It seems like the theme of trying to find the meaning of life is following me around these days. Perhaps my own interest in the search for the meaning of life has led me to the graphic novels and comic books I have been reading of late, or perhaps there is a general trend in graphic novels and comic books today in a topic that has been the focus of a variety of media for centuries. Regardless of the why, I would like to preface this review of Scott McCloud’s The Sculptor with the acknowledgement that, yet again, I have selected a novel which contains a main character searching for a meaning to his existence.
As an unsuccessful artist, irresponsible alcoholic, and overall misanthrope, David Smith has little to live for when his 26th birthday arrives. What joy he once had has all but vanished from his life. Every member of his loving family has passed away. His successful art career dissolved when he publicly insulted his benefactor. And after his fall from grace in the art world, he only has one friend left in New York City, and he does not commit much to maintaining even that relationship.
From the onset, David is not the most likable or sympathetic character, but buried under each insult toward other people’s art, each moment of neuroticism, and each moment of complete social clumsiness, we understand that David carries an enormous amount of pain with him and has not developed a method in which to express the pain. Naturally, as a sculptor, we would expect that the process of creation would enable David to channel and direct his pain away from himself. Unfortunately, this is not the case; his pain instead stunts his creative ability, leaving all of it bottled up inside and ready to erupt at the most unreasonable times.
David vowed to his late father that he would make a name for himself, but sculpting is his only means to make his mark on this world, and at this point, his sculpting will barely allow him to pay the bills let alone gain any acclaim. While wallowing in his despair at a diner he visited in New York with his family when he was ten, David receives a greeting and visit from his Uncle Harry. Surprised by the sudden appearance of his uncle whom he had not seen in years, David recounts his downward spiral from his initial success in the art world to his current state of desperation. Harry counsels and encourages David to continue on with his art but in a more realistic way: by settling down, moving to a less vital art scene, and working as a teacher in the daytime and as a sculptor in the night time, but David refuses this life Harry suggests, leading to the manifestation of Harry’s true identity as Death.
Upon hearing David’s refusal, Harry/Death begins to propose a deal for David to succeed in his art in the way he desires but at a cost. Despite the severe terms of the offer, David seizes the opportunity from Death to have the power to sculpt anything with his hands alone, allowing him to create the sculptures he wanted to create but could not due to budget and resource limitations, and in return, he agrees to sacrifice his life to Death within 200 days of gaining his new, supernatural sculpting abilities. He now has all of the tools he needs to flourish as an artist.
But, alas, having the ultimate set of skills to create does not necessarily lead to the most magnificent artwork, and David quickly learns that as he creates everything he sketched without any discerning self critique or self-reflection, leading to a collection of sculptures lacking a unified theme or concept. David’s realization of his concepts from the past reveal his need for a new source of inspiration, a new breath of life into his work, and upon the understanding of this need, Meg enters David’s life.
As his muse, Meg acts as the galvanizing force behind the revitalization of David’s artwork, but his artistic voice develops most when he begins to love her. Upon falling in love, David begins to live and become more aware of his surroundings as he meets Meg’s friends and sees and enjoys the world with her, and eventually, he decides on the audience for his art: Meg. With his audience decided, David sheds his concerns for what other people think and can alas create at his own artistic pinnacle.
When focusing on understanding what breathes vitality into an artist, The Sculptor succeeds. As members of the audience for any piece of art, we always wonder what process, thought, and experience exist behind an artist’s creation, and McCloud intelligently conveys why David was failing before he met Meg and why he succeeds after he meets her. McCloud clearly understands what would lead an artist to fall into a creative block and what it takes to break it.
Where The Sculptor fails is in its execution of its narrative arc and its character development, which is too consciously constructed to please a general audience.
Parallel to the story of the artist, The Sculptor also explores the meaning of existence. With the days counting down and his recurring interactions with Death, David gradually understands life can end at any moment, so a fulfilling life simply includes the opportunity to love and earn love from someone else. This is a bit of a saccharine meaning of existence, but it is not bothersome to me and is certainly not an uncommon or unpopular argument to the meaning of life in Western culture.
My major problems with The Sculptor come from how McCloud communicates this message. In building David and Meg’s relationship and David’s simultaneous self-realization to the meaning of his life, McCloud has an awkward lack of commitment to realism or to deliberate storytelling. There’s a dissonance between the effort McCloud puts into building the characters’ personas and the desire to convey the themes of the book, making the events used to convey the themes feel too contrived and the moments to build the characters feel too tangential.
Furthermore, McCloud includes narrative events and literary techniques that hearken more to pathos or a commitment to formalism than a desire to achieve successful storytelling. It is admirable that McCloud wanted to create a work containing many archetypes and motifs, but they do not quite combine and congeal into a fully successful novel. He puts in a great deal of effort to detail a deus et machina moment, a clear villain, many foreshadowing events, and Meg’s recurring severe depression, but none of these events or details emerge in a natural way in the course of the narrative, which makes me begin to suspect that many of them were included to try to pull in different types of people to the book. There’s something in The Sculptor for people who like realistic fiction, romance, drama, or fantasy, and there’s even something for the comic analysts, critics, and theorists. There are events and techniques to please all.
As a result of having something for everyone, The Sculptor contains a mixed set of successes and failures. It has a complete narrative skeleton, but the flesh to fill out this skeleton is just too unfocused, overworked, and contrived. There is no doubt that McCloud is an accomplished theorist and scholar on comics, but unfortunately, with The Sculptor, he focuses more on including all of the great ideas he had in his mind and had observed in his analysis of comics and less on pulling The Sculptor together into a complete novel. Oddly enough, The Sculptor suffers the same indecisive and tangential voice revealed when David Smith created only from his sketchbook. Like the David’s sketches, the sketches of The Sculptor contain strong ideas, but when realized into their final form, they lack a clear voice and a clearly selected audience, making them feel as if they were all created to please a general public and no one in particular, even McCloud himself.
The Sculptor by Scott McCloud is available via First Second Books.
On further thought and conversation about this critique of The Sculptor with Generoso, I realized where my general unease with the novel came from. After some distillation, I realized that The Sculptor is a supernatural, secular version of Craig Thompson’s highly acclaimed and celebrated Blankets. Blankets similarly focuses on how artist creation intertwines with love, but it also includes how faith interacts with both love and creation, leading to a more complex and nuanced understanding of existence, love, and inspiration.
In addition, Blankets triumphs through its commitment to realism. There is nothing in Blankets that feels like it was included in order to check off a box on a marketing demographics sheet. There is not a single heavy handed literary device in it. And most importantly, Craig Thompson had a clear audience in mind when he wrote Blankets: himself. It is more of a discourse on his understanding of his own growth as a man and an artist than a work to be heralded by people; the celebration of the novel comes from the success of its execution, not its desire to please. The Sculptor, on the other hand, aims to please more than to deliver a story to a specific person, making it almost critic-proof but much less exciting, engaging, and affecting. It is a watered down work created for general public consumption and adaptation, so it is no surprise that its rights have already been picked up for a movie adaptation.