Art and Artifice
James Sturm 2001
THE GOLEM'S MIGHTY SWING
Published by Drawn & Quarterly Books
Copyright 2001 James Sturm
Sturm's tale of a barnstorming baseball team of Jews is a unique take on both Baseball history (of the 1920s) and on racial animosity.
Broken into three parts, we have the introduction of the team and what it is like to be a small-time baseball player traveling from town-to-town; in the second part the disastrous undertaking of adding a 'golem' to the team as a gimmick; and in the third part a short 6-page tale shows us what happened to the cast.
The story is carefully structured and the artwork highly controlled. Though advertised as a picture novel,' on the whole this is not a "novel," but a well-crafted "long" short-story.
Sturm presents the world of 1920s America through brief vignettes that provide images of a world both foreign and familiar. When Noah Strauss, our narrator and manager of the "Stars of David", angered by his younger brother Moses, goes for a walk alone through one of the small towns they've been playing, we follow him as he wanders the stark ink-and-paper world of fences, clotheslines and tall-grassed fields. Mo roams about depressed, witnessing hard looks and poverty. When he is harassed by some children who want to see his horns (one of the anti-Jewish canards of history brought up in the tale), 'Mo' ends up in a confrontation with some of the locals that looks like the precursor to violence or worse.
Before the threatened beating begins, though, Sturm steers us away to Noah Strauss meeting Victor Paige, a promoter who introduces the idea of the Golem "conceit" and that it should be shouldered by the non-Jewish Hershl Bloom (aka Henry Bell, veteran of the negro-league 'Black Barons') who is the clean-up batter for the Jewish team.
Sturm then returns us to Mo's fate, expecting the worst, instead we see the locals and Mo just talking baseball.
But what is baseball? Sturm tells us, via Noah Strauss, on page two that "baseball is America."
With that propositioned, he repeats it with a different set of details about what is baseball on page 58. This is the most important (and biggest) game of the season for Strauss' team. We see men selling programs, scorecards, peanuts and popcorn; townspeople (black and white) crowding into a stadium for segregated seating, and Mr. Putnam, the man paying for the team that's pitted against the "Zion Lions," accompanied by a police bodyguard.
We know from the preceding pages that Putnam also owns the local paper that has published an editorial about the nearly apocalyptic importance of the "Putnam All-American" team beating the "Zion Lions," who are "...dirty, long-nosed, thick-lipped sheenies; they stand not for America, not for baseball, but only for themselves. They will suck the money from this town and then they will leave. A victory must be had. The playing field is our nation. The soul of our country is what is at stake." With that benediction, of course there's violence coming.
But is all of this, the salesmen, promoters, owners, fans, writers and players what baseball is, and by implication from Strauss' vision from page 2, America? Sturm seems to be saying so, because it is a lone American flag shown flying above all of the proceedings in the single panel from page 58.
In the crisis of the story centered around this apocalyptic match-up, it is Hershl Bloom who is the Zion Lion's secret weapon. Though pretending to be Jewish for the sake of the team's theme and showmanship, he is a 20-year veteran of the Negro Leagues and our guide into that periphery history. When the Stars of Lion are on the verge of ducking the game with the Putnam team because their pitcher, 'Buttercup' Lev, was beaten up at a local bar, Bloom/Bell provides some perspective:
"When I played for the Black Barons we'd head South for the spring to get an early start on the season. My second year we lost three players before we broke training camp."
"Outside of Macon, Jimmy Day was hung and set on fire."
"Pepper Daniels was stabbed four times in the throat for smiling at a white woman."
"Horace Walker just disappeared. Had he left of his own mind he would have taken his guitar."
Most of the heroes and villains of this tale ruthlessly stare out of their panels directly at the reader, demanding reaction to their actions, passions and hatreds. Sturm is merciless in exposing the pathetic (and dangerous) race-hate of his fictional townspeople, but his 6-page denouement at the end of this book, separate from the Golem tale, indicates a strange complicity between sport fan and violence in general.
This 6-page indictment has a twist, though, coming as it does on the heals of the main story of The Golem's Mighty Swing. When Noah Strauss decides to re-seat himself to watch an otherwise boring baseball match between other teams, we see it is because a drunk has beaten up the umpire.
Not that Sturm does not hint at the connection between baseball and violence well before hand. In the second half of The Golem's Mighty Swing, a mentally ill character named Monroe (a bit like Elijah from Melville's Moby Dick) heralds the coming of Strauss' team to Putnam by shouting crazily "The Golem was not nurtured on his mother's milk! Not grown in a woman's womb!"
Monroe is what the townspeople in the stands for the climatic game will become later; frightened, frenzied, and not sane. Eventually their mob madness is the component that causes them to cower before the Golem wielding a bat, the guardian keeping them from storming the dugout where the Jewish team waits for what Noah Strauss thinks will be their death. Even if it is just a large man in a wig and costume, Hershl Bloom /Henry Bell/Golem is the symbol (and magnet) Sturm uses for the unreasoning race-hate that permeates his world of the American 1920s. But their rescue comes from an even stronger force that supercedes the entire spectacle of the 'big game' and the reluctant police force that brings order back to the crowd
Sturm's drawing style seems simple and straightforward but uses many beautiful examples of figure perspective (see the 3-panel sequence provided above) and Sturm doesn't vary his attention from panel to panel by size or story importance, but instead renders each sequence the same, leaving it to the reader to understand what is or is not important by other means.
This static styling goes a long way toward allowing the reader to quickly get beyond self-consciously looking at small hand-drawn cartoon panels, and into the realm of pure reading.
The story is balanced upon the love of baseball trumping a lot of racial alienation, but not all, and leads back to that 6-page final story that is about the tension of the game, and poses a question about human nature in general.
Original Page 2005 | Updated Sept 2013