Tuesday, January 13, 2015

The Sculptor by Scott McCloud

Scott McCloud has been making comics for thirty years, but before 2015, his only original book-length work of fiction was the quirky and quintessentially 1990s The New Adventures of Abraham Lincoln. The Zot! stories were originally individual issues, and his best-known work, Understanding Comics, is of course non-fictional. And after a decade of books like Blankets, Bottomless Belly Button, and Big Questions, maybe it was time for McCloud to show what he could do as a practitioner and not just a teacher.

The Sculptor lands with a thump and a murmur of excitement: it's McCloud's largest original book by far at just under 500 pages, and early reviews and quotes have been glowing. The style is deeply familiar: McCloud is still working in a ligne claire idiom, though his people have slightly less rounded features here than in the past and The Sculptor makes good use of a black-and-blue two-color palette, which differentiates it both from his black-and-white non-fiction books and the bright colors of his early-aughts webcomics.

The story also sees McCloud working in familiar territory, though perhaps a new sector: all of his fiction so far has been broadly SFF, from the bombastic superheroes of Destroy!! to Zot!'s various takes on utopianism to the goofball lunacy of Abraham Lincoln. Sculptor is a contemporary fantasy, though it derives more from Neil Gaiman or Fritz Leiber than the vampire-shagger genre -- it's about one man who gets to make a choice, a deal, that will change his whole life.

That man is David Smith, a grumpy, obsessive-compulsive, mid-twenties would-be artist in modern New York. He's demanding of himself and others, rigidly devoted to art in a way he insists is the only possible viewpoint, and at the end of his rope. He's driven away all of his friends and art-world colleagues -- except for childhood friend Ollie, who works in a minor gallery and is dating Finn (a blatantly fake, on-the-make young artist) -- and run through all of his resources. He's broke, fanatically devoted to never borrowing money or taking charity -- David is the kind of guy who could become fanatically devoted to not eating soup if a morning went the wrong way, so he's fanatically devoted to a lot of things -- and hoping for one last chance to break into the art world.

And then two things happen to him. Both of them seem to be supernatural, though only one actually is. And he gains an ability that frees him to make art more freely and easily than he ever dreamed -- but not forever. The Sculptor is about the art that David makes in the time he has, and about the girl he fall in love with -- despite all of his quirks and fanatical devotions -- during that time. It's a love story, a story about art and fatalism, a paean to living each moment to the fullest, and a meditation on loss.

It is a masterwork by a creator we already knew was capable of masterworks; the big single book we always suspected McCloud had in him. 2015 is the year that book finally comes out so that the rest of us can see it. This year may have only just started, but I can already see a lot of "Best of the Year" lists with The Sculptor prominent on them -- it's that good.

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