Cartooning About Art and Commerce
Now is the time for an admission: Though I've never met him, James Sturm is a cofounder of The Stranger. He was the first artistic director this paper ever had, and he was responsible for our publishing some of the world's best cartoonists: Chris Ware, Jim Woodring, Jason Lutes, and Ellen Forney were all recruited by Sturm.
Since he left The Stranger, Sturm has ascended to a comfortable level of cartoonist fame. His Jewish-baseball-history comic novella The Golem's Mighty Swing is one of the best comics of the last decade, and he's currently on Slate, where he's publishing cartoon dispatches about not using the internet for three months.
Sturm's newest book, Market Day, is a short, bittersweet story about an Eastern European rug weaver named Mendleman at the beginning of the 20th century who learns that he'll no longer be able to support his new family by selling his creations. While the message—that life is a series of compromises for artists, a battle between craft and reality and eating and starvation—is nothing new, Sturm's circumstances make this book especially personal.
Five years ago, Sturm helped found the Center for Cartoon Studies in White River Junction, Vermont. It's one of the world's first intensive schools for cartoonists, and despite the playful name, which conjures delightful images of eager students in lab coats surrounding a Peanuts strip submerged in water and connected to electrodes, the center is becoming an internationally recognized institution. Teaching at the school has helped Sturm better communicate about and with cartooning.
Over the phone, Sturm speaks with the clear and precise language of a teacher. He admits that Market Day could be "an odd message to be sending to my students," but he shrugs the idea off: "Maybe it's a cautionary tale for the people who are just in it for the money." (You can find a complete transcript of my interview with Sturm at thestranger.com/books.)
Whatever the message, Market Day is a sublime bit of cartooning. Passages of large, postcard-sized panels stretch Mendleman's long walk to and from the marketplace into a picturesque journey. He looks into the yellow ribbon of the rising sun on the horizon and sees inspiration for a new pattern. And as he gossips among the merchants and craftsmen at the market, the panels break into smaller and smaller pieces, cracking Mendleman's simple, contemplative world into a complex web of information. The book is a masterpiece of craftsmanship.
Sturm will be giving a free talk at Fantagraphics Books (1201 S Vale St, 658-0110) on Saturday, April 17, at 6:00 p.m., along with local cartoonist Peter Bagge (whose newest book, Other Lives, is the best work he's produced in well over a decade). It's far and away the most exciting reading of the week.