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Buy This Book: Walter Simonson’s ‘The Judas Coin’ [Review]

It seems odd that a new project from a major publisher by one of the unquestionable masters of the art form could be released without a whole lot of fanfare, but it seems like that’s exactly what happened with The Judas Coin. A brand new hardcover graphic novel by Walter Simonson seems like the kind of thing that would have a huge push behind it, but while it might just be me not paying attention to solicits (a very likely scenario), I wasn’t even aware it existed until a friend of mine was talking about it after it came out.

And that’s a shame, because this is not a book you want to miss. The Judas Coin is one of the best comics DC put out this year, hands down.In terms of structure, The Judas Coin does exactly what it says on the cover: It tells a series of stories set in various times, from ancient Rome to the far-flung future, following one of the thirty silver coins that Judas was paid for betraying Jesus Christ into different tales of betrayal. It’s the kind of premise that allows for a grand tour of the DC Universe, and on that front, Simonson does not disappoint.

Over the course of 100 pages, Simonson goes through the history of the DC Universe, starting with the Golden Gladiator and moving through the Viking Prince, Captain Fear, Bat Lash, a Batman story set in the present and finally wrapping up in space in a pretty shockingly unexpected Manhunter 2070 story. For a reader like me, someone who’s spent years and years obsessing over those more obscure bits of the DCU, it’s a joy just to see Simonson taking another shot at those characters just on principle.

But at the same time, it’s not a book where you have to know a lot about the Golden Gladiator in order to enjoy what’s going on — which is a good thing because, let’s face it, me and Jess Nevins are a pretty small audience. Each story is brisk and simple enough that you can jump right into it knowing nothing about the characters, but the Simonson of Judas Coin is the same master storyteller that we all know from his G.O.A.T. run on Thor. As short as they are, each story has an emotional depth to it, whether it’s the tragedy of the Golden Gladiator story, the comedy of Bat Lash or the pure adventure of Batman. They’re deceptively simple, so intricate that you don’t even notice how good they are.

But if I’m honest, the reason Judas Coin is something everyone needs to have has less to do with what Simonson does — telling an incredible series of enjoyable, interlinked short stories — and more to do with how he does it. This book is absolutely gorgeous, even by Simonson’s standards.

For Judas Coin, Simonson is joined by John Workman, who is quite possibly the best letterer in comics history — Todd Klein’s 47 Eisner awards notwithstanding — and as is usually the case with their fairly frequent collaborations, the results are beautiful.

The Golden Gladiator story, set in Ancient Rome, sets the tone by being laid out on a very simple, very classic six-panel grid, and to be honest, if Simonson would’ve done the entire book like that, it’d still look pretty amazing. But instead, he and Workman bring a different visual style to each story, and that’s what really makes this book stand out.

The Viking Prince story has a ton of negative space and panels with intricate borders that echo the more elaborate sections of Thor:

Workman, too, varies up his letters, changing up everything from balloon placement and shape to the style of the letters themselves to better fit the art, building an even more cohesive whole out of what you’re seeing.

The Captain Fear story follows that with tall panels of pirate ships and wide ones packed with mutineers. Colorist Lovern Kindzierski gives the Bat Lash sequence a washed out, almost sepia-toned look to match its rounded panels, and Workman again follows suit with big Western-style sound effects to match.

It’s the Batman story where things get really awesome, though. Simonson frames it with newspaper articles, and then tells the story as a series of black-and-white comic strips, with each one ending on a cliffhanger:

It won’t surprise anyone when I say that I would’ve been perfectly happy to see an entire OGN devoted to the story of Two-Face trying to replace his scarred coin with one of Judas’s pieces of silver, but that might just be me. Either way, the economy on display in this bit is amazing, with Simonson doing justice to that premise, introducing characters (and killing them off!) in the span of a mere 15 pages.

It’s a testament to Simonson’s skill (and Workman’s, and Kindzierski’s) that it’s so fun to watch him playing with styles and storytelling techniques, and that he can do so many subtly different things that each add to what he’s accomplishing with the story.

And then you get to the last bit.

And that’s when Walter Simonson draws manga.

Realistically, “Walter Simonson riffing on manga” is probably all I need to sell this thing, and rest assured that it’s every bit as ridiculously great as you want it to be. You can see the joy coming through in every panel of the frenetic, explosion-filled sci-fi book. It’s like Simonson doing Dirty Pair, and to me, that’s worth $20 by itself.

In short (I know, I know, too late) it’s a truly fantastic piece of comics that’s fun, accessible, and expertly crafted. It’s definitely something you ought to own, and it’s exactly the kind of book I’d like to see more of.

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