GRAPHIC NOVEL REVIEW: James Sturm’s America
The first thing to note is that America collects three previously-published stories: [[[The Revival]]], [[[Hundreds of Feet Below Daylight]]], and [[[The Golem’s Mighty Swing]]]. Sturm’s end-notes don’t make it clear where the 24-page Revival or the 44-page [[[Hundreds of Feet]]] were originally published, but [[[Golem]]] was a stand-alone graphic novel from Drawn & Quarterly in 2001. So if you’re a huge James Sturm fan – and there have to be a couple of them – you probably have all of this already.
Enough with the consumer report, though – what about the stories? All three are historical fiction, set in little-examined, unspectacular times in America. There are no wars, no famous people – none of the usual hoo-hah of historical stories. Sturm concentrates on ordinary people living ordinary lives, in what were fairly ordinary times for the people living them.
[[[The Revival]]] is set in eastern Kentucky in 1801 – as the first caption helpfully tells us. A married couple, Joseph and Sarah Bainbridge, are traveling to Caine Ridge to see the revival preacher Elijah Young. They arrive in the camp, meeting a niece, and are soon caught up in the religious fervor. They do see Young preach, on their second night there, but I don’t think I should tell you what Joseph and Sarah are praying for, nor whether they get it.
[[[Hundreds of Feet Below Daylight]]] takes place at the other end of the nineteenth century in a gold mine, presumably in California. A group of locals slaughter the Chinese workers running the mine and take it over – but it’s still not very successful. Tensions rise between the owners and the workers, exacerbated by the discovery that one dying, incoherent miner is secretly rich.
And [[[The Golem’s Mighty Swing]]] is the best-known work in the book, a story of a Jewish barnstorming baseball team in the ‘20s that signs up with a promoter to add a “golem” to their team to increase interest. This story is the most topical, since it’s partially about prejudice and hatred – not that those things aren’t eternal, of course.
Sturm has a good eye for detail, and strong, naturalistic dialogue throughout all three stories. His art style changes and evolves as the three stories go along – Revival is full of fiddly little pen-lines, while Daylight sees more large areas of black and more nuanced lines, and Golem has even cleaner, fatter lines and lots of grey tones for shading.
Golem is the best-realized and most successful of the three stories, but the earlier two are still compelling story-telling. He has a real gift for the rhythms of language, and for distinguishing between people of different backgrounds and educational levels by their dialogue.
I suspect the audience for this book will mostly be people like me who own and enjoyed Golem, and those people will have to decide if they want to buy that book over again to get two slightly less polished stories that add up to about as long as Golem. But for people who don’t own Golem, and have enjoyed things like Joe Sacco’s reportage comics, Moore & Campbell’s From Hell, and Craig Thompson’s Blankets, Sturm could be a real discovery.
James Sturm’s America: God, Gold, and Golems
Drawn & Quarterly, 2007, $24.95