James Sturm has earned a large amount of critical praise throughout his career from The Golem's Mighty Swing which was named as Time magazines 2004 graphic novel of the year, to Fantastic Four Unstable Molecules, his only foray into superhero comics and for which he received an Eisner Award for best limited series. He's made good use of this accolade by co-founding a Center for Cartoon Studies and The National Association of Comics Arts Educators.
His latest work is Market Day (Drawn & Quarterly) which recounts a day in the life of a carpet weaver in early 1900's Eastern Europe. Mendleman rises early in the day already struggling with anxiety about the immanent birth of his first child. "Why bring life into this this?" he asks himself as he sets off on a long walk to the market to sell his rugs. Unfortunately the buyer of his rugs, a man noted for his appreciation of excellent craftsmanship has left his shop to his son-in-law who rejects Mendleman's work. Consumers, it seems now want cheaper quality mass produced goods and so continues Mendleman's existential crisis as he is unable to find a buyer for his life's work.
This is a story for any creative person who finds themselves going through those dark nights of the soul confused by their purpose, struggling to maintain their creative integrity in the face of the need to make a living. "I keep moving but to what end?" he asks, walking miles to find a buyer, literally and metaphorically bowed by the weight of the rugs he carries on his back.
I loved this book. The deceptively simple drawings and sparse dialogue compliment Mendleman's isolation and depression. The story apparently offers no answer to his predicament but there is more at work here. On his arrival at the market Mendleman becomes buoyant making note of the colourful characters, chatting with friends, finding passing children's energy infectious. Mendleman wonders "How would this all come together in a single rug?" He draws his inspiration from the world around him and therein lies the key. His vision of the world and what he sees in the world affects and is affected by his mood. After the bad news, Mendleman sees only the poverty and tragedy.
Given Sturm's commitment to help new artists (he dedicates the book to "my fellow cartoonists") one would expect some optimism and encouragement. Sturm takes nothing away from the struggle and dilemma an artist may face but he offers something from which to take strength that lies in ones perception of the world.
The book is in hardcover and costs £16.50. You can preview an excerpt here and there's a nice interview here in which Sturm mentions rather interestingly that the project started life as a children's story. Finally there's an excellent detailed analysis of the book from a Jewish perspective here.