The stories composing America, the new collection of cartoonist James Sturm’s work, were previously published individually, but when they’re gathered together between the same set of covers like this, each takes on a greater meaning. Not only is the whole greater than the sum of its parts, but, in this case, the parts are also greater now that they’re part of a whole.
Each is set in a different, influential period of American history, recognizably distinct enough that it would have its own chapter in a high-school textbook. While the stories each encapsulate that period and thus reflect on the concept of America to a certain extent, they’re also small, intimate tales about fictional, unfamous characters. Sturm makes no grand statements about what America is or why it’s that way. (Such contextualization is left to the reader, after he or she closes the book and ruminates on it.)
The first is “The Revival,” set at an 1801 religious revival in frontier Kentucky, the biggest such meeting in history. It follows a desperate couple into the sea of the devout, seeking a miracle. To say much more would spoil the plot, but Sturm winds up for a mighty gut punch halfway through, toying with the limits of faith ... and how you can believe in God, but you can’t test him.
That’s followed by “Hundreds of Feet Below Daylight,” a longer, grittier tale of a late-19th-century mining town’s rise and fall. Finding some Chinamen making a living off an abandoned mine, some gruff entrepreneurs slaughter them, seize the mine and then find a hard time living off the increasingly meager yield, right up to the dark punchline of an ending.
The third and final tale is also the longest and most polished, “The Golem’s Mighty Swing.” It’s also the one that tackles the most obviously “American” topic, as it deals with our national pastime, back when it really was our national pastime.
It stars the Stars of David, a traveling, all-Jewish baseball team that packs into a cramped bus and travels around small-town 1920s America taking on local teams, with each match having an undercurrent of rooting against the Jews, something the team trades on in an attempt to scrape by, eventually going so far as to dress one of their members in a secondhand Hollywood golem costume.
Sturm’s art style progresses through the eras, beginning very rough and very dark before emerging into the brighter, cleaner look of the baseball story, which adds brown shading to the panels, where previously they were stark black and white.
All too often our history gets reduced to a series of wars, discoveries and presidencies, so Sturm bringing life to the relatively quieter moments here is particularly interesting, and what better medium to dramatize such stories in than an all-American one like comics?