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. 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. Through highly expressive drawings, Sturm conveys the pain of a child’s loss, the couple’s descent into religious fervor, and their subsequent disillusionment. 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.
Drawn and Quarterly has recently published a new edition of Sturm’s award-winning 2001 The Golem’s Mighty Swing. This book features a Jewish barnstorming team touring the Midwest in the early 1920s, detailing their struggles with financial hardship and small-town xenophobia. 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. Sturm is currently turning his 2016 Slate column, Off Season, into a book. 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. Our conversation focused on The Golem’s Mighty Swing.
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. 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? What role does print culture play in your work?
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. Showing racist characters is one thing, but seeing “reserved seating for whites” on printed matter speaks to how entrenched Jim Crow was. The broadsides set the stage for the game and hopefully build anticipation for the reader. In the book, they also serve as chapter headers.
As a matter of historical fact, all-Jewish barnstorming teams did not exist. You loosely based your squad in The Golem’s Mighty Swing on a Christian team, the House of David. How much historical research was involved in creating this work? What kinds of sources did you use?
On a visual level I wanted to make sure I got the cars, building, and clothing historically accurate. This was pre-Google Image search, so my main sources were used books. I also read short stories, newspapers, and other writing from the 1920s to make sure the language felt of its time. Nothing breaks the spell of a story for me more than when modern idiom is written into historical works. I sought out baseball comics from years past to see how other cartoonists depicted the sport. I combed used bookstores for illustrated books on baseball history.
Visually, I was trying to evoke a feeling of Americana in the book. 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 traced old images into my work and then continued to redraw them, making them my own.
What drew you to focus on baseball? Is there something about this game and its rules that allowed you to address the United States’s immigrant past via comics?
I grew up listening to and watching baseball. 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). 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. 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. It is also a sport without a clock. In a sense, it literally has a “timeless” quality to it.
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. I tried to capture the pacing of the game too, how things move really slowly then suddenly there is a burst of action. More generally, as with over-writing, it’s possible to over-illustrate comics, detracting from the story by including too many visual details. So I try to boil down my images to make for a less halting read.
In The Golem’s Mighty Swing, there are many wordless spreads that demand more active participation on the reader’s part. Your 2010 Market Day also includes silent panels and you acknowledge, at the end, Jewish photographers such as Roman Vishniac and Alter Kacyzne. What role does photography play in your comics? Do these two media intersect in some way?
As a cartoonist, I write with pictures and, like any writing, it’s trial and error as I feel my way through the process. Sometimes the story needs words, sometimes things can be expressed entirely with pictures. On a utilitarian level, photos provide visual reference for things I have to draw and inspiration for compositions. Both cartooning and photography tell stories with pictures. Photographers more often use single images to create narrative tableaus. As a cartoonist, I’m juxtaposing images, creating visual rhythms, and inferring meaning using the relationships between these images.
The titular golem appears in your comics as a costume, rather than an actual clay monster brought to life by a rabbi. 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. Where did you first encounter the golem story? Why did you introduce it through the American screening of a German film?
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.
I encountered the golem story in the pages of the Marvel comics that I read as a kid in the 1970s. 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. The golem was also one of the few explicitly Jewish characters that I encountered in comics. Later I became aware that almost all of Marvel’s foundational characters have Jewish roots. It’s obvious now, but as a 10-year-old you don’t see it.
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! Danger, Deliverance and Art. It included a wonderful collection of essays and artwork, and what grabbed my attention were stills from Wegener’s film. I rented the film from a video store in Seattle later on. Likely the promoter in my book has no clue what the film is about, only that it screened to packed movie houses. He just sees an opportunity to make a few dollars.
The golem’s appearance on the baseball field leads to chaotic, unexpected results. How did the golem story’s modern themes of violence and rebellion serve your own narrative about xenophobic America?
Creating something that has violent, unintended consequences is at the heart of the golem myth too. The story created by a promoter and then amplified by the media leads to a race riot. The story itself becomes a golem. In The Golem’s Mighty Swing, the violence is an expression of the racism that is part of the American DNA.
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. What is the significance of this narrative choice?
I was thinking about all the ways that identity is defined. I play with this idea a bit in the book, like in the story of the Indian, Joe Hush. When Joe plays against an all-Indian team he suddenly recognizes his cousin and switches teams. Until that point the other players did not know that Joe, the “magpie,” was an Indian. So how fluid is identity? Who decides one’s identity? 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. He is the largest player by far and can hit the ball the farthest, so the promoter casts him as the terrifying, gigantic golem. As a black player on an all-Jewish team, he is more “otherly” than his teammates.
Do you see a renewed relevance for The Golem’s Mighty Swing following the recent elections?
Of course. It’s hard not to read the book now in that context. The character of Victor Paige, a fearmonger who profits by using the media to stoke racial resentment, is too familiar. 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. 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. I didn’t take him all that seriously as a character. Now a version of that character is president. God help us all.
One final question. You co-founded the Center for Cartoon Studies in Vermont, where you are also a faculty member. What are some of your educational goals when promoting comics and teaching the next generation of cartoonists?
My goal is to help each student discover their own unique way of making their comics. I see comics as a language, and CCS is very much an immersive program. 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. The program asks students to look outward too. How can a cartoonist’s skill set of visual communication be useful to the world beyond one’s personal agenda? In these times, this question seems especially urgent.