The Sculptor by Scott McCloud

The Sculptor
Written and Drawn by Scott McCloud
Published by First Second

David, our titular sculptor, knows he’s dying.  He’s only got 200 days left to try and create an immortal legacy from stone and metal.  The terminal prognosis gives him a clarity in his purpose and, more importantly, it gives him a drive to create something lasting.  An endless amount of tomorrows makes today just a bit less important in the grand scheme of things; there will always be a later until there isn’t.  That’s just how things work.  But in those 200 remaining days, something else happens; he falls in love with Meg.  She’s a New Yorker, struggling to be an actor.  She meets David when he’s picked by a group of performance artists to be the unexpected centerpiece of their new show.  As he’s walking down a sidewalk, she swoops down from the sky on angel wings.  Just before she kisses him, she tells him, “Everything will be all right.”  Maybe it’s not a relationship made in heaven but it may be just what both of these kids needs right now.

Scott McCloud’s The Sculptor is his effort to show that one of the grand old men (o.k. maybe he’s not that old) can still hang with the kids.  The plot for The Sculptor reads like it was written by some fresh eyed kid, thinking he had something worthwhile to say about love and art.  David and Meg are pop culture types repurposed into another story by a creator thinking he can unlock their secrets to say something new with them.  David is the oh-so-wrapped-up-in-himself creator, the man who is supposedly so gifted that he can’t get out of his own way to actually create something.  David is easily the stand in for McCloud, a creator who hasn’t created anything of his own in too long of a time.  One of the great theorists of comics, McCloud's output since his Understanding/ Reinventing/ Making Comics trilogy has included some Superman Adventure stories and the unfortunate The New Adventures of Abraham Lincoln.  

David’s inability to create sculptors may be able to be read as McCloud’s inability to create comics for the past decade.  The creative paralysis that the artist feels is the driving force in this book.  It’s the need to create something that will outlast the creator that edges David into a bargain that allows him to create but that will ultimately cost him his life.  And it’s only when his mortality can be counted in days that he finds love and starts to engage more with the world around him.  In an essay in the back of this book, McCloud makes it clear just how much based on his life this book is as Meg, David’s newfound love, is based on McCloud’s wife.  It’s a confession that McCloud makes that he doesn’t need to.  It ultimately doesn’t add anything to the book other than the compulsion now to try to draw out other connections in the book to McCloud’s life.

The book stumbles hard because it cannot commit to being about anything other than a teenage emotional level idea of art or love.  It’s not cynical enough or committed enough to either to really be about pure love or pure art.  Instead as David’s deal to give him magical powers to create art at the cost of his life becomes superheroish and childish.  McCloud can’t let go of the supernatural in this book so David’s creation of art becomes as sublimely magical as Green Lantern willing things into existence with his green ring. And it still can’t even fully commit to that because David’s magical art is just ripping off Jim Woodring and the truly magical landscapes he creates in his comics.  McCloud is consciously or subconsciously using Woodring as his artistic template when it comes to David’s productions but McCloud’s static art just robs all of the wonder and mystique out of the David’s sublime productions.

Even its ideas of love are rather simple and uncomplicated.  It’s got all of the soul and depth of a pop song or multi-million dollar movie.  McCloud’s rendition of love feels like he’s trying to keep up with the kids in this story even as he’s realizing his own mortality.  It’s funny those these two things aren’t mutually exclusive.  It’s difficult to figure out if this is an old man’s fuzzy memory of what it was like falling in love or possibly a young man’s idealized version of what it must be like. David and Meg’s relationship remains some ambiguous version of what a real relationship is like because McCloud feels like he’s trying to regurgitate all the comics and graphic novels about relationships from the last 15 years.  There’s as much Craig Thompson’s Blankets in this book as there is Brian Wood and Becky Cloonan’s Demo.  Those comics did a better job at capturing the exhilaration of love than McCloud’s fabricated version can hope to.

The storytelling in The Sculptor is far better than this story deserves.  McCloud’s dedication to the craft of comic produces a work that’s practically a textbook on storytelling.  In fact, McCloud is such a storytelling theorist that it’s difficult not to try and match up sequences and panels here with sections of his Understanding Comics.  It’s like he took everything he learned there and channeled all of that theory into this book.  Thinking about Understanding Comics, it’s easy to see that McCloud’s greatest tool in this new book is time.  Having almost 500 pages to tell this story gives him the space to manipulate time, speeding it up or slowing it down.  It’s not like the pages are actually going faster but McCloud’s sense of pacing produces the tension and stakes in this book better than the story can.  

In a lot of ways, The Sculptor feels like McCloud’s first comic.  Zot! was the fantastic work by a young, hungry cartoonist.  Reading that, you can see the development of the artist as he was learning on the job.  Understanding Comics and its sequels showed a man trying to produce a unified theory of comics.  For now, we’ll just act like the rest of history and try not to remember The New Adventures of Abraham Lincoln and move right on to The Sculptor.  Here’s a book where the artist’s grand plans possibly got away from him as his ambition outstripped his grasp of the story. So wrapped up in the whats and hows of this book, McCloud skimps on the whys and stumbles to put the energy and investment into the story that he put into the storytelling.