With his busy schedule at the Center for Cartoon Studies in Vermont, any new comic from James Sturm is always good news. He's won awards and acclaim for The Golem's Mighty Swing, Fantastic Four: Unstable Molecules, Adventures in Cartooning and Satchel Paige: Striking Out Jim Crow.
His latest book, recently/soon to be released from Drawn & Quarterly, is Market Day, a chronicle of a day in the life of a Jewish rug weaver in Europe shortly after the turn of the Twentieth Century.
We caught Sturm between classes to discuss Market Day and the fascination with the 19th and early 20th centuries.
Newsarama: James, give us a quick snapshot of what Market Day is about?
James Sturm: Market Day is about a rug weaver, who travels to a market. The book follows him through the course of a single day. Um... he tries to – boy, I need to get better at describing the book before it comes out... I should just read the back of the book. Yeah, a day in the life of a rug weaver in Europe in the early 1900s, and the book focuses on this character trying to reconcile his own artistic pursuits with his need to make a living.
Nrama: Nicely played. And where did the basic idea for Market Day come from?
Sturm: Part of it is just living the life of an artist, trying to make work that is meaningful, and sustain you while earning a living at the same time. When those things are at odds, you can really feel torn apart.
Nrama: Can you tell us a little bit more about the protagonist of Market Day?
Sturm: He’s about to have a child, which certainly ratchets up the pressure in terms of his feeling that he has to become a provider. He is a dreamy character, like a lot of artists are. The discipline and craft that he has honed while making his work has shaped the way he sees the world.
Nrama: The rug weaver is Jewish, correct?
Sturm: Yeah, and the book feels like a Jewish folktale. He leaves his shtetl and goes to a bustling marketplace among the rabbis, longcoats, merchants, beards and shawls. You can smell the Gefilte fish in the air.
Nrama: You’ve explored bias against Jews in The Golem’s Mighty Swing and examined pre-industrial life in Above and Below. What makes pre-industrial life from the vantage point such fertile creative ground for you?
Sturm: I don’t think it’s necessarily the specific era. Not working in the present gives me a healthy distance from myself. With all my books, I’m usually working through certain questions and issues and if I set them in the present, it would be a little too close for comfort and I’d be wrestling with issues of how to portray myself. How to fictionalize myself. But when they take place in another era, whether the early 1900s or the year 3000, it gives me a little bit more distance in terms of figuring out the story I want to tell while helping me get beyond myself.
Nrama: And the character being Jewish, like the cast of The Golem’s Mighty Swing, is that another aspect that comes through from your life?
Sturm: I guess I just didn’t want to run away from the Judaism as a knee-jerk reaction, because I happen to be Jewish. When I started writing this piece I briefly considered setting it in an African or Turkish marketplace. But at the end of the day, I can’t run away from this connection that I feel toward my own history. When I was looking at old photos that I used as reference, like photographer Roman Vishniac, they struck such a familiar and intense chord in me; I looked at the people at the market stalls and the young boys studying and the girls sewing, and I recognized in those photos family members. And when I say family members, I don’t mean my great, great aunt; more in the way somebody smiled or the shape of a fingernail reminded me of my family. There is an added layer of resonance setting it where I did.
Nrama: No, I understand totally. As you’ve written more stories set in the pre-industrial history of America, does the research become easier, or does each project have its own hurdles?
Sturm: Well, this book takes place in Europe. I don’t think it becomes easier. No. No, each book is its own little nightmare. It was very exciting having it done. I just received an advanced copy and I’m pretty pumped. It’s incredibly thrilling to see it printed and come together; it feels very rewarding because these things are a bear to produce and it’s only more difficult as you get older with the added responsibilities of work and family. There is so much time and energy invested in a book and the rewards in the marketplace are meager. Even the amount of time a book isn’t ignored is so fleeting so I’m enjoying this brief window while it lasts!
I am especially excited with this book because it really came together as a book. I’ve seen it as a .pdf and proofed the colors, text, and art countless times and seeing it on the screen is one thing but after working through the production concerns (and I was lucky enough to work with Tom Devlin on this) and turning in the In Design file to the printer I pray that all these elements of the book, the drawings, the size of the book, the stock of the paper, all these countless little decisions that go into making a decent book somehow all coalesce and become greater than the sum of the parts. Right now, I’m really happy with the way the book looks and feels, and at this point, whatever happens with it is almost gravy.
Nrama: Your last couple books, Satchel Paige and Adventures in Cartooning, were created in collaboration, so this is your first full-length, self-illustrated book since Golem. In no way to discount the contribution of your past collaborators, but is there a satisfaction in having completed your vision by your own hand?
Sturm: Oh, absolutely. The work feels much more intimate. You feel much more vulnerable in presenting it to the world too. If the book sucks there’s only one reason— me! Don’t get me wrong, I’m very proud of the other work that I did but the collaborations are a different beast. When you’re handcrafting every panel and making every decision there’s a special satisfaction that goes along with that.
Nrama: And on the art vs. commerce theme, how’s the CCS doing these days?
Sturm: CCS is doing great. We have our fifth class in right now, so we’ve recruited five full classes. We’re at record enrollment; the faculty is firing on all cylinders. We’re at a really high level in terms of students, so yeah, no complaints.
Nrama: What’s next for you?
Sturm: I have a couple things in the hopper. One will be released this fall. I’m editing with Brandon Elston a collection of drawings by Denys Wortman. He was an artist from first half of the twentieth century. It’s called Denys Wortman’s New York, and it’s drawings of the city. That’ll be coming out from Drawn & Quarterly too.
I’m also working on four books that are follow-ups to Adventures in Cartooning: Adventures in Opposites, Adventures in Color, Adventures in Bedtime, and Adventures in Counting. These are children’s books, 24 pages, still in a cartoon format. But it’s the same team, me, Alexis Frederick-Frost and Andrew Arnold; it’s kind of like the three musketeers there. We’re all in it together; it’s not even something that I could do without either of them. I’m also editing a book on Helen Keller with a very talented young cartoonist named Joe Lambert. This book will really drop some jaws. All those things are brewing, and a couple other projects that are a little too early to talk about.