First Second Books

David Smith has just 124 days to live when he meets Mira Bhatti, his competition, an emerging sculptor from Queens. Mira is still trying to make it in the art world: She’s 36, mother to a 7-year-old child, finally pursuing her degree and looking to land a big show. She has time; David doesn’t. David thinks she’s the better sculptor. But the reality is that he's more likely to get everything he wants as an artist. And not just because he’s made a deal with Death.

The Sculptor, a new graphic novel by the cartoonist Scott McCloud, follows this artist, David Smith—no, not that David Smith, but a young artist living in New York today who very much aspires to his namesake's success. So much so, in fact, that in a moment of despair, drunk and broke, totally out of options, he makes a deal with the Grim Reaper, who here takes the form of his Great Uncle Harry. Would David give his life for his artwork? Yes, the sculptor says, unmoved by the alternative vision that Death outlines for his life: a house upstate, a wife (and maybe a second wife), kids and grandkids, a modest career at the community college.

Such a humdrum destiny is a fate worse than death, in David’s estimation. Maybe it isn't so far from the path followed by middle-aged Mira, the superior sculptor whose work he winds up stealing, albeit unconsciously—but no matter. David wants to live forever, and on his 26th birthday, he accepts Death's deal: He gets unlimited power to make artwork with his literal bare hands, but just 200 days to do what he will with it. Given control over matter itself, the brash young artist sets out to solve life’s big riddle: Is greatness worth the ultimate price?

The Sculptor is McCloud’s first major graphic novel since Zot!, the 36-issue, mostly black-and-white superhero series that served as a lighthearted alternative to the dark-and-gritty world of comics during its six-year run in the '80s. McCloud has been celebrated for many other graphic and comic-related efforts since then, most notably his three meta-graphic nonfiction books: Understanding Comics (1993), Reinventing Comics (2000), and Making Comics (2006). Yet, the world of graphic storytelling is much changed today. Some of the difference shows up as strain in The Sculptor—a sprawling, sweet, superb achievement that nevertheless suffers from some severe blindspots.

Central to the story is David’s counterpart and romantic interest, Meg, a bike messenger and sometime-actress. Meg appears to David as an angel when they first meet; he falls in love with her instantly, and after things fall apart with another man, she quickly reciprocates. While he's supposed to be using the precious time he has left to secure his place in eternity—or at least in some Saudi oil baron’s loft along Billionaire’s Row—the artist instead devotes much of his time to wooing Meg, despite himself.

A name for a stock character like Meg didn’t exist back when McCloud set out to explain the mechanics of comics. But she is a manic pixie dream girl, a force every bit as supernatural as Death. She rides hard and fast on her bike, she takes in homeless people off the street (David included) despite the risks, she talks about her boobs a lot. Carefully she poaches his virginity. “I might try to push you away,” Meg tells David at one point, as she sets the message from a fortune cookie alight over a candle. “Don’t let me, okay?”

When Meg turns from manic pixie to manic depressive, David finds the strength to stay by her side through a dark spell. (It’s cast as a revelation for him, a moment of development.) At least her character grows a little fuller through her ordeal; and the scenes from a big gathering of friends and family she hosts for Hanukkah smack of real, remembered details. Still, The Sculptor wouldn’t pass the famous feminist litmus test for fiction set out by Alison Bechdel, another great comics gatekeeper. The only woman Meg ever interacts with is her roommate; the only thing we know about their relationship is that one time they fooled around. (For balance, Meg schools David whenever the conversation turns to art, cutting through the name dropping to something more insightful.)

But it would go too far to say that The Sculptor fails as a feminist text. The story boils down to a magical dilemma about weighing the urge for a family down the road against the desire for professional validation today. Only this time—thanks to a deal with Death—it’s a man whose clock is ticking. I might’ve just as soon read the story about how Mira Bhatti balanced life and death and fate and art. She explains her formal innovation as a sculptor, only for David to echo her creation in a major overture to Meg. (And to her credit, Meg isn’t all that impressed.)

If there’s more than a story about family in The Sculptor, it’s undercooked. It’s no coincidence that Great Uncle Harry bears a striking resemblance to former Marvel Comics impresario Stan Lee. Or that Death-as-Harry(-as-Stan-Lee) shows up to seal the deal with the young artist just after he plunges his hands into a block of granite, realizing for the first time his scope and potential. At over 400 pages, the book illuminates the scope of what a graphic novel can do; in dwelling on subjects like creative stagnation and familial obligation, McCloud reveals the potential for what comics can be.

These days, though, McCloud isn’t alone. Even as Marvel sends a workhorse like Wolverine off to the glue factory (and conscripts the rest of its heroes to endless sequels)—and even as DC Comics prepares us for a cinematic universe anchored by Batfleck—the creators who actually write many of these print titles all do their best work outside the Big Two. Books like Southern Bastards, East of West, Sex Criminals, Pretty Deadly, and above all, The Walking Dead are paving the way for independent creators working in a superhero-ish format. Which is to say nothing of the indie stuff that doesn't involve capes, such as Richard McGuire's astonishing Here.

What’s most compelling about The Sculptor is the artist’s hand. Panel by panel, McCloud conducts a clinic: His decisions about pacing and line are unimpeachable. The simplest choices about when to let a panel fall off the page, when to tighten the camera, when to go for a big splash—these are as instructive as anything he wrote in Making Comics. None of the sculptures he depicts work; but the elegant way he captures an early brush with death? The light falling from a doorway into an unlit room where Meg crouches deep in depression? Every moment when McCloud drops the inks, letting pencils stand alone, is perfectly tuned. Clearly it’s McCloud who is the Sculptor here. Forgive the master if his politics have grown rusty; his artistry is still as sharp as the scythe.

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