“Joe Golem: Occult Detective—The Conjurors” brings the Joe Golem and the Drowning City novel adaptation to a close. The scale of this tale is beyond anything in “Joe Golem” before, changing the shape of the series as we know it. This review contains full spoilers for ‘The Conjurors’ arc.
Written by Mike Mignola and Christopher Golden
Illustrated by Peter Bergting
Colored by Michelle Madsen
Lettered by Clem Robins
Joe Golem is dead. Or is he? The supernatural mysteries continue in the latest volume of the post-apocalyptic series.
Simon Church is fading fast in the city above and Molly is held captive by Dr. Cocteau’s gas-men below, but something stirs in the tunnels. How much of the golem is still in the man, or the man in the golem? And can either be enough to stop Dr. Cocteau once he has the artifact he seeks?
Mark Tweedale: So, we’re trying something a little different with this review. Rather than reviewing each issue as it came out, we’re reviewing the entire arc now that the final issue is out. Readers, let us know what you think of this, as Mignolaversity may be doing this for other titles in future.
When “Joe Golem: Occult Detective” was first announced, I asked Chris if he’d read the original prose novel yet. He hadn’t, and so I thought it’d be interesting to review the series with the two of us—one being familiar with the novel, the other not—to see how it affected our reading experiences. Now that it’s all over, Chris is finally free!
Thanks for doing this, Chris. I know you wanted to read the novel, and you’ve been a good sport to put it on hold for these reviews.
Thinking back to when we began writing these reviews together, the biggest difference between our perspectives was that I was trying to figure out each of the characters and their motivations, while you had already met them through the prose. Now that we are at the end of the story, I am guessing that our understanding of the overall narrative is pretty much the same, so my curiosity is less about characters and more about your experience reading the ‘The Conjurors.’ I mean, we just witnessed some pretty tremendous events transpire throughout the story and I am wondering if the comics had the same kind of impact presenting these events to a reader as the prose?
Mark: Some things the comics do better, others the novel does better. With the comics, it can really deliver on the big action, but the novel could slow down more and get into the characters’ heads. So, for example, the whole sequence with Mr. Church and his former assistants was a long section, and we got into how Mr. Church’s felt, giving the sequence a much more dramatic presence. The comic couldn’t capture the intangible elements at play, and so the stakes came across as smaller.
But there was also new stuff in the comics that brought an all-new level of drama to the finale—I won’t mention what they were, so you can discover it for yourself when you read the novel—but it opens up some exciting avenues for the future. Overall, I found the stuff with Joe came across stronger in the comic, the stuff with Mr. Church came across more muted, and the stuff with Maggie was about the same. Of course, I knew what was coming, so I didn’t have the urgency that comes with discovering the story for the first time. How’d you find the ending since it was all new?
Chris: I really enjoyed it. I was very surprised and never would have guessed Cocteau’s ultimate plan was to use Felix and the Lector’s Pentajum to hitchhike into the outer Dark, nor that Joe was going to turn back into a Golem…I found these plot points very exciting.Continued below
You mention the stakes came across smaller. This is my only major criticism of the story. The ending, which was an apocalyptic event, didn’t seem to have a lot of impact. What’s funny is the ending didn’t feel rushed, but almost like it was truncated, and if it had been drawn out more to show how the devastation was affecting the populace and city, it would have more powerful.
Mark: Yeah, there’s that sense that Joe, Maggie, and Cocteau are alone in the city. In the novel, the reader is never allowed to forget the human cost of every second that Felix is stuck in the Drowning City. That element is still in the comic, but muted. We see the devastation of buildings, but not really the devastation of people.
And I completely understand that choice, because even at five issues, there’s a lot to fit in. Golden understandably keeps the focus on our leads, but even that feels confined. Mignola has done so many world-ending stories that this sort of destruction on a city scale is something we’ve seen numerous times now. This could’ve been approached like “B.P.R.D.: The Black Flame,” where the action is kept tight on our characters until there’s key actions from the monster, which where shown in huge panels, sometimes even double-page spreads. Or it could’ve been approached like “Hellboy: The Fury,” where the battle between Hellboy and Nimue was intercut with the people of London dying as their city was destroyed. Both options are expensive in terms of page real estate, and I think Golden and Bergting have done something more relevant to the story of “Joe Golem,” focusing instead on memory.
Maggie is faced with the memory of who Felix was and how she must let him go to save the city, and Joe is faced with his own memories as his past becomes his new present. Those other elements were sacrificed to emphasize this in the comics adaptation. It’s different, and I must admit, there are some things I really miss from the novel, but it works and it’s consistent with what the prior arcs set up. Still, I can’t help but feel like this needed more space. The destruction of the Drowning City and the scale of Felix feel rather boxed-in, but this strikes me as a limitation of the format rather than a failing of the storytelling. That said, there are moments where it breaks free of that, and boy, do those moments look fantastic.
Chris: Thats a good take on it. An area where this arc excelled for me was with the coloring. Michelle Madsen established a color language for each plot line in ‘The Drowning City’ arc that continued into ‘The Conjurors.’ Using constant color schemes made each transition between the storylines come off seamless. Scenes with Joe in the past were pink/red, Joe in the present were purple/blue, Church was green/blue, and Molly was red/green/yellow, etc. Every time I saw colors changed I knew exactly what I was reading, so the transitions didn’t come off abrupt.
The cool part was during the main conflict, when everybody was essentially together, an amalgam of colors schemes were used in the panels which brought all of the storylines together cohesively. It was really a cool thing to see.
Mark: I’ve said before, I like that Madsen built on the color language established by Dave Stewart in the early arcs. Her work doesn’t feel confined by those choices, and it gives greater punch when the Golem’s memories are still referencing the palette introduced in the first issue. That said, I have to emphasize that Madsen built on it—this is not a static reference. She finds ways to invent different moods and feels within the established palette, so that two Golem scenes can feel tonally very different from each other, while still feeling connected.
Chris: What was you favorite part of the story? Mine was when Molly throat punched Cocteau! It was phenomenally presented. I love Molly and am going to miss her.
Mark: Yeah, there’s a reason she’s my favourite character. You can imagine when “Joe Golem” first kicked off, how very impatient I was to get to her. It was worth the wait though. And I don’t think Molly’s going anywhere. While “Joe Golem: Occult Detective” ends here, I get the feeling “Joe Golem” will continue, but with a new subtitle. My hope is that we’ll see a lot more of Molly in future.Continued below
As for my favorite moment in ‘The Conjurors,’ I’m going to have to say the stuff with the witch in Joe Golem’s memory. I felt Bergting took the witch designs he had used in “Baltimore” and took it to another place, somewhere weirder.
I also like that Golden started to address a criticism I had of the Baltimore / Joe Golem Universe back in “Baltimore: The Cult of the Red King,” which is that the witches in the series were too heavily based on stereotypes. It was something that bothered me more over time since historically there were people that we call witches now, and a lot of messed up stuff happened and now a lot of our fiction buys into the lies used to justify these atrocities. ‘The Conjurors’ introduces more complexity, telling us what we refer to as “witches” are not a homogenous group, and not all are affiliated with the Red King and the Outer Dark. It opens a door for greater complexity in the series, and since Joe ends this arc by going out into the world to find witches, it’s an avenue I’m hopeful we’ll see explored.
Chris: I would love to see more “Joe Golem.” Golden has teed it up well, so I hope it comes to fruition. I also totally see your perspective on the witches. His take on the old witch in the flashback was pretty amazing.
Well… let’s wrap this one up. I am going to give it an 8. The story was well put together, nothing felt clunky or rushed. Also Madsen’s colors made for a seamless storytelling with so many transitions. As said before, I do wish the end would have been longer… Now to start reading the book.
Mark: You’re in for a treat, Chris. Honestly, I think my memory of the book got in the way of my enjoyment a bit. With “Baltimore” Golden adapted fragments of the original novel, whereas in for “Joe Golem” it’s much more of a one to one translation. The “Baltimore” comics were never a replacement for the original novel. Rather the two are complementary and your experience of the story will be greatly enhanced by reading both. ‘The Drowning City’ and ‘The Conjurors’ could function as a replacement though. The differences between the two feels like two different cuts of the same movie—there are a few new scenes, some old scenes have been deleted, but the narrative bones are the same.
Because of the similarity, when something’s missing, I can’t help but feel that. At the same time, I got a kick out of the expansion of certain ideas. I’m really excited about what’s next though…
Final verdict: 8 – ‘The Conjurors’ changes the “Joe Golem” series in a big way.