Welp, here we go!
The debut episode of Series Consideration, a video essay series where I study and discuss graphic novels and completed comic book runs.
This episode, I look at Scott McCloud’s THE SCULPTOR.
And don’t forget to see the end of the video where you can vote for which book or series I cover next!
And for those interested, here’s the full text of the essay that I wrote for the episode.
Scott McCloud’s The Sculptor
Scott McCloud is perhaps best-known for his trilogy of comic essays: Understanding Comics, Reinventing Comics, and Making Comics. While he’s worked in the industry for decades, the recognition and accolades for his essays dwarfs his commercial work. His fictional work, like Zot! and a brief run on Superman Adventures, are well-regarded, but until recently, he didn’t have a literary graphic novel that matches his analytical classics. He admitted that “Creating life on the page was something I think had largely eluded me.” (Nerdist 2015). I’ve often wondered if that haunted him or whether it informed the creation of The Sculptor. Completing it took McLeod 5 years and at least 5 revisions. That said, he held onto the idea for years before. He calls it a young man’s story told by an older man.
It’s impossible to read The Sculptor without considering his comic essays. If an Understanding Comics checklist existed, you could check off each of McCloud’s points while reading The Sculptor. I certainly could have. I recognized his moment-to-moment paneling, character pauses, the fantastic use of perspective or depth, and even colouring choices.
But as I continued reading The Sculptor, its engrossing story pushed the analytical part of my brain to the background. I was still awed by the finely detailed backgrounds, the panel layouts, the deep perspectives, but its world and characters enamored me so much, I couldn’t turn the page fast enough to see what happens next. The Sculptor‘s riveting story made me forget everything around me, like time had stopped, and when I come out of it, I hadn’t realized how much time has passed.
It’s appropriate, then, that time is its strongest theme. The titular Sculptor, David Smith, makes a Faustian deal with Death. He’s suddenly able to sculpt anything imaginable with his bare hands. But, as always, there’s a catch. In exchange, Death gives him 200 days to live in order to create unforgettable art. As time passes, we’re bombarded with numbers: 200 days. 36 promises. 12 critics. 12 hands on the clock, 9 menorah candles, 2 weeks. 20,000 dollars. 900 dollars. 10 days left until Christmas. 5 other sculptors. A trillion trillion dancing atoms. Through ticking clocks and foreboding calendars, the world never lets David forget that his time is fleeting. McCloud showcases time passing through moment-to-moment progression, especially in character interactions. He once described conversations as rhythmic: “You need time for somebody to put their head down and think for a moment. These are important beats, because we recognize that this is the music of people in conversation, and without that, it’s just illustrated writing.” (ComicAlliance, 2015) As the deadline draws closer, David’s anxiety grows along with his need to leave an impression on the world. He never allows himself to forget how long he has. As David says, “Days. Hours. Minutes. I’ve been being doing the math.” After all, his greatest worry is being forgotten.
For many artists, making a fortune isn’t the dream (though that’d be nice), but that their work touches someone. That their art becomes timeless. That they’re remembered. Personally, as a writer, I’d love if my work became a curriculum staple. In a late realization, David states, “It sounds stupid now, but I really thought that art could change the world.” But David’s concern isn’t necessarily being remembered. David suffers from athazagoraphobia: the fear of being forgotten. He’s interested in working with stone, “because it’s timeless.” His story, however, isn’t timeless. It’s fleeting. And that realization fuels his fears. As McCloud points out, “It’s not about galleries and audiences. It’s about the terror of fading to nothing, and knowing that most all of us do. That’s what drives him forward.” (Nerdist 2015) But if David’s athazagoraphobia and his Faustian deal is the story’s driving force, Meg’s introduction forces David to switch gears.
On the surface, some might see Meg a Manic Pixie Dream Girl: an object of affection for David who breaks him out of his mould and becomes his muse. And certainly, she has some Manic Pixie Dream Girl traits: everyone instantly falls in love with her, she’s exudes positivity, and she’s outgoing and fun. Arguably, David objectifies her, treating her less like a person and more like the perfect, literally angelic figure as she’s introduced. When Meg says she doesn’t want to be looked at as a thing, David replies, “I don’t see it like that. To be a ‘thing’ that thinks and moves and wants. That’s miraculous.” But in saying that, David isn’t arguing that Meg still isn’t a ‘thing’ to him. Like a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, she’s convenient for David; she’s a ‘thing’ he can ‘use.’ On the other hand, Meg possibly uses David as well. At least at first. She vehemently denies that David is her new ‘project.’ In some ways, she also sees David as something to sculpt or “fix”. But if David views the world through the lens of sculpting, Meg views the world through the lens of theater. Her outgoing side is performative in some ways, pulling the curtain over her own mental health issues. As the story develops, we see her constant need to help others masks the fact that she’s ignoring help she herself needs. As David and Meg become more intimate, they peel away each other’s layers. In some ways, they project their insecurities onto each other. And yet, somewhere in there, their relationship finds balance. “I don’t know what I want half the time,” Meg admits. “But I will find it. Someday.” Unlike David, she’s optimistic about her future. Of course, unlike David, she believes she has a promising future.
Death offers David a proverbial coin toss: a short time with the ability to make a lasting impact, or a long, mundane but happy life. David’s art represents the former. Meg represents the latter. When Death suggests the long, mundane life, David says it’s not enough, still narrowly focused on his future as an artist. Like the stone he sculpts from, this promise is unmoving. Never being forgotten is all that matters. And yet, through Meg, he realizes that yes, that other life would be enough. The art isn’t all that matters. But by the time he has this moment of clarity, it’s already too late. Time is catching up. And David is torn between creating more art or spending his last days with Meg. While interviewing Scott McCloud, Dan Casey said, “Oblivion is coming for all of us eventually, so we may as well enjoy the time that we have.” (Nerdist, 2015) In the beginning, David is a young, brash artist, terrified of being forgotten. In the end, he realizes it isn’t just him that he wants the world to remember, but also Meg.
Suppose David had as much time to create his masterpiece like McLeod had to create The Sculptor. Would it have been enough? Would any sculpture have truly satisfied David? Was it a Sisyphean effort? Would the longer, happier, more mundane life with Meg have satisfied him in the end? It’s unclear whether David’s final work lasts the ages. Like David, we’ll never know. But The Sculptor’s theme isn’t about creating art that lasts forever. It’s about accepting that, with or without memorable art, everyone is eventually forgotten. It’s better to be grateful for what you have and for the people around you. If this a young man’s story told by an older man, then I think it’s also an older man’s message. We dream big when we’re younger. As we age, we realize those dreams might have been unrealistic. David realizes this during his story, but he wouldn’t have had that epiphany without the journey. He realizes forfeiting his life for his art may have been the wrong call.
I don’t know if Scott McCloud is worried about The Sculptor standing the test of time, but I think he’s finally created has his own unforgettable classic.