(Review) The Sculptor by Scott McCloud- Beauty and Madness

McCloud has done it. He has achieved the combination of brilliance and madness in his graphic novel, The Sculptor (2015). A  work that'...

McCloud has done it. He has achieved the combination of brilliance and madness in his graphic novel, The Sculptor (2015). A work that's beautifully visual, simple but also reflective and poignant with lingering thoughts that keep you up all night. 

I'm more familiar with McCloud's previous texts Making Comics, and Understanding Comics. I discovered his books during one of my classes at university. His critical texts on graphic novels are acclaimed- Mr. McCloud navigates many similar to myself on this new and uncharted world of comics. As a hobby drawer, these two texts have become a somewhat bible-like work that has truly influenced my appreciation of graphic novels. So he is a very talented artist and his understanding of the visual medium is above any other text I've read, well and truly exemplified in The Sculptor.

The Sculptor is a bildungsroman of sorts. David Smith is an artist struggling to find his way in the big city. He's our 26 year old protagonist who is a talented sculptor successful from a young age. A series of events leads him to lose everything he has, and we watch him struggle with making ends meat, and worst of all, question his very existence in such a huge world. By chance, he is granted a wish- the ability to sculpt anything he can imagine with his bare hands. But he only has 200 days to live as a consequence.

We have the classic tale of a hero down on his luck, where he must make a choice. He decides to achieve greatness and sacrifice everything. The storyline that laces The Sculptor with its backbone is relatively simple, but McCloud's retelling of this trope is simply beautiful and transformative. The text as a whole is rich and speaking to our contemporary identity.

This graphic novel questioned contemporary identities by exploring the main character's ideology and his attempt to understand a world that feels so impossible to "solve".  He is finding a solution to the wrong problem, and it becomes so evident to us which is what makes it so tragic. The world feels cruel and uninviting, and David is lost in such a disorienting jungle. He's talented but the world does no recognise his talents. They praise the fallacy of those in power such as the character Finn, an artist on the rise who was born wealthy.
David is stuck, because he sees himself as an artist, despite the fact that his art is criticised by those who are in the profession. He is an idealist, who is guided by pure emotion and instinct as opposed to those around him who might consider trends and the values of their audience. This way of thinking pervades to all aspects of his life: he makes promises which he vows to never break, including not taking charity from others, and not going into a certain chain of grocery stores because of past incidents. He sees things in purely black and white despite it being obvious to us that his life is millions of shades of grey.

His tale begs the question what all artistic minds must evaluate: What is art? Is it a representation of a soul, even though it does not serve please anyone but oneself, or is art what us as a society make it? Do we create our own value for these expressions of the mind, and if so, how do we distinguish what is beauty if it is based on a commercial or collective entity?

This is an extremely difficult question that the text forces us to think about. Is David the true artist? And everyone else simply does not appreciate his sensibilities? Or is he a fool that ignores the "real" world? You decide! It's a tough question that I've been sitting on the fence about since reading this text.

We have many simple characters who are grounded in this often suffocating New York jungle landscape. Our characters are engaging and full of depth. McCloud emphasises simple forms, though realistic. He models them after real people who have posed for him, which explains the certain nature of how dynamic the style is (see author's notes).  The characters are so alive and engaging because they feel real, despite the use of tropes that are often overplayed.

David is a very average looking guy. His expressions are subtle, but at points I can really see the despair in his eyes. McCloud's use of human models has allowed for the subtleties in expression and such a large variety of emotions ranging from lust, melancholy, longing to anger. 

The style of art in The Sculptor is amazing. As I mentioned, this feels like a rich text with a well developed world that the reader immediately falls into. Each scene is different, each setting varied and well designed, meticulously constructed and very distinct from the previous. I thoroughly enjoyed the detail of landscapes and panels that is amazing for a graphic novel of 400+ pages. 

There is so much movement within the panels, being that of the characters or landscapes or text that my eyes simply dance along each page faster than I realise. It's also beautifully still and contemplative when it needs to be. Because the text is so rich and engaging, the pages flew by before I realised there were 400+. 

I feel delighted to have stumbled upon this text by coincidence, and somehow gifted for bearing witness to such a hidden gem. The strength of The Sculptor is the attention to detail- the character's and their mannerisms, capturing the unique and lively setting while also being structurally sound and having a world so engaging that the end of the tale comes much too quickly for me as the reader. 

This could simply be a tale of a fool who doesn't know what's good for him, but even the biggest realist will experience a conflict in which the character brings his world to life and we see through his eyes. We can see he sadness, the desperation, the beauty and the madness in such a fleeting moment. 

The 200 days that David Smith has left feels like sand running through our fingers, inching to a sudden halt that jolts us back into our realist mindset. Life does suck. For David, for you and me and everyone in this world. There are difficulties, hardships and moments where everything is against you. McCloud shows us that it's all part of the plan, and that it is up to us to enjoy the smallest moments, to appreciate the beauty in love, life and also appreciate the beauty of such a terrible and temporary world.

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