February 2015

Matt Terl


The Sculptor by Scott McCloud

Scott McCloud has a pretty extensive body of comic book fiction. He's written (and mostly drawn) a well-regarded semi-lost, semi-classic called Zot!, a much less well-regarded book called The New Adventures of Abraham Lincoln, and a fair number of Superman comics.

Aside from a few of the Superman comics (which my daughter bought more or less at random from a dollar-comics bin), I've read none of it. What I know McCloud for is his three nonfiction volumes on the craft and theory of comics: Understanding Comics, Reinventing Comics, and Making Comics. These books are justly considered as masterpieces, as invaluable, foundational works for anyone interested in creating comics or studying comics or even thinking about comics in an informed way. I learned from McCloud, and when I found myself teaching a college course on comics, I taught from McCloud, and even now I return to McCloud pretty regularly for refresher lessons. So saying he wrote the book on creating comics in the modern age isn't hyperbole. In fact, he wrote three of them.

The critic-to-creator transition can be a tricky one. For every François Truffaut, who makes an elegant transition from writing brilliantly about movies to even more brilliantly making movies, there's dozens of Robert McKees, living out the asshole-ish maxim that those who can, do, and those who can't, teach. Which is a long way of saying that The Sculptor, which McCloud calls his "first full-length graphic novel," was a book that I approached with an equal mixture of eagerness and trepidation.

That trepidation was born not only from the existence of people like McKee, but also from my main difficulties with McCloud's nonfiction works. For as informative and helpful as they are, they often read very, very dry. This wouldn't be remarkable (they're textbooks, after all), but McCloud has written and drawn them as graphic novels themselves, with an abstracted, iconic version of himself serving as narrator. It's a device that should, at least to some extent, mitigate the academic content.

And yet.

Sure enough, there's a weird humorlessness to The Sculptor that became oppressive at times. The book follows David Smith, the eponymous sculptor, as he struggles to achieve his artistic goals while maintaining his personal integrity, and as he makes a deal with Death to help him along the way. Smith is a relentlessly morose character to begin with, trailed by a lifetime of devastating (but non-fantastical) tragedy and hemmed in by a fanatically literal dedication to keeping his own word, and the book as a whole similarly tends toward the self-serious. The art world, so primed for satire, is played ponderously straight; its foibles and oddities are simply accepted as part of the power structure Smith has to move within if he hopes to succeed. What the book's internal seriousness brought to mind, incongruously and unexpectedly, were the worlds in the books of Ayn Rand, those weird alternate Earths where the hot issue for everyone in the entire city is whether the architecture of a new office building is properly reverential to tradition or not.

Smith's deal with Death is, basically, that he can manipulate physical matter into any shape he can imagine using only a gentle touch and his mind. The price, of course, is that he's going to die young -- specifically, at the end of 200 days. It's a nice (if slightly familiar) framework for exploring the old burn-out-or-fade-away question, and McCloud tightens the screws well on his protagonist by giving him a love interest while the sands of his life are running out.

That love interest, Meg, is in some ways another of the book's awkward missteps. She's introduced as part of what initially seems like a vision of Smith's, but is later revealed to be a bit of performance art. Still, until that revelation it's definitely a dream-like sequence. Her role is to wear wings, swoop down, and kiss Smith, and whisper some vague-but-significant words of encouragement. She's an angel, but the overall effect is more than a little pixie-ish.

As Smith gets to know her more directly under other circumstances later, it comes out that she suffers from alternating episodes of bleak depression and hyper, blithe joyfulness. That is, she's manic. In a different book, something this on the nose might feel ironic, or like an author steering into the skid of the manic pixie dream girl trope. Here it feels -- as does so much of the book -- blunt and earnest.

And yet.

And yet the book as a whole somehow works, often brilliantly. McCloud's mastery of the form, first of all, is on clear display. Most of the book is done in straightforward, elegant linework, but he also deploys a battery of effects as needed -- transparency is used especially effectively, as are collage and blank space.

Back in Understanding Comics, McCloud laid out six primary types of panel transitions -- moment-to-moment, action-to-action, and so on. It was one of the sections that made that book so great -- McCloud naming and cataloguing a part of the language of comics that seems so fundamental as to be invisible. That extensive study and in-depth understanding is deployed judiciously here, with panel transitions hurrying or stretching out scenes as needed, or cutting quickly as a montage, or juxtaposing opposites. McCloud uses the gutter between panels as well as any modern cartoonist.

He also knows how to use a page, and a page turn -- this is a book that feels designed to be read as a paper artifact, not on a screen. In short, from a technical level, the book is everything you'd hope it would be. But that's not even where it works the best. This is a book about creativity, and what we give up for creativity, and how to rise up from failure and succeed again, and if love or family is reason enough to give up dreams. It's about dying and living, and about using magic and fantasy to explain the very real, grim fact that we're all on a finite journey here. The book succeeded in making me want to think about all those issues, and, even more, to discuss them. Maybe I was already in an academic mindset because thinking about McCloud had made me think about teaching, but I finished this book wanting to bat its ideas around with a class full of arrogant, hopeful wannabe writers and/or critics.

And in the end, maybe McCloud even found a way to make something that felt like a weakness into one of his book's strengths. After I finished the book for the first time, the first pages I found myself returning to weren't the virtuoso creative tricks or any of the graphic novel acrobatics. Instead I found myself flipping to moments that had clunked slightly on initial read-through -- Smith's declaration of artistic intent, or Meg using a sculpting metaphor to explain what she wants from Smith in a relationship.

There are problems with this book. Flaws. Things I would have liked to see handled differently, or things that could've been cut without loss, or explanations that I wish hadn't been given. And yet, it is also a success -- the work of not only a teacher, but a master of the form.

The Sculptor by Scott McCloud
First Second
ISBN: 978-1596435735
496 pages