Apr 16, 2014

Review: The Judas Coin

It took me a while to find a copy of Walt Simonson's The Judas Coin, but when I did, and at a big discount, at that, I snapped it up.

I know Simonson's name is itself a draw among comics fans, so I'll try to gear the review towards fans who may not be so familiar with Walt, or maybe to people who are in a bookstore right now, wanting to try out a book in the graphic novel section, pulling Google up on their tablets to see what's being said about...

The Judas Coin
A Review by Duy

So, here's the concept of The Judas Coin. Some 2000 years ago, Judas Iscariot betrayed Jesus and was paid 30 pieces of silver for it. He regretted the action almost immediately, but no one wants to take it. One of the coins gets out into the world, carrying with it a terrible curse that afflicts anyone who holds it. The book comprises six short stories revolving around the coin, each taking place in a different era, featuring different characters from the DC Universe, and all approached upon differently in terms of style and artistic choices.

The stories, apart from the (actually pretty excellent) four-page sequence that details Judas' betrayal and suicide, are the following:

  • Blood Peace, 72AD: The Golden Gladiator, in his twilight years, accompanies his emperor Vespasian into the forests of Germania, where betrayal and treachery await.
  • Black Blade; Silver Heart, 1000 AD:  Jon, The Viking Prince, is captured and has to fight a giant, and it involves Vikings and swords, so, if you need anything else to sell you on that story, then our tastes must not match enough for you to consider me a reliable recommender.
  • Mutiny, 1720 AD: Captain Fear, the best and most ruthless pirate of the Seven Seas, has had his ship taken over by traitors, and he has to reclaim it!
  • Ill-Gotten Gains, 1881 AD: Out in the wild west, Bat Lash is cheating at cards. And it's pissing people off! Can Bat Lash get out of Tombstone before the whole town catches up to him?
  • Heads or Tails, the present day: In Gotham City, Two-Face finds the Judas Coin and attempts to rob it from the new big player in town, Shiv Morgana. It falls, of course, to the Batman to set things right.
  • Manhunter 2070, An Epilog—2087: In the far-off future, Manhunter encounters two space pirates from his past and a missing psychic who uncovers the truth of the Judas coin. Ostensibly, this is the coin's final tale.
Now if you're looking at that list, and you haven't been reading DC Comics for 25 years, you might be thinking "Wait, who are those guys and why should I care?" And when I tell you that the Batman story, "Heads or Tails," is in black and white (and a bit of red) and that it's drawn on the side to make it look like newspaper strips, you might feel the work to be inaccessible. And what I can definitely say about that is this: it's not. It's all very accessible. Each story stands on its own and is able to introduce characters, establish conflict, bring the action to a climax, and wrap it up satisfactorily in a very small number of pages.

Possibly, it's the shortness of the stories that will put some people off the book, or, quite possibly, it's the fact that the stories are only tangentially connected. The actual blurb on the back of the book calls it a "saga that spans centuries," and "a narrative," singular. It isn't, really; it's six short stories with a connective element. To anyone who's expecting a satisfactory wrap-up to the entire thing (and I was one), one big final scene that provides a collective punch to everything, well, it's not there, and that might be a source of disappointment. On the other hand, that's not the fault of the book so much as the way the book was marketed. We don't jump into short story collections expecting everything wrapped up neatly at the end, and you shouldn't jump into The Judas Coin expecting that either, despite what the marketing says.

Will that actually make a difference? I feel like it should, but I don't know. There's something about the experience of reading a book that will make you change your expectations along the way, if you let it.

The real risk of the book, the thing that might make it uncommercial, is its actual artistic strength. Simonson tried out a different style for each story. For the Golden Gladiator story, he was influenced by an old John Buscema comic featuring Helen of Troy, and implemented straightforward layouts to reflect the comics of that era.  In the very next story, he's got The Viking Prince in more momentum-building, fist-pumping action, with more elaborate panel borders and sound effects (with props for that going to John Workman).

It's not just the draftsmanship and the lettering; the coloring is also experimented upon, with the Bat Lash story taking on muted colors. Meanwhile, as previously mentioned, the Two-Face story is sideways and black and white.

Throughout the book though, despite whatever else he's trying to do, Simonson's art at least is still recognizably his: angular, cerebral, full of right angles and the right amount of grit. And then we get to the final story, where he just goes manga, to reflect the fact that at the time he was making this, manga was seen as the future of comics.

So The Judas Coin is an ambitious work. That ambition might be the thing that prevents it from being sold more than it does in the mass market. (I'm guessing on that score — it was the second bestselling trade paperback/hardcover in the direct market the month it came out, and... that was that. There isn't that much press on it beyond the comics sites, and Simonson does have a pretty big following, so I assume it was profitable, but I'd like it to be consumed a bit more by your traditional reader.) But it's that ambition, I think, that makes it worth reading. Simonson stepping out of his comfort zone to try new things, and with characters that have never really sold, is, from a creative stanndpoint, an admirable thing to do. There's no reason for someone like Walt Simonson to say "Hey, you know what, I think I'll do a manga-type story when I've never done that before," and it would be easy for someone like him to coast on his reputation, but no, in each and every story, there's genuine effort, thought, and care put into it.

In fact, if anything, I think Simonson wasn't ambitious enough. As I said before, until you get to the Manhunter 2070 story, each strip is still recognizably Simonson. Behind the differences in sound effects, panel borders, layouts, and design, the draftsmanship is still his, the kind he's known for. If anything, I wish he'd tried setting each story more distinctly in terms of style. Maybe that would have made the shift to manga stand out less by the end, but I also feel like the book as a whole would have been stronger.

As it is though, I'm pretty happy with what the book actually is: a collection of six short stories that involve fighting, piracy, swords, vikings, and cowboys. It's a series of pretty fistpumping short rides, if not one long fistpumping ride. And you know what? That's rare these days. Superhero comics used to excel at short stories, and they barely even do them anymore. So, just on that note, on principle, I'm glad The Judas Coin exists. And fortunately, the stories are actually pretty good.

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