Breath of Bones is a comic I read earlier this year in single-issue format. A total of three issues of this mini-series were published by Dark Horse, and they’re being collected in a hard-cover trade edition on sale February 26th. If you missed the single issues, you’ll definitely want to pick up this trade, not just for the excellent story but for the spectacular artwork by Dave Wachter.
Upon picking up the book and looking at the cover and the front-piece that leads into the first chapter, the reader may make the mistake that this is simply yet another World War II tale introducing a creature that smashes the Nazis. After all, who wouldn’t want to see that? Nazis are bad guys that are easy to hate, and we can’t see enough of them getting what they have coming, especially in the form of fantastical, mythological creatures doing the smashing.
However, you’d be wrong and be doing the story a great disservice to view it through this kind of lens. Breath of Bones is a tale of heart, courage, faith, and resourcefulness in the wake of overwhelming odds. Sure, there is some action, and it’s well-done, but it comes slowly and builds up to a majestic climax toward the last chapter of the story rather than being packed throughout. This was the proper way to handle this story, and Niles writes it very well, keeping us on the edge of our seats and developing characters and situations that we really care about, so when the inevitable conclusion comes, we are cheering and breathing a great sigh of relief.
This is the story of a young Jewish boy, Noah, who tells the reader of a story from his past, when his village was threatened by an invading Nazi army, and of the fantastical creature, a Golem of legend, that protected them. This isn’t really giving anything away, as the promotional copy on Dark Horse’s own website says as much.
Even knowing that, the real depth in the story comes from how the golem is created in the first place, and the people and their reasons behind its creation. While the dialogue is a bit sparse, as is fitting for this type of story, we still get a strong sense of who Noah and his family and neighbors are, and we feel their pain and uncertainty as they come to terms with what is happening to their village due to the choices they have made. Noah is very relatable as the main point-of-view character, a product of a more contemporary age struggling to understand both the modern horrors of war as well as his grandfather’s teachings of an earlier time. Noah and the rest of the villagers ask the questions we want to ask, walking a fine line between absolute faith and rational thinking that many of us deal with on a daily basis.
The “bad buys” are your standard evil Nazi types, but in this case there’s really no need to develop them out any more than being efficient, cold, calculating, and heartless. “Cliché” is the wrong word to use here – yes, these Nazis are cut from the same cloth as most Nazi officers and soldiers from the history of World War II comic literature, but the focus of this story is on the villagers, particularly Noah. Having stock villainous characters actually serves to help propel the story, as we don’t have to figure out their motives. We understand these villains upon our first meeting them.
As good as the writing is, the real strength of Breath of Bones is in David Wachter’s art. The creators wisely made the choice to produce the art in a wash of gray tones rather than color, and it serves the story well. The world looks dark and a bit depressing, and it fits with the old films of World War II that were produced shortly after the war’s end. In effect, the color scheme makes the story more believable in a way.
Wachter’s character work is outstanding – we really feel the sadness and fear of the villagers, and just from the looks on their faces, we want to be able to help them somehow. All the characters are rendered beautifully, so there’s no confusing characters even though many of them are dressed in a similar style with similar hairstyles. Noah in particular perfectly captures a combination of youthful exuberance with that of a boy on the cusp of manhood who is growing up a bit too fast in the wake of the world in which he lives.
The golem itself is depicted in a rough, cobbled-together manner that illustrates its creation as a creature of rock and mud. It constantly reassembles and recreates itself to fit its needs, which is a nice touch. There’s a real sense of weight to the creature – you can almost feel how massive it is as it plods along the landscape, cutting a swath through the Nazi soldiers attacking it.
In this trade edition, in addition to collecting the three issues of the series, there are also a few pages of sketches and notes by David Walker at the end, providing his thoughts on the designs for the Golem, Noah, and the covers of the series.
Breath of Bones was one of my favorite comic series of 2013, and it’s great to see this special hardback treatment of the story brought together for people who missed it the first time around.
Review copy provided by Dark Horse Comics.