Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Book-A-Day 2010 # 42 (3/17) -- Market Day by James Sturm

James Sturm has had a great impact recently, both as cartoonist (of The Golem's Mighty Swing and several other historical graphic novels) and as an educator (director and co-founder of the Center for Cartoon Studies, one of the few MFA programs in comics in North America). His new graphic novel, Market Day, is a short book with a pointed moral -- but I'm not entirely sure if I took the moral from it that Sturm wanted me to.

Somewhere in Eastern Europe, sometime about a century ago, Mendleman makes rugs by hand, by himself, on a farm far outside the closest town. He's married, and his wife is expecting their first child -- from this, I assume that he's relatively young. The story takes place entirely on one Market Day -- the time Mendleman goes into the town to sell his wares -- and, from the crowds, everyone else also goes into town to buy and sell.

Mendleman, along with a few other craftsmen, heads towards the store of Albert Finkler -- "always our first stop." (Given the reactions of other merchants later, I suspect that Finkler's was also usually their only stop.) But Finkler has retired and been replaced by his son-in-law, who brusquely explains that Finkler filled his storerooms with vastly more overpriced merchandise than could be sold, and that he'll be paying much less than his father-in-law did, in the cases where he's willing to buy at all.

Mendleman, who admits himself that he's dreamy and unworldly, is shocked by this, and wanders through the market, collecting more rejections. He clearly creates rugs that are lovely and finely crafted, but they also have turned out to be too large and too expensive for the actual market in this town. Sturm never says so, but it's clear that Finkler was effectively a patron of the useful arts: he paid too much for vast quantities of things that he couldn't sell -- he bought them all because they were excellent, and paid as if they were objets d'art. (And perhaps this is why his son-in-law is now operating his business.)

Sturm presents this from Mendleman's point of view, and he's staggered by what he sees as a betrayal. What he does is glorifying God, and failing to support Mendleman in his work is to deny all that is holy and true. Well, maybe.

But maybe this is a poor town, and maybe Mendleman himself does not exclusively seek out the finest and best of every single item he uses in his life, because he can't afford to do so. (Sturm does not extend Mendleman's reveries on the glories of rug-making to a general philosophy of only purchasing goods made with an equal care and devotion.) Mendleman has a real sadness, which is partially heartbreaking and partially annoying, since he's insisting that the world owes him a living doing precisely what he wants to do. And, of course, the world owes no one a living, and those who can do what they love and enjoy are the rare, happy few.

Mendleman is clearly a stand-in for the artist in general, and the comics creator in particular, making Market Day something of a manifesto-in-disguise. "Treat my work seriously," it murmurs, "for what I do is inherently special and wonderful." Again, maybe so. But Mendleman clearly had no sense at all of who he was making rugs for, and what needs those people had for rugs. He's just a rugs-for-rugs-sake kind of guy, and Market Day is slyly asserting that he should be supported simply because his rugs are high quality and beautiful.

But Mendleman gives up all too easily; rather than do anything other than precisely the rugs he wants to do exactly the way he wants to, and selling them to the one guy who would pay his prices, he's resigned, by the end of Market Day, to giving up on the work he loves (rather than do it one iota differently) and go back to farming.

My mother had a phrase for that: "cutting off your nose to spite your face." (Your own mother may have expressed similar sentiments; they're fairly general among mothers.) And I wonder if Mendleman, a year or so from now, will find himself similarly frustrated when his lovingly hand-cultivated wheat, or goats, or cows don't fetch the prices he demands for similar reasons. We all wish the Mendlemans of the world well, but we never want to go into business with them. Sturm constructs Mendleman's story as if he had no options -- this is "The Cold Equations" of rug-making -- but there are always possibilities between two stark opposites.

Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index
Listening to: Jacob Golden - Shine A Light
via FoxyTunes

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