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A Comics Creator Muses On Art And Life In 'The Sculptor'

If you're an artist, it can be tough to know when you've attained success. Maybe you get a show, but none of your pieces sell. Or you get your first rave review, but it's from a critic you've mocked for years.

What if you attract a mass following — does that make you a sellout? What if you create a transcendent piece, but no one notices — is your taste just plain bad?

Scott McCloud mulls these and similar questions in The Sculptor, his first graphic novel. A celebrated comics critic and artist, whose Understanding Comics is a fixture in many libraries, he's had ample opportunity to reflect on the nature of creative success over the course of his career. Comics are artistic stepchildren, almost never regarded as quite at the level of high art despite the best efforts of critics like McCloud to elevate them. In this book the hero's specialty is undoubtedly "high:" He sculpts from granite with hand tools, old-school. But the problems he faces are just like those of a marginalized comic artist.

In fact, David (our hero) is near the end of his rope as the book begins. About to be kicked out of his New York City apartment, drinking and mourning his failure to make a sale, he bumps into his good old Uncle Harry. The only thing is, it's not really Uncle Harry, it's Death incarnate, and He's offering a deal: He'll give David the ability to sculpt anything he can envision, instantly, with his bare hands — in exchange for his life. David will have 200 days to make the most of his new powers. Then Death will take him.

David accepts Death's offer, but the gift doesn't solve his problems as he'd thought it would. His first collection of works is scattered, shallow and not particularly beautiful. It fails to impress the buyers and critics who want, David's friend Ollie tells him, "a focused, coherent, singular vision. A new direction others might want to move in with you." In other words, they want an artist.

David spends the rest of the book struggling to figure out just what that means and how he can be it. He creates quick-and-dirty, while-you-wait sculptures of passersby and giant guerilla reshapings of the city's stone and metal, alternately fretting about fame and getting high on pure creation. He also falls in love, and it's then that the book flares into life. McCloud is engaging when he's addressing the difficulties faced by the artist in society, but when he gets to show two fetching young city dwellers falling for each other? That's when he really comes home. David's relationship with Meg, a comely bike messenger, is everything a love story should be: inexorable and ill-omened, plangent and astringent.

David's inamorata has a definite touch of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl about her, to use film critic Nathan Rabin's coinage for the improbably adorable gamine who often turns up to save the hero's soul in indie movies. Meg once worked as a ticket taker in a revival house, and she sometimes invites homeless people up to her apartment for food — both highly suspect characteristics. And she is, in fact, manic-depressive. But McCloud does try to critique the paradigm she represents as he writes her. Her first introduction — in, incidentally, the most successful art piece in the whole book — is a cute reference to the trope. Meg's ultimate fate is too convenient, but she's got some dimension to her.

Back in the art world, meanwhile, McCloud finally has to settle on some sort of statement about the nature of the artist in society. He defaults to something like "Go back to first principles," or maybe just "You've got to follow your heart." That's a good thing, since it's when he follows his own heart — in this case, his deep affection for his characters — that his story perks up. McCloud doesn't have anything particularly new to say about art, but it's fun to watch him talk about love.

Etelka Lehoczky has written about books for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times and She tweets at @EtelkaL.

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Etelka Lehoczky