“My dreams keep growing, Harry. Even while my options keep shrinking.”
Twenty-six year old sculptor David Smith (no, not that David Smith) seems to have peaked early. After alienating his wealthy patron, the only bridge left unburnt in the New York art community is his childhood best friend Ollie, who is now a gallery curator. But even Ollie can’t get New York’s art collectors to look twice at David’s work. David is poised to spend his birthday drunk and alone, when he runs into his great-uncle Harry at a diner. A little the worse for the drink, it takes David a while to realize that Harry has been dead for years, and that the being inhabiting Harry’s visage is none other than Death himself. Death/Harry makes David an irresistible offer: the ability to sculpt anything he can imagine with his bare hands. The catch: he only gets two hundred days to do it. With his family long dead, David feels like he has nothing to lose if he can’t achieve artistic greatness. But then Meg drops into his life out of the blue the very night he strikes the irrevocable bargain.
Through David’s character, a typical tortured young artist, Scott McCloud confronts age-old questions about the significance of art and the desire for a personal legacy. Once David has the ability sculpt anything he can imagine, he is faced with the problem of deciding what he really wants to create, and what message he hopes to convey with his work. His first efforts fail miserably, as he can capture nothing but abstractions of everyday moments that are meaningful to no one but himself. As his numbered days slip through his fingers, David takes to the streets, not as a super hero, but as a street artist, secretly transforming pieces of Manhattan into sculptures in a desperate bid for attention.
Much like the gift of sculpting, David’s new love interest, Meg, isn’t quite as perfect as she initially appears. Though David persists in idealizing her, this prototypical Manic Pixie Dream Girls is an actual manic depressive who refuses treatment for her bipolar disorder. Their romance is somewhat bland, but it’s difficult to be too hard on McCloud when he describes David as “40% me” and David and Meg together as “70% my relationship with my wife, Ivy.” Abrasive and alienating as David is, he does need to connect to someone in order to overcome his tendency to spiral towards isolation and obsession. McCloud admits that the story itself is a simple one, but adds that “god is in the details. You have to fill the idea out properly.” In the case of The Sculptor, the filling is the art, 500 pages of it meticulously rendered over five years.
McCloud is best known for theorizing about comics in comic form, particularly in Understanding Comics (1993). But for the most part, The Sculptor is not one of McCloud’s formal experiments, or a demonstration of the breadth of possibilities extant within comics. McCloud is telling a story, intent upon pulling the reader into his world. However, we do get glimpses of McCloud’s deep understanding of the medium and all its possibilities. When David finally realizes that Harry cannot possibly be his dead uncle, two blank pages convey his glimpse of Death’s true form hiding behind Harry’s face. Many of the best sequences tread the line between fantasy and reality, such as an apparent dream sequence that turns out to be public performance art, or the moment when David plunges his bare hands into solid stone as if it was liquid.
McCloud’s rendering of New York is life-like but not stereotypical, a feat which he credits to Google Streetview. Thanks to the constant availability of actual images of New York City, McCloud didn’t feel he needed to drop in iconic sights such as the Empire State Building or the Brooklyn Bridge to help set the scene. Some of it, however, must be credited not to reference images, but to McCloud’s own ingenuity. When David walks through Times Square, hood up, head down, we don’t see the towering screens that normally define that scene, and the duotone colour palette precludes the requisite neon. Instead, McCloud locates the reader with snippets of sound, speech bubbles that float down from above carrying the chatter the advertisements that fill the ubiquitous screens overhead.
McCloud’s solid art and excellent layouts elevate a middling narrative to a commendable re-entry into the world of fiction for one of comics’ iconic voices.
You might also like:
Marbles by Ellen Forney