Come September, DC Comics releases "The Judas Coin," a graphic novel conceived, written and drawn by legendary comic book creator Walter Simonson. Comprised of six stories featuring DC heroes, the book spans the Roman Empire through the year 2085 and features DC characters from all pseudo-historical eras of time such as the Golden Gladiator, Manhunter 2070 and the book's present-day Batman and Two-Face pairing.
CBR News spoke to Simonson via telephone about the upcoming graphic novel, the genesis of "The Judas Coin," and the wide-ranging art styles Simonson employs in the book, including newspaper strip art and his take on manga.
CBR News: So, Walt this project has been in the works for some time--
Walter Simonson: Approximately half my life! [Laughs]
What was the genesis of the graphic novel?
Several years ago DC published a book that was an idea of [DC Vice President - Art Direction & Design] Mark Chiarello's -- he edited it and managed it during the time it came out -- called "Solo." It was a book in which he invited a number of creators -- Howard Chaykin, Richard Corben, Darwyn Cooke I believe, and some other guys -- to do a forty-four page comic of short stories of their own devising. They would write and draw them; I think they were all done by one creator each, hence the name. Mark wanted at least one of the stories to be about a DC character, but other than that it was pretty open.
He asked me if I would do one of the issues. I was delighted and said, "Sure, I'd love to." And then it turned out that at the time I was working on an "Elric" story with Michael Moorcock, it was four forty-eight page comics. I had thought about it a lot while I was doing "Elric;" initially I had written a forty-four page Batman story, took it to Mark, and Mark said "This is supposed to be short stories." So I though evil thoughts of my pal -- I had apparently lost that instruction while I was working on it, so I had to go back and start thinking about it again! [Laughs]
I read a lot of science fiction and fantasy and stuff years ago, and there were several books I liked, one [especially] called "The King In Yellow" by Robert W. Chambers, in which there were short stories, some of which were strung together around a common theme. I liked the idea of having a thread running through so you get individual stories but also a larger picture or a sense of a larger history. This may be the category of TMI, but literally one day when I was in the shower -- and now I'm doomed, this will just be out there forever! [Laughs] When I was in the shower I wasn't stressing over the issue of "Solo," but sometimes you think about stuff and then you go away from it and your brain percolates on a back burner somewhere and suddenly something clicks. In the time it took me to have my shower I had thought of the idea of the Judas coin, one of the 30 pieces of silver that Judas was paid, and I suddenly thought that would be a cool link for stories. Because it was a coin I thought about Bat Lash and the old West and gambling houses and poker. By the time I was done showering I had written the entire Bat Lash story in my head. It is actually in the book pretty much the way I thought about it initially; it's the shortest story so in some ways it's the simplest. I wrote everything down, but it gave me the core for the series of stories.
Then over a period of time while I was writing "Elric" I began writing other stories. I was playing in the DC Universe; I liked that idea so I selected other characters from the DC Universe that would run across the spectrum of its history. Now I know a lot about DC history, but there's a vast universe that I know a little part of. So I did research, I talked to a couple of friends about characters from olden times. I was not familiar with the Golden Gladiator before, but he was a character who showed up in the very first issues of "Brave And The Bold" and was kind of ahistorical in the original: the Golden Gladiator meets an unnamed Egyptian queen who's got to be Cleopatra, which means its somewhere 40 BC. Then there's another story where he meets Attila the Hun that is somehow years later -- so back in those days, clearly, that stuff wasn't so important! But it didn't really matter, the stories were fun, they had some grit to them. That gave me a character I could set back roughly in the Roman Empire, at the beginning of the Judas Coin history.
I had an idea for a Two-Face story; the other ones were Viking Prince and Captain Fear, who is a pirate character I drew a story of and David Michelinie wrote a million years ago. So there's a pirate story, Bat Lash, Two-Face, and finally because I had read them when they came out, Manhunter 2070, who was a "Showcase" character. There were three issues of "Showcase" back in 1970 when the future was going to be 2070, a hundred years in the future -- we're all going to have rocket-packs and zip off for Mars on the weekend and all that! I'm still waiting for that to happen!
Basically I put together six characters in six stories that ran over the course of a couple thousand years. Because a lot of the characters were slightly ahistorical, I was able to put them into the times I thought they'd do nicely in. For example, I like the Roman Emperor Vespasian. He was an interesting guy, an old soldier who rose to power, and as Roman emperors go not a bad guy. So I set the Golden Gladiator story during the reign of Vespasian. Bat Lash I put in Tombstone territory after Tombstone was founded and the silver was still running high. The Manhunter 2070 story I put fifteen years later because it enabled me to actually go back and pick up some threads from the "Showcase" stories. In that case I tried to write it that, and only time will tell if I was successful, so that if you've never read the original three stories it's not going to matter -- and if you've read those stories you'll go, "Oh, cool!" Or I hope that's what you say!
I had these stories lined up; I plotted all of them out pretty carefully. In my own work I do what used to be called Marvel style, which isn't done much anymore: I write my plots, I thumbnail the story from the plot, and then I write my script from my thumbnail. About that time Mark told me we weren't going to put any more issues of "Solo" out. Of course I was crushed, but I had taken so long on "Elric" I understood completely -- but I really liked the idea. So I went to [DC Comics Co-Publisher] Dan DiDio's office in my usually annoying fashion, I think I just knocked on the door and nobody was in his office but Dan right then, so I said, "Hey Dan!" and walked in. I asked him if I could lose money for DC on one more issue of "Solo," and he laughed and asked what the idea was. I told him, he liked the idea a lot, and basically right then said, "Go find an editor, write up a proposal, we'll do it as a ninety-six page hardcover." I said, "Okay!" I was thrilled, it was a little more work than I expected, but it was great. So I talked to Joey Cavalieri, old pal of mine at DC; he was game so I wrote up a proposal, it was approved, and I began working on it, with some other stuff here and there.
One of the conceits of the book is that, because each of the stories is pretty different -- hopefully the Bat Lash story is pretty humorous as Bat Lash is, the Batman story is maybe a little grittier because it's Two-Face -- I decided pretty early on I wanted to try to draw each of the stories in a different style I thought appropriate or neat for that particular story. For example, in the Golden Gladiator story, which takes place in 70 AD, I did two things. When I was a kid in the mid-'50s there was a movie called "Helen Of Troy," an Italian-British sandal epic of Troy. My real introduction to it was a Dell comic book that came out as an adaptation of the film. It was beautifully drawn, very clean, very straightforward six-panel grid pages and it's John Buscema. It's quiet lovely, very restrained. For the Golden Gladiator story I went back and looked at that a lot, I looked at Hal Foster a lot, I tried to do a very classical looking strip. So I did a six-panel grid page, very conservative storytelling that looks back to the past the same way the story does.
The Bat Lash story I looked a lot at Nick Cardy. I'm a giant Nick Cardy fan and he defined Bat Lash for me. When I was doing Manhunter 2070 -- actually Manhunter 2085 in my story, but close enough -- I thought it would be fun to do manga. "Hey, what if Walt were a manga artist?" Hip -- or as hip as I'm ever going to be! -- modern stuff. I didn't try to lay it out like manga because most of the manga I'm familiar with is four and five panels, might be three and four-panel pages. So I looked at [Masamune] Shirow, I looked at a couple of other artists; there was a reprint Dark Horse put out years ago called "Seraphic Feather" that was beautifully drawn, so I looked at some of that for inspiration. Because it's science fiction the layouts are all over the map as weirdly inventive as I could make them for the story.
What I did do with the book that's different than "Solo" is two things: the first is I discovered, after I was approved for the ninety-six pages and began working out my page breakdowns, I had been extremely optimistic to think I could cram this into forty-four pages with my original plots! [Laughs] I didn't have to change any plots to make ninety-six pages, and I didn't have to add anything! The only thing I changed was that the original Two-Face story was just Two-Face. Once it became a graphic novel and more of a standalone sort of thing I thought it wouldn't hurt the book commercially to have Batman in there since most of the characters are characters readers are not going to be that familiar with. I wanted something to hang the book around. It's really a Two-Face story with Batman/Bruce Wayne as a participant, but Two-Face is the one making the decisions. The rest of the plots are the plots I wrote for "Solo." Then Lovern Kindzierski colored it; I explained what I was trying to do so he found different color keys for the stories. For example, the Golden Gladiator story I drew with as good an eye towards historical accuracy as I could manage in the way the costumes are done, the Roman armor, things like that. The Viking Prince story I debated about a long time because that was some brilliant Joe Kubert work from back in the day and honestly there's no way I'll ever be Joe Kubert, no matter how much I'd like to be! I also have a ton of Viking reference from my old days on "Thor" so I debated about doing real Vikings as opposed to Wagnerian Vikings you mostly get in comics. In the end I took one of my big influences and went that direction, so really it's "What if the Vikings met Philippe Druillet," the French artist who did completely mind bending comics back in the '60s and first half of the '70s. So Germania has trees that are a thousand feet tall and that sort of stuff. And that's everything! [Laughs]
For the Two-Face and Batman story was there a specific artist or style you were going for? And while you've been naming artists you've grown up with or admired, what made you want to do manga for the Manhunter story?
To answer the last question first on Manhunter, the different styles wasn't done just as a tip of the hat to old stuff I love. It was done more with the idea that I wanted to find an appropriate model for where I could start. I don't know if it's as hot as it was but I taught at the School of Visual Arts for a number of years, I'm retired now, but ten years ago when I was there I had a lot of students who did work that was heavily manga influenced. My last students in the last couple of years not as much, but there was a time where clearly manga was as heavily influential on these kids as American artists. I liked that; I like seeing them try to find their own way looking at stuff I wouldn't have looked at. So when I needed a Manhunter idea manga seemed forward looking. I looked toward a range of graphic solutions and drawings that weren't the basis for so much of the work I normally do. I thought that would be cool for the future.
On the Batman/Two-Face story, one of the guy's works I'm a big fan of was an artist named Yaroslav Horak. Yaro was an artist for a number of years on the James Bond newspaper strip, which ran back in the '70s. Particularly the early work he was doing on that strip, the first seven or eight stories, it was beautifully graphic and abstract -- I don't know if I'd say realistic necessarily but it's really stellar black and white design. I really liked it a lot so for the Two-Face story I decided to do sort of a faux-newspaper strip -- it's faux in the sense that I break the mold of newspaper strips frequently in the story. But in that story, for example, you'll have to turn the book sideway. Each page is essentially two rows of panels, one of top of the other, almost like an abbreviated Sunday page. In that story I wrote a series of short fake newspaper and magazine articles; I typed them up, put them in different kinds of fonts and printed them out and pasted them up. I did not do this digitally, I printed them up and actually pasted it on the art -- I kind of like having artwork that looks like the stuff you're used to seeing in print. So if I had a newspaper column I printed it out and laid it on the paper and put the strips on top of it, so you can read some of my newspaper column above the two strips and some of it below. But each of those fake articles, all from invented Walter Simonson newspapers and magazines other than the Gotham Gazette, is related to what happens on that page and hopefully enlarges the sense of the world around which that strip is occurring.
That one is printed in black and white, except for the blood. I'm an evil guy, what can I tell you! [Laughs]
I think I'm getting exhausted just listening to the sheer amount of work you put into this!
[Laughs] DC was very patient with me, letting me get all this stuff done the way I wanted to. Just a few days ago I got the designs from Louis Prandi at DC, he was the book designer, and he sent me the pages and text pages and they're just beautiful. I was just thrilled to see what he had done.
Also each of the stories is preceded by a page of text, it's maybe one or two short paragraphs, not very long. The text page will serve as an introduction for each character, so each text page will have a title and name of the character, the date when the story takes place, and then below that there will be four or five short sentences by way of introduction. For the Golden Gladiator story it starts off explaining that it was the year of the Four Emperors -- Rome had four emperors, one after another, and by the end of that year three were dead and Vespasian ruled the Roman Empire. Hopefully each one will serve to set the scene for each of the stories that follow, so you won't have to know who the Viking Prince is, or know who the Golden Gladiator is.
What would you say is the central theme of the book?
Well, that's what the coin is. Basically one of the 30 pieces of silver gets out into the world. In the Bible when Judas throws the money back in the temple he goes off and he dies and the money is now regarded as blood money. One of the stories is it's used to buy a potter's field where they bury the unknown and the indigent. The only variation I've dealt with is that I show one of the coins bounces off the door of the temple, rolls into the street, a beggar grabs it and from that point on the coin is out in the world. So the coin appears in each story and each story involves a betrayal -- and usually some death.
While the first thing that came to your mind with the coin was Bat Lash, once you settled on the Judas coin did that naturally lead to you realize Two-Face should be in it?
Oh sure, once I settled on the Judas coin as my link between stories, Two-Face was an obvious choice. There were some considerations because of his continuity where I worked the story out in a way that will not conflict with, I don't think, anything that has been done with the character in the regular DC universe. I was careful to try and make sure that even though this book stands by itself, that story especially, I didn't want to create conflict with anything even in the standalone. So I did some editorial research, talked to some guys at DC to make sure I wasn't screwing anything up. I think Two-Face was the second easiest guy behind Bat Lash that I had.
Finally, though this has been a labor of love for years, would you ever consider doing another similar short story or anthology graphic novel like this?
I really enjoyed it and if someone is interested in having me do it, sure. I don't have any ideas right now where I thought, "I can't wait to do this anthology or that anthology." I sort of take the ideas as they come. I've got some thoughts right now about a creator-owned book that I might be doing down the road once I finish my current assignments, I'm not sure about that yet. But I enjoyed doing "Judas Coin" a lot. I would certainly consider doing something like that down the road again, absolutely.
"The Judas Coin" hits shelves September 18.