Comic book reviews: The Judas Coin, by Walter Simonson
The new graphic novel The Judas Coin, written & drawn by Walter Simonson, published by DC Comics, is a collection of six interconnected short stories. The linking thread is a cursed Roman coin, one of the thirty pieces of silver Judas was paid to betray Jesus. Over a two thousand year period, this silver coin traverses the globe, bringing with it murder, treachery, and general ill-fortune to anyone unlucky enough to come into its possession.
Simonson selects an interesting assortment of characters to feature in his stories, many of them rather obscure: The Golden Gladiator (73 AD), The Viking Prince (1000 AD), Captain Fear (1720 AD), Bat Lash (1881 AD), Two-Face & Batman (The Present), and Manhunter 2070 (2087 AD). I had at least a passing knowledge of most of these. After all, everyone knows Batman and Two-Face! I knew of The Viking Prince and Bat Lash as having been illustrated in the past by Joe Kubert and Nick Cardy, respectively. Captain Fear, coincidentally, is a character I came across a few months ago when buying back issues of The Unknown Soldier, a couple of which featured the swashbuckling pirate as the back-up feature drawn by a young Walter Simonson himself. The only two I was totally in the dark about were the Golden Gladiator and the future Manhunter. But Simonson does a good job making each story in The Judas Coin accessible, providing enough information that one could be completely unfamiliar with all of these individuals and still enjoy the book.
With each segment, Simonson chose to experiment with his art style & storytelling. For example, on the Golden Gladiator tale, he was influenced greatly by both Prince Valiant creator Hal Foster and the Dell Comics adaptation of the film Helen of Troy drawn by John Buscema. The Two-Face & Batman tale is done in a newspaper comic strip style, black & white, with the page layout turned vertically. Here, Simonson drew inspiration from the work of Yaroslav Horak, the artist who drew the James Bond newspaper strip in the late 1960s and 70s. I actually knew of Horak’s work beforehand, as Titan Books collected the entire run of the strip in a series of trade paperbacks several years ago, and I own one of those. On the Manhunter story, we see Simonson attempting to do a Manga-esque version of his work. It is a bizarre jumble of styles, I have to say, and I would not want to see him draw like that all the time, but it makes for an interesting experiment.
The stories range from the whimsical to the truly dark. One quality of Simonson’s writing I have always appreciated is that he can tell very serious stories yet successfully imbue them with a sense of humor. That’s certainly true of The Judas Coin. I was especially struck by the tone of the Manhunter 2070 segment, which begins as a rather wacky space opera, full of rocket ships, sexy girls and space pirates, but gradually veers into darker territory, ending on a very somber, introspective note. It is an effectively moody conclusion for a blood-soaked odyssey spanning two millennia.
I’ve been looking forward to this book for some time now. Simonson was a guest at the Hawthorne NJ Comic Con in May of last year, and he brought along with him a portfolio containing photocopies of some of the pages from The Judas Coin. The artwork, which was from the Viking Prince segment, looked absolutely amazing. Apparently Simonson has been working on The Judas Coin for several years now. The effort certainly shows in his work on this book, which contains some of the best work of his career. There is some magnificent storytelling on display in Simonson’s artwork, and the varying of styles allows him to utilize a number of different techniques, demonstrating his versatility.
The lettering by John Workman is very well done. I believe Workman is Simonson’s letterer of choice, and they have worked together on a number of projects throughout the years. He utilizes a series of effective, dramatic fonts.
Additionally, there is some wonderful coloring on The Judas Coin by Lovern Kindzierski. I remember his work very well from the 1990s. I am not an expert on coloring, but he does a superb job at varying the palette and tones of his work to suit the atmosphere and style of each segment.
So how good was The Judas Coin? Well, I read the whole thing in one sitting. Okay, halfway through, I did take a break to have lunch because I was hungry, but then I picked the book right up. And then right when I got to the Manhunter chapter, my girlfriend asked me to go down the street and get her an iced coffee at Dunkin Donuts, so I had to put the book down a second time. Sorry, Mr. Simonson, but in a toss-up between my girlfriend and comic books, I try to pick the former. It’s usually safer that way! But other than lunch and iced coffee, yep, I read it straight through.
Seriously, though, The Judas Coin a good read with superb artwork, and I highly recommend it.