The Sculptor (2015) Scott McCloud (First Second)
Hardcover, 496 pages
(An advance reader’s edition of The Sculptor was provided by First Second for review purposes. All images from First Second)
David Smith is a young sculptor living in New York City, a man who once had a promising career, but finds himself in a slump that’s lasted for five years. Just when David’s at his lowest, along comes Death (in the form of David’s deceased Uncle Harry), who offers David a proposal: he’ll be able to sculpt great works of art out of any material he chooses, using just his bare hands – but once he accepts, he’ll only live for 200 more days. All seems to go well until David mets Meg and falls hopelessly in love.
Two things struck me immediately about The Sculptor, a book that took McCloud five years to produce. First, McCloud is a comics icon, not only having produced the 80s alternative superhero comic Zot!, but also creating an enormously important and influential series of books about comics, Understanding Comics (1993), Reinventing Comics (2000), and Making Comics (2006). Clearly McCloud knows comics, so much so that anything he produces subsequent to these books is going to be held to an extremely high level of scrutiny.
Second, the basic story of The Sculptor – a man making a deal with Death for a brief period of glory – is so familiar it’s easy to think we’ve seen it all before, therefore producing such a tale (and a 500 page one, at that) seems a risky venture.
But on to the book. There’s so much to admire and appreciate in The Sculptor that you might miss some things from getting caught up in the story. One such element is McCloud’s patient pacing. After a few pages of images, the first section of the story, “The Other David Smith,” begins with 11 mostly wordless panels. We see an overhead view of New York City buildings, followed by several panels showing us that we’re in a diner. We don’t know it yet, but we’re in David’s point-of-view, looking at various objects around the diner. Like all great comics creators, McCloud is making his panels do more than one thing. He’s not only establishing where David is, he’s also allowing us to know who he is. On page 13, we see David’s hands holding and examining a plate, a glass, a fork… This is what a sculptor does, studying objects by touch. Would a normal sculptor take the time to do such things? Maybe, maybe not, but David is down on his luck, looking for inspiration anywhere, even in a fork and glass.
This same scene also shows us that McCloud is in no hurry in telling his story. He allows us to get to know David bit by bit rather than dumping info on us. Yet ironically, while McCloud takes his time in telling his story, we’re compelled to turn the pages. Although the book is nearly 500 pages long, you could easily read it in one sitting. (Yet I would advise you to take your time and take in the story. Or read it again, since multiple reads will no doubt yield a greater appreciation of the book.)
It’s also ironic that McCloud takes his time telling the story because David doesn’t have much time, only 200 days. Once David meets and falls for Meg, those days seem to fly by, giving the story a definite sense of urgency. How McCloud balances this leisurely pace and the urgency of David’s timeline is amazing.
I don’t want to reveal too much about The Sculptor other than to point out a few things. Again, the story is so compelling, it’s easy to miss things on the first read (which, again, is why you’ll want to read The Sculptor more than once). McCloud gives us subtle changes in art style that aren’t immediately evident. Sometimes we get a more-or-less traditional classic cartoon style and other times a more manga-influenced style. As the book nears its conclusion, McCloud displays an amazing kinetic, noirish style, and the ending… Well, you’ll have to see it for yourself.
While the visual styles of The Sculptor are certainly engaging, they would mean little without a good story, which we certainly get here. David Smith shows us that life is short and that we all have a gnawing desire to do something significant with our lives, but he also shows us how easy it is to be so driven and self-aware that we run the risk of forgetting the people around us. Even when we do pay attention to those special people in our lives, is it because we really care about them or because they meet some need we can’t live without? The Sculptor asks some hard questions, some of which made me examine my own life and motives. Anytime a creator can entertain me and yet teach me something about myself (especially things I’d rather not admit), I have to admire that.
The work is also a reflection on the nature of art and the connection between the creator and the created work. You can’t help but think of McCloud’s own career, as well as his study of comics, and how his knowledge has influenced this book. McCloud is now in his mid-50s (as am I), and it’s natural at that age to start thinking about your art, your place in the world, and your relationships. The Sculptor does all of this and more. I highly recommend it.
(The Sculptor contains adult language as well as some sex and nudity, both of which are important components of the story.)