A story of horror, monsters, and the ravages of war is not often envisioned as an uplifting tale—but that is exactly what Niles, Santoro, and Wachter have provided for their readers in this triumphant reworking of the Jewish golem legend. As a monster, redeemer, or agent of revenge, the golem has long been a staple of popular culture and comic books in particular. In this version, however, the creators have gone back to the legend’s ancient roots to tell a story that is steeped in faith, family, love, and community, accompanied by exquisite artwork.
Originally published as a limited three-issue comic, the hardcover graphic novel relates the intricate, moving, and heart-wrenching tale as told through the memories of its young protagonist. We first meet Noah in the trenches in April 1944 when his thoughts turn to a time when he first met monsters. He was fifteen and too young to fight in the army; all able-bodied men from the village were sent to the front and “all that remained in [his] village were old men, old women, children and their mothers” (10). Niles purposely omits the location of the village; all the reader discovers is that the people are fighting the encroaching hordes of Nazi soldiers. When a British plane is shot down and Noah and his grandfather rescue and hide the injured pilot, the village becomes embroiled first-hand in the mêlée with very little hope of surviving the oncoming skirmish. Echoing an aspect of the golem legend, the first chapter ends with Noah’s grandfather secretly ascending a staircase, opening a chest, and placing a tiny clay figure in Noah’s hand: “…sometimes it takes monsters to stop monsters” (28).
The second chapter illuminates the growing unease in the village as the Nazis find the downed plane and, in a graphic and wordless sequence of panels, discover the hiding place of the pilot. Although wounded, Noah’s grandfather encourages the villagers to gather and bring loads of clay from the river bank to the barn, where they quickly form a massive and rough clay figure. The golem tears itself from the ground in response to Noah’s fear of the oncoming army troops and grief from the sudden death of his grandfather. The final chapter demonstrates the power of the golem and its relationship with Noah. In due course, the story takes the reader on a circular journey that reunites them with the older Noah first encountered at the beginning of the tale.
The story is followed by several pages of sketches and notes by Dave Wachter, describing his motivations in illustrating the golem and designing the cover image for the graphic novel. Wachter’s realistic and powerful black-and-white illustrations and masterful use of panel arrangements complement the story. He uses intricate backgrounds sparingly to portray the confusion and complexity of battle zones or the tranquility of the pastoral countryside of the village. More often, he focuses on the faces, body language, and hands of the main characters.
Allusions to variants of the golem legend abound, but the creators of this book assume that its background story does not need to be stated outright. Their research and reverence for the legend of the golem radiates throughout the entire volume and certainly elated this reviewer. Respect for the reader, too, underlines the power of this reworking. Humanity shines through this exploration of monsters, both mythical and all too human.
Breath of Bones: A Tale of the Golem
by Steve Niles, Matt Santoro
Art by Dave Wachter
Dark Horse, 2014
Publisher Age Rating: (14+)