For all the talk of graphic novels as a rapidly maturing, adult-oriented art form, the fact remains that much of the genre is dedicated to the adventures of costumed superheroes, post-apocalyptic sci-fi, and various incarnations of werewolves, vampires and zombies. Not that there is anything wrong with these genres per se; I like them as much as the next guy. However, their prevalence hardly reflects the idea of narrative sequential art as a mature medium that could, for example, tell the story of a turn-of-the-century Eastern European Jewish rug-weaver who finds himself caught up in the onrushing tide of modernization, a victim of the new thinking that places a premium on affordability and uniformity at the expense of individuality and craftsmanship.
Which is, in fact, just what Market Day is about. However, saying that James Sturm’s graphic novel is “about” these things things is like saying that Sin City is “about” crime. As is usually the case with the graphic novel form, the manner of Sturm’s presentation is as much a part of the story as the actual events themselves, and it is this presentation, as much as the plot, that sets the story apart from other books on the shelves.
The events of the story are simple enough: weaver and soon-to-be-father Mendleman takes his rugs to market day, where he fails to sell them because his most reliable buyer, Finkler, has retired and left his shop to his son-in-law who stocks it with mass-produced rubbish. Despondent, Mendleman journeys another hour to another merchant, where he makes a discovery that causes him to renounce his craft forever. Returning home to his pregnant wife, Mendleman ruminates on his future, falls in with some hobos under a bridge, has a few drinks too many, and confronts a dark part of his soul.
Sturm’s powerful illustrations, simple without being simplistic, roll the narrative forward with an irresistible, laconic momentum, not exactly a downward spiral but hardly a transcendent journey either. Reminiscent of 18th century wood cuts with their strong lines and minimal detailing, the drawings rely on a muted color palette, chunky portions of black, and varied panel layouts to achieve their effects. Ranging from expansive two-page spreads to pages cluttered with as many as 12 panels, Sturm keeps the reader’s eye engaged with pages that reflect the slow pace of a mule cart, the bustle of a city market or the disordered ramblings of a confused mind.
He also trusts his illustrations to convey action and meaning, avoiding the trap of overwriting and overexplaining. Dialogue and narration is kept to a minimum, with the effect that the events on the page are allowed to speak for themselves. The final pages of the book are ambiguous enough to be thought-provoking, and more than a little disturbing too. They manage to provide a sense of closure—maybe—without patness. Readers who wish to discover something unique in the comics medium would be well advised to explore Sturm’s work; this book, along with James Sturm’s America (2007), makes a fine place to start.