MARKET DAY in Tablet

“On the Bookshelf Graphic novels and vivid memoirs” / Josh Lambert / January 25, 2010

Writing fiction about writing fiction can be a tricky business, so novelists often substitute an artist of another sort—most typically, a painter—as their protagonists, examining through them the vicissitudes of a creative vocation. James Sturm, creator of the critically acclaimed graphic novel The Golem’s Mighty Swing and a founder of the Center for Cartoon Studies in Vermont, chooses an unusual craftsman as his alter ego for an extraordinary graphic-novel-style künstlerroman. In Market Day (Drawn & Quarterly, March), Sturm’s stand-in, challenged to balance commitment to his craft against financial responsibilities, is a Jewish rug weaver in early 20th-century Eastern Europe. Sturm illustrates this milieu with precise, somber drawings based in part on the photographs of Roman Vishniac and Alter Kacyzne.

Sturm’s protagonist struggles with the commercial constraints on his skilled labor, a problem grounded in the historical experiences of Jewish artisans. In a classic 1970 study of labor activism in Eastern Europe, now back in print as a paperback—Class Struggle in the Pale: The Formative Years of the Jewish Worker’s Movement in Tsarist Russia (Cambridge, February)—the historian Ezra Mendelsohn remarks that by the late 19th century, “the Jewish weaver in Bialystock was in a sorry plight. By the end of the century, it was obvious that hand looms were no longer profitable.” Mendelsohn analyzes efforts by the Jewish proletariat to organize and assesses the consequences of those campaigns.

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