MARKET DAY reviewed by the New York Times

In One Sad Day, an Old World Artisan Confronts a New World

The New York Times    |    George Gene Gustines    |    April 25, 2010

In “Market Day,” by the cartoonist James Sturm, Mendleman, a Jewish rug maker in Eastern Europe during the early 1900s, experiences a momentous 24 hours. Mendleman, who fashions his wares by hand, realizes change is in the air (cheaply made goods are beginning to rule the day), and one of the many strengths of this graphic novel is its ability to convey the rug maker’s highs and lows during this transition.

Mr. Sturm’s other explorations of times past — whether the American frontier in the early 1800s or a Jewish baseball team in the 1920s — have always made tumultuous events feel personal. “Market Day” is no exception.

The melancholy photographs of shtetl life by Roman Vishniac became Mr. Sturm’s inspiration. And in conducting his research he found echoes of his own family in the cast of characters who inhabited the market stalls of yore. Readers will find their own connection established from the title page, which shows Mendleman (we know only his last name) lying in bed, eyes open with worry, as his wife, Rachel, sleeps soundly. He sets off in the predawn hours with his donkey cart carrying his wares. Rachel is eight months pregnant and remains at home, making dark thoughts his only companion. He fears his wife will die in labor; he imagines her fate if death comes to him; he envisions his newborn reared as a street urchin or in a terrible orphanage.

Mendleman’s somber musings seem capable of paralyzing him. Thankfully, a strong wind blows off his hat and snaps him to attention. He shakes off his foreboding with a familiar coping mechanism. “As I have done since childhood, I compulsively count my footsteps,” he thinks. “It is not unlike weaving — the counting, the measuring. A reassuring rhythm that protects from uncertainty.”

Mr. Sturm’s images — a human step here, a donkey clop there, the turn of the cart’s wheel — are as palpably calming as the regularity of the ritualistic counting.

The splendid artwork in “Market Day” manages to evoke — depending on the scene — wonder or sadness, though the color palette mostly stays muted. Mendleman has the soul and vision of an artist. He constantly observes, absorbs and converts the chaos of life around him into patterns for his rugs. In one early scene, as day begins to break, Mendleman sees “a sliver of pink framed by the gray earth and clouds,” which he imagines, and Mr. Sturm depicts, as a simple rug.

A glimpse into Mendleman’s creative process is found in a two-page spread after he observes the bustling market crowd. Over four panels the people and buildings become less defined and more cartoony, then represented as shapes and silhouettes, then depicted as large swaths of positive-and-negative space. The first three panels could be wonderful tapestries. The final panel, filled with Rorschach-type blobs, might be better suited for a therapist’s office.

Mr. Sturm knows when to let the images speak for themselves. There is a lovely spread with Mendleman crossing a bridge with hints of light as the sun begins to rise. The colors of the afternoon are brighter in a scene of two men sawing wood in a field. The image would be positively pastoral, if not for poor Mendleman slouching along in the distance. A final spread, of the market well after business hours, is desolate, save for Mendleman and a stray dog scavenging in the night.

But “Market Day” is not all doom and gloom. Earlier in the day, when Mendleman runs into Rabbi Soyer, a friend, he beams at the rabbi’s compliment: “My son and I should both study the Talmud with the same devotion and thoughtfulness that you apply to your rugs.”

The men had previously debated when Sabbath begins and wondered about the precise moment of the setting sun. Mendleman divined the answer in a rug, of course, colored black and deep purple. “When the light faded enough, and one could no longer tell the difference between the two colors,” he thinks, “then Sabbath had begun and prayers could be made.” The exchange with the rabbi puts a strut in Mendleman’s step that is delectable.

One can’t help smile when Mendleman succeeds; the drawings show him aglow. And when he fails, the hovering storm clouds are both literal and metaphorical. When disaster strikes, the rug maker finds himself weighed down with unsold goods and despair, and the reader is pulled right along. The market becomes less cheerful. Where earlier there was an airy lightness — children playing, bushels of fresh food and excitement — now there is a heavy darkness, filled with grim realities like a blind, disfigured beggar and an elderly porter barely upright as he struggles with his burden.

Mr. Sturm, with Michelle Ollie, founded the Center for Cartoon Studies in White River Junction, Vt. That he is overseeing the next generation of graphic novelists posits an exciting future for the medium, particularly if he can impart his mastery at codas. The ending of “Market Day” is superb in its uncertainty.

As Mendleman resolves, “I will pledge my allegiance, do what is required and pray I do not turn traitor.” The final image perfectly captures his struggle: The sky is bright with possibilities, but his home shows no signs of life.

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