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Looking Beyond the Image

May 13, 2010 By:
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About four or five years ago, when lots of attention was being paid to the "emerging" genre of the graphic novel -- and especially, to several up-and-coming Jewish practitioners of the form -- I decided to have a look at French artist Joann Sfar's The Rabbi's Cat, which was being highly touted. But I came away underwhelmed. Rather grand claims were being made about the "philosophical and existential" questions raised by the text, as well as about the quality of the art that accompanied it. For the life of me, I couldn't make sense of Cat or what seemed to me the excessive praise that greeted its appearance.

In my review, I did admit that I was clearly not the target audience for such a work. I've never understood the appeal of graphic novels -- and still don't; they seem to me extended comic books gussied up by being placed between hard covers and issued by literary publishers. And if such works constitute any sort of "genre," then it's a pretty dumbed-down one. Five years ago, I wondered if this was just another indication of the "endless-adolescent" syndrome that appears to afflict so many American males, analogous to their wearing baseball caps well beyond any acceptable time frame.

All that having been said, Market Day by James Sturm seems one of the better examples of the graphic novel that I've run across. There's still a lot of overpraise being heaped on this "literary cartoonist," a phrase certain critics like to use, that seems all wrong when it comes to the product itself, though I am more favorably inclined toward this work than many others I've perused.

And it's not because the theme announces itself immediately as a serious one, or that the entire effort is a bit more somber in tonality than like-minded ventures. In actuality, the tale's "seriousness" seems to me one of the more questionable facets of the enterprise (I'll get to that in a while).

An Economic Crucible

The plot line is simple enough. Mandleman, a rug maker, lives in an Eastern European shtetl with his expectant wife. Their life isn't easy, it would appear from what we're shown of it, and Mandleman's only satisfaction comes from exercising his craft: His carefully crafted rugs are widely admired for their beauty and delicacy of design. But he discovers one day after hauling his wares to the marketplace in a donkey-drawn cart that the store which once proudly sold his items has decided to feature more cheaply made merchandise. The economic and artistic crucible that Mandleman suffers is the heart of the drama here.

Writer and artist James Sturm has a fairly packed and exhaustive-looking résumé. According to the bio provided by the publisher, he is the cartoonist of James Sturm's America and the writer of Satchel Paige: Striking Out Jim Crow, Adventures in Cartooning and The Fantastic Four: Unstable Molecules. He is editor of "The Center for Cartoon Studies Presents," a series of historical graphic novels about the lives of notable Americans. His comics, writing and illustrations have appeared in The Chronicle of Higher Education, The Onion, The New York Times and on the cover of The New Yorker.

He is also the director and co-founder of the Center for Cartoon Studies, a two-year MFA program in cartooning in White River Junction, Vt.; the founder of the the National Association of Comics Art Educators, an organization committed to helping facilitate the teaching of comics in higher education; and co-founder of The Stranger, which is described as Seattle's alternative weekly.

His style is suggestive and sensitive to the nature of the story he's telling, and yet it doesn't go much beyond that. Sturm clearly conceives of Market Day, in his publisher's words, as "a graphic meditation on art and commerce," "a tale of how economic and social forces can affect a single life." His character, Mandleman, is living in a period of great flux -- all of which is made clear through the words and images Sturm provides.

But even though Market Day is decidedly after something deeper, something that's perhaps even profound, it falls far short of that. In my mind, the problem is not Sturm's, but rather is inherent in the form itself. The graphic novel, by its very nature, begins and ends in its art; and because those pictures don't appear to strive for anything beyond storytelling competence, once a reader closes the back cover, there isn't much resonance left over.

When I've called up the work in memory and dwelled on certain of its details, I did think of them fondly, and was even touched by some of the honest sentiment behind the images.

But beyond that, I didn't see -- or feel -- much else. 

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