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Review: ‘The Golem’s Mighty Swing’

The Golem's Mighty Swing
The Golem’s Mighty Swing
By James Sturm
Drawn and Quarterly

The Golem’s Mighty Swing is a story set in an earlier, simpler time, when old men lounged on the porch of the general store, kids wore knickers and newsboy caps, and people lived in small towns where everybody knew everybody. You can almost smell the pies cooling on the windowsill.

Yet from the very first page, Sturm shows us the dark side of this supposedly golden era. That page is a poster touting an upcoming baseball game: The local team is taking on the Stars of David, a traveling Jewish team, in what promises to be an exciting matchup. At the bottom of the page, next to the photo of Stars of David captain Noah Strauss, “The Zion Lion,” are the words “Reserved seating for whites.”

The Golem’s Mighty Swing is a graphic novel about racism, the everyday racism that was the norm in a time that is now looked upon with fond nostalgia. The charming small town of the past, the simple people living uncomplicated lives—they were riddled through and through with racism and anti-Semitism, from the separate sections in the local ballpark to the local paper editorializing about “the threat posed by the Jews.”

Golem's Mighty Swing

The Stars of David don’t protest this; they live with it, even exploit it. They know they are exotic foreigners who will draw a crowd. In the first sequence of the book, a proper-looking matron in a hat and spectacles announces “I’m not here to see baseball, but the Jews, thank you very much.” Their survival depends on enraging the crowds just enough that they will buy a ticket, but not so much that they will physically attack the team.

They are, to be sure, a ragtag team. Noah, the narrator, played a couple of seasons with the Boston Red Sox before his knees betrayed him. His brother Moishe is only 16 and applies a beard with shoe polish before the game. The pitcher is an alcoholic, and their cleanup hitter and utility man, Herschl Bloom (a.k.a. Henry Bell) isn’t exactly Jewish. He’s black, which is explained away as being from one of the lost tribes of Israel.

Golem 2

It’s Henry who catches the eye of a slick promoter, Victor Paige. Henry is a big guy, and Paige suggests that the team dress Henry as a golem and split the proceeds from the much larger crowd he will surely draw. (In Jewish mythology, a golem is a man-made creature that can serve as a companion or a protector but, as one character explains, “Only God can grant a creature a soul and inevitably golems become destroyers.”) Noah thinks this is a terrible idea, but when the team’s bus definitively dies, they need the cash so they go for it.

The golem’s appearance is a disaster from beginning to end. From before the beginning, actually: The night before the game, the pitcher, Buttercup Lev, goes into town to get a drink and is severely beaten by a local crowd. His arm is injured, so the Stars go into the game without him. It goes downhill from there, and the game ends in a riot, with the Stars of David trapped in their dugout and Henry, still dressed as the Golem, wielding a baseball bat to defend them—until a sudden and fortuitous rainstorm disperses the crowd.

And that’s it. The Stars of David have survived another game. Everyone moves on, and the story ends, except for an epilogue set ten years later, which echoes and amplifies the overall theme of the book. Noah goes to a baseball game that relies on the same sort of artifice that the Stars of David used, but this time it’s poor white people who are being objectified—the visiting team is the Hayseeds, and the manager is like a real-life Moon Mullins. It’s another Victor Paige special, and Noah recognizes the schtick from one of Henry’s stories. It goes off script, though, when the drunken manager intervenes in the game and won’t leave the field. “At last there is a genuine feeling of suspense and uncertainty,” Noah says. “I decide to sit back down. I am curious to see how it all plays out.”

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Sturm is a master storyteller. He arranges his panels on a grid, often using a set of three to reveal emotion or capture a moment. Each page is carefully composed, so much so that it’s easy to miss if you’re not looking for it—the eye moves smoothly across the page. His figures are drawn economically, with the result that the artwork is simple to look at but powerfully expressive. His deft lines make it look easy, and he includes just enough detail to draw the reader into the scene—nothing more.

The Golem’s Mighty Swing was first published in 2003, when the graphic novel format was still relatively new. Drawn and Quarterly brought it back last year, and this new edition deserves to be read far and wide. It’s a necessary reminder that this period in time, which looks so appealing in soft-focus retrospect, was not really as great as we think.

You can see a preview here.

Brigid Alverson About Brigid Alverson

Brigid Alverson, the editor of the Good Comics for Kids blog, has been reading comics since she was 4. She has an MFA in printmaking and has worked as a book editor and a newspaper reporter; now she is assistant to the mayor of Melrose, Massachusetts. In addition to editing GC4K, she writes about comics and graphic novels at MangaBlog, SLJTeen, Publishers Weekly Comics World, Comic Book Resources, MTV Geek, and Good Brigid is married to a physicist and has two daughters in college, which is why she writes so much. She was a judge for the 2012 Eisner Awards.

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