Never make a deal with death: 9 times out of 10, he cheats.
The Sculptor by Scott McCloud is the 1 time Death plays fair.
McCloud, renown for his books Understanding Comics (1993), Making Comics (2006), and the comic Zot (1984-1990), has not written a graphic novel since Zot! graphic novella Hearts and Minds in 2000. Given how long is has been since McCloud has actually created an original graphic novel, many were anticipating this work: what can “the Comics Theorist” actually do? Can it live up to his legacy of constructive criticism?
Overall, readers can rest easy: McCloud effectively uses many tools from both his story and artist’s tool boxes to craft an engaging, if flawed, story that will resonate with readers for some time.
McCloud’s novel follows struggling sculptor David Smith, who moved to New York trying to create a lasting legacy in the art world while failing spectacularly. He has talent but most investors do not give him the time of day, much to his frustration. That all changes when his Uncle Harry visits him while eating breakfast hammered at a diner. After a quick conversation about David’s struggles of his resources not syncing with his ambition he realizes that he is talking to Death, not Harry. Death sees that David is hell-bent on doing art and nothing else, so he grants his wish: the ability to sculpt anything he can imagine using whatever he touches, but he will die in 200 days.
Part of what really helps solidify McCloud’s take on the Faust story is the medium he chooses to present it in. It may sound like an obvious statement, but I am convinced that the tale could not have been told any other way. From the panel angles, the deliberate pacing, and the selective inking, McCloud gets the most for his money–as do the readers, given that they’re paying $30 for an almost 500 page narrative. The story progresses pretty steadily over those 500 pages, and most readers will likely not notice the length: McCloud wisely never deviates far from David’s concern for his dwindling life span and art. Death’s reach is always present, even during David’s romance with Meg, a free-spirited woman he meets during a street performance shortly after making his deal with Death. Whether it be David and Death talking about the danger of getting close to her due to his ever-approaching deadline, or David himself ticking off days on the calendar or in his journal while he writes about their activities.
However, another aspect that sets Sculptor apart is that there is no afterlife.
Death reveals this to David early on, right before they strike their deal, and while David doesn’t appear to ponder about the afterlife for most of the story, it comes back more directly when David confides to Death his guilt over a friend’s faith about seeing his deceased family in heaven. It’s a small moment, but it adds significant weight to the story and a nice contrast to David’s obsession with immortality through legacy.
Granted, David’s obsession is an aspect that may hinder some readers. Many of David’s problems are self-inflicted due his pride and, while that happens frequently in tragedies, he becomes a difficult character to support throughout the 500 pages because of it. Other characters may point out his pride, but since the story sticks to his point of view, we are stuck with it. His stubbornness can often come off as a convenient way to keep his life in the crapper, fueling the down-on-his-luck tone. With everyone else offering aid, and with so many alternatives, whether it’s his best friend’s attempts to promote his artwork to buyers and David refusing to follow his advice, or friends offering funds, or even Death flat out giving David spoilers to a better life, his stubbornness gets annoying to the point of making the reader want to give up on him and move on to a different protagonist—only they can’t. The romance sub plot does help David as a protagonist, but given the novel’s reluctance to deviate far from developing anyone else besides David, it is predictable and fairly cliché, which is disappointing given the uniqueness of the plot and interesting characters.
Nope, there aren’t any villains really in this one—no, not even Death.
As far as characters go, Sculptor has a pretty solid cast. As discussed previously, David can come across as pretentious and frustratingly independent; still, he is likeable enough, given his sense of humor and the way he plays off the supporting cast. His connection with best friends Ollie and Meg definitely give his life more weight and as he begins to realize the true cost of his premature demise, it is hard not to root and sympathize with him as he tries to make the most out of what he cannot change—ironic, given his magic-sculpting ability. However, what truly sets David apart from countless protagonists is his relationship with Death.
McCloud ingeniously avoids antagonizing Death: instead, he is portrayed as honest and empathetic, to the point where he checks in on David frequently throughout the story. Death continues to wear the guise of Uncle Harry, as he and David play chess in the park, go out to eat, take walks, or just talk. Honestly, the dynamic helps the novel keeps its tragic tone, as it shows demonstrates that Death isn’t out to get anyone unnecessarily or out of malicious glee.
Ollie and David share a fun dynamic and Ollie plays the supportive friend role well; unfortunately, he isn’t around all that much, but when he does show up, he usually makes it count. Ollie’s pragmatic and grounded approach looks behind-the-scenes of the art world and adds interesting insight into David, given that they are almost siblings. Beyond Ollie, David does befriend Meg’s friends, but unfortunately, they hardly get any “screen” time and when they do, it’s typically generic dialogue built mostly on stereotypes. The lack of attention is fair, given that we need to spend time with David and Meg, but still, it’s a shame nonetheless.
Which leads us to Meg. To his credit, by McCloud’s own admission, she’s basically the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, and as honest as he is about her falling under that trope, the story and romance are still hindered as a result. For those unfamiliar, essentially, this type of character is creative, quirky, attractive, and whimsy personified, written especially to balance out a straight-laced or angsty protagonist. If this were live action, she probably be played by Zooey Deschanel, if that helps. Unfortunately, there is not much more to Meg: her introduction is as an angel swooping in to comfort David (this turns out to be for a street play, but it still feels like an excuse to incorporate the analogy and an unsubtle one at that). Sure, about halfway through the novel McCloud reveals that Meg has depression, but this does not make David and Meg’s dynamic any more interesting. Does that mean the montage of her helping him get the most out of his last few days isn’t heartwarming? Hardly: it’ll still bring a smile to most readers’ faces at times.
Still, it is hard to really click with Meg when almost every quirky thing she does, or costume she puts on, is eye-roll inducing and cliché. Even with her depression or minor acting struggles, her character is almost built around David and she often comes across as perfect—heck, most of her friends say that everyone falls in love with her “after, like, ten minutes”. Heck, they fall in love with her to the point that she has slept with or dated most, if not all, of her friend group (a la How I Met Your Mother). As a result, the romance feels much less organic and far more by design: I know that McCloud based her heavily off his wife, and that is sweet, but as a result, the two characters feel far too polished for each other and David falls in love with her so quickly that it hurts the reader’s chances for investment. By the end, ends up being rather enjoyable, but for 400 pages, it’s a bit of struggle; however, the payoff is worth it.
There are a surprising variety of art styles in Sculpter as McCloud deftly switches from a slightly more cartoony style for far shots and a more realistic style for close ups or dramatic moments, and it all flows naturally. In particular, the way McCloud draws eyes: sometimes, they’re lines with circles for pupils, other times they’re slightly more anime-esque and others are extremely detailed and yet all of them work and the styles feel cohesive. Honestly, I’m reminded of a less chibi focused Bryan Lee O’Malley, which is hardly a bad thing, as that guy can also do incredible backgrounds to contrast with his cartoony characters. McCloud demonstrates a similar contrast here: New York looks fantastic and the statues are creative and fascinating to behold—the final one is especially worth the wait. McCloud is extremely minimalist with sound effects and not afraid to just let the artwork do all the talking. There are times when pages can go by without a word written on them, dialogue or sound effect, and McCloud has the skill to make them some of the most engaging parts of the novel.
Nor is McCloud afraid to play fast and loose with chronology: there are flash forwards, flashbacks, and a variety of panel layouts that readers may have to reread in order to make sure they understand the page in the right order. Heck, it’s even possible that the entire story is a flashback, given the prologue, but that’s an analysis for another day.
There is an interesting bluish tone to the coloring and even the inking—perhaps an intentional reference to artists using blue pencils when designing since blue does not show up on photocopies and therefore cleans up the inked look. McCloud actually utilizes this to great effect when he wants to simulate other people fading out of focus or the main characters’ attentions becoming more drawn inward or towards each other.
The hardcover artwork is nice, with the front being a dramatic close-up of David and the back a close-up of Meg. $30 may seem steep, but you are getting your money’s worth as far as packaging is concerned. Could there be some room for extras? Possibly, but much like a regular novel, including bonus sketches or additional author commentary might seem out of place, especially given that most readers will likely close the book and think for a bit after the story has ended. Does the ending become a bit over-dramatic? Yes, but it’s hardly enough to take away from the emotional core that McCloud has expertly absorbed us in.
Overall, with fantastic artwork and a strong thought-provoking story, McCloud’s The Sculptor is a fine successor to his theoretical work. Despite a weaker romance and reliance on character stereotypes, there are plenty of great moments and the payoff will resonate strongly with most readers leading to strong reread value. The hardcover is worth picking up, or at least renting.