Comic Book Resources interviews JAMES STURM

“James Sturm Heads to the "Market"” / Comic Book Resources / Chris Mautner / February 22, 2010

James Sturm's "Market Day," published by Drawn & Quarterly, follows a day in the life of Mendleman, a Jewish rug maker living in Europe in the early 1900s. Proud of his work and utterly devoted to it, Mendleman heads to the local market, full of vigor and life, eager to visit the merchant who serves as his patron of sorts. And then...something happens that alters Mendleman's world view entirely, forcing him to question not only his choice of career but determine the future for his rapidly growing family. The end result is a compelling, breathtaking comic that explores the cruel interplay between art and commerce that can often affect our lives in ways we'd often prefer not to think about.

Sturm, of course, is no stranger to these issues, or to comics in general. Having made a name for himself with such stunning works as "The Revival," "Hundreds of Feet Below Daylight" and "The Golem's Mighty Swing" (all of which are collected in D&Q's "James Sturm's America"), he's also the co-founder of the Center for Cartoon Studies, a two-year school situated in White River Junction, Vermont, that is devoted to teaching the creation and science of comics, and has become one of the "go to" places for college-age students eager to become cartoonists.

CBR News spoke with Sturm last month about his newest book and how the school is doing. Since then, his book "Adventures in Cartooning," which he did with Andrew Arnold and Alexis Frederick-Frost, won the 2010 Gryphon Award for Children's Literature. All of which suggests that no tea leaves are necessary to say that this year will be a banner one for the author and educator.

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CBR News: Market Day seems to take place in a very specific time and place - late 19th or early 20th century Eastern Europe - but I thought it was interesting that you don't specifically name the country or the year or anything like that. Can talk about why you chose this setting for the book and why you decided to not reveal specific details about it.

James Sturm: Part of the inspiration of the was originally intended to be a children's book, and I think that comes through with the lack of density of pages and the big spreads and such. I wanted to tell a fable-like story and there's a certain nonspecificity that goes along with that. The book was intended in part as a cautionary tale for myself.

James Sturm's "Market Day" arrives on March 30, 2010
Also by not grounding it in a specific location and date I wouldn't be held accountable for historical accuracy. When Mendelman goes off to this emporium I have no idea if places like this actually existed -- an early 20th century Eastern. I kind of doubt it did. In my other books, like the work in "James Sturm's America," all those stories are historically plausible, whereas this one may not be.

Let's go back a bit - you say that this was originally intended to be a chiildren's book. Where did the inspiration for "Market Day" come from?

Drawn and Quarterly, my publisher, actually played an important role in the book itself. There was a point when they hooked up with a national distributor - they were distributed by Chronicle Books at one point.

I don't think that worked out as well as their current partner [Farrar, Straus & Giroux], but when they first hooked up, they felt this would open up a lot more markets, and after the deal happened [publisher] Chris [Oliveros] sent an email to his stable of artists at D&Q saying "One of the things I'm considering is doing a children's book line. If you have any ideas, I'd love to hear them."

So, in my sketchbook, I conceived a story about a rug weaver. In that version of the story, the focus wasn't so much on the main character but more about how important one individual's commitment and support can be for somebody. In "Market Day," when the Finkler character disappears, it sets off this bad chain of events for Mendleman. In my mind I thought of Chris as the Finkler character and how important my own relationship with D&Q was for my own artistic development. The actual book plays out differently - but I did want to get that across and a sense of camraderie between artists who share a an aesthetic and committment to a certain type of work.

Camraderie and commitment seem to be running themes in your books - I'm thinking of the baseball team in "The Golem's Mighty Swing," but also the relationship between father and son in the Satchel Paige book, and in "The Revival," there's a sense of a community gathering. Are those issues you're interested in?

I just read "Market Day" before it was sent to the printer. I hadn't read the whole thing through in several months. I found some pretty obvioius stuff that I was oblivious to as I was making it. So, in terms of what I think about when I work on the book, I don't know how relevent that is...not to dodge your question.

How Mendleman sees the larger world certainly changes once he feels cast out of his community. He goes to the market and he's very excited and then, pardon the pun, the carpet gets taken out from underneath him, and all of a sudden, he's in the same market but all of his observations are negative. He notices the crying kids and the hungry dogs and the beggars. In the beginning, he's only noticing the smell of chicken and how delightful everything is. So much of how I'm relating to a book has to do with my blood sugar or if Mars is retrograde with Venus for that week. My sense of the work constantly changes. Clearly, there's some very deliberate themes I'm exploring, but there's also other stuff that just kind of works its way into the book independent of any intent.

The day starts early for Mendleman
Another thing that's striking about "Market Day" is that it's your first book to be published in full color. Can you talk about how that opened the book up for you? What did working in full color give you?

I started working in color when I got to Vermont - 2001 or 2002. Everything I ever touched when I worked in color just turned to brown when I was an art student or learning how to paint. It was the computer that really liberated me in some ways to approach color and not have everything become this sloppy brown mess. And since I got my coloring sea legs on the computer, I'm more confident working in more traditional coloring techniques like watercolor.

A lot of what I was using for reference were old black and white photos, and the thing about black and white photos is they come with their own sense of nostalgia and and you experience them at a remove. They seem past tense. It's like that old joke that kids used to look at a black and white photo and think the world was black and white until color was invented. I didn't want Mendleman's world to be at a remove. The Jewish shetl is already mythologized. Color made it seem a little more contemporary. When I actually came across some color photos of Eastern Europe in the '30s, I was so struck by seeing that world in color. It really made an impression on me. And once I decided to do it in color, then color becomes another tool. I felt color had to have it's own narrative arc in terms of the narrative.

Speaking of issues of ethnicity and identity, it seems like there have been a couple of books - I don't want to say a rash - but books and comics that explore issues of Jewish identity. I'm thinking of Sammy Harkham's work, and also Klezmer by Joann Sfar that was recently translated. And also all the books that have come out recently about the history of comics and exploring the importance of Jewish identity in creating the comic book market in America. Where do you see this book fitting in? Do you see it tying into any of these other works?

I'm certainly conscious of the history of comics and the history of Jews in comics, and a lot has been made of that by historians. I don't think I'm consciously trying to march in that procession. I was actually surprised that "Market Day" is the book that I started working on. What had happened was, at the time - this won't answer your question directly - I was setting up the Center for Cartoon Studies, and for two years [I was] working on a book about art design students. It was an overly ambitious work, in terms of page count. There was a point where I realized I was never going to get this thing done. It was just too large and too sprawling. And after being around students all day long, it was getting harder and harder to muster the energy to sit down and spend another 3-4 hours a night entering that world again. I needed a break.

With "Market Day," I returned to the the initial ideas I had in my sketchbook almost a year later. I started working on it every Sunday morning. It was a simple kids story, it seemed doable. Of course, it took me years to finish and it became a book for adults. But it was doable. Years ago I did this graphic novel, "The Cereal Killings" for Fantagraphics, and it was kind of a mess. After I finished, it I thought, "I just want to do something I can get in and get out." There seems to be a little bit of a pattern where I overextend, fall on my face, pick myself back up and then reel it back a little bit. With "The Cereal Killings," I followed up with "The Revival," which put me back on some kind of track. The failure of art and design graphic novel, like the failure of "Cereal Killings," brought me to another place and put me in another direction.

I keep hoping to see a "Cereal Killings" collection one day.

You'd be sorely disappointed.

One of the things "Market Day" reminded me a lot of was Kevin Huizenga's work, particularily "Ganges," in that both takes place over a very short period of time, the main character narrates his innermost thoughts and it delves into abstract images at times to reveal the character's inner emotional state. Was that an influence at all?

Mendleman's wife's pregnancy was added to "Market Day" in order to "up the stakes"
Well, in terms of the aspects that you just mentioned, a far bigger influence in terms of structuring the book the way I did was the novelist Richard Ford. He wrote "The Sports Writer," "Independence Day" and "Lay of the Land." It was a trilogy about this former writer/real estate man. Ford is one of my favorite American novelists. "Independence Day" was over the course of a July Fourth weekend. I think the "Sports Writer" was over Easter weekend. "Lay of the Land" was over Thanksgiving weekend. he really delves into this moment of time, this moment of transition in the character's life. That certainly is what inspired me to go in that direction.

In regards to Kevin, he's a brilliant cartoonist, but no, he was not an influence. He's able to run with abstraction in a way that I am not capable of. I'm a big fan of his, and we actually we colaborated on the Center for Cartoon Studies brochure. It was inspiring working with him, but above and beyond just that sense of inspiration, I didn't take anything specifically from his work.

I have my own limited tool box as a cartoonist, and I might have more tools than a few but far less tools than a lot. I can only create comics with this tool box. In your 20s, it seems like every new book you pick up makes you want to re-evaluate how you approach your own work. As you get older, you certainly admire certain cartoonists and think what they're doing is fantastic, but you realize no matter how hard you try, you'll never draw like R. Crumb.

One of the things that struck me as a central theme of "Market Day" is the idea of the artist vs. the marketplace. Was that a conscious thing you wanted to explore?

That was certainly a deliberate area I was thinking about and exploring.

The reason I bring it up is, you could look at it as very cynical as far as the book's ending. There's this possibility that he has to give up his dream.

There is a sense of that. I said earlier it's a little bit of a cautionary tale. One of the reasons I made his wife pregnant was to up the stakes a little. This is something that, as I got busy with the Center for Cartoon Studies and other obligations, plus two kids, it gets harder to muster the energy and focus to create books. There is a sense where you feel like you're being pulled in two. I tried to get that tension in the work.

I don't want to assume, but the character seems like such a dreamer that he gives up a little too quickly...

Keep in mind, there were a lot of mood swings in the books. As his friend, whose known Mendleman all his life tells him, "Get a good night's sleep." Bad decisions are made when you are tired. One of the things I hope to do is pick the story up many years later to see what decisions were actually made and where that led him.

The most obvious parallel I came to was the comics industry and how the book was almost a warning about wanting to work in this incredibly awesome medium, but the fact that there was just no money in it.

But you could say the same thing for poetry and painting and sculpture and contemporary literature. I don't think comics has any personal claim to that phenomenon. Yeah, he goes into the book thinking he can support himself with his work and he realizes Finkler was his patron and Finkler wasn't necessarily making smart business decisions, he was supporting work that he liked. And learning that, Mendleman's own view of himself changes. Mendleman's craft and the discipline he brings to making work informs the way he sees the world. So the value of his work extends far beyond whatever price tag that the marketplace places on his work. If he doesn't see it that way and turns his back, there might be disasterous consequences for that decision.

Mendleman's day turns from good to bad
You founded this school that is very much focused on teaching students to use comics to explore their own artistic paths. I read the book and thought some of your students might read the book and think, "Aw man, what is he telling me here?"

I don't make any promises to students or anybody. You'd be hard pressed to find anywhere in CCS literature saying, "Hey, come here and learn how to make comics and earn a living." All along, I've always said that if you can have a MFA program in poetry and sculpture and painting, why can't you have a similar approach to comics? That was the thinking in setting up CCS.

By the same token, what's fortunate about comics is that you learn a varied skill set that's embedded in our curriculum - computer/production skills, drawing, and writing - these are skills that are transferable to the marketplace. If I calculated all the hours I put into cartooning and what that hourly wage would be, it would be insanely small. But by the same token, that's what's shaped my world view. That's how I've learned to learn.

How is the school doing these days?

The school is doing really well. Our timing was very good. Had we gotten going earlier, we might have gotten a little too fat, and when the economic crash hit the country, it would have been in trouble - like if we had an endowment or had puchased buildings that had to be paid off. A year or two later, there would have been no way we could have raised the money to get up and running. So we are at a place where we're a lean and efficent oganization. We are at capacity in terms of student body - and from top to bottom, we've never had a stronger student body. And there is an amazing faculty and staff that really make CCS hum.

There's a real feeling of community here in Vermont. I know it's kind of a tough word for some people, but there does seem to be a community here. Students, alumni, faculty are all really dedicated to making comics and inspire one another. There are less distractions in little White River Junction than larger urban areas. The average age of our students is a little older than most programs - it's more of a graduate program. I talk to my friends at other comic art programs, and in a course with about 20 students in the class, if you have five students ready to go, you consider it a really good class. Here, pretty much every student is really bringing something to the table. That just raises the bar for everyone involved.

One of the things I understand is that the school has really helped White River Junction, that it's been an economic boon for them. Is that accurate?

Yeah, that's very accurate. White River Junction is actually a village - one of five villages in the town of Hartford. And the whole population of White River Junction is about 2,500. The main street - south main and north main - it's a few square blocks. If this school opened in Seattle or New York City or Portland, it wouldn't have such a profound impact. In terms of hotel occupancy, car rentals and traffic it brings to the eatery, it makes a big difference. CCS provides some street life with all these interesting young artists in town. It brings something special to this region.

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