Sunday, November 11, 2018

Review: Judas

Judas gets a bad rap. Sure, he betrayed and sold out his friend and spiritual leader Jesus to the authorities to be executed, but Jesus' crucifixion, death and resurrection are pretty central to the Christian faith. Judas' part was an integral one in Christianity's founding story and, considering Jesus' foreknowledge of the events to come and his father's omnipotence, it's not like they didn't know what Judas was up to, and maybe he didn't exactly have much in the way of a choice in the matter. And yet he's the jerk?

Arguments over predestination and free choice in the context of an all-powerful, all-knowing God have been Philosophy 101 business for centuries now, and when one revisits Bible stories with such arguments foregrounded, one will repeatedly run into logical paradoxes, irreconcilable facts that the faithful generally need to just accept as unknowable mysteries. Dwelling on them can make for compelling pop culture, though. The tension between the heroic and villainous nature of Judas' part in the Passion is at the center of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice's Jesus Christ Superstar, which was just recently shepherded back into the American psyche earlier this year with a John Legend-starring live television production.

That version of Judas was presented as angry, disappointed and bewildered by his part in the story, unsure of what he was supposed to do and what Jesus wanted him to do, ultimately seeing himself as a victim of the story. The Judas of writer Jeff Loveness and artist Jakub Rebelka’s graphic novel Judas, which seems to owe at least some small debt to Superstar's sympathetic portrayal, also feels victimized: By Jesus, by God and by a voice in his head that turns out to be Lucifer/Satan. The real problem however, Lucifer tells him, is the story in which they are trapped, and the fact that "the story is broken."

It's a pithy way to frame and explain the paradoxes of the Bible's stories and the challenges of the Christian faith, from the Old Testament God's brutal punishments to the New Testament condemnation of those that killed Christ, to basic, ever-present questions about how and why an omnipotent God could abide all the suffering in a world he created and maintains. But "the story is broken" is also the seed of what turns out to be a hell of a graphic novel, as Loveness and Rebelka’s Judas isn’t merely a meditation on the broken story of Christianity, but a rewriting of a long-lived apocryphal chapter that fixes that broken story.

Originally published by Boom Studios as a four-issue miniseries, the collected version is presented as an original graphic novel, but it retains the serially-published comic book beats, with each of the first three issues ending with something of a cliffhanger, a big, unexpected event that is afforded a splash page to denote its importance. It is probably worth noting that while Loveness is a comedy writer, his previous comics work included superhero stuff for Marvel, and Judas uses the basic shape and feel of such comics, despite its genre being pure religious apocryphal extrapolation.
On the first pages, Judas half-prays beneath a tree and then hangs himself upon it (as in the Gospel of Matthew; Acts of the Apostles has him dying in a freak accident, so hey, right there is an example of a minor contradiction in the Bible, one of the hundreds one will find in it). As soon as he dies he immediately acquires a black halo and a necklace of the silver pieces he was paid for delivering Jesus, and the world melts away as he descends to Hell.
Hell is a concept that would have been completely unknown to the historical Judas and Jesus, despite the fact that Judas is depicted her as immediately recognizing it for what it is. Hell as we understand it was a very gradual assimilation of various cultures' ideas about death, but it's essentially a medieval construction that was grafted onto the Bible story retroactively (one of Western civilization's earliest retcons?). The Bible only has a few passing allusions to some place vaguely hell-like; first century Jews didn't have a hell. But then, that is part of Judas' remit, synthesizing scores of stories into a story of The Story.

Judas wanders until he meets a beautiful, paper-white man with paper-white hair, red pupils and a back full of black wings. He speaks to Judas in a Neil Gaiman’s Sandman-like font of white letters on black dialogue balloons, which had previously appeared in narration boxes. This is the voice Judas heard while he was alive, driving him towards doubt and betrayal, where Rebelka drew it as a sentient mist forcing its way into Judas' ears.

This is of course, the devil, although Judas only knows him as the voice. Later he is referred to as both Lucifer and Satan, and he talks about rebelling against God in Paradise, of preferring to rule in hell rather than serve in heaven, and of tempting Jesus in the desert and being the snake in the Garden of Eden. This then is our modern devil, again, retroactively incorporating all of the mentions of a Satanic figure in the Bible's stories as well as other, extra-biblical traditions.
The devil gives Judas a tour of this hell, introducing him to other Biblical villains who were similarly victimized by God because that part of "the story" needed a bad guy--the Pharaoh of Exodus being a particularly good example, as the Bible literally refers to God hardening the king’s heart and refusing to let the Israelites go, so that God could then unleash another sign of his power on Egypt. It is at the end of this second issue/chapter that the first of the book's big surprises comes. Just as Lucifer fell from Paradise, in the distance the pair see someone else falling down to them. It is Jesus himself. The idea here is that because Jesus took upon himself the sins of all humanity during his sacrifice, he was so thoroughly tainted by that sin that he didn't ascend to heaven upon his death, but instead fell directly to Hell.

While Jesus going to Hell after his death is presented as a shocking development, its actually an article of faith for Catholics and many other Christians, and it gets regularly recited in the Apostle’s Creed ("he descended to the dead"). That is, according to later tradition and theology, where Jesus was during the three days in which he was dead. He descended to Hell, bringing salvation to all of the righteous and/or pagan dead who went there by default after they had died, given that they couldn't be "saved" by Christ until there was a Christ.

These events are just barely alluded to in the later books of the Bible, just enough that they could be extrapolated over the centuries, but they were pretty damn popular in the middle ages, and Easter week dramatic productions of the so-called "Harrowing of Hell" were right up there with Passion plays. While fine art has addressed the subject, it is notably absent in pop culture (Which is a surprise, really; Jim Caviezel's Jesus descending to Hell to kick demon ass for two-and-a-half-hours seemed like the obvious sequel to Mel Gibson’s peculiarly violent Passion of The Christ; I kinda hated that movie, but I certainly would have bought a ticket for The Passion of The Christ II: The Harrowing of Hell, in which Jesus assembles an Expendables cast worth of Biblical patriarchs and leads them in a Lord of The Rings-style battle against Satan and CGI armies of demon-orcs).

As presented in Loveness' narrative, this isn't a triumphant conquering of hell, though. Jesus is pretty evidently on the ropes here: Completely human, weak and at the mercy of all of those who feel used and abused by him. The closest thing to an ally he's got is Judas, a man who just got done betraying him, and is now newly furious with him, having just learned that yes, Jesus knew all along what Judas was going to betray him and end up here in Hell as punishment.

Without giving away the particulars of the ending, Judas repeatedly confronts Jesus, and belatedly comes to the realization of why God might have punished Judas in this manner, and what power Judas might have in this place. Jesus does harrow hell and ascends back to Earth at the appointed time, being forgiven of the sins he was carrying by Judas himself. And Jesus does it without acting like a god or warrior, but just as he did in the first, canonical Passion--by passively suffering attack after attack without fighting back.

And what of Judas? He stays there in Hell, still wearing his black halo and necklace of silver pieces, where he essentially serves as the Jesus of Hell, ministering to those that suffer there, using what he learned from his time following Jesus while they both lived.

It's a genuinely powerful comic book in its approach to faith, its wrestling with the contradictions of Christianity and theology and its inspired resolution of them. It's also what I personally consider to be the best kind of comic book in that it is a story that could really only be told in this medium...or, at least, it could really only be told this effectively in this medium.

It's difficult to imagine the story working in prose, where paragraphs and paragraphs would have to be spent on description and context, or even in film, despite the latter's similarities with comics, where the reader would lose the ability to control the pace, the sounds and the connotations.

Judas works precisely because of how relatively sparse the verbiage, and how much of the story can be told through Rebelka’s art and Colin Bell’s lettering, which serve as imagery as much as illustration. Information isn’t always conveyed directly, but suggested.
There's a flat, painterly look to Rebelka's art. Judas and Jesus seem to have stepped right from religious paintings into the panels, and the scenes from Jesus 'life that appear within look like they could be more modern, more expressionistic versions of Biblical illustrations. Lucifer looks more like a modern comic book creation, as does his Hell, patrolled not only by characters who seem like they belong in the background of Conan comics, but also horror-genre monsters meant to stand in for the angels of Ezekiel, drawn as collections of jagged gray limbs covered in eyeballs and toothy mouths.

The Satan character speaks, as I mentioned, with a voice that reads opposite of the standard human voice, like that of Judas, white-on-black rather than black-on-white. When Jesus speaks, his dialogue appears in red lettering, just as the voice of God appears in red ink in some bibles, but, when he loses his godhood to become human before the harrowing, it fades from red to brown to black.

The particular usage to the basic building blocks of comic book construction--character design, lettering, etc--are used as particularly effective, almost subversive elements of deep storytelling. As I read and then re-read Judas, the one comic book it kept reminding me of was DC’s 1989-1996 Sandman, and not just because of the lettering. Rather, I think that may be because what Judas shares in common with Neil Gaiman and company’s series is that semi-subversive aspect of looking like one kind of comic while being something entirely different.

The Sandman quickly became a fantasy comic about mythology and literature, but it never entirely lost the trappings of a superhero comic book of the era, complete with an annual and specials, crossovers and team-ups and even a glow-in-the-dark novelty cover. It was comics as literature produced for the super-comics market. Judas, similarly, looks and feels like just another genre comic (albeit more of an ambitious modern Image comic than a superhero or horror comic), retaining the shape, rhythm and look of one, but it turns out to actually be a sophisticated twenty-first century passion play, presented on paper rather than on a stage.

While elements of it certainly remind me of many works, comics and otherwise, that I've read before, I've never read another comic book quite like Judas before.

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