Review: Iscariot

I wasn’t going to review Archaia’s new graphic novel, Iscariot, by writer and artist S.M. Vidaurri. Usually, anything with even a whiff of “all-ages” and I’m like... But something about this book grabbed my attention: the immediately contentious title, of course, but also its creator, whose work on Jim Henson’s The Storyteller: Witches I found to be singularly spectacular; reason enough for me to give his latest turn at the fairy tale at least a cursory glance. And I’m glad I did, because in it, there be magic. In more ways than one. Iscariot tells the tale of a young girl named Carson, whose bout with cancer is mollified not by the medical treatments that make her feel worse, but by a magician named Iscariot, who almost nightly arrives on the wind to perform random acts of sorcery, but is actually in her ward for far more cryptic reasons. Surrounded on all sides by ageless-yet-dying empires of magic and brushes with family turmoil via substance abuse, Carson must also contend with her new role, as the unwitting champion of what is left of the world’s magic reserves; the biggest trick for her to learn being, what is the true worth of the power to change the world?

Vidaurri paints an intricate picture in Iscariot, both visually and in his narrative. This being a fairy tale, the latter doesn’t come with the dialogue you might expect from modern comics. Instead, it is written with purposeful breaks, which may turn off some readers as being stilted or without a natural flow. But again, this is a fairy tale, and as such reads as one should: like a riddle. Punctuated by three chapter breaks, each of which boasts its own poem (which I was compelled to enjoy several times over), the story is written with great wonder, but solemnly, and with many pauses to let itself breathe; or better, sigh.

Iscariot_HC_PressThere is a poetry that permeates the whole of Iscariot, one that shines a pretty harsh light on the altruistic teacher / innocent student dynamic, not to mention the one that exists between parent and child. So while it does so with a rare cadence, the story leads the reader through in an easy, yet sometimes thematically heavy way; such that it’s something you’ll finish quickly, but will stick with you longer than you may think.

The true poetry of the book, however, its real magic, comes from its artistic style and visual direction. Often wandering somewhere between a wood carving, a child’s water color painting and a stained glass window, the art of Iscariot is, like its narrative, woven around a series of breaths. Vidaurri’s landscaping in that regard is tremendous, perforating his pages with a panel-mosaic of snapshots that range from foreshadowing a terrible fall, to simply capturing life’s liner notes: an empty bottle, a full ashtray, a pressed elevator button, a gaggle of floating candles. It’s in these whispers that Iscariot finds its greatest strength.

Vidaurri’s figure work is rough and splintered, with backgrounds that are largely kept simple and clean, even when sorcerers are battling, mid-air and with golden swords blazing, or fighting off floating gilded floral embellishments: the angry embers of the world’s greedily dying magic. The effect is mesmerizing, standing at once in a world of childlike wonder and a sadder sense of grown-up nostalgia.

Of course, death and renewal are massive themes within Iscariot, something that is made clear in the not-coincidentally similar stories of Carson and Iscariot (each of whom has had to deal with loss, sacrifice and the problematic magic of their own destinies from a very young age), and also with its symbolism, most notably expressed in the use of the pages’ near ubiquitous cardinal. The writer himself has said, in interviews past, that one of the reasons he used the cardinal so heavily in this book is thanks to its aesthetic: a bright, colorful beacon set against a backdrop of bleakness. It’s a dash of hope in an increasingly fallow world, the blood rushing back to a pallid face; if that isn’t representative of Carson, Iscariot and everything they are fighting for in this book, I don’t know what is.

S.M. Vidaurri is an exceptional talent in the comic book game right now, crafting stories outside of the classic mould, and doing so using a vibrantly stained palette, a refined narrative cantor and a literally breathtaking artistic drive. If you’re looking for true magic in your comics, look no further than Iscariot.

Score: 4/5

Iscariot Writer/Artist: S.M. Vidaurri Letterer: Leigh Luna Publisher: BOOM!/Archaia Price: $24.99 Release Date: 10/14/15 Format: OGN HC; Print/Digital