Scott McCloud, The Sculptor

The SculptorThe Sculptor by Scott McCloud

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

As you’d expect from the formalist virtuoso who gave us Understanding Comics, the visual storytelling of Scott McCloud’s new graphic novel is impeccable. The Sculptor is effortless to read but utterly sophisticated. It is fast-paced but modulated by those lyrical moments that McCloud’s 1993 treatise taught us American comics readers to appreciate: the mood-setting open panels, the aspect-to-aspect transitions, that McCloud learned from manga. But the art style itself, while supremely competent, lacks the personal impress of those who clearly influenced it: Kirby, Tezuka, Eisner.

As for the book’s literary elements, they unfortunately consist of stereotypes, clichés, and platitudes. The plot: a melancholy and cruelly unrecognized artist and his damaged but vital bohemian paramour must learn to make every second count, especially since the hero has cut a severely life-limiting deal with death to become an artistic success. I could imagine such a twice-told tale being told once again with dignity if the characters were treated like the archetypes they so plainly are. In comics, wordlessness would be an advantage, as in Lynd Ward’s Gods’ Man, a woodcut novel with similar themes. More recently, Marian Churchland’s Beast told a similar story, but much more subtly and at much shorter length, with a delicately evanescent atmosphere and exquisite drawing. But McCloud’s Sculptor is set in a New York full of quirky characters spouting sitcom dialogue at maximum volume.

One element of the story is especially symptomatic of The Sculptor‘s overall literary failure. The titular hero prefers to sculpt in granite, a time-consuming and perilous activity, perilous in that it is easy to make a mistake that ruins the whole sculpture. His deal with death moreover gives him the power to control matter, so that he can mold the granite to his will as if it were putty. Now it’s one thing to bargain with supernatural forces to become recognized for your art—I would consider this myself! But to have the nature of your art changed so that it becomes effortless to execute really is cheating. It suggests that, for our hero, art was never really about the experience of making it but only the having made it—or only the reaping of the reward. McCloud’s bizarre and unironic resort to superpowers as a shortcut to artistic creation might be regarded—by, say, a critic more hostile than myself—as evidence that American comics remain incorrigibly immature.

The Sculptor does have admirable and pleasurable moments. I appreciated the art-world satire and the debates about art; elements of the central love story were certainly touching, despite the somewhat stereotyped character of the heroine. But McCloud could have accomplished even more without relying on strained fantasy and fabulism.

In conclusion, I was recently reminded of John Updike‘s fifth rule for reviewing (I have mostly not adhered to the other rules in this review):

If the book is judged deficient, cite a successful example along the same lines, from the author’s ouevre or elsewhere. Try to understand the failure. Sure it’s his and not yours?

I’m not sure in any metaphysical sense, but by immanent criteria of fictional narrative, criteria that forbid the straightforward use of stereotypes, clichés, and platitudes, The Sculptor does fail. Aside from those referenced above, a successful graphic novel that addresses The Sculptor‘s themes—and even makes similar use of magical realism and the conventions of the love story, though to much more original effect—is Dave McKean’s Cages, which I’ve reviewed here.