An Interview with James Sturm

An Interview with James Sturm

James Sturm is an internationally acclaimed comics artist who has created such influential works as The Revival and The Golem’s Mighty Swing; he also helped to found The Stranger in Seattle, the National Association of Comics Art Educators (NACAE), and the Center for Cartoon Studies. His most recent work, Market Day (reviewed here), is a parable-like tale about Mendelman, a rug maker in turn-of-the-century Europe whose sole proprietor mysteriously disappears, forcing Mendelman to find a new buyer or give up his beloved craft.

Sturm is in Toronto this week, where he’ll be speaking at numerous TCAF panels (we especially recommend the feature panel with Dan Clowes, Jim Woodring, Seth, and Chester Brown). Sturm will also be appearing tomorrow night (Thursday May 6th) at The Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre to talk about and read from Market Day (for event details go here). Torontoist’s comics columnist Dave Howard spoke to Sturm over the phone earlier this week.

Dave Howard: When I read Market Day, I was really struck by the analogy between the Mendelmen’s craft–rug making–and comics. Am I correct in that?

James Sturm: Absolutely. Mendelman weaves a lot of different things together–both thematically and literally–to make his rugs.

Howard: I really connected to the moments when he sees a situation and transforms it into an image for one of his rugs. He’s in that mindspace, living that all the time.

Sturm: There’s  a moment when he’s under the bridge with the “poet” and his mind starts drifting–oh, how will this work as a rug? In the last panel he literally cuts himself off and is not allowing himself to do that anymore. In some ways that’s the tragedy of the book.

Howard: I don’t want to spoil it for readers, but it seemed fairly clear to me that he was choosing the way of his family–the traditional way–over his craft in the end. Is that true?

Sturm: I feel the book has a lot of different things that people can pull out of it. I’m hesitant to say it’s the definitive thing. I will say he has ups and downs depending on his moods. He didn’t have lunch during the day, and at the end of that day he’s slept only an hour out in the wood. It has’t been a very long time, he’d been drinking the night before, and even his friend says, “You know what? Why don’t you get a good night’s sleep?” I don’t think he’s in a really good place to make that choice right then and there. So I think that what happens is the reader can project a certain amount into that ending. I don’t think that’s necessarily my intent to say that he gives up his art for this family, but, if that’s what people see, that’s fine. It’s similar to an earlier piece I’d done, The Revival. I got a lot of letters from people who had deeply help religious beliefs, thinking the work was a real statement about the power of faith, but  I had an equal amount of comments from people telling me it was a piece about the fallacy of faith.

Howard: So you’re comfortable in that area.

Sturm: I’m very comfortable. I kind of feel that I’m doing something right, I’m not being didactic, spelling something out so clearly that there’s a message there that I’m trying to get across.

Howard: Is that how you like to approach your art? To lead people along and let them draw from what you are creating what they will, to make their own decisions?

Sturm: Well I’m trying to raise some questions and explore some areas and themes, and hopefully do it in way that dramatizes those things. I’m certainly not trying to create some propaganda, or be purely didactic in my approach. I’m not trying to create a message or an After School Special–you know, “Up with art!” So yeah, in that sense, yeah, I want the reader to find their own place in the work.

Howard: Is the setting intended to be a real place to you? Is it supposed to exist in a real place in time? I seems like a generic village to me from somewhere like Eastern Europe

Sturm: I purposely didn’t name specifics in order to give story a little bit more of a fable-like quality. But, in my mind, when I was doing it, I was definitely thinking early 2oth century, first decade, Eastern Europe. So it could be in parts of Poland, Lithuania, Ukraine, Austria. There’s a lot of different areas it could be, but within that region. And for the most part I think it’s historically plausible. I mean, there’s an emporium, and I’m not quite sure those places existed. But I tried to imagine it and I felt comfortable in that environment. My other historical pieces, which took place in America, those other pieces were really historically plausible–they could have happened. I’m not one hundred percent sure Market Day could have happened. Maybe it could have?

Howard: It’s not that important to the story really?

Sturm: Weather something like Suskin’s Emporium could or couldn’t have happened seemed like a moot point. I didn’t want to be held down by historical accuracy for this piece.

Howard: There’s so much internal monologue in Market Day, and I really liked that. There seems to be real evocation of the inner world through the visuals alone. I’ve heard from other cartoonists that one of the differences between comics and prose is that the prose medium can be much more internal. I tend to push away from that idea. Do you feel comics can be an internal medium, or is it predominantly external?

Sturm: As a visual medium, historically, certainly, I think it has lent itself to more action and movement and external things. But I think we’ve seen in the last decade or so–more than a decade–we’re seeing an exploration of the more subtle uses of the medium, moving inward and creating interior spaces. I think it’s just as capable of doing that as any medium.

Howard: Was that something you wanted to explore in Market Day?

Sturm: I didn’t set out to make an interior piece, but it seemed the appropriate tone to take. It is a more meditative piece, a more reflective piece than some of the other work I’ve done. And that’s basically where I was at, as a creator, when I was working on it.

Howard: Can I ask how long it took you to complete?

Sturm: I think, when I finally made the book my focus of what I wanted to do, maybe two and half years or so? But there were seeds, references I’d collected over a decade ago. Maybe in the early nineties I was looking at photos, and looking at other artists who were drawing at that time. Definitely it was percolating back there, but when I decided that this was going to happen, it took about two and a half years.

Howard: I had read in an interview that you are making an analogy in the supportive merchant who disappears in Market Day to Drawn and Quarterly, to Chris Oliveros, to the idea of a single publisher. It seems very much that what you’re saying is that one single person can have a big effect in a complex, capitalistic world.

Sturm: Oh, absolutely. In my relationship with Drawn and Quarterly I never felt it was solely defined by the bottom line. And I don’t think this is unique to Drawn and Quarterly, there are other publishers out there. And there were people early in my career like that, and that was a huge boost. And to create relationships with people like Chester Brown and Seth, to have their interest in my work and their support, certainly it provides a certain degree of validation, which in turn give you little bit more wind in your sails. It keeps you grounded when it doesn’t seem that anyone really cares. It’s a real struggle to get the work done. That a single person can help someone along in that way is…pretty remarkable. Although Market Day does have a few depressing notes or tones, one of the things I felt was really hopeful about the work is that one person can help somebody shape a personal vision. And I think the mistake that Mendelman really makes in the piece–and maybe he’ll come to realize it–is that the value of art isn’t necessarily whatever the current market value of it happens to be.

Howard: That’s a very clear message: that the rugs become less an art than a product.

Sturm: It is a product as well. Navigating between trying to make a living and art at the same time is one of these timeless struggles.

Howard: I take it then that community support and support from others is something that’s really touched on here. It’s a novella and there’s a fair amount of time spent in the story with the other merchants. So I get the sense that the idea of community, of connecting with others is an important part of being able to do your art.

Sturm: I think it is an important part, to sustain yourself as an artist. Certainly as I’ve gotten older, with children and a mortgage, and a really great day job that I truly love,  it makes it harder and harder to carve out that time and space to make the work. I feel there’s real peril for an artist if you don’t carve out that space.

(Read our TCAF preview here. For our interview with TCAF participant Adam Bourret go here; for our interview with cartoonist Marc Bell go here; for our preview of Dan Clowes’ Wilson go here; for our interview with TCAF Director Chris Butcher go here; for our interview with Brad MacKay, co-founder of the Doug Wright Awards, go here, and for an overview of the Doug Wright Awards nominees go here.)