Halfway through Market Day, Mendleman, a stooped rug-weaver, laments the disappearance of a reliable buyer and shopkeeper, Albert Finkler, and the longing it has bred: “His absence has only made him more present.”
The same may be said of James Sturm’s latest, a shtetl meditation on spurned artistry and general gloom, which leaves much to the imagination and the reader richer for it.
The story itself is scant. Unlike Sturm’s best-known graphic novel, The Golem’s Mighty Swing, it doesn’t have the ring of pseudo-historicity. This is tone-poetry against a backdrop of hunched peddlers and heilige yidden, and appreciation of the thing itself requires a certain distance. I liked it more hours after reading it, prizing its simplicity and rough grace. In Mendleman’s frustrated creativity, it’s hard not to see parallels to that of the workaday writer/creator in an era of commercial marginalization. Visually, it jibes. A veteran illustrator and graphic novelist, Sturm’s inky strokes call to mind some cross between Georges Prosper Remi’s crisp “Tintin” lines and the works of Eastern European masters of gloom like Latvian artist Jekabs Kazaks, all beneath muddy skies, threadbare branches, and imponderable atmospheric weight. “Family Circus” it ain’t.
There’s a little Chris Ware here, too: social isolation and disillusionment, though the style isn’t as spare or elegant. Scruffier, dirtier— and more suited for this tale of the shtetl. Perfect for a story where so much spoken is left unseen, and longing is as much a character as anyone with a face on the page.