Dark Horse’s new hardcover collection of the three-issue miniseries Breath of Bones: A Tale of the Golem tells the story of a boy named Noah that activates the Golem of Jewish legend to fight against the Nazis during World War 2. It’s written by horror comics’ luminary Steve Niles, with plot assists from Matt Santoro, and black-and-white art by Dave Wachter. Is it good?
Breath of Bones: A Tale of the Golem (Dark Horse Comics)
I suppose that the same can be said for just about any piece of media that I encounter, as a critic or otherwise, but I really wanted to like Breath of Bones: A Tale of the Golem. I’ve been fascinated by the idea of the Golem (particularly the Golem of Prague) ever since I first learned about the legend as a child, and I have long felt that the Golem deserved to be the focal point of more contemporary stories, heightening the legend’s cultural visibility.
That’s part of the reason why, when I was around twelve years old, I started to write my own tale of the Golem. I stopped writing it when I realized how much time, energy, and research it would take to tell my story properly, but it was one of the few ideas that I had when I was at that age that I can still look back at as a good idea. In fact, I’d like to get back to writing this story as soon as I feel like I’ve matured enough as a writer to execute it properly. It’s an ambitious story, so I won’t get into the details, but “young man activates Golem to fight Nazis in World War 2-era Europe” should give you the basic gist.
Obviously, I am not accusing anyone of plagiarism, because unless Steve Niles had stolen my old abandoned notebooks, secretly mining them for ideas and using them for almost a decade’s worth of acclaimed comics (in which case, I’d really need to familiarize myself with more of Niles’ repertoire), it’s reasonable enough to conclude that sometimes, good ideas can occur to multiple people completely independent of one another. And for what it’s worth, it turns out that Niles’ story is different enough from mine that I am no longer afraid that the success of my possible magnum opus has been compromised. Nonetheless, it is still difficult to review Breath of Bones without considering the baggage that I carried as I read the story.
But enough about me, at least for the time being. Fans of Niles’ previous work like 30 Days of NightCriminal Macabre may be surprised to learn that Breath of Bones is not a horror story, but more of a family drama. Noah, the young protagonist, lives in an unnamed village in an unnamed country in World War II-era Europe. His father was killed trying to defend the country, and now, as Noah narrates, “all that remained in my village were old men, old women, children, and their mothers.” Now raised by his grandfather, Jacob, Noah finds his village threatened once again when he and Jacob take in a British fighter pilot that has crash-landed in a field near their home.
The plot is loaded with potential, begging the question of why it couldn’t have been longer than three issues. I can respect Niles and company’s desire for conciseness, but a story that’s so reliant on character relationships and emotions could have used much more room to breathe. There are several moments, especially towards the end, that are clearly intended seem poignant and touching, but with so little time to get to know the characters, it’s hard to care as much as we should.
Obviously, this isn’t just a problem of brevity, though. Besides weak characterization and strained dialogue, Breath of Bones also suffers from an absence of a sense of place. There have certainly been stories that get away with, or even benefit, from keeping the specificity of their settings ambiguous, but Breath of Bones isn’t one of them. I’m not at liberty to say how much research Niles and company did in preparation for this book, but for whatever reason, the comic seems to lack a sense of authenticity. What it probably comes down to is that, no matter how fictionalized or fantastical a story is, when the story is rooted in history, specific details matter.
It would make a huge difference, for example, if we knew whether the story took place in occupied France, in Poland, or in some Czechoslovakian village outside of Prague, the origin of the most famous Golem legend.
Similarly, it’s a bit problematic that there is not a single mention of Jews or Judaism throughout the story I suppose that the nature of legend is such that if the same story can be told in countless different ways, it can be appropriated for different audiences. But the Golem is so rooted in Jewish culture, history, philosophy, theology, and storytelling sensibilities that to remove it from its societal seems to miss a large part of the point—especially in a story that deals with World War II and Nazis. The fact that the villagers (with traditionally Jewish names like Noah and Jacob) even create the Golem may suggest that the characters are Jewish, but that would create even more problems, as no mention is made of ghettos, concentration camps, and the like.
Breathe of Bones’ greatest saving grace is Dave Wachter, whose art manages to save some key scenes. It’s thrilling to watch him bring the Golem to life, but more importantly, he nails human interactions and narrative beats where Niles and, to a lesser degree, Matt Santoro fail. Wachter has an impeccable grasp of light and shadow, and his use of facial expressions and body language is so nuanced that he almost makes the characters believable.
Is it Good?
It could have been. It should have been. But ultimately, it’s a disappointment.