The Golem's Mighty Swing
by James Sturm
(Drawn & Quarterly) $12.95, available August 1

Like many veteran authors on the brink of seeing their latest work published, James Sturm anxiously awaits his final printed product as he irons out the details of a modest signing tour.

But unlike most works of historical fiction making their debut this summer, the former Seattle resident's The Golem's Mighty Swing won't make its debut at a book convention or academic conference. Instead, Sturm's elegant, fable-like story of a barnstorming Jewish baseball team will be reunited with its author at Comic-Con International, San Diego's yearly dip in the shallow end of the pop-culture pool (where Buffy, the Vampire Slayer producer Joss Whedon is fêted like Philip Roth, and people dressed as Klingons outnumber conventional, literary-minded readers by as many as chorgh to one).

No matter how absurd the context, one thing's for certain--James Sturm belongs anywhere he feels comfortable setting up shop. His career has been a Zelig-like trip through the last decade-plus of important American funnybook-making: Sturm has contributed his student-drawn strips to the humor weekly The Onion during that publication's first year, and in grad school he worked briefly for Art Spiegelman and Francoise Mouly on their groundbreaking New York anthology RAW.

During a four-year stay in Seattle in the early 1990s, Sturm published his well-regarded satirical comic-book series on American breakfast icons, The Cereal Killings, through local publisher Fantagraphics Books, and became a friend and mentor to a large cross-section of Seattle's young cartooning community (he also signed on as the first art director of The Stranger). In the late '90s, Sturm began teaching at the Savannah College of Art and Design, and started releasing his historical comic books through Toronto publisher Drawn & Quarterly.

It is those books, comprising a triptych that engages uniquely American experiences like Protestant revivalism (The Revival), frontier ore mining (Hundreds of Feet Below Daylight), and now baseball, which have transformed Sturm from one of the comics medium's most interesting characters into one of its most vital authors.

The Golem's Mighty Swing tells the story of the Star of Davids, a 1920s Jewish baseball squad who are forced by a promoter into a publicity gimmick where a team member dons the costume of the golem, a giant clay figure from Jewish legend: the kind of cutesy plot that makes for a forgettable two-hour TV movie. But in Sturm's hands, the story transcends its pitch meeting to become a long and meaningful meditation on the capriciousness of American identity: the ways we pick and choose how to define ourselves, how others pick for us, and how the media may distort the process on either end.

As a bonus, The Golem's Mighty Swing is a meditation with smooth-as-silk action scenes. Drawing from a rich tradition of Japanese sports comics and intense research into the time period in which the story is set, Sturm has forged a visual vocabulary that conveys baseball's inherent drama without sinking into fannish tedium.

"Visually, baseball is about space, atmosphere, and light," Sturm says. "Using photos as reference changed the way the story looked. I also tried not to overdraw. I'm getting a little more confident in my drawing, which allows me to do more with less." Sturm's approach also carries over to the moments of drama between games, the bigoted barbs and moments of male bonding staged in the vast emptiness of small-town America almost a century past. In Sturm's hand, baseball is revealed as the taming of a frontier.

If the world were just, James Sturm would be as well known as any working author under the age of 40. But until he and comic-book contemporaries like Chris Ware and Dan Clowes flood the market with so many works of undeniable quality that their medium is no longer the message, Sturm will continue to enjoy the personal benchmarks that come from active authorship. Work on The Golem's Mighty Swing coincided with the birth of his 15-month-old daughter, and marked the first time Sturm had dealt explicitly with his own specific cultural heritage.

"It felt like I was reconnecting with something that was always there, but not fully acknowledged," he says. Readers of Sturm's comics will likely feel the same way.

James Sturm will read from The Golem's Mighty Swing on Fri July 27 at 7:00 pm at Bailey/Coy Books, 323-8842, free.