Last night I had a dream about a walking giant made entirely of mud. It was crudely formed, kind of a cross between Clayface from Batman and the Thing from The Fantastic Four. It shambled around here and there, with blank eye sockets and a cavernous mouth. Strangely enough no sound came from it. Then the dream shifted to a flat plateau in which I was looking up at the Tree of Life (from the Kabbalah) rising up from the earth into the cosmos. Each sephiroth shone brightly in between the branches. Then I saw an image of Jack Kirby as if he were travelling around like Doctor Strange in astral form. He said the word “golem” and then vanished.
I woke up with that word emblazoned on my mind. A golem, according to Jewish folklore, is an animated anthropomorphic being created by magic. The word “golem” in Hebrew means “shapeless mass.” Some legends say that a golem is made out of clay, formed into a shape of a human, and then brought to life by a magic alphabet and the secret name of God. Adam from the Bible stories is called a golem for the first twelve hours of his existence because golem can also translate to “body without a soul.”
But I did not dream about Adam. I dreamed about an orange man with a rocky hide. Then it dawned on me that the amazing artist Jack Kirby, who was Jewish and was responsible for the visual designs of The Fantastic Four, The X-Men and The Incredible Hulk (among many others) may have drawn on the folklore of the golem when he created The Thing.
The Thing’s full name is Benjamin Jacob Grimm. This name certainly sounds Jewish to me, and although Ben’s religious identity as Jewish was not revealed for four decades of continuity, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby always imagined Ben as Jewish. The issue in which this is revealed is The Fantastic Four #56 (Volume 3). There is also a moment in the comic in which writer Karl Kesel has a Jewish character assume The Thing is a golem.
There are other characters in comics that bring the golem archetype to mind. In Bill Willingham’s Elementals series, teenager Tommy Czuchra is killed in a landslide and comes back from the dead as Monolith, a super strong earth golem. Tommy is super smart, but introverted, a personality not well suited to his new powers. And since he was brought back at the age of fifteen and can never age, he becomes depressed (since he knows he can never be with Fathom who he is secretly in love with). He eventually leaves the Elementals team.
Another golem-type character that comes to mind is Brickhouse from Milestone Comics’ Blood Syndicate. Myra Santos was touching a brick wall when she was exposed to experimental tear gas and became super strong and invulnerable. A side effect of her powers is memory loss and epileptic seizures. Myra becomes less and less able to recall her life before her transformation.
It’s been a staple of The Fantastic Four saga that Benjamin Grimm just wants to be human, but when he gets his wish he chooses to be a hero in the guise of The Thing. Now it’s canon that he gets one day a year to be his human self only to be heartbreakingly trapped in his “monster” body again. In the Elementals, Tommy can transform back and forth, but can never grow up. In Blood Syndicate, Brickhouse is forever inhuman, but is losing her sense of self through fading memories. All three characters are kind-hearted and compassionate souls, a temperament at odds with their super strong alter egos. This brings to mind another archetype which comics have melded with the golem, that of the “gentle giant.” It makes sense to merge the two as it would make it a lot harder to relate to a character that is only a “soulless body.”
Many thanks to Jack Kirby for the amazing body of work he has left behind. I have enjoyed making these connections between Jewish folklore and super-hero comics.
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