Director’s Commentary: William Prince on the fascinating Judas the Last Days
While adding forthcoming graphic novels to our pre-orders I’m always also scanning away for interesting new works coming up, stories that make my bookseller-senses tingle and make me think yes, even though I’ve never come across this writer before my gut is telling me I want a look at this book when it comes out. And sometimes, lucky me, I even get to swap emails with one of those creators and they very kindly take the time to share some of their thoughts with us about their new work. It’s one of the reasons we have the occasional Director’s Commentary – a space where creators, instead of being reviewed or interviewed, can simply talk about their work in their own words.
I’ve not read anything by William Maxwell Prince yet, but when I saw his and John Amor’s Judas: the Last Days appear in IDW‘s pre-orders it intrigued me – Judas is such an endlessly fascinating character, the archetype of the Betrayer, cursed for all eternity, but then there are the contrary tales, that he was meant – asked even – to do what he did even though it would lead to his own suffering and damnation. Variations on the character have repeated throughout history and fiction (Melmoth, the Wandering Jew to name but a couple who share elements with him, not to mention the great Borges, who William notes himself) and here he is again, being re-imagined once more, two thousand years after betraying his friend, wandering a world that has changed beyond all recognition in William and John’s Last Days. Here’s William to talk about some of what was in his head when he wrote Judas:
When I started writing Judas: The Last Days, I had only a handful of goals in mind: to make something sad, to make something good, and to make something, as it’s written verbatim in my notebook, “infinite and intimate.” If that last clause seems vague to you, I assure you it’s now even more of a mystery to me.
But what I think I was trying to get at back then—nearly five years ago now—was that I wanted to play with the “scope” of a comic in a way that maybe I hadn’t seen much of at the time, i.e., I wanted to make something that had implications far beyond the comic book pages (the infinite, and a goal accomplished without me really trying all that hard, since the Bible is something of an all-time bestseller), while also making something incredibly tight and insular that reflected my own interests and created a mini-world built upon in-narrative jokes and refrains . (The intimate—a hermetically sealed self-referential labyrinth á la many of my favorite writers…but mostly just Borges.)
The funny thing about Borges: the descriptor maybe most associated with him is inimitable. And there’s good reason for that. Almost no one—and definitely not me circa five years ago: a guy in his mid-twenties living in a nice studio in Manhattan and working at a good job and living absolutely none of the life of an Argentinean dissident and scholar—should be spending too much energy on trying to make anything even close to the magic of a dude who, by popular public definition, cannot be imitated.
So this book, for a long time, suffered for that callow ambition. There are still traces of it here and there in the final product (it’s a little pleonastic), but I remember all too acutely having to rewrite an entire chapter of the thing after realizing that no, balancing Brechtian detachment and invested empathy while creating a post-structural Gnostic comics gospel was not the point in writing a book that grappled with faith and belief. The point, I think, was to capture for a few pages how it feels to be constantly inside your own (or more accurately, my own) head, experiencing time in a very slow way, having a thousand questions every day about every little thing, all compounded even more by the thousand things you see and feel and read—resulting in a kind of perpetual confusion engine that doesn’t allow a lot of room for certainty and makes everything you come across surreal and completely remote from your understanding.
That strangeness of life—my life, the one I was living, the same privileged dude in the studio with the good job and sad, skinny ties—manifested in Judas as a sprinkling throughout the chapters of little bits of my days…which it turns out managed to provide that vague notion of intimacy I wanted, but with all the highfalutin bullshit pared away. It was the world as seen (and rarely understood) through my eyes, painted onto the page of a comic book. (With staggering fucking aplomb, mind you, by John Amor’s seriously talented hand.) Below are just a few examples:
In issue two, we meet the bouncer, as it were, of The Rapture Closet (the drug den where James the Less hangs out with his druggy friends.) His name is Professor Eduardo Alvarado, and he was (and always will be) my favorite NYC subway performer. He would set up shop, often in the exchange at Grand Central Terminal, with a simple electric keyboard. On top of the keyboard, and in front of him on a little rug, were his cohorts: little electronic dolls and toys that gyrated and danced arrhythmically to the piano standards he played while severely hunched (approaching ninety degrees) over the keys. Watching him perform was an out-of-body experience; you didn’t so much watch him as watch yourself watch him, about five feet back from your own head.
About four years ago, I ditched work to go to the Museum of Modern Art with a friend. The main attraction that season was a digital-world-meets-real-world exhibition about the confluence of new media and old modes of living. Thinking of it now, what a banal and cliché (or maybe more precisely, obvious) thing to have a discussion about across the corridors of so much museum real estate! But everything that day was sort of heightened, if for no other reason than we felt like small criminals, going to the museum when we should be working. Anyhow, one part of the exhibit (the only part that didn’t feature an iPhone) was just a basket full of these little pills, which upon closer inspection revealed to be cut-out bits of the Torah. The installation was the work of Johanna Bresnick and Michael Hirschfield, and claims to be a “literal interpretation of a passage in the Old Testament: in Ezekiel 3, God instructs Ezekiel to eat a scroll of lamentations so he can then speak His words to the people of Israel.” For my part, I just couldn’t stop thinking how much quicker I could learn stuff if I could eat it, instead of having to read and think.
The final chapter (six, for those counting) of the book is titled Five Facts About My Everlasting Life, and that phrase is lifted directly from this little pamphlet I was given when exiting—where else— the subway one day. I was about three chapters into writing the book, knee-deep in biblical research and starting to suffer some blown circuits from so much reading and so little understanding. And I had no idea where the story was going.
The pamphlet’s about 2.5 x 3 inches and fits perfectly in your pocket. It features Five Facts about salvation, the fourth of which reads: Know that whosoever believeth in Jesus Christ will not perish but have everlasting life. That’s from John 3:16, and though I’d read that very passage about a hundred times by that point, I guess I’d never connected the (obvious) dots between putative spiritual immortality and literally not being able to die (as I was writing about, with some difficulty). It’s silly, but this was my own little form of salvation, though not in the way the kind lady who gave me the booklet probably intended: the final pieces of the story started to come together for me that day, and I resolved then and there to make the final chapter of the book five of my very own facts about stuff that never perishes.
There’s a ton more. I’m not sure any of this is very interesting to anybody except me and a few friends. But all I ever wanted was to make something sad, good, infinite, and intimate. I think I came pretty close.
Bonus! I couldn’t sign off without one more little nugget: A literal depiction of Leonard Cohen’s lyric “And from your lips she drew the Hallelujah.” Here it is, drawn right from Paul of Tarsus’s mouth. Cheers!
FPI would like to thank William for taking the time to share some thoughts on how his new book came into being; you can follow William via his Twitter. Thanks also to Kahlil Schweitzer at IDW for kindly putting me in touch with William. Judas: the Last Days by William Prince and John Amor is published by IDW this month.