I wasn't quite sure what to make of Breath of Bones when I saw the ads. That cover didn't spark a lot of enthusiasm, and just looked like a typical monster-bash, but I figured I would give it a shot. Much to my surprise, Breath of Bones looks to be one of the best comics I will read this year. Based on this first issue, it's a complicated, heartwarming and heart-wrenching story with a depth of feeling I don't see in a lot of comics. It's beautiful.
Of all the famous monsters of filmland, the Golem is the most wrapped up in religion — and thus one of the most difficult to adapt for entertainment. Sure, every monster has its metaphors and allusions, creator/creation motifs, incorporation of religions tenants, etc… but only the Golem comes straight out of the Bible and Jewish Kabbalic mysticism. So when you use the Golem, you have a decision to make; are you going to ignore the Jewish elements and just go with a shambling drudge a la Dungeons & Dragons? Or, are you going to embrace what makes the Golem unique?
In Breath of Bones: A Tale of the Golem Steven Niles and Dave Wachter (with story by Matt Santoro) wrap their collective arms around this piece of clay and wholeheartedly embrace the Golem's uniqueness and religious elements. They are giving us what looks to be a full-fledged Jewish ghetto versus Nazis tale with the Golem rising to defend the ghetto — as he was designed to do.
At least that is what I am supposing. The actual first issue of Breath of Bones just gives us a tantalizing glimpse of things to come, and most of that is the cover. The rest of this issue is just set-up — pure, beautiful, engaging, heart-wrenching set-up. We don't even get a glimpse of the Golem until the last page, and the enemy is never sighted. The horrors are over the ridge and far away. But they are coming. Oh yes, they are coming. And their presences is felt in the absence of the lives they have already claimed.
Let me tell you one of the things I love about Steve Niles — he is versatile. Sure, he is a horror writer, and usually known as "Horror writer Steve Niles," but he doesn't do one-note horror. He does punk rock, tongue-in-cheek splatter fests like Criminal Macabre, elegant, esoteric set pieces like Chin Music and Hollywood horror like 30 Days of Night. And then, out of nowhere, a touching, sentimental work like Breath of Bones. I truly never know what I am going to get when I pick up a Steve Niles comic other than that it is going to be good.
I don't know artist Dave Wachter's work other than this comic, but I am already a fan. He has this lovely style that I just can't place. His work here isn't LIKE anything or anyone, other than certain Japanese artists. I hate to use the word "manga influenced" because that will give you an idea in your mind that is 100% wrong. But the sense of pacing, the panel transitions, and flipping between wide scene and tight close-up seems very Japanese to me.
On the other hand, I could be completely wrong. Maybe he's never read a Japanese comic in his life. I also see Eisner in some of his layouts, so maybe that is the true influence. Either way, I know what I like and I like Dave Wachter's art. He does emotive black-and-white washes, and handles both the loud and quiet scenes with equal skill. And he has a humanism to his art that I love. Wachter captures the human element so well that I don't even need the Golem — this could be a simple story about a young boy and his grandfather and the transformation of their lives as Jews during WWII, and I would be perfectly happy.
But then the Golem appears, and I realize that I do need the Golem after all. Because it is so damn cool. I love that they went with a design similar to the actual Golem of Prague, the kind you can find in statues and reproductions around the city. Little touches of authenticity like that enrich stories, and give me confidence that the writer and artist have done their research and know what they are talking about. And I really, really want a little Golem figure.
Breath of Bones is only three issues, which I figure is exactly how long Niles and Wachter felt they needed to tell the story. I don't know what they have in store for the next two issues, but I wish I had them in my hands right now.
Breath of Bones: A Tale of the Golem #1 will go on sale Wednesday, June 12, 2013.
Zack Davisson is a freelance writer and life-long comics fan. He owned a comic shop in Seattle during the '90s, during which time he had the glorious (and unpaid) gig as pop-culture expert for NPR. He has lived in three countries, has degrees in Fine Art and Japanese Studies, and has been a contributing writer to magazines like Japanzine and Kansai Time-Out. He currently lives in Seattle, WA with his wife Miyuki. You can catch more of Zack's reviews on his blog Japan Reviewed or read his translations of Japanese ghost stories on Hyakumonogatari Kaidankai.