(Scott McCloud; First Second Books)
Scott McCloud has delivered magical realism at its absolute best.
It should be no surprise that McCloud knows what he’s talking about when it comes to making comics. He’s been doing it diligently for years, earning numerous accolades, building on the groundwork that Will Eisner set as a comics theorist, writer and artist. The Sculptor speaks to his understanding of the medium, a reflection of his nonfiction work perfectly put into practice.
I first saw this book on a list of possible projects to work on for Comics Bulletin back in October. I knew nothing about the book, but when I saw that McCloud was the creator, I was in. Up to that point I had only read his nonfiction and was immediately enthusiastic about the opportunity to read some of his fiction. I read this 500 page mammoth in roughly 3-4 long sittings. I took 3-4 weeks off from the book after reading before sitting down to write this review because this book is so emotionally dense, I needed the time to digest the story in order to fully appreciate what was being presented to me. Hours, days, weeks and now a month later, several images and scenes continue to resonate with me.
The Sculptor begins with a single panel showing a couple in bed who are later introduced as David and Meg. Meg poses the question, “ready?” toward David, but her eyes are directed toward the reader. McCloud is breaking the fourth wall asking us if we’re ready – a premonition of sorts. The next page is another full-page panel of David (still unknown at this point) speeding toward the ground head first like a missile. The sequence on page three brings us back into the bedroom where David whispers in Meg’s ear. The second panel of the third page sticks out, showing an eager crowd. They’re curious about the fall and about the secret. It serves two purposes. The juxtaposition of the seemingly out of place panels creates a dreamy sequence, like we’re blinking and only catching blips of the story to come.
After the preface, we’re introduced to our main character: David Smith is a struggling sculptor who’s lost all confidence in himself and is a self-proclaimed has-been. After being dumped by his backers six months earlier, we find him drinking alone in a New York restaurant on his birthday. McCloud has us emotionally invested in David from the beginning beyond his self-deprecation, with scenes that clue us into his tragic family history of death and loss.
The art is visually striking from the get-go. McCloud utilizes distinct, heavy lines to create the forms of the subjects, while allowing white and blue hues to add value. It’s an interesting but effective color scheme. The focus of the panels are apparent by the bold black lines and use of vibrant whites, while the blue hues add a layer of depth and detail that don’t strain the eyes and keep the panels from feeling washed out. The tints of blue also ground the book’s mood as themes of death and loss are laced throughout the book. McCloud paces the book well, making careful choices in panel layout, size, shape, whitespace and incorporated section breaks to help guide the readers carefully through the story at the right speed.
Death, in the form of David’s Uncle Harry challenges David by posing the question, “What would you give for your art?” He offers David unlimited sculpting potential, but explains the repercussions of accepting the deal – namely, his life.
The offer resonates with me as an aspiring writer and is one that people all across the career spectrum have probably asked themselves. This sort of question forces us to ask us what is important in our lives, how do we define success and what lengths would we go to in order to achieve our aspirations.
Uncle Harry often times doubles as the voice of reason and the moral compass that brings David back to reality during various points throughout The Sculptor. Harry challenges David’s decisions and offers advice, reminding him of his choices and how they affect others. This becomes increasingly vital to the story after David meets the love of his life, Meg, as his time continually dwindles upon making a deal with Death.
The scenes with Harry are usually thick with dialogue that keeps reminding David – and readers – that the clock is constantly ticking. Those scenes are slower-paced than others in the book, but they add heavily to the suspense of what’s to come due to contextual clues and subtext woven throughout their conversations.
McCloud’s theories and techniques for creating memorable characters discussed in his book Making Comics are the materials he’s used to sculpt his characters in this book.
David’s hands are memorable and are often the focus in the panels in which they’re shown. The subtle details in his hands like wrinkles and fingernails aren’t the focus, but rather the distinct lines that form his hands and the amount of space they typically take up in the panels – usually anywhere from three-quarters of the panel to the entire panel.This intense focus establishes the importance of David’s hands being his tools as a sculptor.
This is significant later in the book when David discovers his magical-realist powers and no longer needs sculpting tools to create his art. His hands become the source of unlimited potential, only impeded by second guessing and his lack of focus. His hands are everything in his life, including being the cause of his downfall. McCloud uses this focus to his advantage, drawing some simply gorgeous scenes that showcase David’s ability to manipulate the world around him. McCloud uses bold, action driven lines to direct the reader’s eyes across the panels and pages, showcasing the motion and fluidity of David’s sculpting. The significance of David’s hands parallels McCloud’s as an artist. The exaggerated gestures of David’s motions while he sculpts is a direct result from McCloud’s passion for cartooning. The lines are bold and filled with a spiritual zeal. It’s the perfect allegory.
We meet Meg, the outgoing free-spirit of the book struggling with inner turmoil, early in the book. Her grand entrance is bizarre and so off-putting that David becomes emotionally and physically distraught. It’s also exciting and establishes her gregarious personality. Through the sensory overload by being the target of an elaborate show, like myself, David finds himself unable to forget her. She’s a character that has love for everybody except for herself. She’s an aspiring actress, a risk taker, a cyclist and a dreamer. Her jubilant expressions combined with a memorable smile make her a character I’ll remember for years. She’s also hurting and lacks trust in herself.
McCloud is able to distinguish genuine feeling from hidden emotion with subtle body language and facial gestures that make Meg not only one of the most complex and empathetic characters in the story, but also one of the most relatable and loveable. Like David, I found myself enamored with Meg after her first appearance in the story.
There are also many supporting characters that are equally as developed as the leading roles. David’s longtime friend Ollie is in the art scene working at an art gallery where he tries his best to help David out. Struggling with fears of being alone, he’s in a unique relationship with a spoiled hack-sculptor, Finn. Despite David’s warnings, Ollie continues to stay in his unhealthy relationship for various reasons I don’t wish to spoil. Then there are numerous secondary characters with distinct personalities, like Meg’s roommate, Sam, who seems to be perpetually grumpy, but often acts out of protection over Meg.
McCloud forges believable relationships between the characters. David’s jaded outer appearance is a cloak to his inner positivity and makes him a perfect complement to the spunky, happy-go-lucky demeanor that Meg uses to hide her major trust issues, depression and self-debt. Their relationship deepens as they build trust and open up slowly to one another. Eventually Meg and David become romantically involved, and McCloud depicts their relationship honestly.
David isn’t perfect and neither is his relationship with Meg. He has a tendency to almost exclusively think about himself and loses track of the people he cares about, but those flaws don’t make him any less caring or capable of maintaining a relationship. He shows that he is a truly compassionate person that’d do anything for those he loves.David keeps a select group of people close, but those that are in that close-knit group are held in the highest regard.
Similarly, Meg often pushes people away and doesn’t allow people to become too close. She goes through periods of self-deprecating behavior and completely shuts down emotionally. David doesn’t allow himself to be pushed away though. He helps her through her uncertainty when things become difficult and always stays by her side. There are a couple of specific moments where David’s true character shines because of his promise to stay with her. As free-spirited as she appears, she is oddly down to Earth and points out when David’s head swells to the clouds. McCloud makes it clear that you don’t need a cape to be a superhero. David sticks with Meg through her troubles, just as she helps him get back on his feet and boosts his confidence. This reciprocation highlights some fundamental nurturing qualities in a solid relationship. This type of representation is what gives McCloud authority as an artist. He creates a convincing world in The Sculptor inhabited by authentic personalities.
Fundamentally, The Sculptor is perfect. McCloud’s characterization is memorable and has a strong grasp of the human condition. He isn’t afraid to pick us up or throw us down using the relationships cultivated and lost throughout the story. It’s less about being careful what you wish for and more about cherishing what you have in your life, be it relationships, your career or your lifestyle choices. If there is one graphic novel you pick up in 2015, make it this one. McCloud will dig his hands into your chest and shape your heart with The Sculptor.