Sunday, July 3, 2016

"Joe Golem, Occult Detective" review (WITH SPOILERS)

 “Joe Golem, Occult Detective” is a Dark Horse comic book series written by Mike Mignola and Christopher Golden with art by Patric Reynolds and colors by Dave Stewart with cover art by Dave Palumbo.  The comic book is a five issue miniseries broken up into two story arcs.  The first story arc titled “The Rat Catcher” is told in three parts and the second story arc titled “The Sunken Dead” is told in two parts. 

The comic book, which launched in 2015, was not the first time that Golden and Mignola collaborated on a story.  The Joe Golem comic book was preceded by a short story called “Joe Golem and The Copper Girl” followed by an illustrated novel called “Joe Golem and The Drowning City” both published in 2012.  Golden and Mignola also collaborated on writing the Lord Baltimore series also published by Dark Horse that began with an illustrated novel in 2007.  Mike Mignola of course, is most famously known for creating the comic book series Hellboy and all its related spin-offs including Abe Sapien, Lobster Johnson and B.R.P.D. among others.

“Joe Golem, Occult Detective” is a comic book that can be read as a stand-alone series and you do not need to read its preceding short story and illustrated novel to enjoy the story.  I have not read the two preceding stories and was able to enjoy the story without feeling lost.

The comic book, which takes place in 1965, tells the story of Simon Church and his partner Joe Golem who are two private detectives who solve cases with occult and supernatural undertones.  Simon and Joe live in an alternative version of lower Manhattan, which has mostly been submerged underwater due to a cataclysmic earthquake that caused rising sea levels and submerged portions of New York City under 30 feet of water.  As a result, portions of Manhattan have turned into Venice-like neighborhoods with water canals traveled via water taxis.

Joe who has the outward physical appearance of a normal human male is unaware that he really is a golem.  A golem in Jewish mysticism and folklore is an anthropomorphic creature fashioned from clay and/or stone that is brought to life through magic.  Simon, who is aware of Joe’s true nature, prevents him from remembering his past by giving him a memory-inhibiting potion, which he tells Joe, is for helping him with his nightmares.

The authors use Joe’s nightmares to slowly unfold his past as a golem.  We learn that Joe was created by a Christian monk, in Croatia during the 15th century in order to protect his village from demonic-like witches who were slaughtering the villagers.  This brings to mind the story in Jewish folklore of a 16th century Prague Rabbi who creates a golem to protect the Prague ghetto from anti-Semitic attacks.  Joe, a simple-minded creature, was controlled by his creator Brother Goran and proved to be an effective weapon in the fight against the evil witches.  However, we also learn that Brother Goran used forbidden occult magic that he stole from his Order to create the golem.  I don’t want to tell any more of the story as I want people to read the comic and still be able to enjoy it.

The comic series, which as of this writing is five issues long, is a delightful combination of pulp detective story-telling flavored with steampunk, occult and horror elements.  Joe is a hardboiled detective in the tradition of Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe.  He’s a brave and morally upright “man” who is devoted to his job and to his partner Simon Church.  Simon, on the other hand, is an elderly Nero Wolfe-type detective who the story intimates might be quite ancient.  He is a magician who apparently has kept himself alive with a clockwork heart using what he calls biomechanics magic.  There is a scene in issue #5 that indicates that his magic might be of a Germanic origin.

The series dabbles in magic, which seems to be steeped in western esotericism and while you see Simon Church speak a few incantations in Latin and German and see him mix potions, we do not yet have an explanation of the universe’s magical system and how it works.  It would be great to see a good development of the biomechanical magic used by Simon Church and of the other occult elements of the series.

The comic also relies on the same tired tropes of witches as evil creatures that are out to eliminate and/or enslave mankind although they do balance it a little with one of the monks mentioning witches who are earth worshippers and herbalists, which are distinguished from their evil counterparts.

The art by Patric Reynolds does an excellent job of depicting the grimy, decaying and horrific atmosphere of the submerged city and effectively conveys the moods of the characters and the pathos that seems to permeate some of them.

If you are a fan of occult detective stories and of horror in general, I definitely recommend this series especially since the ending of the last issue indicates that there is a larger underlying menace lurking in the shadows that promises to enrich the story.  If you are a fan of occult pulp stories be sure to check out our episode review of the Showtime series Penny Dreadful, which you can find here.

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