It has been over two decades since Zot! and if cartoonist Scott McCloud’s reputation has ballooned in that period and it definitely has – it’s as a playful commentator of the medium, through the medium with 1993’s Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art, rather than solely as a creator of it.
McCloud knows the rules of the trade basically, and expectations are high for a graphic novel five years in the making.
The Sculptor is deftly written and cleanly drawn, but it doesn’t instantly impress. David Smith is a frustrated artist who makes a deal with Death (disguised as his fondly recalled and bittersweet Uncle Harry), trading his life for the ability to mould surfaces with his bare hands. He has 200 days to live, but in that time he has all the tools to become the sculptor he always wanted to be.
The problem is that David falls in love, and at first Meg has all the makings of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl archetype that has become a mainstay of many indie movies – she literally descends from the clouds and teaches him about beauty and happiness. Coupled with the focus on the pain and aspirations of the artist against a backdrop of warehouse parties, desolate city streets and performance pieces, the worry that this might simply be wish fulfilment disguised as magical realism begins to whisper.
That all changes so gradually that you don’t notice it. The emotional stakes are ramped up high, the life-lessons hit like hammer blows, and the layers to Meg are genuinely unexpected and utterly truthful, casting off the tropes like unwanted blankets.
The Sculptor doesn’t just follow its own creator’s rules – that’s not as remarkable in itself, as it can happen rather frequently in graphic novels – it both surprises and moves you when you least expect it. All in all, this is a welcome return to the medium McCloud knows so well.