Go Lem or Go Home: Marvel’s “Thing That Walks Like a Man”

I love mythology almost as much as I love comic books.

Perhaps that’s not surprising as I encountered them both at a young impressionable age. Justice League of America #30 introduced me to superheroes; Roger Lancelyn Green’s Myths of Ancient Greece introduced me to gods and mythological heroes around the same time. Even before I saw gods showing up in comics, I saw the two worlds as kin: super-powerful heroes, monstrous villains, breathtaking adventures. My pre-teen self fondly imagined Zeus and Lightning Lad occasionally hanging out and talking shop about throwing lightning.

That fascination eventually extended into magic and folklore of all sorts. So you can understand my enthusiasm when Marvel introduces Brother Voodoo in Strange Tales #169. I knew voodoo was some sort of real world magic, now I’d get to read a cool new superhero and learn about voodoo!

Of course, most of what I learned was wrong; Damballah, the malevolent serpent spirit who played the villain the first two issues, is actually a benevolent loa in voodoo lore. At the time, though, I was completely hooked, then very disappointed when Jericho Drumm’s adventures were cancelled in mid-arc. Sure, the story concluded in Tales of the Zombie but no way was I spending that much on a comic when I only wanted one story. Still, I was already buying Strange Tales so when they switched from voodoo to Jewish mysticism with “The Golem — The Thing That Walks Like a Man!” I stuck around.

According to Moshe Idel’s Golem, Jewish Kabbalists claimed that a supremely enightened mystic could form a man from clay just as God created Adam (it’s unclear whether this was meant as metaphor or they literally believed it possible). Because even the most enlightened mortal cannot equal God, however, the result is not a man but a soulless, mute golem. The most famous of the many golem legends is the Golem of Prague, created by Rabbi Judah ben Lowe to defend the Jews of that city from their persecutors. Which is the backstory of Len Wein and John Buscema’s “There Walks the Golem” in Strange Tales #174.

We open in the Sinai, where Jewish archeologist Professor Abraham Adamson recounts the legend of the Golem of Prague to his niece Rebecca, nephew Jason and right-hand man Wayne Logan. After saving the Jews of Prague from oppression, it left the city to go wandering through the world, protecting the helpless and the downtrodden without regard for religion or ethnicity. Finally, for no reason other than plot requirements, it walked into the Sinai, fell asleep and got buried in the sand.

Adamson’s convinced the ancient scrolls in his possession have led him right to the burial site, and of course he’s correct. They excavate the unmoving stone figure, making this the biggest day of Adamson’s life — and, tragically, the last. Egyptian soldiers charting the area stop by and ask for food and water. Adamson welcomes them, but it turns out they’re deserters seeking supplies and loot. When Adamson tries to stop one of them stealing his scrolls, he gets a bullet for his pains. The soldiers realize murdering an important scholar will draw unwelcome attention, so they take the other three along as hostages.

Dying, Adamson begs the Golem to protect his family as it protected Jews in the past. He recites a ritual to awaken the figure, to no effect … until his dying tear splashes on its foot. The Golem reanimates, possessed in some fashion of Adamson’s spirit; knowing what’s happened, it goes to rescue Adamson’s family.Spoiler: this doesn’t go well for the evil Arabs.

I thought this a pretty cool opening story for what the letters page describes as comics “first Jewish monster-hero,” more so because it was my first encounter with the golem legend. As one later letter to the editor pointed out, however, it’s also racist as shit: the Jewish protagonists are nice guys but the only Arabs we meet are treacherous deserters, rapists and murderers. Marvel’s response was that as it was set in the Sinai, they’d had to use Egyptians. That ignores that if they’d buried the Golem outside Tel Aviv it wouldn’t have changed the story any.

The tale isn’t faithful to Golem lore; the Golem of Prague looked perfectly human, for instance. Most of the changes, the editors said, were made consciously; I imagine choosing a more inhuman look for the Golem was one of them. If hardly the next New Gods, I’d still have liked to see where Wein went next with the story.

Alas, when the Golem returns in #176, Mike Friedrich was writing the series. He was always a mediocre writer, not even close to Wein’s league, and it showed; Tony DeZuniga did okay on the art, but not as effective as Buscema. In “Black Crossing,” the Golem beats up some more Arabs, then we meet the sorcerer Kabbala the Unclean. Reading now, the name choice strikes me as very weird, like a Christian-themed series having a villain named Gospel the Diabolical. Kabbala isn’t even a kabbalist, just an elemental mage. He already controls demons of air, water and fire so once he gets the Golem (cue the ominous music) he will be invincible!

Kabbala times his attack while the Adamsons are shipping the Golem back to the U.S., figuring the earth elemental will be at its weakest in the ocean (making the Golem an elemental feels much wronger than the non-canon details of the first story). Because the Golem is powered by the professor’s soul, and draws power from his love for the kids, this doesn’t work. In #177, “There Comes Now Raging Fire,” the Golem reaches the U.S., Kabbala unleashes his fire demons, fails again and realizes the true source of the Golem’s strength. If he can destroy Rebecca and Jason, though, the Golem will be powerless …

But that was the end of the “kosher hunk of clay” as a series character (Steve Gerber wrapped up the cliffhanger in a forgettable issue of Marvel Two-in-One). In the final letter column, the editors explained they simply had no idea what they were doing. Should The Golem be heavy on human interest a la Man-Thing? Slam-bang action like The Incredible Hulk? Supernatural eeriness like Werewolf by Night? They couldn’t figure it out, so they were calling it a day.

Back before social media existed, I almost never heard frank talk like that from comics creators. It impressed the heck out of me — much more than those last two issues did,

#SFWApro. Covers top to bottom by John Romita, Ernie Chan and Frank Brunner; interior art by John Buscema.

 

5 Comments

  1. Le Messor

    I’ve always been interested in mythology, too. Mostly Greek, though.

    I had to check, but the Marvel Two-In-One that wraps the story up is #11. That explains why all this is so familiar – I have that issue, so I have read a bit of Lem’s backstory.

    As an aside, it bugs me when people say ‘Gollum’ when they clearly mean ‘golem’. Very different things.

  2. Edo Bosnar

    For a split-second there, before I read the complete title, I thought this was going to be a post about one of my favorite SF authors, Stanislaw Lem. But alas…

    As to the ‘Lem, as it were, I do recall reading these stories in my handy Essential Marvel Horror vol. 2 (so much Bronze Age goodness packed into that book) but they didn’t really grab me. Brother Voodoo, the Living Mummy and Gabriel the Devil Hunter, to name a few, left a much greater impression on me.
    And since you mentioned Damballah, I feel compelled to recommend the now quite sadly late Charles Saunders’ novel Damballa, in which the titular character is a supernaturally powered hero operating in New York in the 1930s.

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