Title: The Sculptor
Author: Scott McCloud
Genre: Graphic Novel
Stars: * * *
I have complicated feelings about Scott McCloud’s The Sculptor. I very rapidly became immersed in the narrative, so much so that I blew through 200 pages while standing around in a store. However, despite the ease at which I devoured the book, it wasn’t wholly satisfying as McCloud relies too heavily on overused tropes and fails to rise above what other writers have done, often better, before.
The Sculptor follows David, an artist who is desperately trying to make his mark on the world. He was once noticed and supported, but he burned many bridges and is now wallowing in obscurity. He’s drinking away his last remaining cash when his favourite uncle appears and tries to convince him that life is still worth living. However, his favourite uncle is dead and this being is really Death himself, come to make a terrible deal with David. He will give David the ability to sculpt anything he wants in exchange for shortening his life to only 200 days. David wants nothing more than to be special and remembered, so he agrees and spends the rest of the novel trying to become a successful artist. Unfortunately for him, even with magical powers, what he wants often seems out of grasp, sending him spiralling into a period of depression and self-harm until he meets Meg. This is where everything starts to derail for me. Meg is also an artist trying to make it in the big city, and she is full of life and exuberance in comparison to David’s sullen angst. In short, she’s a “Magic Pixie Dream Girl”, a female character whose sole purpose is to fulfil a male character. She and David met when he was (unknowingly) accosted by a troupe of street performers and Meg flies out of the sky on angel wings to tell him that life will be okay, causing David to fall in love with her. As readers get to know Meg, we find out that she is trying to become a Broadway actress, she loves taking risks, eating strange food, helping hapless strangers, and making men fall in love with her. She has extreme highs, but also terrible lows (as the book implies that she suffers from what I assume is untreated bipolar disorder). She exists not to have a story of her own, but to inspire David and teach him that his singular and isolating obsession with fame and immortality through art is perhaps misguided. They have a conflictual relationship, but the book ends with her trying to convince David to move out of the city and start a family with her elsewhere, away from big dreams of fame and infamy. But, of course, she dies before David does, causing him to lash out in pain, producing a final, gigantic piece of art as a testament to his love for her and the life that they will never have.
Despite how easy the story was to consume, The Sculptor is something I’ve read before multiple times. In particular, the character of Meg irked me as she never really got to shine as her own person, and it is frustrating when women are used only as inspiration or object lessons for male characters. Meg could have been an interesting character, but her development is shallow and focused only on the parts that David likes or needs to experience for his own growth. As such, she ends up being a stereotype, and this lack of depth weakens the climax of the book. In the past chapter of The Sculptor, Meg unexpectedly becomes pregnant. She encourages David to move out of the city and start a family with her as she greatly wants a baby, a desire that seems to come out of nowhere. When she dies shortly after, David erects a giant statue of her holding a child. However, the familial emotions of the scene feel unearned. It is understandable that David would want a family as his parents and sister have passed away, but Meg’s sudden shift in focus isn’t grounded in anything the readers have experienced about her. The plot twist feels inorganic and done solely to drive David to greater expressions of creation.
Relatedly, David’s journey lacks depth. He’s young and angry, but he never really grows past his overwhelming emotions. He doesn’t seem to understand himself or his choices any better at the end of his 200 days, and readers are left wondering what exactly McCloud is trying to say about creation. Not that open-ended books can’t be fantastic and thought-provoking, this one just felt too fatalistic and simple for my tastes.
If the story was so blasé, why did I spend over $30 on the book? Honestly, McCloud knows know to pace his readers, and the narrative is quite engaging. You cannot help but want to see whether David stops being such a foolish, messed up person, and whether his Faustian deal will end in death. Also, the art is fantastic. McCloud’s style leans towards cartoonish, but the simplicity of his figures still allows him to invoke a wide range of emotions. The backgrounds are superbly done, cementing the feeling that the story is occurring in an actual place, something not all graphic novels succeed at doing. Even if the story was on the bland side, the book is still captivating and worth picking up for the art alone.
In the end, The Sculptor was a worthwhile read. I am glad that I bought it, and I will probably read it again. However, I feel that if one is looking for a story about a 20-something trying to find their place in the world and getting mixed up in some paranormal complications, Bryan O’Malley’s Seconds is vastly superior to The Sculptor. Seconds feels more honest about the flaws of its protagonist, and really makes her work to learn and grow (rather than go out in a blaze of glory). Furthermore, the nature of the paranormal influence (a house spirit) is much more creative and far less fatalistic than the Faustian Devil employed by McCloud. The Sculptor will probably become part of the literary graphic novel canon because it does truly excel in many aspects; just don’t expect it to be a masterpiece of innovation.