Review: Breath of Bones: A Tale of the Golem #1 (of 3)

Breath Bones 1Whether you knew it before, or not—and now you know—Judaism and comics go hand in hand, especially here in America. I’m talking creators (Will Eisner, Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Al Jaffee, Neil Gaiman, Jerry Robinson, and Art Spiegelman), famous comics and graphic novels (Maus), and thematic issues which can be read as metaphors for anti-Semitism (X-Men). But while Greek, Roman, Norse, and Indian mythology populate the narratives and superhero origin stories of thousands of comics and characters, Jewish mythology seems to be missing—and I think most people would ask, what is Jewish mythology?

Pick up Steve Niles’ new 3-part mini-series from Dark Horse, Breath of Bones: A Tale of the Golem, illustrated by Dave Wachter, and you’ll get a grand taste of one of the most famous figures in Jewish mythology: the Golem.

Of course, just about any Nerd knows what a Golem is, especially those who’ve played D&D or basically any fantasy RPG in the last 30 years (console, computer, or tabletop). Golem means ‘unshaped form’ in Classical Hebrew (a language which I have some training in, as both a Jew and a former Classics student), and stories of the Golem date back to the time of the Talmud (c.200 CE) and stretch throughout the Middle Ages and, as this comic shows, to the present. The Golem is seen as a protector, and nothing could be more of a superhero for the downtrodden, denigrated, and persecuted Jews of Eastern Europe. Effectively, the Golem might be the original superhero figure at least in theme.

Breath of Bones: A Tale of the Golem #1 is a wonderful read, and it’s a book I’ve been looking forward to for a long time, as a Jewish comic book collector and a literary enthusiast. Steve Niles is typically a horror comics writer, one of the finest there is, and his story (co-developed with Matt Santoro) does not disappoint from a general reader’s perspective. It’s a touching, vivid portrayal of the horrors of war from the eyes of a young Jewish boy, showcasing the burden of parents in protecting their charges both physically and emotionally. It’s also a tale of a tight-knit community working together to save a man and protect themselves, knowing full-well that the onslaught of war will reach them no matter what.

As Americans, it’s truly difficult for us to imagine the fear of war-wrought devastation and the total breakdown of national security and personal/communal safety. It is my theory that, following the events of 9/11, the rise of apocalyptic scenarios in film, television, and literature is partly a result of America mentally preparing itself for what a world without order, ruled by war, would be like. We haven’t known that fear so close to home since the 1860s, and yet for most of the rest of the world’s citizens (except, perhaps Canada and Antarctica) the trauma of war and conflict is recent history or current events.

World War II may be almost 70 years in our past, but the historical and generational trauma of the event in Europe and for the Jews in particular is very much alive, especially in a world where Holocaust deniers persists and anti-Semitism continues to be a popularly held conception in many circles. Niles captures this perfectly, telling a story that is not sappy with self-pity but instead resilient and staunch in its objection to persecution and resistance against all odds.

Dave Wacther’s black-and-white prints drain the color from this bleak period in history, a time of rations and hysteria, when the sound of any engine or thump was cause for alarm. Wachter’s art is some of the most complex, detailed, and humanistic I’ve seen in a while, the comic book equivalent of Saving Private Ryan or Band of Brothers, busy with intensity when appropriate, calm and quiet (but not serene) when necessary. And kudos to the folks at Dark Horse for printing all of the interior advertisements in color and not disrupting the flow of the visual narrative.

If you only read superhero comics, you’re missing out; there’s so much the comics medium can achieve, and Niles and Wachter showcase just some of its breadth with eloquence and respect, bringing another Dark Horse masterpiece to market in the shape of Breath of Bones: A Tale of the Golem #1

Story: Steve Niles and Matt Santoro  Art: Dave Wachter
Story: 9  Art: 10  Overall: 10  Recommendation: Buy