Taken on purely literary merits, the Christian Bible flaunts a staggering number of complex characters worthy of further exploration. Ironically, though, the most intriguing figures often fail the moral doctrine of their source material. Need proof? Phillip Pullman unpacked the deception of Eve in his lauded fantasy trilogy, His Dark Materials, Henry Rollins played a modern-day Cain in the 2015 horror flick He Never Died and Satan has continually snagged starring roles ranging from John Milton’s narrative poetry to primetime cop dramas on Fox—much to the chagrin of old conservative dudes calling themselves a million moms.
What makes these archetypal sinners so worthy of our fascination? They’re certainly more relatable, but they also tend to offer a more layered look into morality—spectrums of bittersweet grey more than binary black and white. And Judas Iscariot embraces that ambiguity more than any of his nefarious peers. The apostle is largely condemned for betraying Jesus Christ to the Romans, but without the Judas kiss—predicted by Christ at the Last Supper—the crucifixion and moral salvation of humanity within the Christian faith could never have occurred. Whether Judas is religion’s biggest narc or a celestial domino is a question that remains even after non-canonical gospels have suggested the latter.
Exclusively announced today, writer Jeff Loveness and artist Jakub Rebelka will tackle that question in a gorgeous four-issue comic miniseries published by BOOM! Studios, set to start this December. The period piece picks right up where the Good Book left off, witnessing the titular character wake up in Hell after committing suicide. The project offers a new direction for Loveness, who honed his writing chops in comedy institutions including The Onion and Jimmy Kimmel Live! as well as Marvel superheroe titles like Nova and Groot. Polish artist Rebelka recently wrapped the reality-bending odyssey Namesake with writer Steve Orlando, merging chiseled figures against striking, surrealist world-building.
Paste exchanged emails with the pair to discover more about this ambitious project and its origins.
Judas #1 Cover Art by Jakub Rebelka
Paste: After reading the first script, Jeff, this is a very informed sequel to the Christian Gospels. What’s your history with the religion? Was there any inciting factor to publish this story, or has it been percolating for a while?
Jeff Loveness: I was raised in a very Christian home, so it was a huge part of my life growing up. But growing up, I always felt sorry for Judas. We’re supposed to look at him as this grand villain or ultimate traitor…but his role in the story seemed so predetermined and beyond him. Satan “entered” him. Jesus straight up told him to do it. Judas was trapped in this story, unable to be anything else.
And then upon betraying Jesus, he feels immediate guilt and kills himself. The remorse of Judas always felt so tragic to me. No one cared about the turmoil he was going through. Nobody ever thought about the immense, cosmic burden placed upon this ordinary man. The fulcrum of the story hinged on him… but if he played his part, he’d be hated for the rest of history. The story was rigged against him from the beginning.
I wanted to see what happened next. Judas waking up in Hell is such a striking image to me. At first, he feels immense guilt and dread, but that turns to hopeless rage toward Jesus, who knew all of this would happen—and let it happen anyway.
So, basically, it’s a sci-fi comic about Judas Iscariot journeying through life and death, grappling with his place in “The Greatest Story Ever Told” and fighting for something between revenge and redemption.
Think of it as a mix of the New Testament, Sandman, What Dreams May Come and Dante’s Inferno.
Paste: Looking through your portfolio, Jakub, there’s certainly a regal state to your figures that recalls Renaissance-era Christian iconography. Are you going to employ a more traditional aesthetic here, or innovate in a different direction?
Jakub Rebelka: I don’t want to be too traditional, but since we are working on a comic book, it has a language with its own rules. But yes, medieval Christian art was always a huge inspiration for me, especially the art of Matthias Grünewald, creator of the most stirring crucifixion in the history of art. I was also inspired by the visions of Hell by Hieronymus Bosch. I am trying to incorporate some of those elements into the world-building of Judas.
Paste: What materials are you using? Digital verses traditional? Is there any color palette you’re emphasizing?
Rebelka: My art is always a mix between traditional and digital, with different proportions of both according to what the image requires. Photoshop is like an art supply shop full of tools. I do most of my work in Photoshop, preparing pages, gutters, layouts, sketches and, later on, most of the colors. It also allows me to apply changes quickly.
Painting and drawing traditionally allow me to do things that are difficult to achieve in Photoshop. For example, I can make things by accident—I can splash paint all over the page and discover interesting things there. I also work on line art traditionally—it’s just faster for me.
For the color palette, I am using a lot of earth colors for this book, plus blue, turquoise, dark grey—cold colors—to illustrate Hell.
Paste: Jeff, this is a vastly different direction from your comedy writing or superhero books. Stylistically, are you drawing inspiration from John Milton or the Bible’s numerous authors? Is it a different set of writing muscles to flex?
Loveness: Yeah, I’ve written for Jimmy Kimmel, Marvel, award shows like the Emmys and Oscars, The Onion, sitcoms and my own original comics before, but this is a pretty big departure. It’s scary, but I think that’s important. It’s always fun to write something you’re nervous about. It makes you jump a little farther and try a little harder. It’s a completely different style of writing, but then again, 16 years of Sunday School and goatee’d youth pastor classes at Bible Camp are finally coming in handy.
Stylistically, I’m trying to pool the deep imagery of Christian myth: Everything from Renaissance paintings to Dante to this insane Pilgrim’s Progress cartoon I saw when I was eight at Bible Camp. It’s a rich tapestry, and I really want to dive in with Jakub, blow it out, and run wild with it. The Bible has crazy stuff. Those alien spaceship/UFOs from the Book of Ezekiel are wild, man. That creature in Revelations that is all eyes and just hangs out with God all day? I want one of those.
Paste: One of your notes from the script says, “Let’s unleash Christian myth to its full potential.” This line seems especially relevant to the character of Judas. How much are you digging into books outside of the canonical Bible, like the Apocrypha or the gnostic Gospel of Judas, which posits that Judas was working under instruction from Christ? If so, what are the most intriguing aspects of those works for you?
Loveness: I’m mainly sticking with the canonical Gospels as the baseline, and exploring from there. Everyone knows this story, so the exciting thing is to flip it on its head and give it a fresh perspective. This is an original story—picking up right at the conventional end of Judas’ story in the Bible.
I went through the Gospel of Judas for research and curiosity, but the Gnostic Gospels aren’t as widely read and don’t have the sheer cultural entrenchment that… y’know… the Gospel of John would have. People aren’t really holding signs for Judas 3:16 at football games. I think it’s more effective to come at it from the source everyone knows, and subvert it from there.
Paste: One of the main environments here is Hell. What are your favorite takes on the locale and are there any specific atmosphere beats you focused on for your own interpretation?
Rebelka: Jeff had the idea of avoiding the common visions of Hell, with all the fire and sulfur clouds. I also didn’t want to do the opposite thing, making hell look like Hoth, although it was tempting. Hell for Judas will be a hollow, empty, sad place with lost souls and demons doomed in shadows.
Paste: There’s a thematic line that crosses from Lucifer, Adam, Eve and Judas, exploring the threshold between critical thinking and heresy. Do you think these characters got a bad shake? Is Judas more sympathetic than antagonistic?
Loveness: He can be both, which is exciting to me. He can be a tragic anti-hero, like Magneto or Heathcliff. In comic book talk, the Bible has a pretty impressive “Rogue’s Gallery.” But when you look closely at those characters, maybe they were more sympathetic than portrayed. Pharaoh’s heart was hardened by God. Goliath was just fighting on his side of the war. Lot’s wife just looked at something. And Satan… we’ll go pretty deep into that. I have ruined many a Tinder date by giving my opinions on the literary richness of Satan in the Bible. At least I found an outlet for it here. I love Satan. Please use that out of context.
I am not a theologian or scholar or religious person at all, but on a narrative level, I love the idea that all these people were trapped in the same story. Even Jesus in Gethsemane felt trapped. He didn’t want to go through with it, but there’s something beyond us, driving us toward this bitter, broken, awful, amazing grace. There’s something so depressing and possibly affirming about that. I go back and forth on it.
Paste: Extrapolations of biblical characters—especially Jesus—can be met with controversy, à la The Last Temptation of Christ. Are you expecting any pushback over your interpretations? How would you advise readers to approach this material?
Loveness: Ha. Well, hopefully my mom won’t kick me out of the family. But I guess I’ll leave that up to her. She’s the one I’m most concerned about.
I’m not too worried. This is not a “religious” book, but I think this story lines up well with Christian doctrine—and challenges it. The essence of Christianity is compassion. We need to love our enemies and forgive, so shouldn’t we therefore extend that compassion to Judas? Who was there to forgive him?
If you’re not religious, I’d say approach this story as a fun exploration of a character you’ve always heard about. If you are religious, look at this as a thought-exercise…and a story within the margins of the Bible. Some fun Bible fan-fiction. I always wondered what happened to Judas. Maybe this is it. The Gospels create such a beautiful, striking story. They’re the bedrock of Western storytelling. So it’s been a lot of fun to turn it on its head and give a literal Devil’s advocate approach to the same story.
Paste: If this were an ongoing, are there any other characters/environments you think deserve further exploration? How would you visualize heaven past clouds, wings, halos and harps?
Rebelka: I once worked on a visualization of Purgatory. It was a swampy place, an endless city built from waste with confused people living in its muck. Heaven is a difficult one. In my opinion, most artists fail to create an interesting vision of this “place.” The only portrayal of Heaven I’ve seen that was convincing is the one from Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life. I think when you show what Heaven or God looks like, you make it physical and it loses its magic and power. Working on my idea of the Garden of Eden would be awesome, though.