parker, the movie successfully amputates every compelling trace of Ditko’s contribution, except for the colorful costume.
Steve Ditko’s address is supposedly listed in the phone book. If the creators of the new Question series, the creative team behind the Justice League Unlimited cartoon and the producers of the recent Spider-Man movies wanted to kick an old man in the nuts, they probably could have saved a lot of trouble and just done it the old fashioned way.