by Scott McCloud
I knew going in that The Sculptor, the new graphic novel by Scott McCloud, was going to be an impressive piece of work, but I was still surprised by the depth of emotion that McCloud imbued his story with.
David Smith is a young artist who has always dreamed of being a successful, famous sculptor. An early brush with art world fame fell apart because of the prickly nature of David's personality, and since then, his life has been very difficult. He can't get proper gallery representation, is about to lose his apartment, and is down to his last friend in New York. His family is all dead, and he has set himself a rigid set of rules to live by (no handouts or charity, ever, for example).
On his birthday, while quietly getting drunk by himself in a touristy diner, David is surprised to run into his great uncle Harry, who has been dead for many years. As it turns out, Harry is Death, in a rare human guise. He asks David what he'd be willing to trade for artistic success, and David quickly offers up his life. They enter into a Faustian bargain where David is given unparalleled artistic ability for two hundred days, at which point he is going to die. He readily agrees to this, because he is at a point where he values his artistic legacy more than his existence.
Of course, almost immediately, things begin to change for David. He has the ability to mold rock or steel with his bare hands, allowing him complete freedom in creating shapes and figures. That same day, though, he becomes the unwitting centre of a street theatre piece, and meets a girl who is going to change his life.
As the book progresses, a few things take place. First, we begin to suspect that David's artistic problems are more from a lack of having something to say with his art compared to ability; once he create anything he can imagine, he relies on creating representational pieces from his memory that only have meaning for him. When he holds a show in his apartment, it is likened to a Polynesian gift shop. Later, he is barred from returning to his apartment after his works crash through the floor, and homeless and in despair, he is taken in by the girl from the performance piece, Meg, who likes to make projects of helping people.
David pretty quickly falls for Meg, although it takes a lot longer for her to begin to reciprocate those feelings for him. As the book progresses, David becomes more and more aware of his deadline looming, as he searches for artistic and emotional fulfillment.
McCloud plays with a of stuff in this hefty graphic novel. The magical realism that allows the plot to take place doesn't feel very forced, although at the end I felt things became a little too comic-book. The base elements of this story - deals with the devil, finding love just before dying, the frustration of the creator who is unable to create - are not new, but McCloud mixes them very nicely.
His characters feel very real. David has always been a difficult person, especially after losing his parents and sister at a young age, and having to rely on himself in a very hostile world. His blind adherence to rules he's set out for himself, and his penchant for speaking plainly to people in positions of influence have put him where he is, and he does not have the tools to get himself out of his situation on his own. Meg is equally complex - endlessly generous, she suffers from depression and refuses to take medication for it.
McCloud literally wrote the book on graphic storytelling, so it's no surprise that this book is beautifully laid out and illustrated. He makes interesting use of panel borders, keeping a traditional page structure for most of the book, but bleeding to the edges of the page during scenes of great emotion or stress.
In all, this is a very powerful piece of work. McCloud really twists the knife towards the end, and while I don't love everything about the conclusion (which, again, gets a little too super-powers/comic bookish), I did feel a genuine ache for these characters upon closing the book. Read this.