The Sculptor

Scott McCloud

First Second

Scott McCloud has been so influential as a comics theorist--most notably in his book Understanding Comics–that his work as a cartoonist can be overlooked. It doesn't help that his most substantial creative work was his series Zot!, which ran from 1984 to 1991, ages ago in comic book terms. So new creative work from him has high expectations to live up to. At 500 pages The Sculptor also has the look of a magnum opus. McCloud says he worked on it for five years, and it was time well-spent.

The title sculptor is David, a young artist whose promising career has stalled out. He's literally down to his last dime when he makes a deal with Death: he gets his childhood wish to be able to sculpt anything he can imagine with his bare hands...but he only gets 200 more days to live. Deciding what to do with this gift is harder than he imagined, and meeting the love of his life adds additional complications. So it's a coming of age story, a story about young love, and a story about creating art and the sacrifices made for it.

More later, but I'll just add that if anyone here is thinking about reading it, I would highly recommend it.

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McCloud takes one big risk at the outset: his protagonist is not very likable. He's at a low point in life, morose and full of self-pity. And there's a sense that a lot of his problems are self-made. He's made a lot of promises to himself that limit his options. He's talking this over with his uncle Harry, when he suddenly realizes that the last time he saw Harry, Harry was dead! Hence the deal with Death.

There are a couple of small things that seem to prove that Harry really is who he says he is. And when David leaves the restaurant he immediately encounters a supernatural event on the street, complete with an angel. But then the story pulls the rug out from under us when David attends a party later and discovers that the event on the street was a staged piece of street theater. The party, as well as a gallery visit to meet a well-connected art patron, set up the real-world setting of David as a young artist trying to make a name.

So much of the first chapter (the first 100 pages) is basically a realistic story about a young sculptor, with possible supernatural elements. All of that changes at the end. When the sun comes up, David discovers that he can sculpt any material with his bare hands–he does it with a steel bridge and a solid block of marble. Death shows up and gives him one last chance to back out, but David accepts 200 days of life in exchange for the artistic gift.

Interesting. I read a review in the paper, but I prefer reading reviews on this board written by people I know. Thanks, Mark! This shipped on what turned out to be a heavy week for me and I hadn't pre-ordered it so I left it on the shelf. But I'll keep it in mind, though. (A possible nominee for "Best OGN" Cappie?) 200 days doesn't sound like an awful lot, though. Even Paul Shaffer and Greg Evigan got "A Year at the Top."

For me it's definitely a "Best OGN" contender. I'd have to go back to something like Asterios Polyp or Blankets to name a title in its league.

Think he gets many Space Angel jokes, or is the character too obscure?

McCloud is a major comics geek, so I wouldn't be surprised by obscure jokes at all. A lot of the readers of this are probably people mainly interested in contemporary comics, though.

Space Angel wasn't a comic. It was a mostly unanimated cartoon show. Like the 1966 Marvel Super Heroes.

Although that sort of thing has come into common use now. A lot of people are uploading new cartoons on youtube that look like they were made by Gantray-Lawrence.

Jeff, put me down for another big fan. The Sculptor is almost certainly getting my vote for Best OGN in the cappies. It's one of the best comics I've read in years. 

(And in case anyone missed it, here's my interview with Scott.)

Nice interview, Rob. I especially like this quote: "The story pulls in two different directions, but it pulls very strongly. I didn't want the kind of ambiguity that's just smudged and blurry and noncommittal. I wanted the kind of ambiguity in which great forces are pulling all the way to the ceiling and all the way to the floor."

He totally nailed that, and it's what makes the story so compelling. 

Thanks, Mark. He was great to talk to, and it was a real thrill for me. I had a word limit (which I exceeded, actually), which meant half of the interview had to be cut away.

The rest of the story is well summarized by this interview quote from McCloud:  "The story pulls in two different directions, but it pulls very strongly. I didn't want the kind of ambiguity that's just smudged and blurry and noncommittal. I wanted the kind of ambiguity in which great forces are pulling all the way to the ceiling and all the way to the floor." 

David's main goal is to make a reputation as an important sculptor, rather than a promising new talent. It's the kind of artistic immortality you trade a short lifespan for. The usual way of doing that in the fine art world would be via public exhibition, which is a competitive process, and inherently slower than a 200-day deadline would allow. He does attempt to go this route, but encounters one roadblock after another. In the end he has a blinding insight: he can create remarkable public sculptures under cover of night, using available materials onsite. And it works: he quickly gets considerable public notice, although the formal art world is not complimentary.

But in many ways the focus is on David's budding relationship with Meg, the actress who played the angel with the street theater troupe. He has applied his usual perfectionist tendencies to relationships, so this is his first serious love affair. Of course it is considerably complicated by his imminent death! He's hesitant to even become involved at first, then balks at continuing as things become more serious. And the deal with Death carries a penalty if he reveals it to anyone. This subplot nevertheless gives the most opportunity for character development. David must learn to accept help, and slowly opens up emotionally: it really is a coming of age story.

Meg turns out to have a mental health issue, which she refuses to treat with medication. It's an unnecessary plot device, I think. There would have been plenty of room to explore the relationship without it. 

The conclusion is foreshadowed in the opening section of the book, although McCloud is cagey about the ultimate ending until the very end. I know I kept hoping for some kind of deus ex machina to provide a traditional happy ending. Instead it is tragic in more than one way. But it is true to the story. Rules are established, and they are obeyed all the way through. It's emotionally wrenching, but far preferable to some kind of "it was all a dream" ending.

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