Great Golems of the Comics

May 14, 2005

By Avi Green

When the Golem of Prague was first written as a Jewish thriller story in the middle ages, who would’ve thought it could become such a great template for many other fantasy stories to follow, such as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and even some of the most memorable moments in comic books!

That’s what’ll be the subject here today, as we take a look into some of comicdom’s greatest golems, both good and bad, and how they came to be.

The Thing

Benjamin Grimm, the “Ever Lovin’ Blue Eyed Thing” of the Fantastic Four, was a Queens native who’d grown up a mostly sad life after his parents died, and rose to fame and fortune when in college, where he became a football pro, and went on to become a test pilot for the USAF. After being caught in a cosmic ray storm, he was turned into a creature of orange stone. His shape has alternated somewhat over the years, as he turned from a rather lumpy looking structure to a more authentically rocky-like figure, which is what he mainly looks like today.

And of course, he’s one of the most appealing characters in the adventure world, his background and personality having won over the audience almost ever since his debut in Fantastic Four in 1961, when Stan Lee and Jack Kirby first introduced him to the world. The first place where he got something like spotlight was when he co-starred with the Human Torch in several adventures published in the Strange Tales anthology in the mid-1960s. It was in 1974, with the debut of Marvel Two-In-One, that, while it wasn’t 100% a starring vehicle for Ben, since like Marvel Team-Up, that too was a team-up anthology, that he started to gain some real time in the spotlight for himself, as he joined forces with various notable characters in the MCU to battle the forces of evil. This series lasted 8-9 years with a solid 100 issues and 7 annuals. Then, when MTIO ended in 1983, a title bearing his codename took its place, that being The Thing, which ran from 1983 to 1986.

While his popularity as a solo character has since waned, probably also because fans saw him as integral to the Fantastic Four, and if anything, just didn’t fit the bill as a character separate from them, he’s still very popular as a character nevertheless, and most wonderfully enough, he’s still gotten a chance to shine in some solo adventures in miniseries, such as The Thing: Freakshow, and also Night Falls on Yancy Street. And there may be at least one more mini that’s come out featuring him in a solo adventure too.

The Incredible Hulk

One of the most appealing suspense comics that takes its inspirations from the Jekyll-and-Hyde mold, the Hulk's template, Dr. Bruce Banner, was a scientist working on a gamma radiation experiment for the US Army, who, through an ironic twist of fate (he had to drive out onto the testing field to drag a reckless teen, that being orphan Rick Jones, off of it, after he drove in there as part of a dare, and his would-be co-worker, Igor Drenkov, who was a Soviet spy, allowed for him to become exposed to the blast), ended up being turned into a hefty, 7-foot-tall green-skinned monster whom a startled guard named the Hulk, and often ended up fighting Cold War villains and alien menaces for starters, and had quite an interesting rogues gallery introduced for him as well. One of his leading rivals on the side of good was Gen. Thaddeus "Thunderbolt" Ross, whose daughter, Betty Ross, also a scientific researcher, became Bruce's girlfriend and later wife, and not only did she give him a reason to live, she was also more or less what kept her father from going too far in his distrust of Banner, whom he thought was a genuine menace. Even so, Bruce did end up having to cope with being a fugitive at times, and this led to his travelling all across the US as tried to figure out what would be best to do about it. As he realized, it was being under stress or being angry that could end up turning him into his green-skinned alter ego, and when calmer again, he would transform back to regular self.

An interesting aside: historically, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby had originally intended for the Hulk to be colored gray, but, thanks to a printing error, the Hulk ended up being colored green. Nevertheless, the green goliath, as he was dubbed at times, became quite popular in time, first appearing in his own solo book in 1962 that ran six issues, then becoming a member of the Avengers for a few years, then getting his own adventures again in Tales to Astonish in the mid-60's, and then, in 1968, continuing where TTA left off, the Hulk once again got his own starring series that continued from the TTA numbering at #100, and continued on many great adventures, matching wits with such foes as the Leader, the Bi-Beast, and, most notably, Emil Blonsky, another Soviet spy who tried using a gamma device of Bruce's on himself, and ended up turning himself into the Abomination. Allies of the Hulk included not just Rick Jones, but also Dr. Leonard Samson, who had also been gamma irradiated, and also gained superhuman strength, but it was otherwise just his hair that turned green, and not his skin. But if there's any character introduced in the Hulk's world who's really famous, it's the She-Hulk, that being Bruce Banner's cousin Jennifer Walters, whose introduction to the MCU in 1980 was originally in order to secure a copyright, but was still quite an auspicious creation, and since then has become quite an enjoyable character in the MCU, with at least three solo series of her own to date. When she'd suffered an accident, Bruce gave her a blood donation, and this had the effect of turning her into his female counterpart.

There were many great adventures written for the Hulk by many different writers over the years: besides Stan Lee, there was also Roy Thomas, Roger Stern, John Byrne, who had Bruce and Betty married in the mid-80s, and most notably Peter David, who was the writer of the Hulk's book for 11 years! Of course, there was quite a weak point that the green goliath stumbled into story-wise, when a writer named Bruce Jones wrote the book during 2002-2004, in which the Hulk side of Bruce Banner almost never appeared, except when thought appropriate (like, say, when the movie was going on!), and the familiar characters were almost totally scarce. But luckily enough, not only did Jones thankfully leave, Peter David came back on in late 2004, and since then has succeeded in restoring some of the lost luster for the green goliath.

Swamp Thing

Call this the dark side of what Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created back in the Silver Age, but anyway, the Swamp Thing, to say the least, when first appearing in two different characters, first in 1971 in House of Secrets and the one we know today in 1972, the character is a creature made from vegetation, a sentient being of his sort, who can influence plant life, and often faces the occult in a lot of horror-related stories of suspense. Created by Len Wein and Berni Wrightson, it began with a scientist in Louisiana, Dr. Alec Holland, who’d been murdered along with his wife Linda, by three criminals who were working for a shady syndicate in Europe, who coveted the scientific research he’d been doing for the government, to develop a chemical that could turn barren land fertile. They’d knocked him senseless in his barn at the farmhouse he was living and working in near a bayou one night, and then planted a time bomb that blew up, and he’d fled from there too late, having been exposed to the chemicals he’d been working on in the lab he kept in the barn, diving into the bayou, and, it would seem at first, emerging as a plant-like creature called the Swamp Thing. He later took his revenge against his attackers, and then went on a journey to find a purpose for himself in his new state as a plant monster.

Of course, that was at first, that he had believed himself to be Alec Holland, but later on, when Alan Moore took to writing the book, he undid this notion, by revealing that Alec Holland had died, and that Swamp Thing was actually a mass of plant fiber given life by the chemicals that Holland had developed, and absorbed his memories in the process. He was also revealed to be the next step in sentient plant life.

With that, Swamp Thing was able to reshape his focus upon who and what he was, and to become more upbeat about living. And with the help of Abigail Arcane, niece of his archnemesis, Anton Arcane, he was able to manage this even more. He discovered more abilities that he had, such as being able to teleport his body to almost anywhere in the world where there was plant life, and certainly to grow a new one, by placing his conciousness within a new plant. And, he developed a rivalry of sorts with John Constantine, who made his debut in Swampy’s own series in 1985, having come to warn him about the impending Crisis on Infinite Earths, which took place that year. Constantine got his very own series soon afterwards, in 1988, called Hellblazer, that’s run a long time.

Plus, an Avengers story

We could also give mention to a two-part story from the Avengers back in 1980, written by David Michelinie, about a Pittsburgh steel mill worker who’s learned of his boss’ involvement with a criminal organization called the Maggia (an odd take on the word mafia, to say the least), which led to the corrupt factory owner and a henchman of his trying to off the employee by throwing him into a vat of molten steel. But their plans go awry when an Uru chip the guy got from Thor, who’d stopped by at the mill a short while ago to fix his Uru hammer, saves him from death, and turns him instead into a hefty, flaming being called Inferno, who then seeks justice against the criminals who wronged him. It was a very good short story, done with some really good panache to it, showing how the angry worker is determined to see to it that the scumbags pay for their crimes, and the Avengers coming to Pittsburgh to stop the menace soon realize what’s going on, and make it clear to the corrupt boss that even if they save him from being put to death himself, they’re still going to make sure he’s put under arrest and investigated for his crimes. Upon seeing that justice will be done, Inferno decides that no more mayhem is needed, and vanishes into a nearby lake.

And I guess that could pretty much sum up some of the best Golem-y stories I know of, and what made them work when they were written. Some of those stories were really great stuff when they done, and it’s amazing how the Golem of Prague really managed to inspire some interesting ideas for comic books in the modern day and age.

In brief

I recently made an interesting discovery of a blog entry referencing one of my older columns, when I first began practicing at being an essayist on the Protocols weblog, one of the first standout Jewish weblogs when it first began. That was at the time that I first began building my website on Geocities, of course, and now, these columns can be found here.

It's certainly very nice to be referenced on a subject like this in the Jewish world too, whenever possible, and I thank the webmasters very much for their interest in the subject.

Copyright 2005 Avi Green. All rights reserved.

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