Sobel on Market Day by James Sturm

Posted by on May 10th, 2010 at 12:01 AM

Drawn & Quarterly; 88 pp.; $21.95; Color, Hardcover; ISBN: 9781897299975


James Sturm is a cartoonist’s cartoonist, a passionate supporter of the medium and one of its great ambassadors.  Devoting his life not simply to making his own comics (which he has done for over two decades), Sturm has also helped hundreds of young artists realize their visions through the Center for Cartoon Studies, which he co-founded and remains actively involved.  His comics, like all great artists, have sharpened and focused over the course of his career, and following his trilogy of graphic novels, recently collected as a single, stunning volume simply titled James Sturm’s America, it was only logical that Sturm would turn next to Europe.

Market Day, Sturm’s best work to date, is a period piece set on a Jewish shtetl in an unspecified region of Eastern Europe.  Although it touches on themes like fatherhood and artistic integrity, at its core, it’s a story about transitions.

Mendleman, the lead character, is at a transformative moment in his life.  With his wife eight months pregnant, the young man is standing on the precipice of adulthood, contemplating fatherhood for the first time.  Faced with this great unknown, Mendleman feels extraordinary pressure to assume responsibility by earning enough money to support his wife and child.

But like his creator, Mendleman is an artist at heart.  Although his chosen craft is rug-making rather than cartooning, like all artists, he struggles to reconcile his lofty creative ambitions with the mundane realities of subsistence and family.  The heaviness that weighs upon him is evident from the very first panel as Mendleman lies awake in his bed, his mind reeling, as his wife rests comfortably beside him.  It is a revealing image that resonates through the rest of the story as his impending transition is never far from either his or the reader’s thoughts.

With this transitional context established, Sturm takes us into Mendleman’s world for a day, allowing readers to accompany the rug-maker on his journey to sell his latest wares at the market in the next town, hoping to return with enough money to provide a stable start to his unborn child’s life.

At first, the book’s pacing is slow and measured, as Sturm devotes several pages to show Mendleman passing through shady groves and tree-lined paths, crossing cobbled bridges and empty fields.  These quiet passages are highly effective, reflecting not only the slow pace of life in a world without modern technology, but also allowing Mendleman’s complex and conflicting emotions to simmer in the background.

However, when Mendleman arrives at the market, he’s immediately heartened by the promise of selling his rugs.  His introspective mood evaporates, replaced by a youthful enthusiasm as he wanders the crowded stalls, noticing all of the wonderful sights, sounds and scents.

But his positive attitude quickly darkens when he learns that Mr. Finkler, the re-seller he had counted on buying his rugs, has retired, leaving the affairs of his business to his less-than-sympathetic son-in-law.  For years, Finkler, who had built his reputation on selecting merchandise of the finest craftsmanship, had been Mendleman’s main buyer.  However, his son-in-law does not share his father-in-law’s appreciation for the artistry of rug-making.  Rather, he is a practical businessman, concerned with turning inventory and maximizing profits, and finds Mendleman’s high-end rugs too expensive.  Thus, when Finkler’s son-in-law offers Mendleman a price far below that his father-in-law had previously paid, Mendleman is forced to re-evaluate what his rugs are really worth.

The parallels between Mendleman’s experiences as a rug-maker and Sturm’s as a comic-book artist are never far from the surface.  In the story, Finkler was more than just a businessman who sold rugs, he was a passionate supporter of Mendleman, the artist.  As Mendleman reflected, “If Finkler bought your goods, you knew you were good.”  In an interview with Chris Mautner at Comic Book Resources, Sturm talked about the inspiration for Finkler’s character, which was based on “how important one individual’s commitment and support can be for somebody.  In Market Day, when the Finkler character disappears, it sets off this bad chain of events for Mendleman.  In my mind I thought of Chris (Oliveros, publisher of Drawn & Quarterly) as the Finkler character and how important my own relationship with D&Q was for my own artistic development.”

Beyond the monetary value, Mendleman also has a vested emotional value in each rug.  As a proud, young artist, he has not simply cranked out cheap products to make a quick buck, but rather used the finest materials and care, transforming mere rugs into deeply personal tapestries, portraying within the fibers of each carpet a personal vision.   In one arresting scene, he contemplates how to capture the grandeur of a sunrise in the woven interplay of colored threads.  Thus, when he is faced with a dispassionate dismissal of his effort, and forced to see his rugs as others do, as merely consumer products to be trodden on and forgotten, his ego is understandably shattered.

Sturm astutely reflects this change in Mendelson’s mood in the narrative and the imagery.  Where he initially noticed all of the charms and wonders of the market, Mendleman now wanders its stalls discouraged and appalled.  His awareness settles not on the wonders he previously listed, but its grotesqueries and atrocities.  “An elderly porter, barely able to carry his load,” a blind, disfigured beggar,” and “a lottery ticket seller promising quick riches” all come into focus as he “sinks into himself” and allows “the miserable present” to seep in.

However, there is little time to sulk, as Mendleman’s deeper imperative — to return with money for food and necessities — forces his hand.  The next and only other option available is to find a new buyer.  At this point, Sturm ratchets up the urgency Mendleman feels by accelerating the pace of the narrative.  Mendleman frantically goes from stall to stall, shop to shop, practically begging anyone to buy his rugs; however, while some show more compassion than others, none are willing to pay his premium, and as the day wears on and fatigue sets in, so too does a creeping sense of desperation.

With no other options, Mendleman is forced to journey even further, to an emporium — the 19th century equivalent of a Wal-Mart — where one of his friends recommended there might be some interest in his rugs.  Once again, Sturm uses the concept of transitions to great effect, as Mendleman’s walk is carefully drawn out over several silent pages.  The emotion is palpable in this quiet section as readers silently lament the fate of the artist, forced to demean himself for money.

Like many of the great cartoonists, Sturm knows what to include and what to leave out.  Throughout Market Day, his compositions are spare and uncluttered, free of extraneous lines and gestural details.  Many of the scenes are based on old reference photos of Eastern Europe that Sturm found during his research, but the artist admits that some scenes are invented and likely historically inaccurate.  “The emporium — I don’t even know if there was such a thing,” Sturm confessed, “the interior of that was based on this place down the street from my studio called Vermont Salvage.”  Yet it’s a testament to Sturm’s ability that the cartoonist is able to weave these made-up locations seamlessly into the narrative without throwing off the sense of reality or the emotional core of the story.

Sturm’s focus on transitions (which the artist attributes to novelist Richard Ford, author of The Sportswriter, Independence Day and Lay of the Land, who, according to Sturm, “really delves into this moment of time, this moment of transition in the character’s life…”) does have its drawbacks.

Following the younger Finkler’s rejection, Mendleman, at his most vulnerable moment, encounters a fortuneteller in the market.  The ragged-looking man tells Mendleman that “God will reveal himself to you through your work,” re-instilling a fleeting sense of faith in the young man’s heart.  However, by the end of the book, nothing has been resolved.  Sturm does not show us whether Mendleman has decided to continue as an artist or quit.  Nor do we learn whether the fortuneteller’s prediction was ever realized.  In the penultimate panel, Mendleman, weary and hung over from his journey, pauses just outside the doorway of his house, overwhelmed by the moment.  His heart is understandably heavy as he prepares to step into his new life.  The scene pulsates with emotion as he hunches slightly, nearly crushed by the weight of uncertainty, but it offers no clear resolution or evidence of personal growth.

Rather, the book ends abruptly.  This unexpected conclusion, although initially dissatisfying, actually fits perfectly with the story’s intentional concentration on transition, rather than outcome.  Of course, readers will naturally want to know how things turned out (in the interview with Chris Mautner, Sturm said he hopes to “pick the story up many years later and see what decisions were actually made and where that led him.”), but the way things turned out has little to do with this story.

Rather, Sturm’s focus in Market Day is on the murky gray area between life stages.  It’s in these tentative, exhilarating moments that emotions peak, and by clipping the story down to this single, transformative day, Sturm leaves his readers with a profound sense of wonder.  It’s a masterful, emotionally resonant ending, evidence of just how in control Sturm was from the very beginning.

To see’s own Gavin Lees’ take, go here:

Further Reading:

Tom Spurgeon’s interview with James Sturm in The Comics Journal #251

Brian Heater’s four-part interview with James Sturm at The Daily Crosshatch

Chris Mautner’s interview with James Sturm at Comic Book Resources

Christopher Allen’s review of Market Day at Trouble With Comics

Glen Weldon’s review of Market Day at NPR

Be Sociable, Share!

Tags: , , ,

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

  1. […] 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 narrator’s […]