Scott McCloud sounds at peace with the fact that he'll always be best known for Understanding Comics, which he published back in 1993. Understanding (and, to a lesser extent, its sequels, Reinventing Comics and Making Comics) headlines literature and comics course syllabi in universities around the world, and for good reason; it's a brilliant explanation of what makes comics work as a medium, the kind of influential work that demands to be described as a masterpiece.
"I have a strange career," McCloud admits over the phone. "Even though [Understanding Comics is] a very old book" these days, McCloud says "it's kept me current in a way that people still know who I am." McCloud knows he's "becoming one of those statues in the hall," that his "flesh is turning to marble," and part of that is because he hasn't published much work recently. "Do nothing for several years and suddenly you're one of the old men," he says. He's reached the point "where I'm supposed to just shuffle off and become irrelevant."
He's not quite ready to become a museum piece yet. Earlier this month, McCloud finally revealed the book that's been occupying his time for the better part of the last decade. It's called The Sculptor (First Second, $29.99), and it's a 500-page graphic novel about a young sculptor named David Smith who makes a deal with a supernatural figure that may or may not be the devil in exchange for a chance at immortality. McCloud considers the book an opportunity to prove he's still relevant, to "do something that people could enjoy in the here and now."
Still, McCloud has spent nearly the last quarter-century teaching, lecturing, and writing comics about how comics work. So it makes sense that The Sculptor has an instructional air to it. McCloud is demonstrating the techniques that he's spent so long thinking about, and the narrative is about the difficult process of becoming an artist. It takes a while for a reader to stop playing spot-the-technique—he's done such a great job alerting readers to all the background tricks that make comics work, his readers can't help but notice that, say, in one sequence McCloud is using image-to-image transitions to set a scene, while in another he employs moment-to-moment transitions to increase the narrative tension. McCloud said the challenge of shifting gears from storytelling instructor back to storyteller involved applying his techniques "in a way that it was invisible to the reader," or at least by making the reader "fall into the world of the story within a page or two."
"The viewers are the material. We're nothing without them," a character says in The Sculptor, perhaps demonstrating McCloud's attempts to shake off the teacher/student relationship and transform his pupils back into consumers of his art. In fact, it's hard to not read the book as McCloud's autobiographical attempt to learn how to tell a story without explaining how to tell a story. ("FUCK the rules," an aggravated Smith shouts late in the story, on a page that's struggling about nine different ways to shatter the symmetrical bonds of a classic nine-panel grid.)
The bargain Smith cuts in the story gives him, for lack of a better term, a superpower. He has the ability to shape stone and steel with his bare hands, as easily as clay. The hard work of sculpting disappears for him, but the price he pays for that gift is that he only has a few months to leave his mark on the world before death claims him.
These questions of the value of art, of the importance of immortality for an artist, of whether one has to suffer for their art to be worthwhile, are what makes The Sculptor a vital work. The book suffers when Smith meets a beautiful young woman named Meg and falls in love, because the love story is weighted down with cliché. Meg, as other critics have noted, is a manic pixie dream girl who seems to be fiercely independent at first but is ultimately only a fantasy who exists to give Smith exactly what he needs when he needs it.
Meg's role in the story doesn't so much represent a feminist failing on McCloud's part as a problem of the passage of time. McCloud points out that he's telling the story of a man in his 20s who is granted a wish he made when he was 9, but "it's also me at age 50 or so grappling with this story I made in my 20s." The Sculptor has lived in his head for three decades, and for McCloud, the challenge was "to preserve the vitality of that young man's story while hopefully presenting it in the perspective of an older man without killing it." He says, "It's like the older me was the editor for the younger me."
This back-and-forth collaboration between the young, passionate McCloud and the elder statesman McCloud is a beautiful thing to watch, and yes, it's instructional, too. The Sculptor is a huge book—ambitious, beautifully crafted, flawed—about that transformative moment when you finally stop thinking about art and get down to the messy business of making it.