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Review time! with The Sculptor

by  in Comic News Comment
Review time! with <i>The Sculptor</i>

“You who I directed with lovers will, you who I let hypnotize the lens, you who I let bathe in the spotlight’s glare”

In my effort to get caught up on longer-form comics, I bring you … a review! Of a comic that’s been out for months! Boy, that’s exciting, isn’t it? The Sculptor is Scott McCloud‘s long-awaited new book, which was published by First Second and costs $29.99. It is a whopping 500 pages, though, so you get your money’s worth!

There’s a lot stuffed into The Sculptor, and very little of it works as well as McCloud wants it to. It’s a fairly effective story just because McCloud is a good storyteller, and his art is very good, but the cracks in his narrative are too obvious and his attempts at profundity too strained.

In no particular order, McCloud wants to deal with the impact of art on the world, man’s attempts to immortalize himself, the struggle between making art and having a “normal” life, the commercialization of art, the objectification of people for a greater cause, the desire to live life to the fullest without knowing exactly what that means, mental illnesses and how they change people, and what people will do for love. I mean, yeah, that’s a lot to process, and McCloud doesn’t give himself enough room for it all. Even at 500 pages, it feels like he takes easy routes to certain places so that he can make sure to cover it. It’s tough, because on the one hand, kudos to McCloud for tackling all of this. On the other hand, if you’re going to tackle it, you should be reasonably certain you’re going to be able to pull it off. McCloud comes close, but he doesn’t quite do it.

The plot is simple to summarize: a young sculptor named David Smith (yes, his name is important) is at the end of his rope – his work doesn’t sell anymore, and he’s uninspired. While contemplating how shitty his life is, he accidentally meets his great-uncle Harry, to whom he pours his heart out before remembering that Gruncle Harry is, indeed, already dead. Yep, Death has come to visit him (they even play chess a few times!), and he offers David a deal – he will give him the power to sculpt amazing things, but he has only 200 days left to live. David takes the deal, discovers that the “power” means he can sculpt any material whatsoever with his bare hands, and begins to work again.

Of course, he meets a girl and falls in love, which makes things a bit more difficult (he’s not allowed to tell anyone what’s going on, or he “loses” three days). So the book is about what David does with his 200 days (197, as he does tell Meg what’s going on at one point), of course. McCloud packs a lot of stuff into those days, which is fine, but again, it doesn’t work as well as he wants it to. It’s hard for me to write about the good stuff in this comic, because the bad stuff is wrapped up so intimately with that good stuff. For every nice moment, there’s a clanky one. For every beautiful interaction, there’s a clichéd one. For every interesting character, there’s a dull one. What remains consistently good is McCloud’s art. He’s a good artist, and he does nice work with all the people in this book. David is haunted even before he meets Death, and only more so afterward, and his impotence is always simmering just under the surface. He’s not good with people and he’s not even very good with emotions, and McCloud shows this struggle within him in almost every panel. When he realizes what his power is, McCloud draws violent panels as he reshapes the world, and it’s interesting that as he evolves as an artist, McCloud’s art showing him work becomes a bit more tender and restrained. Meg is another well drawn character, as she’s pretty without being beautiful, the kind of woman that is approachable but is still out of David’s league to a certain degree. The way McCloud draws their interactions is really nice, as we can feel the depth of their love without them saying it all the time. There’s a lot of joy in their romance, especially when they have sex (for the most part – there are a few panels where McCloud shows that David is becoming desperate even in their lovemaking), and it’s very nice to see. David’s sculptures are wonderful, the kinds of things that we can believe elicit the reactions they do from the people they do. McCloud pays good attention to the details of New York, too, so the comic feels like it takes place in an actual space, especially when David goes out into the street and starts working his magic on everyday materials and objects.

McCloud blends the mundane with the fantastic so well, and it makes David’s abilities easier to accept. He changes reality just enough so that it looks possible, and he even draws a sequence where David explains how he created one of his street sculptures. The art is terrific, and it goes a long way to making this book so readable.

The problem isn’t even with the main plot that much. McCloud makes it clear from the beginning that David will not be able to bargain his way out of his deal, so we’re pretty sure he’s going to die when Death says he is. Everything informs this moment, and it gives some nice desperation to David’s life. This is of course part of the point – McCloud is making the point that we should all live desperately, because we never know when it might end, a point that would have been subtle had he not hammered it home a bit too much at the end. David wasn’t living desperately, and it’s only when he knows his expiration date that he realizes he’s been wasting his talent. This is a common theme in literature, especially literature that deals with “artistic” types, but there’s nothing really wrong with it. However, as we move through the comic, McCloud missteps so often in little ways that the cumulative effect is annoying. David is unsympathetic, which is perfectly fine, but the tone feels like McCloud wants us to sympathize with him, and he fails. David is obnoxious, anti-social, condescending, oblivious, and stubborn, and even the small bit of growth he experiences in the comic feels forced. McCloud has killed off his entire family by the beginning of this book, and the few pages where we flash back to how he lost his parents and his sister are supposed to make us realize the trials he’s been through but almost come off as a black joke, as if it’s just fun to pile more despair on this guy.

Every little plot point and even character quirk that McCloud gives him feels unreal. We’re supposed to think he had loving parents, and he did, but at one point, his father tells him something that shows how manipulative and cruel he really is, even though on the surface it seems fairly benign. David makes dumb promises and sticks to them no matter what, which is supposed to be noble but comes off as childish, especially when he starts listing what the promises are. We can see what McCloud’s point is – that he’s uncompromising and willing to stick by his principles – but it’s done in such a ham-fisted way that it feels foolish on David’s part. When Death points out that he could easily give up art and live happily, David of course rejects that course of action (because he’s an artist in his SOUL!!!!), but we never get a good sense of why art means so much to him. It’s just something he does. In fact, given what his father told him, we can infer that art is something he does for only negative reasons, which is pathetic. Maybe that’s the point, but David never moves past that. Even as he transitions to a more positive reason for doing art, it’s still a selfish reason – he does it for fame. McCloud wants us to think that he evolves past that as he comes closer to death, but it certainly doesn’t feel like he does. Even his masterpiece, which is ostensibly about something else, is about him. David remains spoiled throughout this comic, even as his slowly loses his petulance. McCloud may be pointing out that people don’t really change, but this comic doesn’t seem that subtle. Maybe I’m wrong, though, and he really is saying that.

Meg is another problematic character. She is almost a perfect example of a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, and it colors the entire comic.

She’s manic (she’s literally bi-polar), she’s a pixie (as I noted above, she’s cute but not spectacularly beautiful, small, and quirky), she’s a dream (she’s an actor, so she understands artistic temperaments; she barely asks anything of David, so he can all artistic without worrying about her; everyone falls in love with her yet no one ever gets mad at her even after they break up; she’s had just enough lesbian experience that it’s hawt but not enough to threaten David’s wimpy masculinity), and she’s a girl (she’s female). She meets David when she takes part in a guerrilla theater operation with him as the focus, as a group of people surround him and stare at him, freaking him out, until Meg wafts down dressed as an angel and tells him everything will be all right. Everyone tells him that he’ll fall in love with Meg because everyone falls in love with Meg, but there’s really no reason for everyone to fall in love with Meg except for the fact that she’s the only straight woman any of them seem to know. Meg’s illness comes up and is dealt with almost completely by how it affects David, and then dismissed. She even initiates him into sex, because of course he’s a virgin. Even toward the end, where David focuses more on her, it’s because she is acting as his muse, and while she mildly protests against being seen that way, it’s never that serious. McCloud feints toward making the story more balanced every once in a while, but Meg is just there to reflect David’s glory and insecurities, and it’s too bad. The love story between is beautifully drawn, as I noted above, but emotionally, it lacks some punch because it never feels quite equal. David is worrying about himself, and so is Meg. The one person who expresses any fear about Meg’s state of mind comes off as shrill and obnoxious. Everyone else seems to think her mood swings are something to be weathered, because when Meg is on the upswing, she’s so delightful, so her down periods are just the price she has to pay to make sure everyone else can enjoy her quirky moods.

Meg represents what David should aspire to – she does live life desperately, and so she is more alive than David is, but McCloud doesn’t examine the downside of that as much as he might, because it’s too important for David to learn a lesson than deal with Meg’s problems.

But that’s the problem with The Sculptor and why it feels like it could be greater than it is. Everything feels superficial, from David’s struggles to find objectivity in art criticism (a fool’s errand) to his attempts to be a better man (which he does become, but again, only superficially). His burning desire to make a name for himself (which is where his own name is important, as it’s so common) overrides even his desire to be a better person, and this shallowness keeps David a dull character. The obviousness of the story is only given slight depth by McCloud’s artwork, and it’s too bad, because most of the book is beautiful to look at. There are moments of real power in the book. When David shows his best friend his first handmade creations, we get a sense of their shared history and what it means to both of them, and it’s a very good sequence. When David is getting more desperate as his life winds down, there’s an almost terrifying three-page sequence where McCloud uses small panels to speed up the narrative and show how both David and Meg are embarking on a destructive path, and no one can stop them. It’s painful but thrilling to read at the same time, even as it suffers from the same problems the rest of the book does (David doesn’t want to help Meg because she makes him feel better – he doesn’t really care how she’s feeling). So there are wonderful moments (I mean, the book is 500 pages long, and McCloud is a good creator, after all), but overall, the comic just feels a bit too by-the-numbers.

I don’t really regret getting The Sculptor, because it’s not exactly a bad comic. It’s obvious that McCloud aimed for greatness, and the fact that he fell short is too bad, but not the worst thing in the world. It’s a solid read, with very nice art, and it at least is willing to tackle some big issues. McCloud fails to probe them with the skill he needs, but it’s interesting to see him try.

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

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