Colorblind comics: Scott McCloud returns with ambitious graphic novel ‘The Sculptor’

The Sculptor
In The Sculptor, David makes a Faustian bargain at the expense of his lifespan.

Scott McCloud is best known for Understanding Comics, his 1993 examination of the comics medium that is, itself, presented in the form of a comic. It’s a seminal work, admired by general readers, critics, scholars and comics practitioners (Neil Gaiman, Matt Groening, Alan Moore, Art Spiegelman, Garry Trudeau, Will Eisner and Jim Lee are among those who have praised the book). Understanding Comics established McCloud’s credentials as a fellow who both understands how comics work as a storytelling medium and can explain them in an appealing fashion.

Scott McCloud, best known for Understanding Comics, tests his understanding of the form with a new, ambitious graphic novel.
Scott McCloud tests his understanding of the form with a new, ambitious graphic novel.

McCloud’s new graphic novel, The Sculptor, isn’t his first foray into fictional comics, granted. He was creating them well before the release of Understanding Comics, though The Sculptor is only his second standalone graphic novel. The first, 1998’s The New Adventures of Abraham Lincoln was not well received, according to McCloud. Thus, an important question raised by The Sculptor is how well does McCloud employ his copious knowledge of the inner working of comics to tell his own story?

The answer: quite well, indeed. The Sculptor is visually striking, which does much to ameliorate the fact that its narrative drags in spots. Given the urgency of the story—in which the protagonist is bedeviled by his need to create works of genius before his rapidly approaching death—the slow pace is a flaw, but not a fatal one.

In the early pages of The Sculptor, a young man named David makes a classic Faustian bargain with a supernatural being who has taken the form of his late Uncle Harry. David is granted the power to manipulate the physical world in fantastic ways, potentially allowing him to create astonishing works of art, but he will die in 200 days.

Of course, soon after he makes the deal, David has an unusual encounter with Meg, a complicated woman with whom he is immediately enraptured. Meg is devoted to making the world a better place and living fully in the moment, though she is plagued by devastating bouts of depression that will test her burgeoning relationship with David even as he watches his waning days slip away.

Meg, who humanizes David, is easily the most nuanced character in The Sculptor. One could argue that Meg, in her gentle but persistent reshaping of David’s worldview and priorities, is in fact the essential “sculptor” in the book.

McCloud’s art is detailed and rendered entirely in shades of slate blue, gray and black. His characters are sharply detailed and his settings fully realized. Employing various points of view and panel arrangements, he creates a textured, varied world and gives the story a cinematic feel. In the book’s more paranormal and philosophical moments, he masterfully uses negative space.

The kinetic nature of David’s artistic endeavors is also a highlight of the book. McCloud helps us experience the physicality of a sculpture’s work—particularly when that sculptor is working with only his mystically enhanced hands. While David’s finished pieces seem to lack a certain warmth, his striving is filled with heat.

The climactic scenes of The Sculptor are ambitious and unfold somewhat unevenly. McCloud has a philosophical point to make, and it means putting a lot of words on the page even as the action reaches its emotional peaks. But the ending also features a bravura stretch of wordless panels and pages that are some of the most powerful in the entire novel.

McCloud may hammer his message home just a bit too hard, and his story might unfold just a bit too slowly, but The Sculptor is nevertheless entertaining, thought-provoking and visually pleasing.

This article was originally published in Little Village issue 175

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