Current Reviews

subheader

Monolith #1

Posted: Saturday, February 7, 2004
By: Ray Tate



Writer: Jimmy Palmiotti & Justin Gray
Artists: Phil Winslade, Chris Chuckry(c)
Publisher: DC

Golem means in Hebrew "shapeless form," but this word origin has become corrupted over the years to describe a soulless, artificial man and later still interpreted as synonymous with robot (Glinert 2000). Robots however are so to speak different animals. Indeed, unlike golems, robots have actually been created in myriad forms, independent from the knowledge of Hebrew mythology.

According to lore, golems exemplify the power of the Hebrew mystical alphabet. The Christian God when creating Adam from the dirt using the spoken word was actually using the power of the alphabet (Glinert 2000). However, Adam is not a golem, and the technique of men being formed from the dirt has been around at least since Prometheus and the Greeks. It is Greek myth that informs the magical birth of Wonder Woman who though metaphorically a golem has roots far older than the Hebrew clay being.

The Hebrew alphabet and its power fuels golems with the words Emet and Met: truth and death. These words became enmeshed with the legendary Golem of Prague. Given life in a turn of the nineteenth century fiction attributed to a seventeenth century Rabbi, this golem was a hero for the marginalized and oppressed Jews of the early twentieth century (Glinert 2000). However, the belief of the tale being older was a trick performed by "the interpreter," (Glinert 2000) perhaps hiding from religious recrimination for the use of the golem as a penny-dreadful protagonist. This misinterpretation is very similar in essence to that of the Necronomicon being misconstrued and even published as a sacred book attributed to the Mad Arab Al-Hazared instead of acknowledged as a witty plot device created by horrormaster H.P. Lovecraft.

Actor/director Paul Wegener based his 1915 and 1920 films known to any serious student of horror on the Golem of Prague (Daniels 1975) and by association the confection of corruption involving the sacred words. The Golem appears once more in the schlocky 1967 Warner Brothers flop It! starring Roddy McDowell (Weldon 1983). Excluding plays and opera, the Golem's next appearance would occur in a rather dull episode of The X-Files.

Ultimately, golems are not as popular as their monstrous cousins. Vampires, werewolves and the Frankenstein Monster have and will likey retain considerable longevity in every form of media. It's possible that golems because of their religious ties make them less appealing to authors and less open to interpretation. Golems can best be described as inconsistent memes. Every so often, the beasts reappear in entertainment and yes, even comic books.

In comic books, the Golem first appeared in the seventies' Strange Tales (Cooke 2001). Roy Thomas, editor of Strange Tales spins the Golem myth again in The Invaders In these issues, a Jewish man immerses himself in magical clay to become the Golem. Changing Emet to Met transforms him back to a man. Within the superhero genre, this was perhaps the most inventive and original use of the Golem. Between those appearances, Atlas' sorry costumed version of the Scorpion took a swing at the man of mud. Ragman of the post-Crisis became the nemesis of the Golem. Eric Luke's Ghost confronted a golem, and Peter Milligan and Jim Aparo pitted Batman against the Golem.

Michael Chabon's Kavalier and Clay triggered the latest interest in golems. Monolith a misnomer given that--despite what Dungeons and Dragons handbooks say--golems are made of clay not stone or flesh is a direct result of Chabon's popularity with comic book fans and the general public. The timing simply was perfect for the pitch.

Mr. Palmiotti and Mr. Gray come up an intriguing origin for the title character. They surprise by going against the instinct to use the Nazis who were the mortal enemy of all things Jewish. Instead, they show the industrial persecution of immigrant communities before World War II in America as the catalyst for the Golem's creation. They accurately display the ties between industry and the mob, and they contrast the violence with the melting pot feel of these allies created by harsh circumstance.

While keeping to the tradition of the Hebrew mystics being the only creators of golems, and admittedly, it's lucky one happens to be on hand, Mr. Palmiotti and Mr. Gray also extend the myth with helpers who are innocent of magic and pettiness. They tie the golem to the soul of a man but in a manner that differs from that of Roy Thomas' Golem in The Invaders. Like the Golem of Prague, Mr. Palmiotti's and Mr. Gray's Golem fights for the oppressed, but the authors also hint that the corruption inherent with power and the slight to the Christian/Hebrew God of the original tales (Glinert 2000) plays a role in the story.

I have to say, had Palmiotti and Gray kept the Golem confined to a fairly untouched era of the DCU--only Max Mercury I think was around at this time--Monolith may have been the start of something special. The characters of this era in the origin of the Golem keep the readers attention rapt, and there is humanity in all of them to appreciate. The period detail sweeps over each panel and gives the whole exercise an organic aesthetic. Here is something that exquisite art can do, transport you through time. Unfortunately, Palmiotti and Gray do not keep the Golem isolated to its place and time of origin.

The story opens with an unfortunate cliché. The old couple in a scene of a particularly brutal home invasion come off as the special guest stars on Barnaby Jones. Special guest stars of late sixties or seventies sleuths tended to end up dead by the end of the first act. The old couple exist to be killed so we can pass the torch of the Golem to its new master the possibly hot, definitely young chick with the Baker Street dress sense.

The cut to the chase attitude does the characters a disservice, and the creative company also miss an opportunity to imbue drama during the dismissible scenes. Thunderous footfalls denoted by "thoom, thoom, thoom" herald the golem's entrance, but several panels would have worked better without the sound effects. The sound effects undermine the drama and create comic book excess that counters the hyper-realistic setting. This schism is a constant problem.

Monolith does not only derive from golem mythology. The modern day New York setting, and the very concept of a mythic creature protecting an "innocent" woman alludes to Catherine and Vincent of Beauty and the Beast. This is only fair since that tradition in part sources from Paul Wegner's Golem movies. However, the New York of Beauty and the Beast was not so constantly crime-ridden. The overall seediness of the modern environment in Monolith draws upon the worst postmodern conceits that deconstruct the super-hero: Marvel, DC or other.

The protagonist--annoying in personality and hard to like--is a drug addict who is on the run from Princeton a repellent bipedal maggot who intends to force her into whoring for him. This kind of set-up would work fine, although unpleasantly, in an old Vertigo title or within its own continuity, but Mr. Palmiotti's and Mr. Gray's Dystopia implodes when the word "meta-human" is spoken.

Monolith takes place within DC's continuity, and that's why it doesn't work. I realize that DC's alleged universe plays fast and loose with continuity demands, but that's more of a question of laziness and lack of thought. Let's talk about what should happen. I'm not suggesting we rewrite the story. I am merely asking you to consider the rules governing the story. Monolith takes place within DC's continuity. What does that mean? It means questions must be asked.

How does Princeton exist in a world where Superman can swoop down and play drop-and-catch? How does Princeton exist in a world where every shadow may be cast by the Bat? How can this world be so filthy when the Wonder Woman's magic lasso issues a golden glow? How can people be addicted to drugs when there is a Justice League capable of destroying such cartels? In comparison with the period of the Golem's creation, things have grown far worse. This does not make sense.

Batgirl retired because of the claim that there were too many heroes and not enough crime. She felt redundant, yet here is a cesspool somehow protected from the eyes of the heroes? No. The heroes exist. The inhabitants are aware of them, and seedy business after seedy business is being conducted. Crime is unaffected by the heroism of cloaks and cowls. I'm seriously troubled by such a lack of optimism and escapism.

Independent from these shared world problems, Monolith in the present day simply doesn't generate any feeling. The artwork for the present day scenes is just as pretty and often evokes the fine touch of Bernie Wrightson, but the drug addict protagonist does not instill sympathy. I suppose her staying straight and staying away from Princeton are pluses, yet she comes off as somebody not to be liked but as an object for fascination who targets a specific audience. I am not part of that audience. She exists for people who do not like super-heroes.

All of these elements seem over-the-top, but not in the correct way. It's not comic book enough with regard to the urban decay setting. It's too comic book when Monolith goes "Thoom, Thoom, Thoom." The book because of this split lacks a sense of fun and does not give me a strong reason to read the title.

References

Cooke, Jon (2001) "Son of Stan." Comic Book Artist #12.
Daniels, Les(1975) Living in Fear. Scribner: New York.
Glinert, Lewis (2000) "Golem! The Making of a Modern Myth." Symposium v.(55) 2.
Weldon, Michael (1983) Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film. Ballentine Books: New York.



What did you think of this book?
Have your say at the Line of Fire Forum!