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Sometimes known as the Marshall McLuhan of sequential art, Scott McCloud made his name publishing non-fiction work on the semiotics, history, and craft of comics.  Now, after spending so long away from fiction, he’s made his return with The Sculptor.  Also, if you want the tone of this graphic novel to remain a mystery on your first read, skip over this review.

Plot Summary

A struggling sculptor named David Smith seeks to chip away at the obscurity stamped upon him by both the plainness of his name and the expansiveness of the world around him. While spending his last stash of cash at a diner, he speaks with Death, who has taken on the guise of one of his deceased Uncles. The story behind Death’s appearance is complex, but it also gets into spoiler territory. Death offers David the ability to sculpt whatever material he wants with his bare hands for 200 days in exchange for David’s life. David accepts the offer after a brief trial period, and tries to put his life back together with his newfound abilities. But art appreciation isn’t a one-way street, and David ends up on the street only a few days after starting his death contract. An aspiring actress named Meg, who provides him with shelter, saves his life, for the moment. Meg becomes the love of what remains of David’s life. What David must do with the rest of his numbered days becomes a far murkier and challenging decision once other people’s lives are thrown into the equation.

Visuals

While the originality of the character designs leaves a lot to be desired, the backgrounds, scenery, sculptures, and other visual imagery are handled with a wild and loose creativity. Many concepts and memories that are talked about in conversations or in first person monologue are represented visually later on in the novel. This mostly has to do with David’s preferred subject matter directly after he receives Death’s miracle sculpting gift, which is sculpting little moments from his formative years. As he grows during the last days of his life, the new values he develops take the form of both sculptures and what may very well be visual hallucinations. Given the nature of David’s power, the distinction isn’t clear.

Themes

The fragility of human life is the core driving force behind this story’s narrative, and Scott McCloud seeks to hit readers in soft gooey parts of their heart rather than his usual target, the brain. McCloud brings the pathos so hard with the novel that it makes one of the more unbearable character tropes of modern fiction, The Manic Pixie Dream Girl, compelling again, chiefly because this particular bipolar Pixie comes with the depressive side as well.

The insecurity that leads David into his Faustian deal is his need for external validation. He sacrifices his future in order to gain the fame and appreciation he’s only had a small taste of. In his mind, the enjoyment of the craft of sculpting became secondary to the enjoyment of having other people see and approve of his artwork. The fact that his new power eliminates the need for his craft is emblematic of this. Using his new powers, he’s able to finally express small things about himself that he was never able to before, but he makes the mistake of displaying all of this at once, rather than presenting his best work to a receptive public, and letting other work speak for itself.

David never fully gets over his need for external validation, as I would think that that is an insurmountable goal, but he does find peace by unconditionally loving someone else, and by learning to master and enjoy his new abilities to try sculpting his new ideas, rather than just using it as a means to an end to accomplish pieces he’s had in his brain for years. David’s self worth is still tied to his love and to his work, and when these things come under threat, it all comes crashing down.

Overall

I must say that I wasn’t expecting this kind of story from a guy who normally waxes philosophical about the semiology of sequential art. He relies on a lot of saccharine romantic comedy conventions but ends up concocting an overall text that’s so emotionally painful at the end that it transcends all of that. The ultimate theme of unpredictable death making many of our personal aspirations and future plans futile to a certain degree is a hard one to swallow by the end. The true story that McCloud tells in the Afterword about his wife’s family and the naming conventions used for the book hits the hardest after the barrage that is the climax.

The Sculptor On Amazon

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