The Sculptor (Scott McCloud) review

The Sculptor (Scott McCloud)

[Versão em português ainda não disponível para este post.]

The Sculptor (Scott McCloud, 2015) is a very good graphic novel (and also a very big book), with many interesting themes, careful artwork, superb character development and world building and… well, many clichés.

In this post I present some of my (mixed) opinions about the book, as well as my (non-mixed) admiration of McCloud’s work. So, beware many spoilers, personal opinions, criticism and praise!

Notes: images in this post don’t reflect the quality of the original artwork (click to enlarge). Also, you will find no plot summary here – I’ll assume you read the book.

Art and Visual Choices

According to McCloud, he wanted The Sculptor to represent an improvement on his drawing skills, specially for human figures. He was definitely successful with that (for a comparison, check out his excellent webcomic The Right Number, from 2003). I’ve always been a fan of his stylized drawing, and this book features some of his best work.

It is interesting to note some peculiar visual choices he made, such as the occasional semi-manga-like eyes of the characters, and the use of “camera blur” in a couple of the scenes.

Camera blur

Camera blur

Note that, although the representation of motion blur is common in comics, it is usually applied to an object that is moving, not due to a suggested movement in the perspective of the panel. This is the case in the panel illustrated above, for example.

It’s fitting that this particular scene features the “camera blur” effect, since it is also the first moment I felt that I was reading the storyboard for a movie (instead of an actual comic). This borrowing from the language and aesthetics of cinema – more specifically, mainstream cinema – is present throughout most of the book, and it is one of the aspects that I disliked about it.1

Another interesting visual choice was the aggressive use of color contrast to bring the reader’s focus to certain elements on the page. Of course this is a common technique (along with using variations on the thickness of the lines) in illustration and comics, specially in McCloud’s work. However, in The Sculptor this is used very prominently. Perhaps this is because of the book’s length – by making sure that the readers know where to go visually, McCloud can also keep them on track story-wise.

Color contrast guiding focus

Color contrast guiding focus

McCloud’s art style allows the delivery of even the craziest premises in a clear, direct and realistic manner (many of my favorite comic artists have a similar approach, such as Daniel Clowes and Laerte Coutinho). However, I do understand (and partially agree with) the critics who say that his drawing also tends to be cold and methodical (or technical).

The artist himself claims to have difficulty with drawing, which he says doesn’t come naturally to him (at least not in the same way as it does to other artists with a more intuitive or organic approach). This suggests that, even when he gets it right (which of course is most of the time), it is usually mainly because of hard work. Considering that McCloud is also responsible for some of the most complete and respected books about understanding and making comics (which he actually consulted himself when making The Sculptor), it is understandable that some critics might say that his art is “academic”.2

McCloud drew The Sculptor digitally, using a tablet, as he has been doing for a while now. Although the use of computers itself doesn’t bother me, in this case I do mind the use of digital effects and techniques such as blur, glow, transparency and gradients (as well as modifying elements via scaling, rotating and so on). I have no problem with the techniques themselves, and I do understand that it is a creative choice for McCloud to use them, but I believe that they aren’t consistent with the overall art style chosen for this particular project. Since the book, despite its digital origins, is entirely rendered in a traditional “inked aesthetics”, the presence of these characteristically digital elements seem out of place to me.

Gradients (top-left), glow (bottom-left) and blur (right).

Gradients (top-left), glow (bottom-left) and blur (right).

The Sculptor’s Sculptures

There has been much talk about how McCloud chose to represent the art made by David, the protagonist of the story (that is, the Sculptor’s sculptures). Some argue that it feels very simplistic and naive, as if representing a child’s idea of what “art” is. This becomes even more evident in the scenes in which David “explains” his art to other characters.

According to McCloud, the sculptures are intentionally “bad” because they are meant to represent failed attempts. David’s “successful” artworks are never actually shown in the book. However, considering that this character is supposed to be a relatively (or even minimally) experienced artist, it does seem odd that David would create such pieces.34

Spoiler: The Sculptor (David) actually sucks!

Spoiler: The Sculptor (David) actually sucks!

Of course, this is a complicated creative challenge. McCloud compares it to an author writing a story about a character who is supposed to be a genius – how can you “fake” the personality of a genius if you are not one yourself? (Assuming that you want to go beyond a superficial characterization.) The inverse – to “fake” the lack of a certain ability – is maybe an even greater challenge. This is the case in The Sculptor, in which McCloud had to create intentionally uninspired (although technically proficient) artwork, to show that David’s abilities – or powers – where useless without the ideas or emotions to be represented or expressed through them.5

Maybe it would be better if the sculptures themselves were never shown, or at least if they where only glimpsed at (like with the miniature rooms created by one of other artists in the story). This actually happens in one of the strongest moments in the book, when David and his love interest Meg are on a meadow and he claims that he made a statue of her underground.6

Plot and Themes

Another major objective that McCloud had when creating The Sculptor was to provide an engaging experience for the reader. He wanted this to be a page-turner, and it is indeed. Despite its page count (did I mention this is a big book?), it never feels long. If anything, in the end I wish there was more of it.

However, I think that this is mostly due to McCloud’s masterful rendition of a living world, with real characters, as well as his storytelling skills, than it is because of the actual plot itself.

There are several interesting themes throughout the story, as well as many great (and memorable) moments. However, most of the central plot lines and several situations in the story seemed very cliché to me.7

The official blurb for the book illustrates this well:

David Smith is giving his life for his art – literally. Thanks to a deal with Death, the young sculptor gets his childhood wish: to sculpt anything he can imagine with his bare hands. But now that he only has 200 days to live, deciding what to create is harder than he thought, and discovering the love of his life at the eleventh hour isn’t making it any easier.8


By the way, I have nothing against love stories, romance and sentimentalism. But in The Sculptor I thought that this was delivered in a heavy-handed manner.

Again, this is a personal opinion. I have the same criticism about most mainstream movies. I guess that many (most?) people do prefer this more “familiar” (or conventional) approach to storytelling. McCloud himself never had a problem in assuming his “corny” – or sentimental – side.9

Also, not everything that is corny is bad, specially in the hands of an artist like McCloud. For example, in one romantic scene there is a poignant exchange between David and Meg, which skillfully relates their love story to the sculpture theme, while at the same time addressing each character’s personalities (and even giving a little art lesson on the way).

Corny can be nice too

Corny can be nice too

There where many other scenes throughout the book that I found strong, powerful or beautiful. I also enjoyed many of the story arcs, specially those related to the more interesting characters, such as Meg or Ollie (David’s childhood friend). Some of the themes were very interesting as well, such as the idea that the book could be read as a “superhero origins” story.

Another very interesting theme was the discussion about art.

Discussions on the meaning of Art

Discussions on the meaning of Art

McCloud presents some insightful reflections about art – seen as a practice, as expression, as a business, as an institution -, questioning its meanings, both in a general sense and to the individual artists.

However, unfortunately, the story of this particular individual (David, The Sculptor), didn’t interest me that much.

David Smith is Kind of… Lame?

To be honest, right from the beginning of the story, I never really cared too much about the protagonist. I couldn’t sympathize with his choices, ambitions and concerns. Even his principles, insecurities and naivety felt annoying, instead of enriching the character’s personality.

Note that I’m not talking about the actual process of character development, which, as I mentioned before, is one of the biggest strengths of the book. David is a believable character, communicated in a clear and efficient way through the story – it’s just that, well, I thought he was kind of lame…10

It doesn’t help that he spends so much time interacting with Meg’s character, who is almost the polar opposite to David – she is interesting, complex and likable. For example, consider the dynamic in some of the scenes I mentioned before – the “corny” dialogue about love and sculpture (she explains, he just agrees) or the one with the underground sculpture of Meg (she tries to help him develop and mature, but he’s stuck in the same mindset as in the beginning of the story).

Note also that my issue is not with the character traits themselves, since I understand that most of the conflicts in the story require David to be selfish, immature and prone to make bad decisions. His personality actually reflects in many ways the overall message of the book. The result is that, as much as I wanted to care about the outcome of the story, I never completely did.11

Deal, Shmeal

One of the story’s central premises, about the deal with death, wasn’t completely clear to me until later in the plot. In the beginning of the book, when it’s established that the protagonist would be granted the ability to sculpt anything he wanted, I assumed that there was already an artistic merit implied (that his creations would be masterpieces). Eventually I learned that it affected only his technique, but not his actual expressive or artistic abilities.

But isn’t this distinction – between technique and expression (or art) – a naive oversimplification of the complexities of the creative process? To have the characters think that way is one thing, but to have it as the basis for the story’s premise doesn’t also mean that many of the conflicts and plot points are moot (or at least that they don’t have that much meaning in the bigger picture)?

I Enjoyed The Sculptor

I don’t want to make it look like I didn’t enjoy The Sculptor. I had some issues with it (mainly, the overall plot and how the visual language is disturbingly close to the form of cinema), but I mostly enjoyed it.

As I mentioned before, the world building is what I thought was the strongest and most consistent aspect of the book. This includes the way places and characters were visually represented, the dialogue and the storytelling. But it goes much beyond that, since it also relies on how each of these elements are presented and orchestrated with each other, to form engaging, interesting and believable scenes and situations.

That is the genius and undeniable talent of McCloud as a storyteller in sequential art (which in turn allows him to write books teaching people about it).

Club sequence

Club sequence

Magnum Opus, Shmagnum Shopus

Before, I said that I wish there were more pages in The Sculptor. Mostly, this is because of the reasons that I already mentioned: great character development, world building and storytelling. But also because I really wished the story went somewhere else. Although there was a big twist in the end, it didn’t really affect the overall message behind the story, which I had already gradually grown apart from.

It’s obvious that I approached this book with very particular expectations. I don’t want The Sculptor to be McCloud’s “magnum opus”, because I prefer when he does those more weird, experimental and interesting things, with both plot and form (check out his amazing Morning Improvs, for example!). I was expecting him to go further into that direction, exploring the language of comics, pushing it to its limits.12

Maybe he could do that on the side, while he works on his new book about visual theory (which sounds very promising)? Jokes aside, I definitely hope that McCloud doesn’t spend too much of his precious comic-understanding-and-making time dealing with the movie adaptation for The Sculptor (which looks like a done deal).13

PS: as soon as The Sculptor came out I also did a “bleed map” of the book, analyzing the patterns on the edges of the printed pages (Scott also mentions it in this Gizmodo interview).

  1. The storyboard comparison was mentioned by a member of the audience in McCloud’s recent appearance at the British Library, to which he replied that he does get a lot of inspiration from cinema.
  2. I did notice some minor hiccups in the art, such as objects dramatically changing shape (like this glass, for example), although this is barely an argument for criticizing McCloud’s drawing skills, specially considering the size of the book (one could argue that this is even intentional, foreshadowing the shape-shifting abilities of the protagonist ;).
  3. Also, even Ollie’s reaction to the sculptures seem off – he says that they are “too much” and “scattered”, but never immature, or lacking quality or expression (and this couldn’t be because he wanted to spare his friend, since he seems otherwise sincere and direct with him).
  4. This topic, of course, resonates with the discussion about art, one of the central themes of the book. After all, who is to say what is good and what is bad; what is successful and what is not?
  5. A similar situation happens in the beginning of the book, when showing David’s comic book, which is supposed to represent the drawing style of a young child.
  6. In this instance, David’s creation is almost a Conceptual Art piece, since all we have to go by is his declaration of intent, such as in Lawrence Weiner‘s statement pieces.
  7. I also thought that the plot was somewhat convoluted. I don’t think any of it was necessarily out of place, but I often had a sense that there were too many threads running in parallel. David’s ambition, his pact with death, the love story, David’s personal growth, reflections about art, family lineage… gasp! Suddenly 500 pages don’t seem like that much space.
  8. Granted, the book itself is not as clichéd as suggested by this blurb (or by the book’s cover, which reminds me one of those cheesy romance novels).
  9. In this interview McCloud talks about both his sentimental side and his choice on a more conservative approach in The Sculptor.
  10. I should mention that there were a couple of aspects in David’s personality that broke my suspension of disbelief. For example, I didn’t find it very believable the way he deals with death, both as the supernatural phenomena personified by his uncle Harry, and his own real imminent death. But these were exceptions in an otherwise well crafted character.
  11. The story itself acknowledges and addresses the limitations and superficiality of his ambitions, and even of his principles. However, even this seems to be done in a somewhat “preachy” manner (compare the fate of sculptor David with policeman David in the end of the book). Of course, different readers may have unique interpretations about the story, but there seems to be an unquestionable moral lesson there.
  12. My personal interest in the formal aspects of art, and particularly in the matter of consistency, goes far back. Although I sometimes write about (and do) comics, one of my main activities is as a researcher in digital art – more specifically, I study the expressive potential of algorithms and procedurality in digital media. This involves identifying the particular strategies (or grammar) of this particular creative activity, as well as differentiating it from other (traditional) languages and mediums. It is common to find, for example, videogames that rely almost solely on expressive strategies of cinema (often via cutscenes or Quick-Time Events), instead of actually exploring the expressive potential that is unique to this medium. Read more about my research here.
  13. Here is an excerpt from the linked interview, in which McCloud talks about this supposed next project: “I’ve been really interested in visual learning not just in comics but in various forms. Educational animation, educational comics, information graphics, data visualizations – I think all of those fields have been knocking on the same door and trying to solve a lot of the same problems. It’s reinventing the wheel. I want to see if I can find some of the common principles for that kind of communication. That’s going to be next book, and it’s just a really fascinating topic. It’s showing up more and more in talks as well as traces of that interest surface. So, yes, that’s hopefully the subject of my next book with 01: First Second – an unnamed “Elements of Style” for visual communication.”
See more theblog.

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