Two words: "Walter" and "Simonson." Review: DONE!
Okay, so maybe we need a little more than that. The Judas Coin is (bizarrely) published by DC, written and drawn by Walter Simonson, colored by Lovern Kindzierski, and lettered by John Workman. It will cost you $22.99, and it's worth every penny (or Tyrian shekel, as the case may be). (I write "bizarrely" because although DC does graphic novels, they usually do Vertigo ones, and this one must have been approved solely because even DiDio isn't stupid enough to say, "A Walt Simonson graphic novel starring some cool characters we have? No, I think I'll pass on that.")
The premise of this story is simple: one of the coins paid to Judas to betray some liberal anarchist punk named Hay-zus passes through history, and as it has a curse on it, no good can come to those who possess it! So Simonson simply plucks characters from the long, long history of DC, puts them in proximity to the coin, and lets the mayhem commence! It's a fairly short book - there's a 4-page prologue, and then chapters of 13, 15, 17, 9, 15,and 16 pages, giving us 89 pages of text, but because Simonson has been doing comics for quite some time and he's, you know, kind of good at it, he knows how to maximize his space, and the book feels more dense than a lot of comics twice as long. He gives us a story about the Roman emperor Vespasian and his bodyguard, Marcus the Golden Gladiator (first appearance: 1955), heading to Germany to form an alliance with the tribes across the Rhine in A.D. 70 and finding ... treachery! (As far as I could find, Vespasian never went near Germany, but that's not too important - he certainly could have gone, right?) Then we head to A.D. 1000, where Jon Rikkson, the Viking Prince (first appearance: 1955), sails to a strange land full of giants, where he discovers ... treachery! In 1720, Captain Fear (first appearance: 1972) is - you guessed it - treacherously deprived of command, but the presence of the Judas coin enables him to thwart the mutineers rather cleverly. We move to Tombstone, AZ, in 1881, where Bat Lash (first appearance: 1968) is playing cards and getting into trouble, but the coin allows him to slip out of it and escape. In "the present," Two-Face (first appearance: 1942) tries to steal the coin, but quickly figures out that it might not be smart to hang onto it, and he gets rid of it in a typically diabolical manner. Finally, we head to the future, where in 2087, Manhunter 2070 (first appearance: 1970) hunts down some thieves who just happen to have the coin in their possession, and he also figures out that it's not a very good thing to have. He tries to get rid of it, but Simonson ends the book rather bleakly, implying that such evil can never be destroyed. Dang, that sucks.
Simonson does a nice job with each story, managing to keep the general theme - treachery and deceit - but tell several different kinds of stories and show different characters reacting to their situations. Marcus is deadly serious in his duty, Jon is a fine warrior, Captain Fear is far too clever for the other pirates, Bat Lash is a ladies' man and a better grifter than the others he plays cards with, Two-Face shows why he was such a good lawyer, and Manhunter 2070 is relentless in his pursuit of the thieves. Each deals with the coin in their own way, showing how they view the world and how they use their strengths to get out of trouble. None of the stories are too deep, but they are very entertaining, and Simonson knows how to create characters and a good plot quickly. The book zips along, and you might have to stop yourself to appreciate the artwork.
Because you really should appreciate the artwork. It's tremendous and deserves to be looked at for a long time. The book is slightly larger than your normal comic, so Simonson's artwork is bigger, which makes it at least 10% more awesome (that's just SCIENCE!). He doesn't alter his style too much - you can still tell it's Simonson, of course - but the Golden Gladiator section is a bit more low-key, for instance, while the Viking Prince section looks like lost pages of Thor, with giant anachronistic Viking ships and armor that no human would be able to wear because the helmets would be too fucking heavy. But it looks great, so there's that. Simonson does some beautiful stuff with layouts and borders, too, making this story much more mythic and epic than we might expect (again, these are Vikings in the DCU, so there's no reason to think they won't encounter giants and other strange things). The Captain Fear story is a bit more straight-forward, giving Simonson a chance to draw 18th-century ships cannonading each other. Kindzierski colors the Bat Lash story a bit lighter than the others, giving it a dusty, daguerreotype look to it, which is fitting. For the Batman and Two-Face story, Simonson turns the book on its side and creates it like several newspaper strips, and gives it to us in glorious black and white (with one exception for blood, which is red). In the Manhunter story, he decides to draw manga, because why the hell not? Are you going to tell Walt Simonson he can't draw manga? One thing Simonson does really well is use the complete page, so while the art is packed with detail, it never looks cluttered, and his storytelling is as strong as ever. He uses rectangular borders for the most part, which makes it even more dynamic when he breaks that pattern. In the future, his layouts become much more chaotic, which keeps with the tone of the story but remains easy to read. Kindzierski's colors are fantastic, and as always, Workman's lettering complements Simonson's artwork very nicely - Workman's letters feel more muscular than many of his peers', and Simonson's bold art needs lettering like it.
The Judas Coin is an entertaining story made much better by the excellent art. I Strongly Recommend it just for the artwork, and it's nice that the writing is, if not quite as good as the art, still impressive. I've mentioned before that I would love if the Big Two did more graphic novels with their characters, and it's nice that we're getting some. It's even nicer when they're as good as this is!