Graphic Novel Review: The Sculptor by Scott McCloud

Scott McCloud’s first attempt at a full-fledged graphic novel is strangely bland; the comics theorist knows everything about the medium but for some reason this book doesn’t show that. It’s as rigid as a block of wood.

Back in the old ages when I went to school I took a course on animation where the required text was McCloud’s Making Comics. Not only did it become my favorite “textbook” I’d ever bought, but it slowly became one of my favorite pieces of literature as well. Although it was an instructional guide, it flowed smoothly like a fictional narrative.

Between the lessons on panel composition, anatomy, and speech bubbles were little examples which McCloud inserted to demonstrate a particular aspect of comics. McCloud is of course a master of art and storytelling, but his mini-stories felt exactly like what they were intended to be: lessons. When juxtaposed with portions of other artists’ works, they seemed devoid of soul. It’s bizarre because McCloud himself wrote about this exact scenario in the book! Art can be beautiful but stiff; it can be ugly but full of life. With The Sculptor, McCloud has crafted an intricately illustrated book which comes off as hollow both in terms of art and story.

It’s a basic premise: guy has a bad life, makes a deal with death to make it better, almost makes it better but not really(?), unclear resolution.

The titular sculptor is David Smith, who is a struggling artist………and his family are all gone…..and he makes a deal with Death to make his art famous but after 200 days he dies.

Cliches aside, there are a LOT of unexplained parts of this book. Not even in a cool, “supposed to be mysterious” sort of way. There are just a lot of aspects that aren’t fleshed out at all. A small selection:

  • Death’s motive for the entire plot.
  • The random connection between the loss of Smith’s family and the encounter with Death
  • Smith’s powers are “to shape any material”- but for some reason he also gets super-strength and speed and agility and basically becomes a superhero???
  • There really is no payoff for the entire premise- Smith doesn’t even really get what he bargained for
  • Several subplots end abruptly or bleakly
  • For some reason Death….dies? Or something. His powers are unclear as well.

The world is also a very rudimentary imagining of a metropolitan art scene, from the snobbish upper-class socialites to the boho-scene. Smith falls in love with an actress because of course he does. That particular subplot is extremely contrived and equal parts faux-messy and unrealistically convenient. One example: there’s another guy in the picture at first, but it’s obvious from the BOOK’S COVER that Smith and Meg (the actress) end up together, so there’s really no point to the first boyfriend. He doesn’t cause any problems, and in fact steps aside entirely in arbitrary fashion. There’s an odd lack of chemistry between…everyone.

But how could there be chemistry with a bland wimpy protagonist like David Smith? The guy mopes for two-thirds of the novel and even his joy seems muted. He also seems strangely similar to another cardboard cut-out: Marten Reed of Questionable Content. You don’t really want to root for the guy, at all.

There’s no one that you really want to root for, and that’s partly because of the art. While McCloud is great at drawing extravagant cityscapes or scenes like this:

His faces have a lifeless quality to them:

It doesn’t help that the whole novel is coloured in that shade of sterile blue. It’s a seemingly arbitrary choice of hue, and a monochromatic direction would have worked a lot better. Everything is just too clean!

Except for the conclusion, which is a head-scratcher. It’s not clear what message the reader’s supposed to glean from this book, but it doesn’t seem like it’s a positive one.

Overall, the entire thing feels like an extended lesson from McCloud. This is a premise, this is how you show this plot development through perspective, this is character growth, this is panel placement. It’s exceedingly simple. McCloud shows us the basic machinations of a graphic novel, but it all comes off as one big “how-to”.

Or rather, “how-not-to”.

Final Grade: D