“What would you give for your art . . . ?”
“I’d give my life.”
This pronouncement sets the stage for the story of David Smith, the titular character of The Sculptor by Scott McCloud. A struggling artist, passionate about not compromising his artistic ideals, and adamantly committed to keeping the promises he has made to himself and others, we join David’s story as he has a classic crossroads encounter with Death. David is given the ability to manipulate matter with his bare hands, letting him sculpt whatever he imagines. The price? He only has 200 more days to live.
While a familiar “sell-your-soul-to-devil” story in many ways, Scott McCloud presents a nicely contained, imaginative take on the classic concept. Death comes to David in the form a trusted relative (who looks very much like Stan Lee). Death interacts with David frequently throughout the course of the story and has an active interest in how he is progressing in his attempts at artistic notoriety.David experiences many of the typical pitfalls . . . regret over his choice, reluctance to die, and the discovery that his new-found ability doesn’t let him achieve his goals as easily as he thought it would.
This supernatural ability reminded me of a number of classic comic book characters; however, this isn’t a story about the supernatural. It’s a story about a real people with familiar desires, struggles, and relationships. In that regard, McCloud keeps the supernatural elements of the story well grounded in realism. The superpower is there as a tool, and, refreshingly, is never the main focus of the story.
David’s eventual regret over the deal he has made is largely due to his having fallen in love with the intriguing, young Meg. A struggling artist herself, Meg brings a full complement of her own issues to the story. Their relationship is poignant and sweet while at the same time utterly realistic and flawed. McCloud creates a fascinating interplay between the development of this romantic relationship and the struggles David faces in his creative life, depicted by drastic swings between manic creativity and paralyzing depression.
In the end, David has to resolve the unselfish demands of a loving relationship with the selfish nature of pursuing individual fulfillment. There are no easy answers to this conflict, and McCloud remains steadfastly committed to the rules of the game that he has laid out. The resulting climactic events are shockingly sudden and catastrophic. The effect for the reader is a wonderfully meaningful mix of satisfaction, regret, and personal reflection.
I found McCloud’s artistic choices and depiction of setting to be as an important to my experience as the actual story. His choice of a “duotone treatment” gives the visuals a deceptively clean and simple feel. McCloud uses the setting, New York City, as a constant foil to David’s self-focused isolation by frequently expanding our view with full city-scape panels and complicated scenes with large crowds of people . . . reminding us that his characters are, after all, minor parts of a much bigger world. He then zooms us back into the center of the story through a masterful use of focused depth of field and shading.
Intuitively smooth panel transitions, witty dialogue, a sense of ever mounting tension . . . this is a pristinely told story, with a carefully constructed balance between the emotional narrative and the visual impact of the artwork. All of these elements work together to keep the reader moving smoothly through the narrative. I purposefully paced my reading of The Sculptor over several days, frequently going back over whole sections and re-reading. I sensed early on that this was a story I could easily devour in one sitting, and I wanted to savor every panel, catch every detail.
The Sculptor is a meticulously crafted tribute to all-consuming artistic and personal passion, governed by uncompromising standards, with all of the questioning doubt and self-loathing that comes with it. I know that I will be revisiting its themes for a long time to come and finding something wonderful and new every time I that I do.