Scott McCloud is almost certainly best known for Understanding Comics, a graphic textbook that breaks down and explains comics and graphic novels in great detail, but using the medium itself to do it.
However, if you thought McCloud was only good for analysis, The Sculptor will change your mind. This thick, 490-page graphic novel looks intimidating in print, but inside is light and airy, compelling and hard to put down.
It tells the story of David Smith, a self-centered sculptor who’s had a sniff of fame and fortune but is then dumped by his patron and left near-destitute and devoid of confidence. He’s offered a last chance with a supernatural twist: the opportunity to recieve a gift that could help him fulfill his artistic potential in exchange for a shortening of his life. He opts for art over life, and finds he can manipulate any material with his bare hands, shaping marble and metal as if it were soft clay. But he only has 200 days to leave his mark upon the world.
At this point he falls in love and things start to get complicated. What he thought was a simple decision turns vastly more complicated, and while the gift of material manipulation may give him super-human powers, it doesn’t necessarily make him an artist.
If we have one complaint about The Sculptor it’s that it can be a bit clinical in places – almost too perfect. While Smith’s life spirals out of control, the author’s presence always sits above, manipulating panels like Smith can manipulate the materials he sculpts. It’s only at the end of the book that McCloud breaks free from his rigid layouts and he’s certainly making a point, using it as stark contrast (something that he also does brilliantly with light in the final moments of the book) but by that point it feels like the journey has been rigid and uniform.
It begs the question of who exactly is the sculptor in this book. On a superficial level it’s Smith himself; but there’s more to it than that. His girlfriend, Meg, is sculpting too, changing Smith’s soul through her love. Death and it’s personification is another manipulator, with its bargains, deals and rules. Then there’s McCloud, in this instance even manipulating Death to do his bidding for the sake of his own artistic endeavour.
Like most of our favourite graphic novels, this isn’t a put down and forget about it book, but a progression of the form: this year’s leap into literary respectability. The subtle insertion of the supernatural and (arguably) superpowers, may put serious readers off, but these are just tools McCloud uses to explore the fragility and the human condition. It’s a modern myth, then, a saga, a Greek oddessy in present day New York, and well worth your time and money.