(Dark Horse Comics, 2013)
Reviewed by Cory Thrall
WRITTEN BY: Steve Niles, Matt Santoro
ARTWORK BY: Dave Wachter
COVER ARTWORK: Dave Wachter
The varied stories of the Golem have been in Jewish Folklore for centuries. This is a common story linked from generation to generation over time, with multiple tales and takes on what we now consider the Golem – a speechless, towering ‘man’ made of mud, dirt, sometimes ash. We’ve seen in films from many periods how this can go wrong, how a mindless creature following orders exactly as they are given can lead to a nightmarish situation – one where the creator is forced to trick the Golem into its own destruction. This is a bit of folklore that has transcended from these old stories into a commonly shared one, regardless of the origins of this creature. Now, here in the 21st century, there are but a small number of films or media regarding this tale. Luckily for comic fans and history/folklore fans alike, we now have the 3 issue mini-series “Breath of Bones: A Tale of the Golem”.
The first thing that struck me about issue #1, and now #2, is the amazing black and white artwork by Dave Wachter. His work here is very light, textured, and incredibly realistic and expressive, and has a strong Will Eisner look, especially in the panel layouts and the use of detail. The characters in this book are perfectly designed and give an overall feel of a classic black and white film, obviously much like the classic silent film “Der Golem”. Every panel and conversation reads as if it’s from another decade, and even with the addition of Nazi soldiers and war, it still feels as classic and epic as the early versions. In that way it really takes the mind to work from Fritz Lang and his peers. It really is that cinematic, with a perfect rolling out of the details of the story. Wachter’s ability of incredibly beautiful artwork and storytelling is key here, and the grey tones used to fill, texture, and ‘color’ the panels add to this in immeasurable ways. It’s the highlight of this book and if you’re not sold by his awesome cover work, well then this isn’t the book for you. The scale of the images on these covers gives a good idea of the tone of the comic – a dark tale that takes place during a darker time. A small village full of an incredibly frightened populace and the specter of war looming right over the horizon.
The story here is one that, if explained quickly, might seem like it wouldn’t hold much. This is far from accurate, as the writing from Steve Niles & Matt Santoro give this book so much and in such subtle ways that you are instantly caring and worrying for these people. Centering on young boy Noah and his grandfather, this is a character driven piece and focuses first on their relationship, then moves into a more serious one as the story progresses. What started as a young boy and his friendly Grandfather quickly melts down to two people struggling desperately with nearly too many things at once – a crashed and injured British pilot they have hidden, the mixed feelings of the village’s people, and the aforementioned Nazi forces already working their way to them. As this boils, and as we leave the first issue, Noah is given a hand-sized figure that resembles the Golems of the old tales, and the reason for this is more than clear.
Here we are with issue #2, and we open on young Noah, looking depressed, worried, maybe even full of a good amount of dread. He is staring down the long road that the Nazis would be arriving from, a near blank look on his face. In his hand is the mini Golem, which he quickly holds to his chest, almost as if sharing his hope and desperation with the figure. The village is alight with arguments, as they try to make the best plans they can for their safety. Knowing the German forces are only a short time away, the conversation is as full of fear as it is love and caring for their families. These are people stuck in a frightening and seemingly destroyed world, with the Nazi advance looming and making moot any gripes or problems they may have had before. They are hard set in panic mode, and this makes the arguments difficult and a bit unruly. The main problem being the hurt British pilot, and the question of having him in the village is raised, to which Noah’s Grandfather assures them that since he was the one to hide him he will be the one to handle him, keeping him out of the sights of any Germans that might find them. The village begins their decided exodus, and Grandfather heads out to find Noah. He finds him on the road and as they begin to talk their fear is given full life as a Nazi patrol comes barreling down the road. He tells Noah to warn the village that the Germans are, in fact, now approaching, and he sets himself to the task of making a more secure hiding space for the pilot. The Germans arrive at the village and during a sweep of the place they find the pilot, who responds in a blaze of quick action.
From here, we see the tanks that are featured on the cover, and the story deepens even further into bleak territory as the full advance takes place. Gunfire and blood encrusted tank treads, violence and injuries, rituals and timeless beliefs – this all leads to the closing page for the issue, mirroring the end of #1 – instead of the mini figure of the Golem, we are finally set upon by the living beast itself, and it looks as menacing as has been hinted by the cover artwork.
“Breath of Bones: A Tale of the Golem” is as close to a classic film on paper as we’re probably going to see. The writing takes the characters and setting and places a strong hold of realism over the telling, coming together with the breathtaking artwork to create a comic unlike I’ve seen before. It’s a richly dark and deep tale, and I’m not sure it would be anywhere near as successfully executed without the wonderfully talented crew working on this title. Everything about this is perfect. Knowing that all creators involved are known and recognized for other work they have been a part of is a good sign that this would be good, but it’s the actual finished product here that makes this comic more than special. It makes it an instant classic.
In an excited and fearless scoring, I give “Breath of Bones: A Tale of the Golem” a *very* strong 5 out of 5. Unless you’re obsessed with only superhero books, you just can’t find anything better than this on the shelves.
Follow Cory Thrall on Twitter: @FeralFang27