Joe Golem: Occult Detective by Mike Mignola and Christopher Golden blends the private eye genre with the golem legend and takes place in a future world in which part of New York is under water and people get around by boats, makeshift bridges, and unstable-looking planks. This first Joe Golem trade includes two stories — one three issues long and the other two issues. However, they are connected as Joe meets a young woman in the first story (Lori Noonan), and we see her again in the second, and Joe’s character develops from one tale to the next. The Joe Golem stories spin out of an illustrated novel by Mike Mignola and Christopher Golden entitled Joe Golem and the Drowning City; however, I have not read this novel, and the stories stand well on their own.
Near the beginning of the first story, “The Rat Catcher,” three young water rats steal a purse from a woman, so our sympathies are with her. However, the story makes a quick shift as the three boys escape in their small boat down dark, watery alleyways: All of a sudden a monster springs out of the water and grabs one of the boys, pulling him underwater. We then meet Joe Golem, who lives with Mr. Church. Joe and Church act as private detectives doing good deeds for no pay. But because Church is physically weak, Joe does most of the fieldwork. So in this first case, he seeks out the young boys. They live in the orphanage, and there Joe meets Lori, who works there. Joe follows the case of “The Rat Catcher” from there.
The second story, “The Sunken Dead,” begins when Joe is on a date with Lori. He is sought out by his older partner and mentor who, in a huryy, interrupts the date and pulls Joe into another case, this one more immediate: A man is just about to successfully reanimate the dead. It is a short, ironic story in that a man of clay is striving to stop a living man from reanimating those who do not live. Mr. Church, too, seems almost not alive in that he appears to have lived far beyond his natural span of life and is kept alive by some sort of steampunk-looking heart.
The stories hint at much in the background of Joe and his mentor, but the most we get is through Joe’s nightmares. Joe, who does not look like a golem, has visions of a golem from the past fighting witches. Mr. Church medicates Joe in order to help him with his nightmares, but the reader can connect the dots: Church does not want Joe to remember his own nightmarish past, for, though Joe is clearly intelligent, he has no idea that he is not human. Nor would he suspect, as we know, that a golem has a master, and from what we can tell, Mr. Church is that man.
I think much depends upon the wonderfully dark and atmospheric art in this story, and that is what brings to life these short tales: Much is conveyed visually in terms of setting, and these settings would fill out pages and pages of a novel in prose. Personally, I prefer the concise manner in which the atmosphere of Joe’s world is conveyed through Patrick Reynolds’ art. These stories are good enough to make me want to read the novel they are connected to, and I look forward to more Joe Golem comics in the future (there are two issues out of three in the next story currently available from Dark Horse). If you enjoy stories about golems, I strongly recommend Joe Golem: Occult Detective.