James Sturm is one of a handful of cartoonists who, in the 1990s, helped build the foundations of a system to support and grow a better cartoonist and, hopefully, a more appreciative comics-reading public. First Sturm founded the National Association of Comics Art Educators (NACAE) in order to help facilitate educators who wanted to teach comics as a legitimate art form in their classrooms or to use comics as a way to teach other studies. Then he co-founded the very successful Center for Cartoon Studies in White River Junction, Vermont (a short eight-hour drive from Toronto), a college for cartoonists to learn to express their graphic work in personal, innovative ways.
During this time Sturm was also able to publish, among other things, three award-winning novellas (collected here) and recently a book on how to draw comics. This year he is releasing an 88-page novella called Market Day (read some press here), a quiet story about Mendleman, a pensive artisan in turn-of-the-20th-century rural Europe who is turned inside out when he finds that the single outlet who sells his expensive quality rugs has unexpectedly changed owners and is no longer willing to stock his wares. As a nervous expectant father without the calming influence of his wife on this visit, Mendleman quickly falls into despair at this turn of events, and the welcome excitement of the market turns sinister.
As the day turns to night, he is invited by some derelicts to drink with them under a bridge. One old man around the fire is referred to as a poet, and as he’s called on to recite a poem for the rest of the men, they begin to shout him down with obscenities. Mendleman leaves them, drunk, and wanders into the night, consumed by monstrous fantasies of leaving his pregnant wife, for which he is ashamed.
As daylight reemerges, the real life that is waiting for Mendleman is summed up so eloquently in the last few pages: he is a citizen of two nations suddenly at war, facing instability in his passion for making art and an impending need for security for his family.
There is an excellent interview here in which Sturm reveals some of the allegorical threads in the story, the main illustrating how the removal of one seemingly insignificant person can have a big and cascading effect on the lives of so many others. Sturm is drawing a parallel here to his own comics-championing publisher, Chris Oliveros. One can easily see a correlation between the rug maker and the cartoonist, but we also see, as in Sturm’s previous work, a larger commentary on how market forces impact the lives of individuals.
It’s interesting to note the unreliability of the main character – one moment all is well, and the next the world is against him. His moodiness is established at the beginning of the book, and when we are warned that his wife is not coming with him to the market, we are set up to expect a problem that will play out later. Mendleman lacks his partner’s calming influence, and he is tossed to and fro at the whim of his needy and unstable emotions. That a small business owner like himself has only one real client, and that because of the not uncommon situation where such a client disappears, Mendleman goes on to make such rash decisions in a single day, belying his foolishness.
The book cover notes that that the protagonist/artisan’s inability to find work is a sign of the beginning of industrialized modernity. This is true, but I also found it interesting that Mendleman is quite a bad business person. His whole livelihood is based on one merchant. That he later decides after one day – one day of not selling his rugs – that he is going to give it all up left me feeling the protagonist is also at fault. There’s more going on here than just the fall-out of a changing society.
Sturm’s style is economic and simple – there isn’t a great deal of play with texture or foreground/background relationships. Sturm gives us a single point of view and focus, as if we are watching a play. Movement always goes left to right, even when Mendleman travels back home. But what is drawn is very expressive. Sturm’s style has evolved to use body language and objects to convey the characters’ feelings: Mendleman’s hat, the way it sits way high up at the back of his crown; the folds of a leather boot on a merchant’s table; the different caricature drawings of minor characters, with pushed-in noses, long faces, round eyes as dots, all very simple, but evocative. The economic use of colour stands out. There is a fantastical atmosphere – despite the starkness of the drawing style, there is a sense of the unreal.
Interestingly, Strum says he started this work with the idea of making it a children’s book. It’s only 88 pages, and he’s taken a long time to write it, but with running the School of Cartooning in Vermont, teaching courses, helping students, and helping raise his own two children, how else could he have got it done?
Thank goodness Strum refers to Market Day a cautionary tale. His merchant has so many others depending on his, and when he disappears, so many people are effected. We, too, would all be a lot worse off if Sturm were to abandon us.