This week on Small Press Spotlight, I’ll be looking at James Sturm The Golem’s Mighty Swing, a 2001 original graphic novel from Drawn and Quarterly. Drawn and Quarterly is a comic publisher out of Canada that actually is the biggest in Canada and really focuses on producing high quality graphic novels and comics. From what I’ve read, this title is their best release (Time even named this the best graphic novel of 2000), and that is thanks to Sturm, who really is an exceptional creator (he’s known in mainstream comics for his Eisner Award winning mini-series Fantastic Four: Unstable Molecules).
Check it out after the jump.
The Golem’s Mighty Swing is part of Sturm’s America trilogy, in which he analyzes American life through various prisms. In Swing, he takes readers on a journey with The Stars of David, a 1920’s barnstorming baseball team comprised almost entirely of Jewish men (the one exception is Hershl Bloom (“a member of the lost tribe”) aka Henry Bell, a former Negro Leagues star). Barely scraping by and desperate to change their fates a little bit, they give in to promoter who suggests that they dress Bell as a Golem (a legendary Jewish creature) as he says that they will assuredly double their profits if this happens.
Of course, most often when something appears to be too good to be true, it is, as this move brings out the deep fear Middle America has for the unknown in frightening and violent fashion. However, while that is the plot it is not necessarily the purpose of this story. This isn’t about a golem really at all. When you get to the core of it, it’s about a few things that sort of defined early 20th century America – baseball, anti-semitism, and small town living.
One of the most interesting things about this book is how well it takes us through games of baseball. Sturm obviously has a deep understanding of the game as well as a passion for it, as the game action he depicts is believable and never over sold by impossible plays, and we are walked through every bit of action by the narrator of the story Noah Strauss (aka “the Zion Lion”). Strauss was once a hot prospect for the Boston Red Sox until his knees gave out on him, but his love of the game and desire to not work in a factory or some similarly not desirable occupation (the most common attribute of the players besides their religion is their desire to escape the hardships of the 1920’s low level work place) keeps him running this team. He acts as Sturm’s voice in the games, giving us play by play of the action that really draws the reader in with its realism.
Given that this is all taking place in the 1920’s and this is a team comprised of minorities, much of this story delves into race relations and how disgusting we were as Americans in a time that is often romanticized (“the Roaring 20’s” were a pretty rough time for minorities). It’s difficult as is to make it as a barnstorming team during this period, but the hatred that often comes with being a Jewish team is often truly astonishing, as many fans come to the games just to see a Jew in person and to bring them down. Small towns then were almost entirely segregated from modern society, and much of what was known was passed down from previous generations, leading to fear mongering and gross generalizations about minorities. That the story culminates with what effectively amounts to a paranoia driven riot when the golem rears his big (not even close to Jewish) head is a fitting coda to a story (as Strauss says himself, “It is no surprise that things got out of hand. That is the nature of a golem”).
Sturm really accomplishes something special here, as every element of this story rings incredibly true. The race based paranoia, the hate mongering, the baseball, the nature of barnstorming, the study of religion, and the ugliness of humanity all are depicted in a very authentic fashion. Sturm the artist renders events in a very clean and often cartoonish fashion, using variations of nine panel layout structuring throughout to add a real uniformity to the actions that take place on the page. While there isn’t anything that really blows you away as a fan of art, it is quietly effective and sometimes that is all you really need.
When I first acquired this, I really did not know what to expect. I thought I’d read a baseball story featuring an actual golem (keep in mind I was much younger when I initially got this), but this is so much more. This is a true slice of apple pie, a piece of Americana that is nostalgic of a time period long gone but also very aware of what exactly it was. A quiet and unassuming masterpiece from a very exceptional creator, and one that deserves to be read.