Imagine if great critics were also great artists. Think of Walter Benjamin writing a pitch-perfect novel, or John Ruskin painting an oil masterpiece. Think of the headlines: "Triumph of the Theorists: Ebert makes magnum opus to out-Hitchcock Alfred"; "No Cost to Commentary: Costas pitches no-hitter, closes World Series on top." It's invigorating to imagine these thinkers and explainers mastering the forms they love --- especially with the knowledge that experts on a particular creative subject rarely, if ever, master its practice.
It is a double pleasure, then, that THE SCULPTOR, the first original graphic novel by comics theorist extraordinaire Scott McCloud, is the best comics opus of its kind that I've read since Craig Thompson's BLANKETS.
"THE SCULPTOR is the best comics opus of its kind since Craig Thompson's BLANKETS."
McCloud's UNDERSTANDING COMICS defined the form for a generation of comics readers and creators alike, and since its publication in 1994, he's lost none of his interest in how comics are made --- he's just even more interested in how stories are told. THE SCULPTOR'S protagonist, David Smith (no, not that David Smith), is a penniless, down-on-his-luck New York artist who's lost his patron and his inspiration. He's almost lost his will to go on until he runs into his Uncle Harry, who makes him a tantalizing offer... and reveals that he may not be who David thinks he is.
A deal is struck, and suddenly, David has more drive and ability to create than he's ever had in his life. But he also has a secret --- one he must hide for 200 days, or risk everything. The issue? He falls in love. After a chance encounter with Meg, a talented, generous and troubled actor, David realizes that his secret may matter to more than just him. I'll save the spoilers for our interview with McCloud, but suffice it to say that this story --- part bildungsroman, part love story, part Faustian bargain and part superhero comic --- holds wonders at its center, like a slab of marble waiting for its true form to emerge.
During our chat, McCloud said that he hoped his creative work had finally escaped the shadow of his theory --- that people would read this comic for its story, and be so swept up in it that they'd forget, for a moment, compositional concepts like "closure" and think only of the world of THE SCULPTOR. I'll admit that I've been too well trained for that. I couldn't help but notice McCloud's sheer mastery of the form he loves, the subtle motifs and inspirations. Yet I also couldn't help but turn the pages, faster and faster, as if I were the artist racing against a ticking clock and not the reader bound by the story's spell.
In the end, the book that had made me forget the world around me brought me right back to it, where it was shaking in my hands as I sat on the train during my ride home. I had started it 50 minutes before. The next day, I read it again. Twice. Sometimes a master class and a masterpiece can coexist in one work --- and if this isn't that, I don't know what is.
Reviewed by John Maher on February 13, 2015