Scott McCloud is probably the biggest name in comics not known for actually making comics. Though he has produced some critically acclaimed works in the medium, it’s his work as a theorist and scholar of comics that has kept his name tied into discussions with the likes of Alan Moore and Will Eisner.
“Understanding Comics” in 1993 and “Reinventing Comics” in 2000 helped to spur on more analysis of the components and history of the art form. And now McCloud has come back around again with “The Sculptor,” a 500-page return to fiction.
“The Sculptor” tells the story of David Smith — not the famous one — a talented but hotheaded sculptor living in New York City who has burned every bridge he’s crossed and is down to his last wadded-up fistful of change, intent on drinking it away. David is soon approached by Death, who offers a bargain — he will give David the unlimited ability to express himself through his art for 200 days. After that, it’s lights out for good. David jumps on the opportunity.
For as dead-set as David is on becoming a great artist, “The Sculptor” speaks more to the everyday creatives who traded in their aspirations for a normal and fully lived life, for family, for friends and for love. It’s an option that Death lays on the table for David before he offers up his deal, and it’s one that he outright rejects. Soon after signing away his life for his art, David meets and immediately falls in love with a girl, Meg, and he weighs the time he has left between using the gift he’s sacrificed everything for and spending time with the one he loves.
McCloud is certainly putting his eye for the crafting of comics to good use in the book, as every page of panels has an effortless flow to them. As David wanders through the crowds of New York, he captures fragments of conversations, little text bubbles cut off by the margins of the comic frames. He suffers through trendy parties by hovering around the keg, checking his phone and failing at conversation, all unfolding in small panels packed tightly together as he wonders how many awkward situations can be jammed into a single evening.
Death in “The Sculptor” doesn’t seem to be getting much out of the deal. Taking the form of David’s great uncle Harry (who happens to be the spitting image of Stan Lee), he’s more granting a wish rather than buying a soul at a crossroads. No hidden incentives, the catch right there in large type alongside the payoff. He continues to pop up, offering strange bits of moral support to David — and to remind him that his time is limited, and there’s no undoing their deal. It’s an interesting take on the character, and one of the most memorable parts of the book for me.
As affecting as “The Sculptor” can be in its focus on everyday life versus aspiration, it does have some pitfalls. Meg is depicted as pretty manic pixie dream girl-ish, and her life and aspirations aren’t focused on as much more than vehicles to show David the potential happiness he’s squandering by making his deal with Death. Still, the book is a pretty impeccably crafted showcase of using the comic art form to tell an engaging story. I hope McCloud chooses to stay in the world of fiction writing for a good while longer.
Sam Nixon’s “Words From a Nerd” runs every Wednesday in the Colorado Daily.