The Golem's Mighty Swing by Daniel Reynolds
In his award-winning novel The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, author Michael Chabon describes the myth of the golem from Jewish history. It is an unnatural creature, forged by man from inanimate material, a shadow of true creation, and perhaps a mockery of God, that eventually brings ruin. Chabon's novel ultimately weaves the myth of the golem around a narrative of two boys in New York City, and the enduring power of the new golems found in the pages of comic books. Despite being said to eventually decay, throughout the centuries, the golem has endured.
The Golem's Mighty Swing, the graphic novel released in 2000 (the same year as Chabon's masterpiece) by James Sturm, treads along some of these similar lines of myth making, history and Americana. While not involving itself with comic books, the story concerns a different element of the America experience, telling the tale of a travelling Jewish baseball team, at a time long before the corporate hegemony of the Major Leagues. Led by the stoic Noah Strauss, known as the Zion Lion, along with his younger brother, Moishe, and a weathered cast of teammates (Stan "The Wire" Weiss, "Buttercup" Lev), the Stars of David are the most unbeatable team rolling through middle America. Through clear-eyed and thick lined panels, Sturm guides us into a small, specific world lost to history.
The initial intriguing element of Sturm's book is this forgotten world, the vastness of America and of course the microcosm of the baseball diamond. Balancing the stillness with the sudden, Sturm has an amazing eye for capturing the snapping back and forth of baseball action. The book easily visualizes the 'anything can happen on the next pitch' anticipation, the duel between the hitter and pitcher, and the roar of the crowd. That Sturm can do this in his elegant black and white style is a testament to the power of the 'less is more' aesthetic that courses through the book. With Strauss, the third baseman and manager, narrating the tale we learn of each character through how they play, their sporting actions ringing out as profiles of their very being. In effect, Sturm's characters become like golems themselves, products of a different time, eroding in the winds of change.
The story continues and it becomes clear that baseball of the era is crafting a new identity. People can no longer be drawn in simply by the beautiful weather, the athletic competition, the beauty of the game itself. The Stars of David are struggling. Oh sure, it is downplayed by Strauss, but even he sees the curve ball of showmanship, of side show attraction, coming. He is pressed by Victor Paige, a man of the next generation, to envision new ways to liven up the game of baseball, to perhaps more fully embrace the us vs. them vibe of America, and accept a new era of sports and entertainment.
While Sturm's story grapples with the changes to America's pastime, there are uglier currents at work. Similarly to many stories of the age, the Golem's Mighty Swing tackles race and racism in America. There is a discordant note that is held throughout the story, a growing tension between the baseball insiders, the townspeople, the paying customers and the team, the Jews, and the titular Golem, a man named Hershl Bloom, but born as Henry Bell, a veteran of the Negro Leagues. He stands as a reminder of the divisions in baseball and America, accepted only when consumed by an artificial identity.
The swirl of wonder filled spectacle based on the fear of racial differences brings Sturm's tale into stark relief. In the clean lined margins of his story, there is an ugly urgency, a growing unease as our heroes struggle on playing a sport, a game, that should be the great equalizer. Men are just men on the baseball diamond, the only dividing line being whether they have the skills to play or not.
What Sturm ultimately presages here is the rise of entertainment in sports, and the flaying open of the ugly divisions fostered within it due to race. The effortless economy with which he does this is the breathtaking part of the Golem's Might Swing. With simple line work and terse narration, Sturm captures the dusty, still life of small town America, of the lively baseball stands, of a game turned ugly. His baseball is played by journeymen, shaped by the road and the culture they are clinging to. With the swing of the Golem's bat, times change and history moves on, but Sturm remembers and captures it, brings it to life even, despite the myth having already turned to dust.