Review: The Sculptor by Scott McCloud

The-Sculptor-Cover-by-Scott-McCloud

★★★★☆

Publisher: First Second Books

Buy: Foyles

Comics stalwart Scott McCloud has previously imparted his knowledge of the medium in Understanding Comics, and inspired with projects such as 24 Hour Comics. He is also a practitioner in his own right, having created, among others, the 1980s comic series Zot! – a manga-inspired, retro-futuristic alternative to the many violent comics around at the time.

McCloud’s latest offering is a magic realist, existentialist love story. Five years in the making, it’s published by First Second, who continue to release exciting graphic novels alongside their usual high quality YA literature and children’s books.

The protagonist is David Smith (a deliberately common name which ties in with a plot point). Smith is a sculptor living in New York and struggling with grief over the death of his family, abandonment by his artistic patron and financial problems.

He is greeted by Death, in the form of his deceased uncle, who makes him an offer – he will have only 200 days to live, but will be able to sculpt anything he wishes during that time. Human laws of material pliability and gravity will no longer apply. A tempting offer for a man who’s at his wits’ end, and he takes it.

On his way home from making the deal, things start to get complicated. An ‘angel’ appears, kissing him as the crowd parts. A flock of doves appears and she is gone.

The book is more magic realism than full-on fantasy escapism. Smith does not fight crime or change the world irrevocably, and the angel scene turns out to have been a publicity stunt. She is in fact an actor named Meg, who has plenty of her own issues but who David falls for regardless of her non-angelic status.

What follows is a tale of love, art and ambition with all their complications.

Commerce in the art world is an issue David has long struggled with. He is so keen to please the critics, but even with his new-found skill it isn’t always easy. At first he vents, creating bizarre and often tasteless autobiographical sculptures. Over the 200 days he begins to discover just what is possible with such a super-human ability.

Smith is self-absorbed and not particularly likeable, so it’s testament to McCloud’s storytelling ability that the reader cares what happens to him. It’s an emotional journey during which Smith begins to elicit more empathy as his character develops.

While tied by certain aspects of the genre, The Sculptor avoids many of the clichés that could have appeared in such a story. The artwork is clean and evocative, in McCloud’s signature style, with a palette of blues and blacks.

In crowd scenes and those featuring passers-by, McCloud makes use of semi-speech bubbles, cut off at the edge of the frame so it’s never revealed exactly what they’re saying (much like in real life). In contrast, David and Meg’s doomed story is thrown into sharp relief.

The city is brought to life as it begins to take on a starring role, and some of the most compelling images feature buildings and sidewalks tied in with the ever-present calendar counting down the days to Smith’s suddenly unwanted demise.

An inventive graphic novel with impressive visuals, proving once again that McCloud is not just a theorist but an excellent cartoonist and storyteller.

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