The Wall Street Journal interviews JAMES STURM

James Sturm: A Cartoonist with an Eye on History

The Wall Street Journal    |    Jamin Brophy-Warren    |    April 24, 2010

Many think of comics as a forward-looking medium primarily concerned with the worlds of super-heroes and space travel. But for some cartoonists, like James Sturm, the past holds as much potential as the future. His works include “Satchel Paige: Striking Out Jim Crow” and “James Sturm’s America: God, Gold and Golems.” Several years ago, he co-founded the Center for Cartoon Studies in Vermont. His newest book, “Market Day,” examines the life of an Eastern European rugmaker struggling to sell his wares in the early 20th century. Speakeasy had a talk with Sturm about his book and creating historical fiction:

The Wall Street Journal: You recently decided to quit the Internet and draw about it for Slate. How did that affect your work?

James Sturm: “Market Day” was done for a while so the decision to go offline was during the initial book launch. Part of it was by design. I find myself getting worked up when a new book comes into the world. You get into a frenzy reading reviews and listening to podcasts and a lot of this diminishes the enjoyment of the book coming out. You start with the noblest of intentions and you end up feeling like a door-to-door salesman. There’s so much push to tweet and push your book. Ironically, the attention of the Slate piece gives me a platform that reaches a lot more readers more than anyone could imagine.

How did the idea for the book come about?

You could trace these things to a lot of sources. I always wanted to set the book against Eastern European Jewry. The story is recognizing the dilemma of making a living and making art and how debilitating it can be when they feel like diametrically opposed.

Sounds like the life of a cartoonist.

If you ask an artist especially at a certain age, when you’re younger and you don’t have the same responsibilities with no children or mortgage, they think you’ll live forever. It gets harder and harder to carve out that time to work. The work is so crucial if you’re lucky enough to be cursed to be a writer and an artist. The motivation of the book is being between the two worlds. Sometimes I’ve got to shut down and pick up a kid from school. Other times, the opposite’s true and you’re studying and you’d rather be reading to your kids and hanging out.

Does Eastern Europe have a personal connection for you?

That is where I can trace my ancestry. I love documentary photographs because there’s something very poignant and sad about that time and place. There’s this moment in time that doesn’t exist any more. The photos of Eastern European life seem doubly sad and tragic as that world was obliterated. As a result of having this knowledge of history, you see photos with a veneer of sadness. You see all of these people as victims. That always bugged me that I couldn’t look at these photos without feeling like they were victims. With my work I could reassign another narrative by creating a new world.

Do you think the ending of “Market Day” is dour?

More than few people say it’s bit of a depressing book and I can see that. This is a challenge and I didn’t want to shy away from what it requires and the consequences of pursuing your work. But there’s the role of Finkler, this guy who was a patron. It took one person to encourage this whole group of artisans to make fine work and by developing this craft in a way, it shaped the way they saw the world. They were more cohesive and whole. That’s a very hopeful thought.

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