Review: The Judas Coin graphic novel (DC Comics)

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

The Judas Coin by Walter Simonson (DC Comics)[Review by Doug Glassman, who Tumblrs at Hell Yeah '80s Marvel!]

A few years ago, DC published a book called Solo, allowing artists a chance to create stories in their style as they saw fit. Despite decent sales, great critical reception, and three Eisners for three individual issues [plus a forthcoming collection -- ed.], the title folded in 2006. Various artists had already begun working on ideas for issues; one of them was Walt Simonson. Last year, Simonson reworked some of his Solo ideas into a graphic novel, The Judas Coin, which was one of Collected Editions’ recommendations for holiday shopping. Even though The Judas Coin is broken up into six individual stories and a brief prologue, it doesn’t feel like a watered-down miniseries in the way JLA/JSA: Virtue and Vice does.

As the prologue reveals, the titular coin is one of the pieces of silver paid to Judas in exchange for betraying Jesus to the Romans. However, the book doesn’t dwell on theology; Jesus is simply called a betrayed friend, and the curse seems to derive more from the betrayal than any Christian doctrine. The coin’s cursed nature is immediately apparent: after Judas flings his blood money in the faces of his benefactors, a beggar finds the coins, only to be immediately trampled by a Roman soldier. Throughout The Judas Coin, simply being in the coin’s proximity is enough for bad luck to happen, although it gets progressively worse if you invoke the coin as a lucky totem.

Each section is prefaced with a brief text piece about the actual history of the time period to set up the situation with a minimum of exposition. The one exception is Part 5, starring Batman and Two-Face, where the text blurb is just reads “Gotham is an awful, awful place.” Instead, hints of backstory are given through newspaper articles printed behind the panels. The entire story is printed so that you have to tilt the comic on its side, turning it into a newspaper broadsheet complete with a “Gotham Gazette” header on the first page. Normally I complain about this technique; a particularly annoying example was in Iron Man/War Machine: Hands of the Mandarin, in which one single random Force Works splash page was printed vertically. But in The Judas Coin, the entire story is done this way, and it actually enhances the story. Two-Face is actually the only person to really figure out the curse, a refreshing take on the character.

Batman and Two-Face are the most famous characters to feature in the graphic novel; the rest are obscure stars of features in books like The Brave and The Bold, the home of Golden Gladiator and Viking Prince. The Golden Gladiator story finds the character near the end of his life in the service of Vespasian, who rose to power during the bloody “Year of the Four Emperors.” In fact, Vespasian co-stars in the story, a detail I thought was odd until I found out that he was a soldier as well. By setting the story in Germania, Simonson allows the coin to migrate from Judea to Europe in a realistic manner. This sets the stage for the Viking Prince chapter, which, as you might expect, has a few The Mighty Thor nods, including a picture of Hela with a half-rotted face and elaborate Kirby-esque Viking helmets.

The next three chapters were two of the furthest along in the creation of Simonson’s Solo issue, and are thus the most solid. The Captain Fear tale takes advantage of the traditional greed of pirates and uses it to accentuate the treachery of Fear’s crew in a mutiny. His resulting plan ends up destroying his ship, and the mutineer leader experiences the book’s most karmic death. Next, the tone shifts to comedy with a poker game between Bat Lash and some hooligans where everyone is on an even keel due to cheating. Like Captain Fear, Bat Lash has an intricate way to get out of his bad situation, even if it involves beating the crap out of himself. It’s a necessary tonal shift after three fairly dark stories in a row. The aforementioned Batman and Two-Face story was, according to Simonson, a Solo concept which would have taken up the entire issue, so it’s satisfying that it found a home here.

Simonson’s last story takes us into space with Manhunter 2070, a character I didn’t even know existed until I read The Judas Coin. I thought Starker was just an extrapolation of Archie Goodwin and Simonson’s famous Manhunter stories, but no, he was created back in the 1970s. The coin appears to be destroyed in this final chapter, although the final captions indicate that the curse can even withstand the force of a star. There could easily be a sequel if Simonson ever wants to do it; personally, I’d love to see Booster Gold in a story about greed and cursed coins.

Along with letterer John Workman and his brilliant sound effects, Simonson’s other collaborator is Lovern Kindzierski, a prolific colorist and the creator of Lobo parody Lunatik. Occasionally, the coloring seems a little rough, but that might be the interaction between Kindzierski’s colors and Simonson’s often heavy inks. One excellent technique is that each chapter is colored in a different manner. While the Golden Gladiator chapter is “normal,” the Viking Prince chapter has a more pastel palette in the manner of The Mighty Thor. The Captain Fear chapter has heavier white panel borders and distinctly thicker lines. The Bat Lash chapter has almost a sepia tone to it. Most dramatically, the Batman story is in black and white, while the Manhunter 2070 chapter has bright colors and swifter lines to evoke a manga style.

If you went into The Judas Coin not knowing that it was all by one writer and penciller, you might think it was an anthology from various creators. Not only does the art go through various styles, but the stories vary in tone as well. It’s a well-balanced graphic novel worthwhile for both the story and the artwork.

[Includes Walt Simonson sketchbook]
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  1. This GN is just pure awesomeness.

    It is a shame DC is not collecting Simonson's Orion.

    1. I KNOW. Maybe Orion's appearances in "Superman" will push them to collect it soon? Until then, I'm hitting the back-issue bins.

    2. another vote for Orion collections! - steve