Judas: a tale of betrayal but also of hope, forgiveness and love

Judas,

Jeff Loveness, Jakub Rebelka, Colin Bell,

Boom! Studios


No… Not here. I don’t belong here. But the voice comes… And whispers the truth:

‘Yes. This was always the end. This was always your story‘”

The most famous betrayal in history; two friends, inseparable then sundered in a violent, bloody scene. No, not friends, more, one a saviour, a messiah, even, the other his devout disciple turned betrayer. Judas Iscariot, condemned for all eternity for betraying Christ to the Romans. In the Inferno Dante condemns him to the ninth circle, the lowest level of Hell, a frozen wasteland where Lucifer is trapped in ice, eternally chewing on the body of Judas, perpetual torment, one betrayer to another.

Or so we’re often taught – certainly the interminably dull Bible studies I was forced to go to on a Sunday as a child only ever gave out the simple, black and white, good and bad version of Judas and Jesus, and discussion or even questions about the more complex issues of morality, predestination and free will were not encouraged there. Not so in fiction, of course, where this tale has been retold and re-examined from many different angles, from Amos Oz and Tosca Lee to, more recently, Maxwell Prince and John Amor’s fascinating Judas: the Last Days (reviewed here).

It’s not hard to see why, it is a tale rich with moral conflict and drama and questions which are hard to answer. Did Judas betray his friend because of an evil streak? Or because Christ had to be sacrificed, and that required him to be the one to hand his friend over to the authorities? And if the latter, did he betray Christ because he was asked by his friend to do it because it had to be done to facilitate that sacrifice (and don’t most of humanity’s gods just love a good sacrifice?), and he was the only one he could trust enough to do the deed, even though he knew he would be vilified forever by his actions?

Or what if it was all God’s will, all pre-ordained that this was the role he was always destined to play? If so then how can he be held responsible for his decisions and actions, if he had only ever been a mere puppet on a string? Loveness and Rebelka’s Judas ponder these moral quandaries, and more, it delves into the personal relationship, humanises these two figures, especially Judas.

The initial set-up is handled with deft economy – the bag of silver coins, the kiss (such intimacy laced with betrayal), the scourging of Jesus. This is a well-known tale and they realise they don’t have to tell all of that, it is signified by a mere three panels on the opening page, then the fate of Judas on the next page, bereft, guilt-ridden, the tree, the rope, all handled in only five landscape-format panels, each one successively narrower, suggesting a rush to the end, the walls of his world collapsing in on him, the colours suffused a blood-red by the setting sun. Those two pages are a wonderful example of the way in which the comics medium can use visual shorthand, just a handful of images and panels, to convey so much meaning, the reader filling in the rest, it’s a splendid use of the medium.

But the final panel, hanging from that tree, silhouetted by the setting sun, a dangling black figure against the dying of the light of day, is not the end of Judas’ story. He opens his eyes again, but now he is in the most wretched place of all, the Pit. And another betrayer – perhaps the very first betrayer – the Fallen one who was once the Bringer of Light, Lucifer, is waiting on him. All his life there has been a second voice in his head, alongside the compelling voice of Jesus asking that he follow him, there was another, which sowed doubt like a farmer sows seed, and now Judas is face to face with him.

He is outraged, he rails against his fate, being so condemned to Hell for eternity, he blames Lucifer, but Lucifer talks to him in a persuasive tone. I didn’t put you here, your God did, your best friend, your Saviour. He compares the life of Judas to his own, how neither of them every really had a choice or chance, that these were the roles God always intended for them in His unfolding story. And if they had no choice then how fair is it that they suffer for those actions for all eternity? And the wider question of the world and humanity, what of them in this story, because, Lucifer explains, the story is broken. And Judas can see his point, he had already wondered when alive, if my friend can raise the dead then why do so many of us grieve for lost loved ones, if he can feed the poor then why do so many starve?

And then they are joined by Jesus, his mortal body dead, his spirit ascends not to Paradise but descends into Hell, weighed down by all the sins of the world he claimed to take upon himself. And here he has no power, he is just a dead man, and, Lucifer tells him, his father cannot hear him, or perhaps he can and simply does not care, it is just another part of this broken plan. And below the higher moral and theological questions, the personal: the damned Judas looks his friend in the face. “Did you know?” he asks. Was I always meant to play this role? How could you do that to someone who loved you? Why would you also then leave them in Hell, when you preach forgiveness, why not forgive him?

For me it is that personal aspect of Loveness and Rebelka’s take that is the heart of it – the moral questions are fascinating (and ultimately, I suspect not ones any of us can truly answer with certainty), but the personal aspect between these two friends turned enemies is not just the dramatic meat of the story, it is the emotional heart, and it is indeed very emotional as they face each other in Damnation. And I will not risk spoiling anything by saying anymore on that subject…

Rebelka’s art is perfectly suited to Loveness’s tale here – those aforementioned first two pages, the masterful economic but powerful few opening panels, the flashbacks to his mortal life as he becomes a disciple, often cast in warm, sepia and red tones, in contrast to the black and blue desolation of the Pit he finds himself in after death. There are some clever little detailed touches too – the old tradition, still practised in the likes of the Eastern Orthodox Church, of showing a saint’s halo like a golden disc behind their head is taken here, except the damned Judas has a black halo-disc.

The darkness of it hints at his eternal damnation, and yet the fact he still has a sort of halo also possibly infers a spark of the divine exists in him, the spark that made him a disciple when he was alive, and that in turn hints at hope, and hope may be the one force that can fix the broken story Lucifer told him of so bitterly. Colin Bell’s lettering is perfect, the speech bubbles from Jesus in a red ink, hinting at the compelling power of his voice (shades of Preacher?), and this is also used to fine effect in Hell where the lettering changes mid-sentence from red to a regular black as his power fades in Hell and he is just another dead human soul.

This is a fascinating story, delving into deep moral and theological questions about our freedom of will versus the possibility of all of our supposed choices being pre-ordained, that we are just actors in a story laid down before we were born, and it that is the case then the Creator who decided that surely must be flawed… But at the deepest level it is a story about friendship, about betrayal, yes, but not just the obvious one of Judas (did Jesus, in effect, betray his friend, condemning him into this hateful role?), and ultimately about three of those most delicate and yet desperately-needed aspects of our lives, three qualities that are so closely related: forgiveness, hope and love.

Who betrayed who? Judas #1

Judas #1,

Jeff Loveness, Jakub Rebelka, Colin Bell,

Boom Studios

Performing my normal early-morning perusal of the new titles at the start of New Comic Book Day, this one jumped out at me, something a bit different from most of the other four colour delights on offer this week. Judas is a character I have found fascinating since being forced to sit through excrutiatingly boring Bible classes on a Sunday as a child. I always found the simplistic portrayal of Judas taught in those classes to be very limited – they were, unsurprisingly for those kinds of indoctrination groups (because that’s what they really were, as far as I could see) it was presented in simple black and white, good and bad lines.

This always seemed to me to be skipping serious questions around the supposed greatest betrayal in human culture: was Judas just selfish and evil, and that is why he betrayed his friend (and saviour)? If he was evil then why on Earth did Jesus ask him to become one of his disciples? Or was it his plan all along to use Judas to betray him because he needed a sacrifice, even of himself (and how many tales of various gods involve some kind of sacrifice, deities, it seems, just cannot get enough of those) and here was the perfect man to use, his very own patsy, his own Oswald? If so that’s hardly the actions of a decent, moral person, is it?

Or was it that Judas knew this had to happen and only he could do it, knowing he would be damned for it, but he did it for the greater good, off his own bat or because his friend told him there was no other way, it had to thus and only he could do it? There are many complex moral and philosophical questions around that kiss, the thirty pieces of silver, that betrayal. And if all that happens is God’s will then presumably the betrayal was always ordained, and so poor Judas was a marked man from before he was born (and does that mean he is responsible for his actions then?). Indeed some gnsotic texts – beyond the pale to mainstream religious authorities – hail Judas for setting in motion what had to happen for human salvation.

Where the teacher in Sunday School was reluctant to engage, I have found over the years that many others have had similar thoughts, and the character of Judas has been explored many times in fiction, those complexities of the nature of morality, responsibility and destiny (free will or are we all following a pre-ordained script) and more have been fertile grounds for compelling drama, so it’s hardly surprising storytellers would pick up on it, from novels by Amos Oz or Tosca Lee, to the film Dracula 2000, which wove the myth into the vampire tapestry. Only a couple of years ago W Maxwell Prince and John Amor gave us the interesting Judas: the Last Days, which I found fascinating – review here. Loveness and Rebelka’s take, certainly in this first issue, continues that tradition of mining the motivations and actions of Judas Iscariot for some exceptionally compelling human drama.

That infamous betrayal is handled economically but efficiently and powerfully within the first few pages – this is a well-known story, and both writer and artist know they need only call forth a few specific scenes, such as the bag of silver coins, the leaning in for that kiss to mark out Jesus, the carrying of the cross by the scourged Christ, then the suicide by hanging of a bereft Judas, and those are sufficient to conjure forth the story in the mind of the reader. It’s a lovely bit of efficient and yet powerful storytelling by Loveness and Rebelka, and those few panels have real power, even to a non-believer like me (because this ancient story is a powerful one, regardless of faith or lack thereof, its human aspects make it endlessly compelling). Especially that single panel of the kiss, only half of the faces visible, below the eyeline, the intimacy and the betrayal so close they are interwoven, the colours muted, save for hints of bright red highlights that hint at the blood to be spilled.

No… Not here. I don’t belong here. But the voice comes… And whispers the truth:

‘Yes. This was always the end. This was always your story‘”

By only the third page we have seen the kiss, the betrayal, the thirty pieces of silver and the sad, lonely suicide, dangling from a solitary tree as a blood-red sunset stains the evening and night falls. And then Judas opens his eyes to find himself elsewhere, somewhere dismal, horrible – the Pit. Where else would the great betrayer go but Hell, of course? But does he truly deserve to be there? As he starts to walk through this nightmare landscape and the damned souls and the demonic entities that reside there to torment them, his dialogue continues and we see flashes back to his life on Earth, before meeting Jesus, and then also as a disciple.

And he asks the questions many would ask? He believes in his Lord, but if he can truly heal the sick, why are so many ill? If he can feed the hungry why do so many starve? If he can raise the dead, why then do we endure the immense pain of losing our loved ones? And if he was his friend and the source of all forgiveness, couldn’t he forgive Judas? But as Judas recalls the overpowering call from his very first encountered with Jesus, of hearing that voice calling him forth, he also recalls another voice, one which sowed doubts, that told him to question, which would lead him to this path in life and the hereafter and even now, in Hell, he can hear that voice still…

This is a hugely thoughtful and compelling piece of storytelling, and beautifully handled by both writer and artist here. There are some lovely touches too – in a lot of early Christian art (and indeed still common in the likes of the Eastern Orthodox Church art), the disciples and saints are often depicted with their golden halo (usually like a bright, golden disc behind their heads), and here Judas too has such a symbol behind his head, but his is jet-black instead of the glittering gold of a saint, a small detail, but a very telling and clever one, or little changes in lettering by Bell (Jesus’s lettering in red, seems to infer a voice different to normal ones, a voice that cannot be ignored, that compels, reminiscent of Jesse Custer in the Preacher comics). One of the more unusual comics of the year, and one which not only spins a good narrative, but which will leave you arguing with yourself over morality, the nature of free will and more questions that have been asked for eternity and which we rarely can answer completely.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog