Pitch Black: Market Day and Mental Illness

Posted by on July 22nd, 2010 at 12:01 AM

This and all other images © 2010 James Sturm. Click to view larger images.

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

James Sturm’s Market Day has been subject to some interesting reviews already here at The Comics Journal. Gavin Lees focused on its nature as an allegory for the woes of cartooning as a profession and found that its lack of a clear resolution made it a cynical, dreary experience. Marc Sobel noted that it was a book about transitions—some joyous, some not—and as such, thought the murky ending was appropriate.

The setting (a Jewish community in 19th-century Eastern Europe) felt more like it had to do with specific images that inspired Sturm than his wanting to tell a story about a particular era. That’s different than the tales Sturm told in America, where time and place dictated the nature of those stories. The metaphor of Mendleman the rug-maker as alternative cartoonist is one of two dominant themes explored in the book, something that Lees thoroughly explored in his article. I’d only add that the marketplace itself has the rhythms of a comics convention: an exciting hustle and bustle that quickens one’s pulse. The references to camaraderie after months of solitude spent working and the thrill of being able to share gossip also resonates in that manner.  Lastly, Sturm masterfully reveals how Mendleman sees the world in terms of how he would capture it as a rug, in the form of several cleverly designed pages.

Sobel was right-on in talking about Market Day a study of transitions: the transition to fatherhood, the transition from a golden age of practicing an art and its inevitable decline, and finally a transition from Mendleman as an artist to becoming something else (and lesser).  While this is all true,  I’d also say that for Sturm this was more than just a transition.  His stories tend to be about the beginning of the end: the crucial point where something that was once good tends to fall apart.  There’s a crisis point where this occurs, but it’s really more a matter of a house of cards collapsing.  Market Day is no exception.  Mendleman was essentially making a living at the pleasure of a single wealthy patron whose praise was almost worth more to him than the cash he shelled out.  It was inevitable that the end would come for Mendleman, sooner rather than later.  The fact that it came on the eve of him becoming a father was simply fate’s coup de grace.

The other important theme in this book revolves around the relationship between the artist and mental illness.  Mendleman wakes up in the darkness, something that Sturm emphasizes with the use of black endpapers.  That blackness is explicitly referred to  as a looming, almost tangible presence.  It seems clear that Mendleman is suffering from obsessive-compulsive disorder and its frequently concomitant severe depression.

The sense of constant dread, the need to count his steps to ward off depression, and the rapid extrapolation of obsessive thoughts to their bleakest end are all obvious indicators that Mendleman is struggling with a nearly debilitating mental illness.  What was most interesting was the way Sturm connected the physical act of creating his rugs with counting his steps as a means to combat intrusive thoughts: “a reassuring rhythm that wards off uncertainty.”  Sturm makes the case that Mendleman’s mental illness is not the inspiration for his art (as is often mistakenly assumed); instead, his art helps him to channel and lessen his depression through the physical act of creation.

The problem for Mendleman is that he went too far in having his art sustain his ego, diving further and further into his own mind instead of leaning on his loved ones.  He notes, “I live more fully in the world I imagine than the world I eat in,” and while that mental state allows him to constantly divine new sources of inspiration, it also prevents him from living in the moment with his wife.

This seems to be the key to the ending.  When he sees a pile of his rugs sitting in a tacky emporium, his sense of self is crushed by the weight of this “monument to failure.”    Instead of simply being able to gain pleasure from the act of creation (the rhythm of the loom is not unlike the rhythm of making marks on paper), he got caught up in what Lynda Barry refers to as The Two Questions: “Is this good?  Does this suck?”  He got away from what made art a healthy exercise (or even therapy) and wrapped it up into what was so much frippery.  The sheer panic he feels upon walking home leads to even more gruesome extrapolation, wherein he imagines his wife and newborn dead and feels a tingle of joy at this prospect.

He finally admits defeat as he understands that “I have been exiled from one country and welcomed back to the other.”  He had no choice but to try to live in the present, to “pledge my allegiance…do what is required” for his family, but all the while “pray I do not turn traitor.”  Of course, merely thinking that is a clear indicator that he will “turn traitor” somehow, unless he finds another way to manage his obsessiveness.

It’s interesting to read this book in light of the fact that Sturm is the co-founder of the Center For Cartoon Studies.  In a sense, one could say he’s encouraging an entire school of potential Mendlemans—artists who will likely have great difficulty making careers as cartoonists, given the very real financial limitations for alternative comics.  On the other hand, CCS is all about providing the sort of support structure that Mendleman never had: encouragement and harsh honesty from mentors and peers alike, as well as companionship going hand-in-hand with intense work.  Most of all, Sturm seemed to be emphasizing that one should never lose sight of the joy of mark-making in and of itself.  Conflating that powerful experience with financial success, fame and flattery robs it of its power as both means of personal expression and potential form of healing.  Doing so at the expense of one’s loved one’s is a sure track to madness.

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