review by Matthew Zantingh
James Sturm’s Market Day is about a journey that occurs on two levels: an exterior or surface level relating to the events of the protagonist Mendleman’s market day, and on a second interior level as a sort of ongoing interior monologue. Mendleman, travels from his small rural village somewhere in Eastern Europe in the early 20th century to the market to sell his rugs, but discovers, on arrival, that he no longer has a buyer for his highly crafted wares. Mendleman must now find a new buyer for his rugs, an experience that induces a deep crisis of identity and faith in him. Surrounding and complicating this plot is his wife’s pregnancy and the imminent arrival of their child, a fact which Mendleman himself struggles with throughout the narrative.
At the core of the novel is Mendleman’s crisis of identity. The loss of his purchaser who, in Mendleman’s words “encouraged [him] to build a house of cards” becomes a catalyst for the gradual unveiling of the world as a shifting and precarious place. This crisis is beautifully illustrated by Sturm’s pictorial narrative style. This novel is heavily introspective as Mendleman engages in relatively little dialogue with other characters, but is constantly narrating his life to himself, and the reader. Early on in the narrative, as he journeys to the market, he imagines how he might create a rug from the first hints of dawn.
He does this again in the market, creating visually simple panels that mimic a rug’s aesthetic. At the same time, the process of refining or removing extraneous bits doesn’t dilute the scene’s meaning but amplifies it instead.
These two panels become a wealth of symbolic meaning with the market-goers becoming animated and mysterious figures in an epic drama of life and death.
Moreover, in this panel and others, readers sense a deep sense of the divine or spiritual animating Mendleman’s world. The hooded figures in the bottom left panel suggest hooded monks, ascetics walking towards a lone lighted door. Mendleman’s Jewish faith is part and parcel of his worldview. A fortune teller later tells Mendleman “God will reveal himself to you through your work.” Mendleman’s response is to state “For one who believes it is possible to weave the nuances of man and nature into a rug, accepting that God etches one’s future into the palm of your hand seems reasonable.” While Mendleman is able to entertain these thoughts in the first portion of the narrative, his dismay at the changing dynamics of the marketplace cause an abrupt change in his beliefs. Sturm illustrates how larger cultural forces like faith, art, and industry collide in the marketplace, producing a liminal space where Mendleman`s crisis begins.
Throughout, Sturm’s book itself operates as a Dante-esque journey into the underworld or purgatory. Mendleman’s trip to the market is revealed not as a saving journey but as one which forces him into humiliation and shame at the hands of the encroaching capitalist marketplace. Mendleman imagines Suzkin’s Emporium as a heavenly place that will free him of his burden of rugs after hearing of it from a friend, but when he arrives he is struck speechless by its vastness and variety of items. He is astounded by the ability of an industrialising world to produce vast amounts of goods at such a low cost that his own work is devalued. It acts a surreal space for Mendleman’s final epiphany concerning his trade. Afterwards, he literally enters the dark night of the soul as the panels become empty of people and coloured with a very dark palette of greys, browns and black.
I believe it is in these visually spare panels that Sturm really excels.The picture itself does not do justice to Sturm’s subtle work with such a dark palette.
Mendleman’s story on a narrative level is not the most engaging material for 21st century readers nor is it that original. In fact, from a certain remove the story itself leans toward a fatalistic view of capitalism, and while the story`s ending offers at least a glimpse of hope for Mendleman, it does not do so for readers. Yet there is real strength in Sturm’s artistry as gives Mendleman a surprising depth and complexity of character. The interspersed portraits and picturesque panels force readers to slow down and really take in the fullness of Mendleman’s journey. They are pauses in the narrative momentum that cause readers to read significance into the minutea of each picture.
In this panel, for instance, Mendleman is not the focus at all, but the two wood cutters in the foreground are. We realize that Mendleman’s problem is not a unique problem for the people of this novel. Instead, it is a problem that all of the sellers, merchants, and artisans of the marketplace face. This is where Sturm’s book is a timely publication in our own moment when our world seems to have sunk deeper into the myriad problems of capitalistic production. Sturm’s narrative points to the human and human communities as an alternative place or lens through which address such problems.
Looking at the story visually, Sturm’s spare lines belie the complexity of the narrative itself. Using clean lines and a realist style, Sturm’s narrative is easy to follow and visually appealing in a way that easily obscures the twists and turns of the narrative. This is not a graphic novel to read in a hurry, but one which should be read slowly and with care. On subsequent re-reads, I found myself taken by Sturm’s ability to keep the narrative moving while also offering absorbing images in the process. Mendleman’s journey to the market, an event that could be achieved in one panel, instead takes 11 panels. Yet, I never felt like Sturm was simply stretching out the narrative, but rather modelling the narrative pace on the length of Mendleman’s journey. The entire novel conveys a sense of the everyday rhythms of life for Mendleman, even though this journey is not a usual day for him, we get a sense of lower-class life in this novel.
If you enjoy meditative or introspective narratives, then I would recommend this graphic novel. However, if you enjoy fast paced, action-filled narratives, this may not suit your taste. To a certain degree, Sturm’s work is a realist production: it is interested in the everyday realities of the common person yet also interested in the larger social forces which structure their lives. Yet the synergy between text and image produces a multi-layered narrative that is compelling and moving.Part of Market Day’s appeal is its ability to return us at the end of the story, to the place where we began. However, we return with a very different view than when we left, one that is altered and shaped by Mendleman’s experience. Like a prodigal child, we return and find the place we left comfortable, but above all, homely and welcoming.