Writer/Artist: Scott McCloud
Release Date: February 4, 2015
Publisher: First Second
The Sculptor, like Frank Miller’s Holy Terror, Neal Adam’s Batman: Odyssey, and Masamune Shirow’s Ghost in the Shell Volume 2: Man-Machine Interface, is a comic that exists because its author is too well-regarded to be said “No” to. The graphic novel is the first work of longform narrative fiction from the cartoonist in ten years and represents a return to praxis from a creator best known for his educational comic trilogy: Understanding Comics, Reinventing Comics and Making Comics.
Because of these three books — taught in high schools and colleges, lauded by high-profile writers and artists, and garnering McCloud countless speaking engagements — the man is widely regarded as a guru by aficionados in the medium. In The Sculptor, McCloud harnesses the techniques, tics and tricks he examined in those books and applies them over the course of 500 pages. He does an excellent job of establishing a sense of place and space, using what he refers to in Understanding Comics as “aspect-to-aspect” panel transitions, using color and hatching to manipulate atmosphere and tone. His acting (rendering of specific and affective facial expressions) hits with pin-point atmosphere. McCloud’s panel-to-panel syntax also remains sharp. The book establishes an internal tempo, spreading moments across enough panels so that each beat is played out, the reader’s eyes linger for a second longer and any one moment carries elegantly.
Unfortunately, this competent application of technique falls in service to a story that fails in every conceivable way to connect, whether through coherence, originality, functionality or emotional consequence. At nearly 500 pages, The Sculptor is a weighty book with ample space to fully explore a heady, thoughtful story. But McCloud is unable to render a single character interesting, accurately depict the passage of time — months will appear to have passed and then a character will chime with “That last week”—or maintain a consistent, internal logic.
The book revolves around a sculptor named David Smith (a recurring joke is that he shares his name with a real-life famous sculptor, and this appears to be the only reason he’s named David Smith) who…sells the rest of his life(?) to the grim reaper for the power to sculpt any material into any form he can visualize. Within this context, the characters’ actions fail to establish any sense of consequence. Instead, McCloud provides grand, important details to characters with little relevancy to the overarching plot, while the main characters revel in mundane, irrelevant moments.
McCloud gives female lead and romantic interest Meg character defect after character defect in an attempt to render her as complex, but these flaws don’t fulfill a bigger purpose other than painting a sadder, more melodramatic character. Dozens of pages illustrate the hyper-emotional machinations of her life with the implication of clinical depression, but McCloud doesn’t follow up on these threads — he merely introduces them. Conversely, the starving artist protagonist receives a steady stream of devotional sequences composed almost entirely of Italian Neorealist moments—the little beats, the lived-in moments, the snippets of real life. This isn’t necessarily good or bad, but the sum total of these snippets should add up to something substantive. Unfortunately, they service a character no different from the cliche men created for manic pixie dream girls to fix.
The general plot — desperate man makes Faustian pack for amazing powers — may resemble the first five pages of a superhero comic, but The Sculptor doesn’t assume that identity until the last fifty or so pages, and only after a series of knee-jerk tragedies tell us that life needs to be lived and cherished, man. Then the book becomes the last act of Chronicle for 20 pages, ending with a whimper, not a bang. McCloud does provide a silver lining to this bombastic sequence, approximating the experience of one’s life flashing before one’s eyes through a cascade of non-linear, overlapping images.
But that beautiful sequence couches a finale that feels tonally inconsistent with the rest of the book, jumping out from left field to gorgeously elaborate a very basic point. The denouement embraces every shade of “You have to make every moment count,” and this unearned moment only sprouts when McCloud sacrifices a primary character to the gods of “The male lead has to learn something.” But the moment is unnecessary brutal for the sake of “#YOLO.”
All of this narrative confusion is fairly startling, especially considering that McCloud has nearly 500 pages to convince us to buy into his world. He throws pages away for nothing moments that convey little concrete information about the world or characters, nor move the story along. At most every turn, The Sculptor meanders and bloats, displaying an alarming level of self-indulgence, making a fantastic case for why culture should get more comfortable with telling great artists, “No.”