James Sturm: “The Golem’s Mighty Swing”

So how fluid is identity? On a visual level I wanted to make sure I got the cars, building, and clothing historically accurate. Drawn and Quarterly has recently published a new edition of Sturm’s award-winning 2001 The Golem’s Mighty Swing. Since the book’s original appearance Sturm has published another baseball comic, Satchel Paige: Striking Out Jim Crow (2007); and Market Day (2010), the story of a Jewish artisan carpet-maker in Eastern Europe. Through highly expressive drawings, Sturm conveys the pain of a child’s loss, the couple’s descent into religious fervor, and their subsequent disillusionment. Do these two media intersect in some way? What are some of your educational goals when promoting comics and teaching the next generation of cartoonists? It’s hard not to read the book now in that context. In addition to the short-lived “Golem” character from a run of Strange Tales, The Hulk was mistaken for a golem in a 1970 issue. My hope is that the curriculum challenges each student to make their best work and that as they move through the program they become intimate with their own creative process. Showing racist characters is one thing, but seeing “reserved seating for whites” on printed matter speaks to how entrenched Jim Crow was. Sometimes the story needs words, sometimes things can be expressed entirely with pictures. I was excited to do a sports comic and baseball seemed like the obvious choice as the baseball player’s experience mirrors the immigrant’s — in order to be safe at home you first have to take a perilous journey. I encountered the golem story in the pages of the Marvel comics that I read as a kid in the 1970s. We even see in The Golem’s Mighty Swing an early 20th-century version of fake news, utilizing print culture and broadsides rather than the internet. You loosely based your squad in The Golem’s Mighty Swing on a Christian team, the House of David. In a sense, it literally has a “timeless” quality to it. I also read short stories, newspapers, and other writing from the 1920s to make sure the language felt of its time. Both cartooning and photography tell stories with pictures. Until that point the other players did not know that Joe, the “magpie,” was an Indian. How much historical research was involved in creating this work? The Golem’s Mighty Swing was actually the third comic I made that focused on American history (after The Revival and Hundreds of Feet Below Daylight). Why did you introduce it through the American screening of a German film? Where did you first encounter the golem story? I was working on The Revival at a library on the University of Washington campus when I came across the catalog for a 1988 exhibit at the Jewish Museum in NYC entitled Golem! Even the promoter’s name, Victor Paige, suggests “winning the headline.” When I wrote the book, Victor Paige was a character who was there for plot only. How did the golem story’s modern themes of violence and rebellion serve your own narrative about xenophobic America? My goal is to help each student discover their own unique way of making their comics. ¤
Maya Barzilai is associate professor of Hebrew literature and Jewish culture at the University of Michigan. The character of Victor Paige, a fearmonger who profits by using the media to stoke racial resentment, is too familiar. Nothing breaks the spell of a story for me more than when modern idiom is written into historical works. What drew you to focus on baseball? It is a gimmick, introduced by a promotional agent following the immense success in New York of Paul Wegener’s 1920 German film, The Golem: How He Came into the World. What kinds of sources did you use? Sturm is currently turning his 2016 Slate column, Off Season, into a book. JAMES STURM: They do function as splash pages. I love the designs of those old broadsides, and they are an effective way to ground the reader in the era. I sought out baseball comics from years past to see how other cartoonists depicted the sport. Creating something that has violent, unintended consequences is at the heart of the golem myth too. From James Sturm, “The Golem’s Mighty Swing” (2001), p. How can a cartoonist’s skill set of visual communication be useful to the world beyond one’s personal agenda? What is the significance of this narrative choice? I rented the film from a video store in Seattle later on. Danger, Deliverance and Art. It included a wonderful collection of essays and artwork, and what grabbed my attention were stills from Wegener’s film. Your 2010 Market Day also includes silent panels and you acknowledge, at the end, Jewish photographers such as Roman Vishniac and Alter Kacyzne. The golem was also one of the few explicitly Jewish characters that I encountered in comics. Our conversation focused on The Golem’s Mighty Swing. 30. As a black player on an all-Jewish team, he is more “otherly” than his teammates. The broadsides set the stage for the game and hopefully build anticipation for the reader. What role does photography play in your comics? Baseball’s history, more than that of other American sports, has a mythic quality that offers a glimpse of how the United States wants to see itself. In The Golem’s Mighty Swing, the violence is an expression of the racism that is part of the American DNA. I play with this idea a bit in the book, like in the story of the Indian, Joe Hush. Photographers more often use single images to create narrative tableaus. God help us all. The program asks students to look outward too. This book features a Jewish barnstorming team touring the Midwest in the early 1920s, detailing their struggles with financial hardship and small-town xenophobia. As a matter of historical fact, all-Jewish barnstorming teams did not exist. I grew up listening to and watching baseball. Who decides one’s identity? When drawing baseball scenes, I tried to pare things down and allow the reader to focus on the dramatic exchange between pitcher and batter, sometimes even removing the backgrounds to heighten the drama between the players. One final question. In a brilliant twist on the golem theme, the agent requests that Henry Bell, the only African-American player on the Jewish team, “perform” the golem part with bat in hand. Is there something about this game and its rules that allowed you to address the United States’s immigrant past via comics? More generally, as with over-writing, it’s possible to over-illustrate comics, detracting from the story by including too many visual details. I see comics as a language, and CCS is very much an immersive program. On a utilitarian level, photos provide visual reference for things I have to draw and inspiration for compositions. As a cartoonist, I write with pictures and, like any writing, it’s trial and error as I feel my way through the process. Visually, I was trying to evoke a feeling of Americana in the book. Sturm’s 1996 The Revival takes up the 1801 Christian pilgrim mass gathering at Cane Ridge, Kentucky, tells   of a couple who hope to resurrect their recently deceased daughter. Now a version of that character is president. I combed used bookstores for illustrated books on baseball history. The story itself becomes a golem. The titular golem appears in your comics as a costume, rather than an actual clay monster brought to life by a rabbi. He is the largest player by far and can hit the ball the farthest, so the promoter casts him as the terrifying, gigantic golem. In the book, they also serve as chapter headers. Likely the promoter in my book has no clue what the film is about, only that it screened to packed movie houses. ¤
MAYA BARZILAI: The first image that the reader encounters in The Golem’s Mighty Swing is a broadside advertising one of the Jewish team’s games. This was pre-Google Image search, so my main sources were used books. The golem’s appearance on the baseball field leads to chaotic, unexpected results. It is also a sport without a clock. Gil Kane, Tony DeZuniga, and John Romita Sr., cover of “Strange Tales” 174 (June 1974). On the bottom of the broadside, we read “reserved seating for whites.” Do this image and the other broadsides in the book function as splash pages? In The Golem’s Mighty Swing, there are many wordless spreads that demand more active participation on the reader’s part. I didn’t take him all that seriously as a character. She is the author of Golem: Modern Wars and Their Monsters (NYU Press, 2016). I traced old images into my work and then continued to redraw them, making them my own. When Joe plays against an all-Indian team he suddenly recognizes his cousin and switches teams. Later I became aware that almost all of Marvel’s foundational characters have Jewish roots. Off Season narrates the Trump–Clinton elections from the perspective of a father recently separated from his wife and struggling on all fronts: work, finances, childcare, and, of course, politics. Henry Bell, the African-American player, passes as a Jew when playing for the barnstorming team, but when he is singled out to perform the golem part he is typecast in a sense. What role does print culture play in your work? I was thinking about all the ways that identity is defined. It’s obvious now, but as a 10-year-old you don’t see it. The story created by a promoter and then amplified by the media leads to a race riot. Of course. From James Sturm, “The Golem’s Mighty Swing” (2001), unnumbered. He just sees an opportunity to make a few dollars. The golem story resonates with most artists and writers as it is at the core of what we do: creating something and hoping it goes on to have a life of its own. His 2003 Unstable Molecules, meanwhile, depicts four fictional characters whom Sturm imagines as the real-life inspirations for Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s 1961 invention of the Fantastic Four. I studied (and stole) compositions from artists like Grant Wood, Thomas Hart Benton, and the WPA photographers (even though these photos were taken after the period depicted in The Golem’s Mighty Swing). I tried to capture the pacing of the game too, how things move really slowly then suddenly there is a burst of action. So I try to boil down my images to make for a less halting read. As a cartoonist, I’m juxtaposing images, creating visual rhythms, and inferring meaning using the relationships between these images. In these times, this question seems especially urgent. Do you see a renewed relevance for The Golem’s Mighty Swing following the recent elections? You co-founded the Center for Cartoon Studies in Vermont, where you are also a faculty member. JULY 15, 2017

JAMES STURM’S GRAPHIC NARRATIVES are strongly grounded in American history, drawing upon this history to tell fictional stories with ongoing relevance.