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'Market Day': Beauty And History In Handmade Art

Award-winning cartoonist James Sturm heads the Center for Cartoon Studies in White River Junction, Vt., where he (and a visiting faculty of comics luminaries) instruct graduate students on the history and craft of the comics form. Sturm's role as a teacher will come as no surprise to readers of indie comics anthologies like Drawn and Quarterly and Art Speigelman's RAW, where Sturm's spare, elegant pieces of historical fiction appeared for years.

These pieces -- three of which were collected in the 2007 book James Sturm's America: God, Gold and Golems -- do what the best teachers do: They reveal the story in history, shaping rote facts into textured tales that engage the spirit even as they enlighten the mind. Whether writing about the largest religious gathering in American history ("The Revival"), depicting a frontier town caught in the grip of gold fever ("Hundreds of Feet Below Daylight"), or crafting a clever fable about an all-Jewish Roaring '20s baseball team ("The Golem's Mighty Swing"), he keeps the focus tight on characters and events, content to let his readers sort out the larger thematic stuff for themselves.

Since those pieces first appeared, Sturm has written a children's book (Satchel Paige: Striking Out Jim Crow), collaborated on an anthology (Adventures in Cartooning) and even produced a mainstream superhero comic, albeit one characteristically steeped in historical detail (Fantastic Four: Unstable Molecules).

His latest book, Market Day, marks a return to the historical fiction that put him on the map.

Set in the Eastern Europe of the late 19th/early 20th century, Market Day follows Mendleman, a maker of lovingly crafted rugs, over the course of 24 hours. We watch him arise before dawn, load up his cart and make the long trek from his small shtetl to the bustling market of a larger village. By the time the sun sets, he will be forced to confront a hard truth: His world has changed. Cheap, shoddily made goods now glut the marketplace, leaving no room for his rugs -- or for him.

The echoes of Isaac Bashevis Singer and Sholem Aleichem you hear are intentional, but Sturm's thorough knowledge of what his chosen medium can do allows him to accomplish something that's all his own. Over the course of the day, Mendleman's artist's eye alights on various scenes -- the first golden light of day on the horizon, the teeming crowds around a fruit stand -- and Sturm shows us the world as Mendleman sees it, dissolving into shapes and patterns he resolves to incorporate into his next rug.

At moments like these, in the span of only two or three gracefully composed panels, Sturm captures the thrill of artistic inspiration with a directness and economy only possible in comics.

That directness, and the way Sturm locates his tale so thoroughly and vividly inside Mendleman's head, ensure that the book never devolves into the simple thesis on art vs. commerce that a summary of its plot might threaten.

Throughout, Sturm's prose is straightforward, his art spare and deceptively simple; together, however, his words and images achieve the quiet lyricism of the folktale, the fable. And like many fables, the feeling Market Day leaves on us is one that's quiet, wistful and elegiac, one that even offers -- though you really have to look for it -- the slenderest thread of something like hope.

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Glen Weldon is a host of NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast. He reviews books, movies, comics and more for the NPR Arts Desk.
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