I’ve gotten into the habit of thinking of Mike Mignola as a creator of graphic novels. And so, of course, I find myself faced with Joe Golem and the Drowning City, a collaboration with Christopher Golden, billed as “an illustrated novel.” It’s still pretty much the kind of thing I’ve come to expect from Mignola.
Felix Orlov is a conjurer. In practical, everyday terms, that means that these days he holds séances to enable his clients to speak to the spirits of their dear departed. (Conjuring ain’t what it used to be.) In this he is aided by his assistant, Molly McHugh, fourteen years old, crowned by a head of flaming red hair, and of uncertain antecedents. Like too many inhabitants of Downtown, she was a street child, if we can call it that, scrabbling for a living in the drowned remnants of Lower Manhattan until Orlov pulled her out of it and gave her a home. Then one day, a séance goes horribly wrong – Orlov seems to have lost his sense of himself, and in the middle of things the door is broken in by a group of men (?) wearing rubber suits and gas masks, who kill Orlov’s clients, abduct Orlov, and try to do away with Molly. She is rescued by a man who identifies himself simply as “Joe,” who then takes her, over her objections, to Church — Simon Church, who himself is an investigator with some acquaintance with the unusual. It seems Church has been keeping an eye on Orlov for some time, because of an artifact known as Lector’s Pentajulum. No one knows what it does, but it seems that Church is not the only one who’s interested in it.
About that “drowned Lower Manhattan”: in the universe of this story, disaster struck in 1925 and the level of the ocean rose. Lower Manhattan is under water, and pretty much resembles the worst slum you can imagine – a sort of modern-day Venice on the skids. That, and the more or less steampunk framework – Church, for example, is more than a hundred years old and gives off smoke, even when his pipe is not lit – lends a somewhat Victorian flavor to the whole thing, a sort of Dickens with boilers and gears. And this being a story from Mike Mignola, there’s also a somewhat Lovecraftian air: there’s an elder god, or maybe just a superior being from another dimension, who makes a dramatic appearance at the climax of the story, reaching its tentacles into our dimension. (Why do “elder gods” always have tentacles? No one has ever explained that to me.)
The story is basically solid, but I think it might have done better as a graphic novel. There’s a dictum among writers that goes “Don’t tell me what a character’s thinking, show me what he does.” That’s where Joe Golem fell down for me: we seem to spend a lot of time in Molly’s head, and then Joe’s, learning what makes them tick. Among other things, the pacing suffers and the story loses focus. What might have been fairly tight sequences amble along while the characters ruminate on why they’re doing what they’re doing. (It’s not limited to just Joe and Molly – Church tells us what his motivations are, as does the villain, Dr. Cocteau – at length.) Based on past experience, I’m sure Mignola’s art could have carried these portions very nicely. For that matter, either Mignola or Golden could have built all this into subtext and made a more engaging story, and, counter-intuitive though it may seem, one with more fully developed characters.
About the “illustrated novel” part: Mignola has provided a series of illustrations – I think the term “profusely illustrated” is appropriate here – that depict various characters and settings of the story, in his signature rough, blocky style, rendered in the manner of woodcuts, in stark black and white. The one drawback is that, because of the high contrast and sometimes small size, they occasionally are unreadable.
Sadly, the telling me rather than showing me part of it more or less ruined the book for me, although the story, and, indeed, the characters themselves, are certainly worth a look. I still think it should be a comic, though.
(St. Martin’s Press, 2012)