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posted January 21, 2010
Drawn and Quarterly, hardcover, 96 pages, March 2010, $21.95
James Sturm's new graphic novella Market Day
did a fair job of breaking my heart. That it did so in a way I saw coming pages and pages off failed to lessen the blow. It is an elegant, slow-motion tumble into despair, a timely rumination on the lives of artists and a fine addition to Sturm's historical fiction oeuvre.
tracks the story of carpet weaver Mendelman as he attempts to sell his wares near his home in early 20th Century Russia. Mendelman's day starts out with a litany of worries, concerns that are plainly expressed but buoyed by a fragile sense of hope. You believe that the carpet maker is concerned about his wife and child. Yet he also takes great delight in each of the quotidian, happenstance charms of commercial exchange: the freedom of a day away from one's labor, the camaraderie of the artisan class, the mix of comfortable routine and fresh discovery. When he's complimented, he nearly swoons with joy. Mendelman also assures us that these pleasures run right back to his home and to his seat at the loom, a place he apparently feels as close as he can to whole.
And then, in the most banal and unspectacular way, Mendelman's fragile existence slips sideways. Sturm allows historical circumstance to shift under his protagonist's feet in a way that's bewildering to him and obvious to us. The first flutterings of the global economy, the coarsening step that comes with market development place to place, these are the things that have settled onto Mendelman's life in a way that will likely change it for the worst. Sturm is as unsparing in showing us the tidal wave of misery, terror, false starts, decisive action, coping and resignation that Mendelman experiences in furtively reshaping his day to fit the necessities of this sudden, new reality. He even heads back home, in a public, embarrassing and even unsuccessful way that makes a terrific contrast with our relatively serene memory of his morning walk. Nothing good waits for Mendelman there, not in terms of the problems that now confront him, and Sturm deserves accolades for refusing to suggest there are answers waiting beyond a certain level of domestic comfort that he leaves behind when on the road. It won't be enough.
What's horrifying about this scenario is that it should resonate for any artist in any time, particularly those that have counted on a single relationship or working arrangement to be the difference between being able to pursue their art and having to give it up altogether, with considerable pain and potential suffering called on in making that transition. It's not very difficult to see Mendelman as a cartoonist traveling to a comics convention or an actor hitting a paid-for showcase appearance in front of several casting directors or a painter pacing and smoking outside a crucial gallery opening. In fact, the comparisons are almost encouraged via a taut presentational style subtly shorn of extras. Sturm's work is cleaner than ever here, losing some of the illustrator's flourishes and scene-setting pyrotechnics of past historical works in favor of a calm, semi-stylized march into cold reality. That shift in tone could be the influence of the work Sturm's been doing for younger readers through Hyperion; it could be a natural progression of the kind of work he's done in the past. There are scenes here that may remind one of The Golem's Mighty Swing
, the atmospheric sequences set in small, forgotten towns, characters walking from one place to another. The unease Market Day
should wring from just about anyone who reads it is a major artistic accomplishment. I had a history professor who used to joke that history was written by the victors because history written by anyone else would be intolerable. This is a handwritten note from the back of that class, depicting a circumstance as brutal as he suggests but also necessary that we witness.