The Judas Contract

My teenage years got off to a difficult start. I lost my dad to a heart attack when I was thirteen. By the time I reached my senior year of high school in 1984, I was pretty much done with being a teenager. This all goes to explain why it was that although I made regular visits to the comic shop and though some of my friends were loving a title called The New Teen Titans by Marv Wolfman and George Pérez, I was pretty much focused on other longtime favorites. I didn’t really discover how much fun the Teen Titans could be until I stumbled on the anime-styled Teen Titans show which ran on Cartoon Network from 2003 to 2006. Even today, I gravitate more toward titles like Justice League Dark, which is what prompted me to pick up the recent Justice League Dark: Apokolips War, when I saw it in the store. The presentation of the Teen Titans in that movie made me curious about their earlier movie appearances, so I picked up the movie Teen Titans: The Judas Contract, which in turn took me back in time to 1984 to read the original graphic novel.

In The Judas Contract, the Teen Titans have a recent recruit named Terra. Most of them have grown to trust her and depend on her. Beast Boy may even be falling in love with her. However, it soon becomes apparent that Terra is not all that she seems. A hallmark of the graphic novel is that this is the point where Dick Grayson first decides to stop being Robin, the Boy Wonder and adopts the mantle of Nightwing, thus allowing Jason Todd to begin his tenure as Batman’s assistant.

It was interesting to compare the movie and graphic novel versions of the story. The movie foregoes the Nightwing story. In the movie, Dick Grayson is already Nightwing. Jason Todd is already dead and Damian Wayne is now Robin and already working with the Teen Titans. The movie starts with the Teen Titans up against a cult leader named Brother Blood. As the movie progresses, we find that the Titans’ longtime rival Deathstroke is working for the cult. In the graphic novel, the conflict with Brother Blood and the conflict with Deathstroke are two separate stories. I love the graphic novel because we get more of Deathstroke’s backstory and more of his connection to Terra. That said, the movie feels like a more rounded and complete story and it also better explores the romance between Nightwing and Starfire.

The movie also contained two episodes of the 2003-2006 Teen Titans series featuring Terra. Those were interesting enough that I went back and rewatched the whole Terra arc from the series’ second season. The Terra in the TV series proves to be quite different from the version in the graphic novel and the movie, but all three versions make an interesting exploration of the concept of betrayal.

I’ve long been fascinated by the character of Judas in the Bible. At the risk of going down a theological rabbit hole, Judas begs many questions. Was he inherently evil? If so, why did Jesus choose him to be an apostle? Just to betray him? Was Judas really a good man? Did he betray Jesus because of free will? In the three versions of The Judas Contract, we see three different interpretations of Terra, ranging from a good person led astray to a person who always was a psychopath. I won’t spoil the story by telling you which is which in case you haven’t delved into these stories and want to explore on your own.

In the story I’m writing, I’m confronting choices like this. Are the good guys what they seem? Are the antagonists really to blame for the events happening? As I reach a point about two-thirds of the way through the outline, I’m going back through and reading what I’ve written and deciding whether I forge ahead as I drafted the outline or if the characters are going to lead me in a new direction. Seeing a story like The Judas Contract explored well in three different ways does help me think about the possibilities. The important thing to remember, and the reason these stories are good, is that all the pieces were in place to tell you why the characters made the choices they did. The hints were there for those who pay attention. So if I do move in a different direction, I need to make sure I’ve also laid that groundwork.

Good Art by Bad People

It can be a real shock to learn that people you admire have done terrible things. Recently the news has been filled with stories of Bill Cosby’s sexual assaults. Just a few years ago, the speculative fiction world was shaken by allegations of Marion Zimmer Bradley’s child sexual abuse. It hurts and even feels like these people we’ve allowed into our hearts and homes through their work have betrayed us. This in turn raises a challenge. What do we do with the art created by such people?

Thee’s a good and thoughtful article at the Paris Review by Claire Dederer on this subject, with a special focus on the films of Woody Allen. You can read the article here: https://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2017/11/20/art-monstrous-men/

I believe Ms. Dederer makes an important point in her article. None of us are perfect. We’ve all done stupid, mean, or hurtful things at one time or another. Hopefully most of us haven’t committed acts as terrible as those committed by Bill Cosby or Marion Zimmer Bradley, but all of us get caught up in our own selfish or thoughtless needs and desires at times. What’s more, this struggle against our worst natures is at the very root of what makes good art.

As an editor, I’ve read and published numerous submissions from prisoners. I’ve never been good about keeping detailed statistics on things like this, but my impression is that the acceptance rate among prisoners is about the same as the general population. Now, it’s rare for a prisoner to tell me why they’re serving time, but clearly they were convicted of a sufficiently serious crime to be incarcerated. Despite that, I have found in these works something worth sharing with a wider audience. I also feel like these people are paying their debt to society by serving time. Many of them are honestly trying to improve themselves by expressing their feelings through art. I feel the effort deserves reward.

Thinking about this subject has also helped me to understand my inherent problem with America’s celebrity worship. As a culture, we seem all too ready to give people power simply because they’re famous. People become afraid to speak up when a famous person does terrible things. Admittedly many famous people do hold real power. They’re heads of companies or manage staffs, but the fact that they’re famous makes people more afraid to speak up. People know they’ll be judged in the court of public opinion when they say a famous person did terrible things. In fact, certain celebrities are quite adept at turning their fans against accusers.

I think there is a real danger when society attempts to dictate what art is available for people to consume. Imagine the government telling you to throw out your video tapes of I Spy and burn your copies of The Mists of Avalon. Now imagine what else they’ll decide is not moral enough for you to consume. Another possible and more subtle consequence is that you could create a situation where the only artists available are the famous ones, which would only exacerbate the celebrity problem. Turning that around does offer something to consider when you feel betrayed by an artist. Always remember, there are many other artists out there eager to tell you stories, show you their movies, and paint amazing canvases.

Just remember, those artists are human and subject to temptation. Just like you.