It’s no fun to be Scott McCloud, when it comes to creating comics. He came up with the bedrock work of popular comic theory, Understanding Comics, over 20 years ago. It revolutionized how people thought and talked about the medium, but it sets a very high bar for him when he sets out to simply tell a story.
His earlier series, Zot!, was fun retro science fiction adventure, moving into more poignant slice-of-life stories by the end, but that was before he became known as a theorist. His following graphic novel, The New Adventures of Abraham Lincoln, was not good, although as it’s aged, it’s developed a quaint charm. And now comes The Sculptor, a brick of a book about an artist who makes a deal with death in order to create.
You’ll note that this isn’t a unique or particularly fresh premise. Many creators, searching for meaningful topics, hit on making art about art, but it often risks becoming self-indulgent or lost in navel-gazing. This book doesn’t go that far, but when combined with the other main storyline — falling in love with the free-spirited girl seen across the room — the overall result feels too familiar. You’ve likely read variations on this before. And really, given that nothing could live up to reader expectations two decades after his masterwork, perhaps it’s best that he stuck with classic themes, albeit expressed in some fantastic ways.
The Sculptor is an impressive achievement, when you think of the work involved. At almost 500 pages, there’s a lot to read here. The art is lovely, well-illustrated, with detailed individual panels, especially the amazing establishing shots. The single color, a greyish blue, doesn’t draw attention to itself but provides an underlying air of melancholy. It’s just that the story is so pedestrian and the dialogue functional at best, with no spark.
David Smith had early success after being picked up by a rich patron, but he acted out and got dumped. He’s out of money and about to lose his home in New York City. He dreams of the sculptures he could create, but he can’t do anything about it until his dead uncle appears to him and offers him his wish — with a time limit. He has 200 days before he dies to make all the art he can.
Then he sees an angel on the street, which turns out to be a street performance piece, as he finds out when he sees the same girl, Meg, at a party later. He’s struck by her (although she has little personality conveyed to the reader until much further into the book). He’s hampered by his vow to himself to never take a handout (which seems silly and unfriendly), and his faith in himself isn’t justified.
Meg provides the people skills and awareness David doesn’t have, so it’s clear what he sees in her (complicated by her unavailability). Plus, she’s fearless and has faith in him. She’s a classic Dream Girl, in other words, and he wins her over just by hanging around long enough. This is the kind of plot I found vaguely disturbing 30 years ago — why is her function solely to drive his story and provide a prize for him? — so reading it this recently was another dusty relic of “haven’t I seen this before?”
(And saying that, I felt like a heel once I read in the final note how Meg is inspired by McCloud’s wife Ivy. But just because something is taken from real life doesn’t make it a good read.)
At least the scenes with his magic power creating the sculptures have a tangible sense of the joy of creation. It’s unfortunate that the works themselves, as drawn, are silly. That’s a problem with trying to portray great art visually. If you could do it, you wouldn’t need to write about it in this way. The shallow contrast of true art and celebrity and the pairing of opposite personalities reminded me of Asterios Polyp, another graphic novel acclaimed for its art without a strong story to match the images.
The Sculptor, though, went on much longer, making it a slog to get through. As the story winds on, there are strong individual scenes, but as put together overall, the result is muddled and wandering. The plus side to the length, though, is that when death inevitably comes, it feels somewhat like a relief.