My rating: 2 of 5 stars
I won’t go on at length about The Sculptor, which disappointed me.
As you’d expect from the formalist virtuoso who gave us Understanding Comics, its visual storytelling is impeccable, effortless to read but of course utterly sophisticated, 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. But the art style itself, while supremely competent, lacks the personal impress of those whose influences upon it make themselves felt: Kirby, Tezuka, Eisner.
As for the literary elements, they consist largely of stereotypes, cliches, and platitudes. 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 and ruin the whole sculpture). But his deal with death gives him the super-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—hell, I would consider that 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. McCloud’s bizarre and unironic resort to super-powers as a shortcut to artistic creation might be regarded (by, say, a critic more hostile than myself) as evidence that comics remain incorrigibly immature.
The Sculptor does have its 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. All in all, it might be nice to see what McCloud can do without relying on strained fantasy and fabulism.
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?
Well, I’m not sure in any metaphysical sense, but by immanent criteria of fictional narrative, criteria that forbid the straightforward use of stereotypes, cliches, 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.