Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Graphic Novel Review: "Golem's Mighty Swing" by James Sturm

(Originally written for

The Golem's Mighty Swing

It's the 1920s, and a barnstorming Jewish baseball team called the Stars of David is traveling from state to state, playing games with local teams and barely making it out of town with their winnings and their skins intact.

Team manager and third baseman Noah Strauss, the aging "Zion Lion," holds together a tired, rag-tag team, including his hot-headed little brother, Moishe. It's Noah's job to keep the team going through an exhausting schedule -- as the book opens, the team is playing its twentieth game in 14 days -- and to make sure they get paid. It's not always that easy. When their ancient bus breaks down one day, the team finds themselves stuck in a town where they can't pay for hotel rooms. And if they don't move on, they will miss several more well-paying games they can't afford not to play.

Enter an unscrupulous baseball promoter. He wants to make the Stars of David into a star attraction. His idea: create a Golem to stir up the crowds and increase ticket sales.

The Golem is a creature out of Jewish legend, a man made out of mud and dirt to "be a companion, a protector or a servant," says Fishkin, one of the more religious members of the team. "To give a golem life," he says, "esoteric rituals are performed, ancient incantations spoken. Only a kabbalist who has studied for ages possesses such knowledge." Not looking to perform real magic, the Stars instead get one of their team-mates, an ex-Negro League player named Henry (playing on their team as a member of the "lost tribe"), to don a costume and act the part of the Golem.

It works. But it doesn't last.

The book is a vivid portrait of racism in the early 20th Century. The abuse suffered by the Jewish team members at the hands of the local townsfolk is frightening, and the tales of Henry's days in early black teams are positively chilling. And to top it all off, I've never seen a baseball game as dramatic and full of tension as the games in this book.

Sturm tells a compelling story filled with wonderful characters. He uses a bold, simple stroke both with his words and with his artwork in this graphic novel. He effectively uses a slightly cartoony art style to tell a very serious story. It's not to be missed.

Four stars

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