Scott McCloud is best known for his comics about comics, books like Understanding Comics, Making Comics, and Reinventing Comics, which examine the elements and power of the sequential art form. But in The Sculptor, McCloud combines form with heart to tell a story about love, mortality, and art.
What would you give in exchange for the power to accomplish your greatest artistic dreams? David Smith is a sculptor who enjoyed some minor success years ago, but now finds himself broke, unpopular, and unable to create. His only friend is Ollie, a gallery manager he's known since childhood and the only person who still believes in David's talent. One night, when he's at his lowest, Death himself approaches David and offers him a deal: Death can give him the power to bring his sculptures (metaphorically) to life more easily and quickly than ever, but in exchange, David will only get 200 days to live.
The power is greater than David could have dreamed, giving him the ability to manipulate metal, glass, and even stone with just the touch of his hands. He uses this power not to fight crime, but to save his artistic life. He tries to use his remaining 200 days to achieve artistic immortality, but finds that, even with superpowers, success is not easy to come by. And just when David thinks he's hit his lowest point, life sneaks up on him.
If you're familiar with McCloud's work, you'll quickly recognize his obsession with panel sequences and page layout. But a few pages in, it becomes clear that The Sculptor is no academic exercise. This is a heartfelt work about a man with certain long-held beliefs—that art is objectively good or bad, that his life must revolve around sculpture, that he must hold true to the (often arbitrary) promises he's made to himself. But then he meets Meg, a young woman who is everything he's not: vivacious, reckless, trusting, the sort of person who pulls people into her orbit and never lets them go. She challenges David's beliefs in ways that change his outlook both on life and his work.
As we ride along with David and Meg, McCloud's careful layouts function as a gear shift, affecting the speed and depth with which we read. We tour through David's memory and his present. We see him in the heat of creation and at his valleys of defeat. The Sculptor is by turns fantastical and mundane, joyful and tragic. And by the end, it's clear that, in chronicling David's attempt to create his opus, McCloud has achieved his own.
We had the opportunity to speak to McCloud about the book and his process. There are some spoilers below, but knowing a few plot details is certainly no substitute for reading the actual book:
Was the main character always a sculptor?
Yes, he was always a sculptor, because, you know, that was the original idea. And it's funny because you don't really ever stop to question that initial idea. You know you question every other decision but that very first thing that you might have jotted down or thought of, that's usually the thing you take for granted. I compare it to "Stone Soup"—do you remember there's an old folk tale or fairy tale about stone soup. No one ever asks, "Well, how about if we didn't use this stone?"
Right. It's just so funny because you've written so much on visual medium but in two dimensions—well, two dimensions, I almost hesitate to say that, because it's two dimensions but two dimensions sort of flattened down across—
I've been working in Flatland at any rate. My own work has always been two-dimensional work. But I think that provides an interesting tension because you're trying to represent three-dimensional space in flatland. And that always—I think it's a little more dynamic. Also I think if I was doing it about a graphic artist or somebody who's working in a realm too much like mine it might start to get that echo effect—I think of that scene in Being John Malkovich when John Malkovich crawls into John Malkovich's own head and things just get weird from there. So, it seemed right, even though I didn't deliberately choose sculpture. It seemed to work well in retrospect.
Well and it's very interesting from the superpower perspective because I feel like sometimes the two-dimensional superpower—like when we think about artistic superpowers sometimes that can get overdone—There's the classic idea of the person who's drawing come to life.
Yeah, it's amazing how many of those stories there are, actually, if you start to catalogue them. Although I have to give props to Dylan Horrocks who did a terrific graphic novel coming out about the same time as mine called Sam Zabel and the Magic Pen, that's a fantastic story and he's not too far off from that.
Yeah, I'm really loving that book online right now, so much. But it's really interesting because I felt like there were so many times in this book where I felt like you just defy what my expectations are going to be about the story. Because I feel like when I sit down and it's like "Okay, he's going to get this superpower and he's got 200 days to live," there are so many—it's almost like a fairy tale that's been sort of told and retold, where you get the success and—
Right, the wild success, that comes early, right, and then things go sour, and then he has to face the fiery pit of hell—but there is no fiery pit in this story.
Right, right, and the success comes so late.
Yeah, to the point where the success itself doesn't matter anymore. It's of less importance to him.
It's just really interesting how you just—it's like you're setting us up for that, and then that moment doesn't happen, and it's so true, and wonderful, and crushing, and almost kind of a relief.
Sure. Well, you know my editor Mark Siegel and I talked about this relationship between surprise and inevitability. That sense that once something has happened in the story—hopefully you weren't expecting it to happen—but once it's happened, it feels as if it was the only thing that could have happened, you know, it's the only thing that really makes sense in terms of the story. Because it's only with each new development that you realize in stages what the story is really about, and you understand that nothing—that there was no other path, you were really only on one path. It just felt like many paths.
How autobiographical does this feel?
I didn't think of it as autobiographical at all when I started—I thought, I knew that there was a lot of my wife in the character of Meg, but there were other things that I think crept in that were more referencing our relationship, my wife and I. There's definitely some of me in David, but I think that's just because if I sat down to write any kind of artist I was going to draw from my own life. But in the end, maybe, I've been saying about thirty, forty percent of David is me, but seventy percent of Meg is my wife.
It's really funny because in a way the power that you give him sort of has the immediacy of cartooning.
Sure, yeah, absolutely
Where he's not spending all of the time fighting with the material—it's just about what his hands are capable of molding. And it's really interesting because this is obviously just a beautiful opus, but at the same time you have this character who's trying to create this beautiful opus, but the places where he finds the greatest, almost success, but on a small scale, is in things like those little sculptures he makes of Meg, that he does on the mantelpiece at Hanukkah.
Things that have a personal meaning, that he wouldn't even consider to be, almost not art at all, just gifts, tchotchkes, you know, fun little things. And in some way they're the more comfortable, because he rises to expectations instead of disappointing people.
Do you ever do that, though? Just make little things, little comics just for…
You know, I don't, because I'm so incredibly slow that I never set aside time to just draw for drawing's sake, because my minutes are just forever sliding away into oblivion. It's hard for me to do what some artists do and you know, just sketch, draw, have fun. I look at some of the best artists in comics today and they draw constantly, they're always drawing, they have sketch books, they have online contests—"Today, let's draw Batgirl" You know, I think of Emily Carroll and Vera Brosgol, trading these dress drawings that they did. I think they would find old vintage dress designs and then they would draw a woman in the dress, or something like that. They must have spent hours and hours on that. I couldn't do it. I need every hour I can get, I'm so slow.
I feel like people must tell you this all the time—because you've written so much about the structure of comics and the meaning of how you form your panels and how you place them—that when I started reading this, I started being hyper-aware of things like when you start the panel off-page.
Sure, yeah. In fact, actually I should say right now that, I don't know if you saw it but somebody took photographs of the side of the book and did an analysis of the story structure just from that. ....It also shows you that it's on a grid.
Yes, you can actually see the dark and the light. It's really funny because I didn't process that. I look at the book and I can recognize it from the side now, but I hadn't processed that that actually said something about the narrative structure of the book.
That's the book's fingerprint—that's its tree rings, you know, is what it looks like from the side.
I found that as I would read it, I would get so caught up in how you paced it. Like I would just—I would forget, and then I would go back and be like, "Holy crap, I read those thirty pages way faster than I read like the thirty pages that came before." And I'd go back and look very carefully at the structure. How much of that is intuitive at this point and how much of it is really carefully plotted out?
Well, a lot was intuitive at the beginning, and I tried to draw it in the initial draft, the first draft, the first rough draft of the book, I tried to do in a more automatic, intuitive way, because I didn't want it to be too labored and calculated. I had a story that I liked and I just used what seemed to be the most direct tools to get across that story, and kind of conjure life on the page. But then it came time to edit and to revise and I did four different revisions of the layout of that rough. So it took me a year to do it once and then it took me another year to do it three more times. Five hundred pages, just doing them all over, ripping it up, restructuring. And that was a more deliberate process, but the goal was to hopefully bury all those techniques and to, I don't know, to create the illusion of life in such a way that people weren't even necessarily aware of them. Unless they were reading it for an article or getting ready to interview me obviously and then they have to be a little bit more aware. [laughs]
So are these, are the pages then, I mean are these individual pages that you have drawn as individual pages?
They're in Photoshop. They only ever exist in digital, even the roughs. There's no original art. This was all drawn on a Cintiq tablet in Photoshop, with illustrator for the lettering, but it's all hand drawn. So in other words there are no rigid control points or Bezier curves, there's no—
Yeah, there's no vectors. It's just plain old, clumsy, hand held pen drawings, but those brushes are virtual brushes, they exist entirely within Photoshop.
And again, it's really interesting, given that you're writing about a very, you know, texture filled medium.
It's just all pixels. But for me, it was important, because I'm not as natural a draftsman as some people, and so I can't rely on my every line on the paper to land just right. It rarely does—my first drawings are usually a bit off, a bit wrong. And so I can correct them in multiple layers in Photoshop, and it tends to work a lot better that way.
This book really did have me thinking about so many things about the difference between comics and a medium like sculpture. There are so few gatekeepers, now, in comics, and it's very strange to be thinking about this art world—
Well, it's physical art. The reason there are so few gatekeepers is because we're looking at a world that's more closely tied—for our art form, more closely tied to the web. Whereas when it's an actual physical object that is subject to a particular place and time and culture it's more likely that there are still some gatekeepers there.
You have the themes of mortality in this sort of, when he's in a very permanent kind of medium, working in metal, and stone.
These things that supposedly last.
Right. I mean, do you think about that? The impermanence of paper and of digital work?
Well, my wife is in theater, and that's even more ephemeral than anything I can do. Yeah, paper decays, files get lost. I suppose we move onto different file formats and what not. But in a lot of ways, working digitally, it feels more likely to hang on a bit longer. But there was a symbolism to stone in particular, even though very few, I think, modern sculptors would ever dream of working in stone. I think it's more associated with garden gnomes, and pottery, and tombstones. It's not what we think of when we think of modern sculpture. So he's a bit of a ridiculous relic, in that way.
But it fits for me, because of that idea, as he expresses it, that idea of wanting an anchor in the world—something heavy, something permanent, something that he can hold onto as the whole world tips, like the deck of the Titanic. The whole world is just tilting for him, and he wants something he can hold onto so he doesn't slide off into oblivion.
It's interesting because he really does believe that art is a thing that one can objectively evaluate.
Yes, there has to be a difference, because the universe is too terrifying otherwise. Because if it really is just what people say, then even if people embrace what he does it's just as meaningless. He has to believe there's an actual, objective, absolute difference between Picasso and Thomas Kinkade, right. He has to believe there's a difference. And deep down, I think a lot of us do believe that. I believe that on some level, but as soon as I articulate it, it vanishes. I can't really look at the distinction—it's like looking at the Pleiades, that little cluster of stars that you can never look directly at because they're just a little too dim.
You know, I can barely accept that there really truly is no difference, in the grand scheme of things. But I do, ultimately, I do believe that we live in a random, uncaring universe—you know, as Ollie puts —and so in a lot of ways this is a story of an artist who's gradually losing that last shred of faith. He has no religious belief, but he still has an almost quasi-religious conviction in those absolutes. And so we're seeing him lose his religion by degrees, and that's almost completely gone by the end, when the color of the story changes a bit.
And it's interesting because he does have this faith, but he's also one of these people who works and works and works and never really lives.
Yeah, or only really does towards the end.
Right, that's what I mean, is that he has this unshakeable faith but for him there's nothing but art, and his own bizarre internal chivalry about his own—
Yeah, his promises, his promises to himself, yeah. A kind of noble morality but also really, really annoying to be around. Like being married to a fruitarian or something, you'd kind of have to reorganize your life around him.
Sorry to any fruitarians out there.... So, noble, I think we can all agree that's noble, but if you're in a relationship with that person, it can get a little bit difficult to pick a restaurant Friday night, is what I'm saying.
But again, you do sort of the thing where you defy expectations. And I know everybody hates talking about the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope—
No, sure, but I knew it was going to come up.
Right, right, right. But then, just as it seems that's happening, you completely turn the entire story around, and it actually becomes a relationship that these two people are having.
Yeah, well it's mostly a real relationship because it's based on a real relationship. And the reason that Meg inevitably was going to recall that particular trope is because that's kind of who I married. My wife is a lot like those characters out of literature—hopefully without the annoying bits—and she even had a fondness for some of those characters in certain movies and TV shows and what not. So I couldn't get away from—I had a rendezvous with a buzzsaw, I mean, there was no way that I could completely steer clear of that.
I just had to be aware of some of the negative ways in which that character out of our, I don't know, out of our collective cultural unconscious, had been used. But I don't believe that there is only one proper place on that great continuum of archetypes, you know, all the way from Alice Munro on the one side to Little Red Riding Hood on the other. I don't see that it has to just be an either/or proposition. And I think characters sometimes can embody characteristics that seem as if they've stepped out from a company of players that maybe we have seen before. Provided that you understand where those characters come from and you're willing to make sure that they take real, genuine life.
And in the case of Meg, so much of my wife is in there, so many of the things that you could see as being a reference or some variation of that trope were just things that came directly from our life. So it was just kind of unavoidable.
But I also think it's important to understand, where does this character come from, and to take note of the places where this character is actually enlivened and been used well. We can make fun of—what are the ones that really get—Garden State or Elizabethtown, or something, but do we really want to throw out Amelie and Bringing up Baby and Harold and Maude along with them? Because these are characters that also embody some of that same spirit. And these are characters that, in fact, my wife really likes.
And I think—the one thing that worries me about the conversation too is this idea that we need to exterminate her. I think it's interesting that there's no talk of exterminating archetypes that show up in traditionally male dominated genres. There's no talk of exterminating the stoic hero, or the wise-cracking sidekick; those get a pass. But you stumble on an archetype that shows up often in romantic comedies, and that one, everyone is talking about stabbing her to death. And I'm not ready to do that, I'm sorry. I married her. I don't know what else to do.
Thanks to Diana Biller for her help!