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Joe Golem and the Drowning City

December 10th, 2012
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I’ve been a huge fan of Mike Mignola’s for over two decades, ever since I read Gotham by Gaslight (1991) as a kid and was first impressed by Mr. Mignola’s weird, highly-stylized artwork.  I started following his work, and when he branched into the realm of creator-owned comics with his creation, Hellboy, I eagerly followed.  For that very-first four-issue Hellboy mini-series, 1994’s Seed of Destruction, Mr. Mignola brought with him another writer, John Byrne, but after that Mr. Mignola took over the writing of his series.  As the Hellboy comic continued, with mini-series following mini-series, and as the Hellboy universe gradually expanded into other titles featuring other characters (the B.P.R.D., Abe Sapien, and more), Mr. Mignola’s work as a writer grew more and more confident.  I would now say that Mr. Mignola is as good a writer as he is an artist (and he is a VERY good artist), and these days he writes far more comic-books than he draws.

Mr. Mignola had stepped into the world of prose novels once before, with 2007’s intriguingly-titled Baltimore , or The Steadfast Tin Soldier and the Vampire, co-written with Christopher Golden.  I don’t know why I never read that novel — it’s been on my “to-read” list ever since it was released, but I’ve just never gotten around to it.  Nevertheless, I was immediately intrigued and captivated by the announcement of Mr. Mignola and Mr. Golden’s latest novel: Joe Golem and the Drowning City. That’s another fantastic title, promising all sorts of pulpy adventure fun, and if that wasn’t enough, there was Mr. Mignola’s jaw-droppingly gorgeous painted cover.  BEHOLD!  First of all, I wish I could draw that well.  Secondly, that title and that cover-image immediately captivated me with its mix of Jewish mysticism and Lovecraftian horror.

Let me say that this delightful novel is just as much fun as the cover promises!

Joe Golem and the Drowning City is a marvelously fun pulp adventure, with two-fisted heroes battling dastardly villains.  Its style is nostalgic, but never at the cost of feeling dull or old.  The book is very much alive, shooting the reader along through the rich adventure story being told.

I thoroughly enjoyed Mr. Mignola and Mr. Golden’s world-building, and as the story progressed I was intrigued to learn about the alternate version of 1970’s Manhattan depicted in the story, one in which a 1925 catastrophe has left much of the city sunk under-water.  The book is filled with colorful, fascinating characters, from the tender, elderly Orlov the Conjurer; to the ancient and part-mechanical occult investigator Simon Church; to the mad Dr. Cocteau, and finally to the two main characters in the book: Joe Golem himself and the young pre-teen girl Molly McHugh.

Molly is a wonderful heroine, clever and brave, and I was pleasantly surprised to discover, as the novel unfolded, that she turned out to be the book’s main focus, and the real hero of the story.  As for Joe, well, the mysteries at the heart of his character are central to the tale, so I don’t want to spoil anything.  Suffice it to say he’s a tough, square-jawed fighter-of-evil in the classic style, and certainly shares a basic basic bit of I’ll-punch-evil-in-the-face character DNA in common with Mr. Mignola’s Hellboy.

The whole book is chock-full of little details and flourishes that feel like classic bits of Mignola weirdness, which gives the story a wonderful feeling of idiosyncrasy.  Tone is a difficult thing, and Mr. Mignola and Mr. Golden absolutely nail a sense of playful fun balanced with mystery and tension.  And, as I noted above, the book is able to feel retro and nostalgic without feeling dated or dull.  Just take that magnificent title:  Joe Golem and the Drowning City conjures up so many wonderful images of old-style pulp adventures, yet it doesn’t feel too silly or stupid.  (Why does Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom work as a title, yet Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull fails so completely?  Why is The Empire Strikes Back a cool title, while Attack of the Clones is such a stupid one?  It’s a very fine, delicate line, one that Mr. Mignola and Mr. Golden demonstrate a mastery at being on the right side of.)

I really cannot recommend this book highly enough.  It’s a quick read and stupendous fun, and I feel fairly certain that it is unlike almost any other book published this year.  Although the novel is very effective at dropping the reader into the middle of a world that feels fully-realized and well-lived-in, as if we’ve stepped into the middle of a story already in progress, Joe Golem and the Drowning City serves, in many ways, as an origin story for Joe, and for that reason and MANY others I certainly hope there will be future installments to come.

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