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Who doesn’t love bleak, Eastern European, turn-of-the-twentieth-century comics? Commies, that’s who! Oh, wait – Commies probably love them!
The latest comic by James Sturm is called Market Day, which comes to us from the fine folk at Drawn & Quarterly and costs $21.95. Or cheaper on-line. But you wouldn’t do that, would you?
Market Day is a rather bleak comic, which doesn’t necessarily make it depressing. Okay, it kind of does, because although this isn’t a grand tragedy, it does end in failure, and it leaves us feeling somewhat empty. So I hate it, right? No, because it’s very well done. And the ending, as depressing as it is, speaks to choices people often have to make and whether the main character, Mendleman, makes the right one. It might leave us empty, but it also makes us think. Comics ought to make us think, oughtn’t they?
We must consider “what happens” in Market Day, even though, on first glance, the answer is: “Not much.” A Jewish rugmaker in an indeterminate Eastern European country at an indeterminate time around 1900 (I know this only by the back cover, which says so – I mean, it’s obviously set in the past in a place with a large Jewish population, so I guess we can make the connections, but Sturm doesn’t tell us anything about the time or place of the book) heads out early one morning for the big town, which has a big market. When he gets there, he and a few acquaintances discover that the merchant to whom they’ve always sold their wares has retired and his punk son-in-law has taken over, and the punk son-in-law has no interest in buying quality items, instead going for cheap and crass merchandise. Mendleman tries to shop his rugs all over town, has no luck, heads south to an “emporium” where he’s heard people buy quality rugs, finds out that’s a mirage as well, and despairs. He must make decisions about his life because his wife is about to give birth and he fears he won’t be able to support her. And so the book ends.
Well, that doesn’t sound cheery, does it? Well, I saw Eastern Europe in the 1970s, and I can’t imagine it was any cheerier 70 years before that, so setting a book there almost guarantees that it won’t be sunny and bright. Sturm has a very nice line, detailed yet occasionally abstract, and he drenches the book in earth tones that mute even the brighter colors (hey! there’s some grass!). And, of course, back in the day, everyone wore dark, somber clothing, so there’s that. Sturm pays close attention to the faces of his characters, even though so many of them are hidden behind bushy black beards. He gives them a well worn look – even if they’re not old or unhappy, you can see they have difficult lives that beat on them. Some of the older men are spookily prescient in their ugliness, as if Sturm is foreshadowing what Mendleman and his peers can look forward to. However, we get some nice abstract images as well – Mendleman sees things in the world that he can work into rugs, and some of the beautiful images in the book are when he wonders how he can show the real world in a rug. He’s a craftsman, and that makes what happens to him at the market all the more depressing. Sturm gives this world a weight, with real human beings and animals wandering free and full fields and solid buildings, and it’s quite marvelous. It might not make you feel good, but Sturm’s art impresses because it’s more real than much of what we see in comics.
And here’s the thing about Sturm’s story: It’s obviously not about Jewish rugmakers in early twentieth-century Eastern Europe. I mean, of course it is, but Sturm’s going for a much more modern take as well. The idea of craftmanship becoming outdated as modernization and standardization takes over is not new and still has relevance today. There will always be craftsman, and they will always struggle against the Wal-Marts of the world. Mendleman even visits a shopping mall – what else is the emporium, where you can buy all sorts of goods at marked-down prices? The merchants who refuse to sell Mendleman’s finely-made rugs are simply doing what merchants do – looking for a profit by reducing their costs. The older man, the friend of Mendleman who retired, represents an older way of doing things, one that Sturm obviously has sympathy for. When Mendleman visits the emporium, he’s struck by the sheer volume of wares, which allows the sellers to drop the price. This leads to a reminiscence about when he struck out on his own in rugmaking, leaving a shop to set up his own business. His recollection reminds us of Sturm’s ultimate point – the idea of putting so much of yourself into your craft and finding others who share in your appreciation of it. When Mendleman realizes that this world has passed on, he must decide what’s best for his wife and unborn child. The books ends on this somewhat sour note, as Mendleman struggles with his choice. But I got a different sense of the comic than what it seems as if Sturm is going for.
From what’s in the book, the reader is sympathetic toward Mendleman. We admire his craftmanship, despair along with him when his rugs are rejected, feel scorn for the crass new shopkeeper who stocks only baubles, and cry for the loss of the old world, where people took time to make quality products and merchants took time to sell them and buyers appreciated them. There are a few problems with this narrative, however. As we delve deeper and deeper into social history, we realize that there have always been crappy products, even before the advent of plastic made them cheaper and cheaper to make. The world of commerce has always struck a balance between cheap crap and high-end stuff, even today. Mendleman’s world of quality craftsmanship hasn’t disappeared; this very comic is an example of it, as it’s much more well-crafted, in both narrative and production, than your average Teen Titans comic. Sturm’s melancholy paean to a vanished world rings somewhat false, then, because this idyllic world (“idyllic” in the sense of a single worker producing great works of art and being able to make a living from it, but not in the sense of this world is carefree, because Sturm makes it clear that it’s not) never existed in one sense, and in another sense it’s still around. Sturm may not be able to make a living creating comics like this, but he’s still able to produce them. Mendleman also must make a choice to continue to make these high-end rugs and perhaps fail to feed his family or submit to the commercialization of the market and support his wife and child. Sturm presents this as a tragedy, a Morton’s Fork (I may be using that incorrectly, but I love that that term exists), when it’s perfectly clear what Mendleman must do. I suppose I can’t spoil the ending by telling you what his choice is, but it’s kind of offensive that Sturm implies that Mendleman has been beaten by this new world he inhabits. There’s no reason for him to fail to adjust. Change or die, Mendleman, as Warren Ellis might say.
The preceding paragraph might imply that I am unhappy with the book. Not at all. It’s a fascinating look at a vanished world (the actual physical world) and an interesting way to present the old-as-the-hills “craftsmanship versus commercialization” argument. That Sturm seems to come down on the side of craftsmanship is not surprising, nor is it terribly surprising that he condemns the commercialization aspect so very much. High-end artists almost always condemn the commercialization of art, failing to grasp that many, many people simply don’t care about aesthetics. Not only that, but many people simply don’t have the money for high-end products. One must make choices, and when Mendleman’s carpets (or Sturm’s comics) fall into the category of “luxuries,” they become less desirable. Only those with disposable incomes can afford them. As Mendleman’s world changes, he simply can’t see why people wouldn’t want his beautiful, abstract works of art. But as one merchant tells him, “Who would pay so much to wipe their feet?” As readers, we’re supposed to find such a coarse attitude tragic. True art cannot be brought down in such a manner! But it is. I don’t see this as tragic. Sturm obviously does. That doesn’t mean I don’t like the comic. I, you see, have disposable income.
This is a far more complex book than it appears to be, and that’s why I recommend giving it a look. Sturm doesn’t beat us over the head with his thesis, he simply tells a story of a man going to market and having a bad day. Perhaps Mendleman gives up his weaving. Perhaps the next time he goes to market he makes a sale. Perhaps the punk son-in-law realizes the value of good rugs and furniture, made to last (I love high-end products, because usually they do last longer, but I recognize that people can’t always afford Stickley chairs and Karastan rugs), and changes his ways. Perhaps he finds happiness in something else than making rugs. But Sturm leaves it up to us. He’s just telling a story, and it’s quite a good one. If you have some disposable income, you should give it a try!
Tomorrow: I have to take a weekend break. I thought I had a big enough cushion to get all the stuff I have to read reviewed, but then my mother was in town, and I fell behind, and that’s that. I’ll be back, though – I still have a pile of big thick comics to review!
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