February 12, 2015

Thursday Review: THE SCULPTOR by Scott McCloud

Summary: Yesterday, rather serendipitously, I had just finished reading the just-released graphic novel by Scott McCloud entitled The Sculptor and was reading some online news when I encountered this story about the collapse and rebuilding of a 60-foot ice sculpture alongside Lake Superior in Wisconsin. The artist, Roger Hanson, said, "I live with failure on a daily basis. It's just a matter of putting your jacket on, and going and fixing what you have to do, and get this thing back on track."

In McCloud's new graphic novel, sculptor David Smith has to live with failure on a daily basis. First of all, he has to be known as "the other David Smith" (because of this guy). Second of all, he's scraping out an NYC living as a starving artist but he feels like he can't interest anyone in his work. Depressed and morose, he is desperate not to be doomed to mediocrity. That's when Death comes along in the guise of David's dead Uncle Harry and offers him a deal: David will gain the power to sculpt anything he wants, or can imagine, with his bare hands, but with one teensy catch:

He'll only have 200 days to live. 200 days to make his mark on the world. 200 days to reinvent his life, mend his friendships, fall in love, and realize what he has to lose.

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Peaks: Though it's not specifically aimed at a teen audience, The Sculptor is a great crossover title for both adult and teen readers. With themes (described on the back of the book) including "a wish, a deal with death, the price of art, and the value of life," it's got broad appeal for those who like magical realism, or who like their midlife career crisis stories leavened with a healthy dose of divine intervention. No, this isn't "It's a Wonderful Life" for artists, but any creative person will recognize narrator David's internal struggles, wanting his life and work to be meaningful but unable to figure out how to get there.

Of course, there's an important subtext to this story, which is that sometimes you already have what you want and don't recognize or appreciate it. David carries guilt for not feeling like he appreciated his family until they were all dead and gone. Now he's seized with the idea that in order to make the rest of his life meaningful, he has to achieve certain specific milestones or he will be a failure. Then his new power to sculpt anything he wants—shaping marble with his bare hands, for example, or twisting iron girders into dazzling configurations—provides the possibility of another shot at his career. But having a meaningful life is more than just having this power or that ability, and when love enters David's life in the form of the dazzling but troubled aspiring actress Meg, his plans for the last 200 days are complicated in ways he hadn't ever pictured.

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Since this book was written by the guy who basically wrote the book on drawing comics (I mean Understanding Comics and its companion books, NOT Drawing the Marvel Way, of course), I was not surprised that it turned out to be not only well written but visually stunning. Drawn monochromatically in black and white with tones created using wash, McCloud uses the full range of graphic conventions when it comes to panel layout and visual expressiveness, with a result that is absorbing and even cinematic in style.

Valleys: I guess the only negative thing I can say is that David the narrator was sometimes annoyingly dense and clueless. Realistically so, but sometimes I just wanted to give him a smack and tell him to get his head out of his butt.

Conclusion: If you like the style of Adrian Tomine and other comic artists who have a knack for exploring the inner mind with subtlety and expressiveness, you'll want to read McCloud's latest foray into fiction. If you like graphic storytelling that weaves the realistic and the supernatural (like Neil Gaiman's Sandman), this is a good one. And of course if you've been influenced and educamacated as much as I have by McCloud's instructional books, you won't want to miss it. I may have made the story sound like it's all heavy seriousness, but I laughed out loud, too—there's plenty of humorous banter and comic misadventure to balance out the tragedy, and in the end, the story manages to be both sad and uplifting at the same time: no mean feat.

I received my copy of this book courtesy of First Second. You can find The Sculptor by Scott McCloud at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

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