Scheme Team Review: The Sculptor

Its been a while, huh? We haven’t had much time for posting lately. (Eric’s gainfully employed thankyouverymuch.) But we’d like to get back into it! So we are tackling The Sculptor by pioneering comics scholar Scott McCloud. Obligatory spoiler alert: we will spoil the plot of the book by revealing spoiled spoilers.

Andy: The Sculptor concerns David Smith, a failed artist (you guess the medium) struggling with his exile from the fine art world. He’s a borderline alcoholic, introverted sad-sack, who, in a fit of drunken despair, makes a deal with Death. It’s a deal that gives him a magical ability to manipulate any material into any shape, but he has only 200 days to use it before Death returns. However, David’s superior technical skills don’t translate into either improved business or artistic sense. And, naturally, David falls in love during his 200 days and comes to regret committing to the deal.

Its quite a good book overall. McCloud is both sincere and unironic, commentary that receives a typically meta response in the book. But he manages to stay firmly on the good side of cloying or cutesy. Premising the story on suicide keeps it from lapsing into a trite modern day fairy tale, and instead leans into Greek tragedy territory.

The book’s weakest element is the first chapter, in which exposition is awkwardly frontloaded and David’s tragic family history is self-pityingly relayed via montage. Once McCloud gets into the meat of the story the characters start to flesh themselves out through actions, rather than narration.


Eric: Like any human being worth a damn, I’ve got a copy of McCloud’s essential Understanding Comics on what passes for my bookshelf, so I knew going in to The Sculptor that he knows his way around visual storytelling. I was far less certain about his ability with words, and woof, that first chapter can sure make a man wonder. As you said, it’s a graceless introduction, a semi-competent introduction to a wholly unlikable character. Fortunately, things improve on both fronts after that, with David expressing something other than unwarranted self-pity and McCloud finding something better to do with the pages than linger on a single location while his characters say exactly what we’d expect them to say. That’s not to say, however, that The Sculptor ever goes anywhere surprising. Even though I made a point to walk into this book completely blind, I could already see how things would go by the time David left the diner. You’re absolutely right that The Sculptor would feel right at home on the Greek amphitheater  (I would know, I spent a few credits worth of college reading Aristophanes and Euripides because I’m classy as hell like that), but I found myself wishing on more than one occasion that McCloud had done a little bit more to obscure that fact. David could not be any more of a standard tragic hero and Meg’s the off-her-pills spunky muse by way of love interest so ubiquitous in pop culture that I have to wonder if McCloud was making some sort of commentary on the form by literally dropping her on David out of the sky like an angel.

And while the shape is familiar and the parts are visibly recycled, there’s sometimes something valuable to be found in The Sculptor, especially when David isn’t asked to deal with some new external problem and is instead given the opportunity to deeply dive into what he already has on his plate. After all, the premise of wanting to make the most out of whatever gifts you think you have is hugely understandable, especially for a young would-be creative type, so it’s refreshing when McCloud finally gives David the time to deal with that instead of minor threads that never really seem worth the effort (paging doctor Russian Landlord). It’s a satisfying entree in a story that spends too much time on appetizers, but it segues into the overcooked dessert that is The Sculptor‘s ending. It’s a shouty, unfocused mess that seems oddly out of place given that the major philosophical threads of the book seem to be satisfactorily resolved before the final chapter. And given that the book quite literally states how it will end within the first few pages, it’s also uninteresting and unnecessary, and offers no new insights into the characters or their struggles.

But enough about words, how about some art? McCoud does not disappoint in this department, using just about every technique in the book (especially if that book is Understanding Comics). In particular I was drawn to the gutters (or lack thereof). It’s dumbfounding how easy it was to follow the state of mind of characters simply by observing the size, shape, and flow of the panels. David’s aimlessness is perfectly conveyed by the borderless images of the New York cityscape as he mills about in self-loathing, and tight panels with relatively massive gutters immediately describe his moments of laser-focused panic. I also very much enjoyed the manipulation of texture and detail to modify the intensity and focus of a scene. In particular there’s a two-panel sequence which is essentially the same shot of David’s face, but so much is said just in the different level of detail between the two.

sculptor plunge

David’s not afraid to take the plunge.


Andy: You are absolutely right about all the characters, everyone is some kind of stereotype or trope. They are roving bands of art snobs who exist only to give voice to the various factions of art criticism. Meg is the dread manic pixie dream girl  Though I do think, as you suggest, that Meg is explicit commentary on the nature of the MPDG. Her mental illness is too poorly defined to count either as plot or character development, but it does shift some of her behavior from “charmingly quirky” into “alarmingly self destructive.” And Meg’s own tragic ending keeps this from descending into mindless Garden State feel-goodery.

But lingering on the plot and characters might not be the right way to think about this work. McCloud’s accomplishment, as usual, is to make the case for visual storytelling as a unique and important medium in its own right. He draws some panels as photographs with a hand writing in sharpie on them; something that would be distracting in film or animation and near impossible in writing. Here its applied with just the right subtlety to both convey the point and to simply be beautiful.

Likewise, there are a couple of genuinely jarring moments in the way that pages and panels transition, and there are some truly beautiful images that easily stand alone as excellent visual art, particularly towards the end of the book. There is one panel that consists entirely of a worn out stripe of paint in a parking lot, which is astonishingly emotionally charged. Interestingly, though, the most affecting images tend to be outside of the narrative thrust of the book; even McCloud struggles to balance the needs of clear storytelling with making novel or attractive art.

That’s the real point of the book, to confront the need to make art and the limitations of the artist. David, given infinite skill, is never quite able to produce great groundbreaking high art. He is able to make imaginative, and provocative pieces, but it never exceeds the pop art of someone like Jeff Koons, whom David derides early on. Meanwhile, McCloud is a brilliant composer, but he doesn’t have quite the technical skill of Dave Mazzucchelli. There is a sense of his struggle against that limitation throughout the story. By the end of the book many of the pages are much more technically accomplished than the first half. It really is something that requires you to know Scott McCloud, and to know his work as a comic scholar and as a comics futurist.

It’s a fault shared with Understanding Comics and the rest of his oeuvre: he’s preaching to the converted. Those earlier works are only successful if the reader already has some enthusiasm for the comics medium. Likewise, The Sculptor demands that the reader already have some knowledge of the medium and its nuances, and to know a little of Scott McCloud ahead of time. It’s a problem that I have seen in a lot of the press for this book; both mainstream and comic reviewers are tackling this piece on story alone without addressing its artistic merit. Of course, I have swung around to the opposite, asserting that the story is secondary to the work itself. Where on this spectrum are you, Eric? We’ve identified some genuine flaws, but also some stunning successes.


Eric: I completely agree that The Sculptor is an experience much enhanced by some familiarity with the medium (and specifically with Understanding Comics), which essentially serves as a travel guide pointing out all of the techniques  to watch for as you walk through McCloud’s world. There’s no doubt that McCloud gets comics as only a true master can; maybe David and McCloud are masters of their respective media, but at some point that mastery of the abstract has to be transformed into something real, be it stone or ink and paper, and both David and McCloud clearly struggle a bit with the process of transmuting their vision into something (pardon the pun) concrete. At least McCloud doesn’t seem to share David’s crippling chase for that perfect creation at the expense of mere goodness or greatness, because otherwise there wouldn’t be a book for us to read.

And that’s the thing, isn’t it? The Sculptor is flawed, but in a way that seems to mirror David’s heartfelt but frustratingly imperfect sculptures. It’s a (seemingly autobiographical) metanarrative that I think makes the rough edges a lot more palatable, and it’s why I think folks should give The Sculptor a read. It’s a shaky story, but  it’s told exceptionally well visually (as is expected with McCloud), and as a treatise about the artist’s struggle, it’s a damn near perfect instance of the medium matching the message, and that makes it utterly fascinating.


One response to “Scheme Team Review: The Sculptor”

  1. Andy says:

    One question i have, which is completely outside the artistic intentions of the book, is: what is david’s moral obligation to use his power? Given his power for 200 days, he could fix nearly all of Americas aging infrastructure, or build hospitals in impoverished areas, or rehabilitate burn victims. Any of these may leave as lasting a mark as art, yet its never even suggested that David might at least go repair the floor he busted.

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