First published during the early days of the George W. Bush administration and since translated into Spanish and Polish, James Sturm’s The Golem’s Mighty Swing received a nice, new reprinting from publisher Drawn & Quarterly this week, with a foreword by Gene Luen Yang. In some ways, it’s strange to think of a book that didn’t come out terribly long ago as an entry in the canon of comics excellence, but much has changed in the intervening years. Sturm’s book is a slim, quick read, but it packs loads of depth into its story of a barnstorming) Jewish baseball team traveling around the country. Its themes of immigration, assimilation and acceptance have found an unfortunate context in 2017. Sturm answered a series of questions over email, including some about what has changed since 2001 and what remains the same.
Paste: Does it freak you out a little that it’s been almost 20 years since you first published this book?
James Sturm: Only 16 years ago! No, it doesn’t freak me out. Time is going to pass (and pass more quickly as one ages). What freaks me out is that the book’s exploration of racism (and its relationship to the media) is more pertinent now than when the book was published in 2001.
Paste: What has changed over that time? (I mean, I know it’s a lot, but tell me anyway.)
Sturm: In terms of comics, a lot has changed. In 2001, The Golem’s Mighty Swing was part of an early, literary wave of graphic novels by cartoonists who came of age reading Maus. The comics medium is so much more rich, diverse and excellent today than it was in 2001.
Paste: How have you changed as a writer and artist in that time?
Sturm: Of course. Some skills I have honed, and others have likely diminished. Certainly it’s harder to focus as I get older—due to age, the internet, a family I want to spend time with and a day job I truly enjoy (The Center for Cartoon Studies [CCS]).
Paste: Which of your skills have improved? Which diminished?
Sturm: While it’s still all fumbling around, I’m more confident that, given enough time, I can get where I need to be with any given project I am working on. And after five decades on this planet, I have experience (and on rare occasion, wisdom) that can only help my writing. My eyes aren’t as sharp and my drawings aren’t as precise as they once were. This is somewhat mitigated by Photoshop, which allows me to zoom in and fiddle.
Paste: What materials did you use to draw this book? Did you use Photoshop at all, or is digital stuff a more recent development for you?
Sturm: Digital is a more recent development. Golem is old-fashioned pen and ink on Bristol. Even the gray tone was hand drawn on vellum and scanned in as a separate layer.
Paste: What would you do differently were you to make this book today?
Sturm: I couldn’t make this book today. I don’t have it in me any more. I’ve always been really happy with the way the book came out. I liked the cover so much I didn’t even change it for the new edition.
Paste: Do you think it’s a particularly good time to reissue the book? (Sidebar: I’m thinking of the newly visible strain of anti-Semitism that feels like a giant step backwards.)
Sturm: If the history of the Jews has taught us anything, it is that anti-Semitism never dies; it just comes and goes in waves. It feels like a wave is growing in strength right now. We have a president who seems to hold history itself in contempt. This does not bode well for avoiding the mistakes of the past.
Paste: You were teaching at the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD), while you drew this book, if I’m reading the timeline correctly. What was that like?
Sturm: It was hard to juggle teaching and cartooning, but without kids or other obligations it was doable. I learned to teach at SCAD. I learned I didn’t like working for large art school institutions. While in Savannah I thought a lot about how I would build a curriculum that could better serve students. In cofounding the Center for Cartoon Studies I was able to apply what I learned.
Paste: Do you ever teach your own material at CCS?
Sturm: I never assign my own books for students to read. [It] seems too self-serving or something with so many great graphic novels to discuss and learn from. Plus, it would be strange to talk critically about a book with the author leading the class.
Paste: Who did you teach while you were SCAD?
Sturm: A very wide range of students. Some were only comics fans; others thought a comics class would be a break from more demanding classes. In most every class there were always a few students who made showing up worthwhile. Some of these students, off the top of my head, who went on to make notable work include Chris Wright, Drew Weing, Robyn Chapman, Jonathan Luna, Sophie Campbell and Ben Towle.
Paste: Was it weird to come to the South after growing up near Manhattan, going to school in Wisconsin and then living in Seattle?
Sturm: Yes. When I first arrived in Savannah it was all so weird. It took a while to tease out what was uniquely weird about the South, big art and design schools and then SCAD in particular.
Paste: So what was weird about the South? (Or the Atlantic coastal South, I should say, which is rather different from the inland South)
Sturm: Most of the places I ever lived were relatively liberal. For instance, the Republicans in Vermont are to the left of Georgia Democrats. The Civil War (or, as I heard many Southerners call it, “the War of Northern Aggression”) still has an immediacy for many folks that it doesn’t on the other side of the Mason-Dixon line. Living in the South, I was more aware of the legacy of slavery and of a political bent that I find regressive and threatening.
Paste: Savannah is a weird town. In many ways, it’s a lot more liberal than other large swaths of the South, but at the same time it demonstrates major income disparity and continued racial and economic segregation. It’s changed a lot over the past 20 years, with the increasing growth of SCAD and tourism. This whole line of questioning comes from the fact that I am and remain a native Georgian, so I’m always interested to see how people from other parts of the country perceive us.
Sturm: Boy, we could have a whole interview just about the South! Ultimately, I never felt at home in the South and knew it wasn’t a place I wanted to settle. Savannah is a beautiful city, and I made many friends there (though I think everyone was a transplant from somewhere else).
Paste: Did the South’s racial politics and demographics affect the book at all?
Sturm: Not really. I had a draft of the book before I arrived down there.
Paste: Talk to me about the process of making the book: where did you get the idea? What kind of research did you do?
Sturm: I remember seeing a photo in a baseball history book of a barnstorming team called “The House of David.” The caption mistakenly identified the team as Jewish. The idea of a barnstorming Jewish baseball captured my imagination. I did all kinds of research. Visual reference of the era needed to be found (and this was harder before the age of Google image search). I studied how baseball had been depicted in comics and surprisingly found that Japanese manga were far and away better at depicting “America’s pastime” than anything produced in this country. I watched the 1920 German film Der Golem, as it plays a role in my book. In terms of making the book, I did a few drafts from beginning to end and then the final draft. It was slow, painstaking work.
Paste: How long did it take you to write and draw it?
Sturm: Four years.
Paste: So how did you find visual references?
Sturm: Combing through the sports section at used bookstores. Baseball is so picturesque, and my pile of books was almost as tall as I was.
Paste: So there was no real-life traveling Jewish baseball team?
Sturm: Not that I know of.
Paste: What was it specifically about the way manga showed baseball that was an improvement on American drawings of the same? Greater clarity of action?
Sturm: Greater clarity of action that comes with more real estate to tell the story. It’s hard to capture the rhythm and flow of baseball in a four-panel comic strip or even a six-page story. In baseball manga you could have one at-bat that could last 30 pages. Baseball is a sport played without a clock, so it needs to keep its own time.
Paste: You’re also pretty spare in the backgrounds you drew for this book, especially in the baseball scenes. That kind of economy of detail seems characteristic of manga, right?
Sturm: I don’t know enough about manga to answer this one with any degree of authority. All my work is pretty spare relative to the more illustrative comic books that dominate the market.
Paste: Did you play sports growing up, and are/were you a baseball fan?
Sturm: I found the high school sports culture toxic, but my geeky friends enjoyed playing all kinds of sports from handball to stickball to basketball. I still play pick-up basketball. I’ve been a Mets fan since I was a kid and still follow the team. I love listening to baseball.
Paste: How did you develop your cast of characters for the book?
Sturm: I honestly don’t remember. The characters and their relationships grow organically from the writing of the story. There are certain player’s whose body types informed the character designs in my book. Like a Mickey Mantle or Lenny Dykstra for the second baseman Wire. I based the build of Noah Strauss on Ted Williams.
Paste: Do you think part of the romance of baseball is related to its past being so very white and male? People don’t talk about football in the same way. Is it the Great American Pastime because of those reasons?
Sturm: I’d like to think far more baseball fans are proud of how the sport helped lead the way on the immigration front and are as knowledgeable about Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson as they are about Ty Cobb and Babe Ruth. Major League Baseball (MLB) celebrates players like Jackie Robinson, Roberto Clemente and Hank Aaron. I think a large part of baseball’s romance is that it is a slow-paced pastoral sport.
Paste: I think you have a generous view of baseball fans! But maybe I’m just being cynical. I do think you’re right about the romance coming from the slow pace and the fact that it’s just over when it’s over. Back when I watched a lot of baseball, I remember staying up late to watch a 15-inning game. There’s a certain appeal to that.
Sturm: Those long games are problematic to MLB now. They are taking pains to shorten them now as the public’s attention spans dwindle. It’s probably hard to say who the average fan actually is. Most likely male but, politically speaking, there could be a world of difference between the average New York Mets fan and Atlanta Braves fan… though nice that, whatever those differences are, there is a commonality in the game itself.
Paste: One of the things I like about this book is that it doesn’t feel like a fable with a neat moral lesson (apart from “America’s history of racism is long and complicated”). Was that something you specifically tried to do?
Sturm:I’m glad to hear that as I try not to be didactic. Making a larger “statement” at the expense of the credibility of the characters is not a trade-off I’d ever make. I also tried to make sure the historical details were as specific as possible (warts and all).