In his newest work, The Sculptor, Scott McCloud explores a bevy of philosophical and pragmatic questions with regard to art, a partial listing of which might include:
- What is it for?
- Who is it for?
- What makes a “successful” artist? Is it critical acclaim by a few? The popular opinion of the many? How big of an audience defines success? Can it be an audience of one? What if that one is the artist, the self alone?
- What sort of sacrifices can/should one make for his/her art?
- What sot of compromises?
- What is the reward of art? What is the cost?
- When does creation stray into destruction?
Weighty, meaty questions indeed. And important ones. Not just to the titular sculptor or his comic writing creator but to artists of all sorts as well as to the culture at large (I like to think so at least). But McCloud is also smart enough to infuse what could have been a philosophical treatise or dogmatic allegory on art with the full richness and grittiness of real life, its high and its lows. He stumbles here and there in the process, I’d say, but he hits a lot more than he misses, and I was already loving this book even before its stunning, moving conclusion, a testimonial to the true potential of this medium (a potential, to be honest, I’ve all too rarely found fully, or even satisfactorily, met).
We meet our main character, David Smith, at a pretty low point, having just been fired from his job flipping burgers. On a woe-is-me drinking binge, he’s interrupted by the sudden appearance of his Uncle Harry, who joins him and listens to the story of how David almost “made it” — five years ago he was discovered by a rich patron, had a short run of glory, then got dumped and has been struggling ever since. He confesses how he fears he’ll never finish a single one of the “big, monstrous, beautiful things I could make — so real I could almost reach out and touch them.” Uncle Henry listens sympathetically, tries to bolster his confidence, and then David remembers something kind of important — last time he saw his Uncle was at Harry’s funeral.
Turns out Uncle Harry is Death himself (how this comes about is a nice little story in its own right) and he’s here to offer David a Faustian Bargain. He can live out his life — get a wife, a place in the suburbs, a few kids, grow old. And sure, his art along the way will have transitioned from a necessity to a hobby to a forgotten thing he used to do, but as Harry says, “There’ll be good times along the way. Sweet memories… Love and Family. Those aren’t small things.” When he wonders if David would really miss the art, David tells him he’d give his life for it, a statement he holds to even after Uncle Harry shows him “the void” — chillingly, effectively conveyed via a startlingly-blank two-page spread.
So Harry offers the B-side — the gift to create fully and quickly as he’d wished, at the cost of dying in 200 days. After a rough day and night, including a strange run-in with the girl he’ll eventually fall in love with, Harry takes the bargain and begins a whirlwind of creation. It turns out though, that the gift, though it allows him to sculpt basically without limitations, may not be enough. And when he does fall for Meg, he finds himself torn between his solitary life as an artist and his connected life as a human being.
As mentioned, the artistic questions loom large throughout, and I loved how the text wrestled with them. David’s art does not remain static, even within this compressed time period — he goes through bouts of creativity and stagnation, he creates work for critics and art gallery people, he makes grand outdoor sculpture, transforming the city and becoming a cause célèbre, he makes art that nobody will ever see (even sculpting a boulder sight unseen beneath the ground, telling Meg, “Let ‘em have fun digging that up!”). Each phase raises different questions, each phase signals not just a different artist, but also a different person.
Meanwhile, even as he experiments with his artistic transformation, David has to come to terms with his emotional transformation as well. He is a figure of nearly utter isolation at the start. His father, mother, and sister have all died and he has but a single friend — a boy he grew up with who now arranges art showings and will eventually decide which artist gets a chance at a big show. When Meg takes him in at his nadir (penniless, homeless, hungry, hallucinating), his emotional life gradually grows to encompass not just Meg but her roommate and friends as well, and their lives, too, gradually open up to us as he learns to view them not as mere adjuncts to Meg but as lives in their own right. This, predictably, makes his ticking biological clock drum all the more loudly, just as the other part of his world — his artistry — also moves into desperation mode in the latter part of the book. What drives him as much as the artist’s need to create is his complete terror at being forgotten, to not have “made a name for himself,” as he once promised his father (a running plot throughout is his utter dedication to keeping all of his promises fully).
Meg is the one who tries to show him a path out of that terror, though I won’t say how or if she succeeds. She’s a character I have mixed feelings about. On the one hand, she is a bit of a combination of two grating character types we see too often with regard to female side characters — the Zooey Deschanel quirkily energetic and exhaustively cutesy type married to the wounded manic-depressive brooding/mercurial type. But then, one really gets the sense that McCloud is going in wide-eyed transparent on this, even in some ways playing right off of the trope, especially with her first entrance into the story and with a few sly references throughout. It’s a tough line to hew to, and I can’t see the attempt meets wholly with success, leaving me a bit at sea with her character — sometimes fully engaged, sometimes a bit discomfited. The side characters, on the other hand, no matter how small, all came fully alive for me, even, ironically, Uncle Harry/Death himself.
The dialogue is up and down — sometimes perfectly pitched and real, funny or moving or thoughtful. Other times it’s a bit flat, though never bad. McCloud’s use of foreshadowing, on the other hand, is spot on, as he uses both text and image to unify the entire work and thread it through with a series of echoes. You’ll pick up some on your first read and many more on the second read (and you’ll want a second read very quickly after the first).
Visually, the presentation is masterful. Gorgeous through most of it, beautifully and effectively colored/tinted to match the emotional tenor of the moment(s). The panels and pages elongate and compress time in all sorts of ways but always clearly. David’s isolation is wonderfully conveyed early on, as is his growing sense of interconnectedness. Backgrounds fade in and out of detail so as to let the reader focus on what is important in the moment. Points of view zoom in and out, move to overhead shots for effect, show only partial scenes to convey a sense of fracture or chaos. A nightmare sequence depicting the city entire being tilted as bodies slide off and over the edge in to the void is icily effective, as is a later image of David walking the sidewalk which in the picture has transformed into a huge calendar ending at David’s date with death, shown as a cliff’s edge trailing into what appears a bottomless pit. Just as effective are McCloud’s facial panels, especially the ones in series that convey a full sense of personality in tiny, subtle ways — the tilt of a head, the slant of a half-smile, a change in eyebrows. Two of my favorite scenes will give a sense of McCloud’s spectrum of ability. One is when David is touching Meg’s face in preparation for sculpting a series of busts. The “camera” view swirls around the two of them, moving in and out, even as the romantic tension rises to peak levels amidst a sense of concentrated stillness. Fantastic. The other is a single image of Meg on her messenger bike speeding through the streets of NY, her hair flying behind her, her body and bike in sharp relief against the background, which greys out as it recedes from the reader’s eye, a brilliant conveyance of speed and vibrancy and character.
And then there is the near-ending part. A series of wordless pages that will crawl inside your chest and that will have you moving slower and slower, then going back and looking at them from the start all over again. And then again. Those few pages alone are worth the price of entry.
As I’ve mentioned in my reviews of graphic stories before, I’ve almost always found them disappointing, my response to probably 90-plus percent of them being an annoyed “meh.” Thanks to Brad, our resident expert, my batting average has gone up a bit lately, though my last one — Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant by Roz Chast, nominated for a myriad of awards — had me ranting to our book club yet again. Scott McCloud has washed that taste fully out of my mouth though. The Sculptor, as befits its subject, is a true work of art, a near-perfect melding of text and image, and I highly recommend it for fans of the genre surely, but especially for those like me who are a bit wary of the genre.
Reading The Sculptor by Scott McCloud: A Counter-Intuitive Approach to a Landmark Graphic Novel (An Essay-Review)
Scott McCloud’s new work — The Sculptor — is GENIUS. It’s EPIC. It’s the WORK OF A MASTER. It’s his MAGNUM OPUS. The Sculptor is the culmination of a lifetime of creating comics, writing about comics, and speaking about comics. Yes. Yes. YES!
The Sculptor is all these and rightly has been reviewed in almost every review publication that will take the time to review a comic book.* The Sculptor is one of the biggest events in the world of graphic novels I’ve ever seen. And the attention is well-deserved.
However, sometimes that much praise of a work of fiction has the opposite of its intended effect and puts off new readers, and though that reaction is usually not worth mentioning in a review, I think that in this case, it needs to be mentioned, because this over-the-top, if rightly-earned and much-deserved, praise is connected to an art form that most adults in the United States STILL do not read with any regularity, if at all: The Graphic Novel. I want to say to those of you who do not read graphic novels and comics at all, or rarely, “Please, make an exception for The Sculptor.”
In terms of plot, it’s about a man down on his luck, a sculptor who found success too fast and lost it even more quickly. He seems partly to blame, and though he thinks he’s more sinned against than sinning, many of those who knew him hint that they disagree. Our artist, the sculptor David Smith, has fallen on hard times when we meet him, and he’s lost not only his fame, but also his financial stability and everyone close to him. And it gets worse. But . . . it gets better. By the way, the man he meets who helps him make things better shouldn’t be there at all; he is also the reason this novel slowly shifts from the realistic to the magical, the mystic, even if that magic has both an angelic and a demonic potential. There’s so much more I want to reveal about the plot, but I hesitate. I don’t want to give anything away. That would be telling. I will say, however, that there are friends and enemies, past loves and new loves. And during it all, David Smith creates some beautiful, awe-inspiring art, which allows Scott McCloud to draw some of the most elegant panels of his career.
The book’s real strength comes from the interactions between the characters, particularly as depicted visually. The plot has some twists and turns at the relationship level, and the complexity and depth of emotion that McCloud is able to convey is amazing: He doesn’t need to tell us in words what emotions these characters are going through. We feel with them automatically the way we do when we respond to the facial expressions and body language of somebody we know well. We get to know these characters so well that when one of them looks at another, we know exactly what is being thought and felt.
I’ve heard it said by people who prefer prose fiction to graphic novels that they like to use their “imaginations.” I’ve heard this claim a lot, in fact. However, I find that a novelist who describes in detailed words all that a character is feeling and thinking is leaving less to the imagination than a narrative artist like McCloud who tells me nothing, forcing me to articulate what I think a character is feeling and thinking. What is more imaginative, imagining what a character looks like, which a novelist describes in detail anyway, or imagining what is going on inside a character based on what I see in that character’s nonverbal signals? Obviously, if we need to judge art based on this criterion, and I’m not saying that we do, graphic novels might be said to require more imagination than prose novels.
Another aspect I like about this graphic novel is its pacing. I felt a strong pull to read fast. And this desire to read the book fast leads me to urge: Please, read the book as fast as you’d like, without feeling guilty, without worrying about what you are missing. No high school teacher or college professor will give you a closed-book test when you finish reading it. But that’s not the main reason you should read this book quickly.
Sequential art, like movies and novels, invite us to experience narrative at varying paces: If a comic book has a lot of words per panel, then it is asking us to slow down and spend more time per panel. A comic book writer and artist can speed up the pace at which a reader moves through the book by lowering the ratio of words to images, even having multiple pages with only images and no words at all. These are intentional, not accidental, effects in works by those who are skilled creators of sequential art.
The Sculptor has a much lower word-to-image ratio than many other comics, for example McCloud’s own Understanding Comics, which is dense with words because it’s an art appreciation textbook. Unlike in Understanding Comics, McCloud is inviting us to read The Sculptor at a rapid pace. Slowing down to study every detail would ruin that pace, and as a result, I would argue, ruin the experience McCloud intends for readers to have with his story.
Another reason we should read The Sculptor quickly is because McCloud’s fictional comics, such as Zot! and The Sculptor, are influenced by manga in some specific ways, one of which is pacing. Manga usually employs a low word-to-image ratio to make it possible for readers to zip through the books. Frederik L. Schodt, the man most credited with exposing U.S. readers to manga, writes that even the manga publishing industry in Japan is based on this difference: While manga is devoured in huge weekly anthologies that are priced very affordably, U.S. comics are published monthly by a team of artists, and each issue is fairly expensive considering they are usually less than twenty-four pages long. McCloud’s The Sculptor is designed to be read quickly like a work of manga because he uses the same low word-to-image ratio, leading the reader to flip the pages faster and faster. His wide variety of panel-to-panel transitions in The Sculptor also resembles Japanese sequential art, and many, though not all, of these transitions are also designed to pick up the narrative pace.
For all these reasons, I think that picking up this “serious” work of literature, this highly praised graphic novel, and reading it slowly and carefully a few pages at a time, though it will not absolutely ruin the book for anyone, will certainly lead the reader to go against the grain of McCloud’s invitation to read his book at a fast pace. I read the book in two sittings in a single evening, with only a single break for dinner. You don’t have to read it that fast, but you should allow yourself to get carried away by the flow of the book, get caught up in this world he created. Think of it like this: Would you “see” each individual image of a movie better if you could look at every frame? Absolutely. But you’d miss the film. My comparison is an exaggeration, I admit, but the pacing of a comic is just as important as the pacing of a film or a play or a novel. Don’t ignore the pacing of The Sculptor.
The good news: I think the book is more enjoyable when read quickly, and I think it makes The Sculptor more inviting to know it doesn’t take long to read. Also, I think graphic novels and comics, even more than a typical novel, invite rereading. No, you won’t get everything out of The Sculptor on a first read, but I’m not suggesting that you read it only once. In fact, I’m suggesting that you read it at least twice.
This is my next reading suggestion: Read The Sculptor twice, and do so without much time between the readings. Reading a comic twice at different paces is not the same as reading it once carefully. In a prose-only novel, your eyes have only the words to focus on. In a comic, there are really just too many places to look to see everything on a first read. It can’t be done, often because we don’t know what to look for until we finish the comic the first time. The second time through a comic book, I know the plot and the basic words and, though I do read the words again, I spend much more time looking at the images, all the details and subtleties. Though I love to reread novels, I only reread my favorites. However, I usually read comics at least twice because I don’t think I’ve really read them at all until I’ve closed the final page after the second experience.
My final suggestion has to do with Understanding Comics. I highly recommend McCloud’s nonfiction book. If you’ve never read it before or if it’s been awhile, I recommend reading chapter seven right before or after reading The Sculptor. This chapter is about art in general and why artists do what they do, and since The Sculptor is about an artist and his wrestling with the relationship between mastery of craft and the reason for doing the art in the first place, the chapter and graphic novel go well together. Chapter seven can be read in isolation and will make sense even if you don’t read the rest of the book (it seemed to be a favorite chapter for my students). So, you can read chapter seven and The Sculptor before going back and reading the rest of Understanding Comics. And when you’re done with McCloud, you’ll want to keep reading comics and graphic novels, because like any great artist-teacher, he makes you love what he teaches.
The Sculptor is a work of genius; it is a masterpiece. But it’s first and foremost a fantastic story that you won’t want to put down. And if you start it, you won’t stop. McCloud makes sure of that! The only job I have as a reviewer is to get you to open the book and read the first few pages. So, here’s my review in summary: Buy this five-star book. Read the first few pages. And here’s my argument: Don’t overthink it. Just go with the story and don’t worry about missing important images and ideas. But come back to The Sculptor soon. All the great works of sequential art take two reads for full appreciation, which is easy if one doesn’t try to make the first read a perfect experience. And if The Sculptor is your first graphic novel ever, I envy you.
*Check out the Facebook feed of The Sculptor publisher First Second, perhaps the publisher who puts out on a regular basis the highest percentage of quality graphic novels (as opposed to monthly comic books). A note on definitions and terms: I define comic books, manga, and graphic novels using Will Eisner’s large, all-encompassing umbrella-term, “sequential art.” However, I usually label a “graphic novel” a work that is published all at once as a book with unified plot and unified themes: The Sculptor is a clearly a graphic novel by this definition. Comic books are monthly issues that are sometimes collected into trades with story arcs that I describe as “Graphic Novels.” However, other story arcs don’t have a definite end and are more episodic than unified as a single work. Batman: Year One and Watchmen are both “graphic novels” under this definition. The latest story arc of Batman and Robin in the New 52 and collected in a trade is not a “graphic novel,” even though it’s of high quality and has themes I find meaningful enough to have led me to teach the first volume in the college classroom. These are attempts at neutral, not evaluative, definitions. I do not think a “graphic novel” is artistically superior to a trade collection of comic books; the opposite can be, and often is, true. Finally, sequential art, comic books, graphic novels, and manga are all a kind of art form and not a genre. This art form, like others (film, novels, poetry, drama, etc.), can make use of any genre. See McCloud’s Understanding Comics for more detailed discussion of sequential art as a unique art form.