The best running joke from the pilot of Fox's upcoming "Larry Sanders"-style puppet satire "Greg the Bunny" centers on struggling cartoonist Jimmy Bender, played by Scott Green (from the Austin Powers movies). Whenever someone refers to Bender's work as a comic book, he defensively corrects them: "It's a gra-phic no-vel!"
For comic book aficionados, this joke resonates. Many independent comic book creators strive for respectability in an art form that has often reeked of lowbrow. Yet over the past two decades, independent cartoonists such as Harvey Pekar and the Hernandez brothers have accelerated the medium's maturation by ignoring decades of superhero shenanigans and funny animal antics in favor of honest, personal fiction tackling flesh-and-blood issues -- relationships, race relations, religion, politics, mortality, etc.
Now comes "The Golem's Mighty Swing" (Drawn & Quarterly), a new graphic novel by James Sturm. "Golem" isn't the first Jewish-flavored work by any stretch -- for starters, see Art Spiegelman (the Pulitzer Prize-garnering "Maus"), and Ben Katchor (MacArthur recipient for "A Jew in New York"). But it is a departure for 35-year-old Sturm, whose 1990s work, while layered, began with comics that were more ostensibly lighthearted ("The Cereal Killings") or esoteric ("Ween"). Sturm's latest propels the writer-artist further down a more straightforward road where human drama and historical interest intertwine.
Set in the 1920s, "The Golem's Mighty Swing" features the Stars of David, a struggling Jewish minor-league team that succumbs to a Chicago promoter's scheme to enlist a team member to don the costume worn by the title character of the 1915 German silent film, "Der Golem." This gimmick becomes a double-edged sword for the team, which succeeds in boosting attendance, but at a price that fans the flames of anti-Semitism.
Ultimately, "Golem's Mighty Swing" becomes a metaphor for the dualities of being an American and a Jew.
Nostalgia and melancholy mingle in the air within Sturm's lush black-and-white panels. The cartoonist conjures up crisp character design, exquisite draftsmanship and lively human drama.
With an official launch at next week's annual San Diego Comic-Con International, the largest and most prestigious convention in the comics industry, the picture novella has already attracted attention well before its publication. Pages and preparatory sketches from "Golem" were recently displayed in Philadelphia at Temple Judea Museum's "Beyond The Comic Image: Cartoon and Commentary" exhibit; baseball literary journal Elysian Fields Quarterly printed a 23-page excerpt in its spring issue; and the Generation J Web site posted 15 pages in March.
Initially, Sturm had a different objective in taking on "Golem."
"I wanted to explore the immigrant experience and not specifically the Jewish experience, how old traditions live when faced with a totally new world," Sturm said. "I had done a comic about a Christian revival and did a fair amount of research for that. Afterwards, I realized that I knew more about Christianity than my own religious-cultural background."
Born in New York City and raised in Rockland County, Sturm did not experience a deep connection with his Jewish roots as a youth.
"I grew up in a Reform household that spoke of the importance of being Jewish but, when pressed for more specifics, could not produce any answers that were satisfactory," the cartoonist said. "As a kid, any event that centered around synagogue or a Jewish holiday was a big drag."
Early in his career, Sturm worked on the production side of one of the RAW anthologies. Assisting Spiegelman made him privy to sketches and revisions that went into "Maus." But while the experience may have influenced his cartooning, it did not inspire him to inject overtly Jewish content into his comics.
Sturm eventually headed to Seattle, where he co-founded a hip weekly called "The Stranger," which continues to be a showcase for cutting-edge cartoonists and illustrators.
Researching "The Golem's Mighty Swing" inspired Sturm to reexamine his Judaism. That, and becoming a father. Sturm recently left Georgia, where he taught sequential art at Savannah College of Art and Design, for Hartland, Vt., where he and his wife, Rachel, are raising their infant daughter, Eva.
"Since last October, I started trying to observe Sabbath. Just give myself a day to forget about work, not answer the phone, and even step back from my artwork. It's been wonderful," said Sturm, who concedes that going to synagogue services still makes him uncomfortable. "My wife, Rachel, comes from a closer-knit family. Since Judaism centers around the family, having a family makes everything seem more Jewish."
Currently, Sturm has two shorter stories in the works. One is a whimsical pantomime rumination on impending parenthood, another a Jewish folk tale about a weaver. For the moment, Sturm will focus on shepherding "Golem's Mighty Swing" through the superhero-obsessed waters of the comic book industry. After all, the last guy to marry the Golem legend with an immigrant's tale won the Pulitzer.
"I enjoyed [Michael Chabon's "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay"] quite a bit," Sturm said. "It's hard for me to judge it on too critical of a level because so much of it was so familiar -- immigrants, Jewish cartoonists drawing Golem graphic novels. It was like watching a home movie!"
For more information on James Sturm's "The Golem's Mighty Swing," call your local comic book store or go to www.drawnandquarterly.com.