Lees on Market Day by James Sturm

Posted by on May 10th, 2010 at 12:00 AM

Drawn & Quarterly; 96 pp., $21.95; Color, Hardcover; ISBN: 978-1897299975

Whether reimagining the history of a nation or the origin of the Fantastic Four, James Sturm has always managed to find the soul of a story — the resonant core that gives his work a near-mythic quality in its hopefulness and universality.  His position on the faculty of the Center for Cartoon Studies has allowed him to impart his considerable skills and influence on a new generation of wide-eyed, eager cartoonists.  In Market Day, however — his first graphic novel since 2001’s The Golem’s Mighty Swing — he appears to have lost his former optimism and what’s left is a beautifully told piece of abject nihilism.

Told over the course of a single day, the book concerns Mendleman, an artisan rug-maker in Eastern Europe in the early 20th century.  At his local market, he vainly attempts to sell his wares — rugs of great quality inspired by nature and religion that even the most discerning Rabbi approves of — finding rejection after rejection as his artistry and craftsmanship demand too high a price.  After schlepping his offerings to another town and further disappointment, he is faced with the dilemma of whether to sacrifice his craftsmanship and principles or to leave his family in poverty, while maintaining his integrity.

The allegory should be clear — Mendleman is a comic artist and his day is a career in miniature. The expectation he feels in the morning is echoed by the pregnant orange on the horizon that he rides off into on his mule (the infertile offspring of two different animals and therefore evidently a symbol of the poor ole’ funnybooks).  However, as the day breaks over Sturm’s frequent double-page spreads, it’s not filled with the Technicolor promise of dawn, but the drab grays and browns of depression. He realizes the market has changed from what he knew, and his once-dependable patron has sold his shop to a new, modernized owner (who may as well be called Amazon… or Scans Daily).  Changing business models are a concern for any artist who hopes to make a living wage, but Sturm seems to suggest that there is no place for Art in the paradigm shuffle and Mendleman becomes redundant, remaining an outsider.

The only point where he feels any sense of belonging is when, at twilight, he finds a cadre of artists sheltering under a bridge.  They welcome him heartily and even show a glimmer of recognition of him, but as the light fades, so does Mendleman’s hopes as the artists are revealed to be lewd, talentless vagrants — self-deluded frauds of the highest order.  One wonders if this shouldn’t have been subtitled A Graphic Disclaimer for Prospective CCS Students.

Ultimately, Mendleman chooses a third option and vows to sell his loom — a premature, dejected Prospero.  The message seems to be: Give up.  Give up on principles because people are tightening their purse strings; give up because people are happy with an inferior product; give up because all that matters is money.  This is not “Tennyson, we cannot live in art,” so much as “Students, you cannot live on art.”  There is no rallying cry here, or even a view that Mendleman is foolish to give up; only quiet tragedy.  Unlike the best of tragedies, it’s not even the protagonist’s resistance to change that is his downfall, but precisely because he changes.

As such, it’s difficult to identify with Sturm’s view of the artist’s plight.  Market Day feels too narrow, too cynical in its worldview to really resonate and its message so insipid that it renders his considerable skills in storytelling as futile as his character’s own art.

To see tcj.com’s own Marc Sobel’s take, go to this link: http://www.tcj.com/alternative/market-day-by-james-sturm

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One Response to “Lees on Market Day by James Sturm”

  1. […] trailing my colleagues at TCJ in reviewing Sturm’s Market Day. A couple of days ago Gavin Lees and Marc Sobel offered very different takes on the graphic novel. Both focus on the story of our […]