Out of the Ballpark

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It shouldn't take a small publisher, based in Canada, to bring baseball to American comicbooks, but it has. Fortunately, James Sturm's rousing, brass-band-and-hoopla wonder, "The Golem's Mighty Swing" (Drawn & Quarterly; 108 pgs; $11.95) is more than equal to the task.

This comix novella will appeal to bearded humanities professors and beer-ded guys in the bleachers alike. Its specialness hits you on the first page. A mock poster advertises a (fictional) all-Jewish baseball team, The Stars of David. Narrated by the Stars' manager, Noah "The Zion Lion" Strauss, the story takes place during the 1920s and the days of barnstorming minor leagues — back when the game had a bit more vaudeville and bit less Hollywood.

The book opens with a detailed account of a typical first inning for the Stars, including three full pages on the at-bat of Moyshe, Noah's younger brother, who uses shoe polish to fake a beard. Panel after panel has him fouling away pitches, waiting for the right one, creating a metronomic visual rhythm as the tension builds. Sturm has figured out that a large part of baseball's appeal lies in its structure of little dramas making up the larger one, and he carries this through the entire book.

Like a modern Israelite tribe, the team leads a rootless, marginal life — eating at Joe's restaurant, but in the back, and sleeping on the bus. They survive on their faith in baseball. After several bad breaks, Noah gets persuaded to try a gimmick. They put a ringer from the Negro League in a costume and introduce him as the Golem of Jewish legend. Fishkin, the team's pinch-hitter, explains the legend: "a golem is a creature that man creates to be a companion, a protector or a servant. But only God can grant a creature a soul and inevitably golems become destroyers." And so, as it must, disaster befalls the team when it introduces the creature to a crowd baited into an anti-Semitic frenzy by the local paper.

Printed on off-white paper with black ink and a very subtle gray tone for shading Sturm has a simple comix style that perfectly complements the kind of Americana he writes about. He uses old photographs for reference, particularly when drawing the players in action, but distills the details down to the fuzziness of memory. It feels like looking at an old snapshot album that actually tells a story.

With the strategy of a top manager Sturm artfully mixes Jewish mythology with the mythology of baseball as a way of exploring the myth of America. It's a big subject, and not an easy one. You can tell when the baseball-as-America metaphor gets used as an easy trope by a literal player-hater. But "The Golem's Mighty Swing," has the beauty, universality, thoughtfulness, and sweep of baseball at its best.

"The Golem's Mighty Swing" can be found at better comicbook stores and online, via the publisher