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Comic Review: The Monolith HC
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Image Comics: The MonolithThe Monolith
Written and created by Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray
Artwork and Cover by Phil Winslade
Introduction by Jim Steranko
Coloring by Chris Chuckry
Lettering by Nick Napolitano & Phil Balsman
Designed by Bill Tortolini
Edited by Joey Cavalieri & Harvey Richards
Image Comics
Release Date: July 25, 2012
Cover Price: $17.99

It’s odd when DC attempts to ground their weird and exciting fictional universe, full of Kryptonians, Lantern Corps, and Ambush Bugs, in some sort of ‘real’ world. How one defines what’s ‘realistic’ is subjective, of course, and has led to approaches like Batman: Year One and Identity Crisis. As you can see, the typical story involves the same line-up of characters in their same fictional locations. There’s a new direction in The Monolith that writers Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray took. They created a new character, based not-so-loosely on the Jewish legend of The Golem, and the action in the book is smack-dab in the actual New York City (with Depression-era history attached to boot!).

So how does this stack up? It’s got some good qualities and some bad. And how is this an actual DC book and not, say, a Vertigo title? Well, it’s subtle and shows up around the edges, but I’ll get to that in a bit.

The story goes like this – An elderly New York couple is killed violently during a home invasion. Cut to Alice Cohen, a junkie and prostitute in the Lower East Side on the run from her pimp, a scene-chewing psychopath named Princeton. She’s approached by a lawyer who informs her that her estranged, recently deceased grandmother, also named Alice, has died and left her granddaughter her house in Brooklyn. She moves in, seeing it as an opportunity to lay low, when a mysterious voice emanating from behind a wall pleads Alice to read to it from her grandmother’s old diary. She learns that, growing up in midst of Depression-era destitution, the older Alice helped create a real-life Golem, a large, strong beast made out of clay, brought to life to protect Jewish communities from pogroms and to clean the streets of the violent gangsters keeping ordinary citizens oppressed. The beast ended up needing to be trapped because, as the classic stories would go, the monster did not know how to control itself and ended up running amok. You can more or less figure out where the story goes from there.

The problem is many of these ‘realistic’ qualities I found to be unconvincing and ultimately distracting. The Depression-era stuff takes up a large chunk of the book and is particularly interesting. At its best it harkens back to some really good later Will Eisner stuff, and Phil Winslade‘s art really shines in his large exterior scenes, but the older Alice’s voice feels so removed from the actual era – there’s exposition about living conditions and asides about the politics of the era that strike me more as the researched voice of 21st century writers and not a character on her own. Or, for another example that’s maybe more to the point, the younger Alice, essentially our protagonist, has a muddled history that is largely told, not shown. Heroin addiction and prostitution are used more as set dressing for her character, something she vaguely needs to ‘overcome’ and the really scarring effects those have on a person are not strongly addressed here. The argument could be made that Princeton, the psycho pimp chasing her down, does just that. To me, personally? He read as a great non-stop force of destruction, nothing less but nothing more.

And, see, that’s a lot of the book for me; it reads as a superhero story that’s trying to dodge all the funner qualities that make it what it is. I feel the same way I did when Wes Anderson went for dark and gritty in certain scenes in The Life Aquatic; it’s a great effort and I think it’s great that you’re trying to bring a lot more then what’s expected of you, but it just doesn’t feel right to me.

What I think worked particularly well, though, is the use of Golem mythology. Here we have something that folds Hebrew folklore into the DC Universe, not in a unique way, as Jim Steranko points out in his particularly good introduction, but in a raw way. If you know the Golem story and you know your superheros, is it any surprise to see parallels? I mean, Exhibit A: The Hulk! The Monolith feels very at home in the 21st century not because he’s some sort of new concept, but because he’s such a potent symbol of The Old World where modern storytelling comes from.

The volume that is being re-printed is simply the origin story told in the first four issues. A shame, as I’d be very interested to see where the creators were going with the series. Interestingly enough, this is being published by Image. Apparently since this was a creator-owned book that had never been reprinted before, the rights reverted back to the Palmiotti and Gray not too long ago. The rest of the 12-issue series will be reprinted in a forthcoming volume minus the one issue that has a crossover with Batman. I shake my head as I imagine the unrealized possibilities.

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