by James Sturm
Drawn And Quarterly
In James Sturm’s quiet melodrama, he captures the exact moment of a revolution occuring. Not a revolution of violence or civil unrest, but a revolution of change, a moment where craft and artistry succumb to manufactured product. And although Sturm sets his tale in some vaguely Eastern European town in something that feels vaguely early 20th Century this small, quiet revolution not only looks at the transition from art and craft to commercial mass manufacture but more importantly it drills tightly down into the life of one particular artisan as he experiences his life disintegrate in just one day – Market Day.
Sturm’s lead character Mendleman leads a life of blissful, fulfilled simplicity. He’s a rug maker by trade, but it’s more than a simple craft – the way he thinks of his work is more akin to an artist and his rugs are beautiful, exotic, things, works of art in themselves.
The rugs are taken to market, atop a donkey drawn cart, and sold at Finkler’s Store, where the owner values quality and craft above all things. This has been going on for many, many years, with Mendleman’s journey to market taking on an aspect of pilgrimage, to have his rugs assessed – joyous eleation or terrible rejection sure to follow dependent on Finkler’s judgement.
(Mendleman’s world of art and rugs is already troubled by impending fatherhood, but worse is yet to come. From Market Day by James Sturm, published by Drawn And Quarterly.)
And it is on his early morning journey to market that we join Mendleman, up well before the dawn, with the darkness weighing heavy upon this melancholic man’s soul. His wife, usually his companion on the journey, is eight months pregnant and the darkness brings on terrible thoughts of death and misery.
The weight upon his soul only lifts as the sun rises, new light giving his mind room to roam, a time this artist dreamer uses to imagine the subtle patterns of the world around him and the colours of everything he sees reimagined in thread and interpreted through his loom.
His world, so simple, so insular, is wrapped up in the rhythm of creativity; the artist imagines, the loom produces, the donkey walks, the rugs are sold, the cycle begins anew. The art is the thing that gives his life meaning, far more than his wife or unborn child. And selling his rugs seems far more than a commercial act, it’s the validation of his art, his reason for continuing.
(The rug maker’s world is simple, everything seen through an artist’s eye, an stylistic technique Sturm uses throughout Market Day to tremendous effect. From Market Day by James Sturm, published by Drawn And Quarterly.)
But this time, something has changed. Mendleman’s principal buyer has sold his shop, and the new owner fills his shop with poor quality, cheaply manufactured stock. In an instant Mendleman’s world disintegrates and he finds himself lost and wandering through the market, unable to sell anything.
Hope springs eternal, but the promise of a new emporium in another town is an empty one. His work has even less value here, simply destined to join the pile of high quality goods sold so cheaply, supply outstripping demand as the new industrialised revolution robs the artists and the craftsmen of their livelihoods. His work depended upon one wealthy patron and with him gone the rug maker’s world seems destined to disappear along with him.
In absolute despair Mendleman sells up, and takes the long walk through the darkness home. To Rachel, to the impending fatherhood that terrifies him so, to a little community that will know of his terrible failure. His journey home is one of despair, and thoughts of a doomed future.
(Head held low, his despair is total, as Mendleman sees his life as an artist wiped away. But here Sturm also shows us everything we need to know of Mendleman’s priorities – his fervent dream is to work, to create, and his wife and future child can just look on. From Market Day by James Sturm, published by Drawn And Quarterly.)
Sturm leaves his ending open – Mendleman returns to his village, having already sold his donkey and cart he pledges to sell his loom, but his welcome back into the village is warm, a return home, to his wife and their child. But in the end the artist seems doomed to conflict, torn between the world of his work, of his ego, and the world of his wife, his child, his home. No-one, not Sturm, not us, not Mendleman himself knows which he will choose:
“This is my dilemma. I am a citizen of two nations that are suddenly at war. My loyalties should be obvious. I have been exiled from one country and welcomed back to the other. I will pledge my allegiance, do what is required and pray I do not turn traitor”
What he does next is never covered, it’s left to us to complete Mendleman’s tale, which is very much a traditional, allegorical folk tale. And Sturm’s beautifully restrained storytelling, coupled with his spare, simple lines, plays on this, giving the terrible reality of Mendleman’s tale a vaguely otherworldy sense, as we observe both the terrible reality of the man and his wonderful dreams and artistry.
And then there’s the unspoken, yet obvious connection between Mendleman and Sturm. The world of the artisan rug-maker and the cartoonist really proves to be not all that different. The obsessional drive to perfecting the art, the imagery, the isolation, the market place with a sudden rush of friendships re-established mimics the convention circuit of comic artists perfectly. The ancient craft of the loom and thread shares so much with the cartoonist making art with pencil and paper, including the threat of encroaching technology and an ever uncertain future.
In Market Day, Sturm creates something memorable in it’s quiet power. The story, so simple, so everyday, so ordinary, is incredibly moving and powerful, packing a massive emotional punch in the latter stages of Mendelman’s despair that surprised me greatly.
And Sturm’s art is spectacular in it’s perfect restraint. From the very first few pages, of a melancholy Mendleman trudging through the darkness at the start of his journey to market, the subtlety and beauty in Sturm’s line is so impressive. It’s not showy, it’s not brash, but this quiet, restraint creates page after page of artwork that smoulders on the page, artwork to linger over, to luxuriate in.
Market Day is a book that stays with you well after the final page, it’s power and heart lies in the beautifully observed character studies Sturm creates through some wonderfully powerful artwork. A quiet, thoughtful, understated classic of a book.