Go lem or don’t go at all: Marvel’s Golem series (#SFWApro)

strangetales174Blogging about Dr. Strange and “phony mysticism” put me in mind of Marvel’s mid-seventies Golem series in Strange Tales (cover by Ernie Chan, all rights with current holder). As I said in the previous post, it’s a good example of the problems in adapting genuine occult/mystical/religious lore to a super-hero book.

For those who don’t know, the golem is a creation of Jewish folklore and kabbalistic mysticism. According to Moshe Idel’s Golem, a kabbalist who is truly enlightened can duplicate the work of God by creating a man from clay—although without a soul, and therefore mute, because even the best of mystics isn’t at God’s level. The most famous example is the Golem of Prague, created according to legend by Rabbi Judah ben Lowe to defend the people of the city from those who would persecute them.

In Marvel’s opening tale (courtesy of Len Wein and John Buscema), we learn that after the Golem saved the Jews of Prague he went wandering off into the world, fighting to protect the persecuted and downtrodden regardless of religion or ethnicity. Eventually for no reason other than the needs of the story, he walked into the Sinai Desert, went to sleep and let the sand cover him up.

In the present, Jewish archeologist Abraham Adamson unearths the Golem accompanied by his niece (the beauty) and nephew (the kid). Shortly after which some Egyptian army deserters show up, loot the camp, shoot the professor and carry off his family. The dying old man uses the old kabbalistic scrolls he’s found to awaken the Golem, shedding a single tear on the stone figure’s foot. The Golem comes to life, beats up the soldiers, saves the young woman. In the next couple of issues (written by Mike Friedrich), as the younger Adamsons journey with the Golem to America, he becomes the target of Kaballa the Unclean, an elemental sorcerer who wants to add the earth-powered Golem to his collection of other elementals (And Then He Will Be Invincible!).

And then the series ended, though the hanging plot-threads were wrapped up in an issue of Marvel Two-in-One. The letter column for the third issue explained that the creators had no idea where they were going with it—human interest, occult horror, Hulk-style super-action or Dr. Strange style fantasy—so they called it a day.

When I first read this it was, IIRC, the second time I’d even heard of golems, so it was fascinating. Rereading now, I’m more conscious that the series ignores most golem lore (which admittedly is not a completely consistent mythos) in favor of their own ideas—as witness the drama of the professor powering the Golem with his own life force, rather than the usual rituals. To say nothing of using “kaballa” as the name for an evil, and not particularly Jewish sorcerer when it’s a Jewish mystical text.

Truthfully, I can’t say that bothered me a huge amount—I’m not a purist about such things (I’ve discussed this some here) and I don’t have a religious dog in the hunt—but if anyone wanted to level a “phony mysticism” charge at this book, I’d say it would hold up. A bigger problem for me is that it’s just not good—Wein starts off with some real energy, but Friedrich’s work is bland. And Wein’s origin story is still painful when it gets to the “evil Arab scum attacks saintly Jewish scholar” bit. Someone wrote in to ask why it couldn’t have been Israeli deserters and Marvel’s response was that hey, what would Israeli deserters be doing in the Sinai—ignoring that they could just as easily have unearthed the Golem somewhere outside Tel Aviv. It wasn’t necessity, just the automatic plugging in of Arab stereotypes.

Keith Giffen’s Ragman many years later did a good job working golem lore into the story. I’ll have to blog about it, but another time.

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