I have three fundamental difficulties with Scott McCloud's years-in-the-making opus, The Sculptor. First, the way the female love interest is portrayed betrays a staggering lack of nuance regarding mental illness and borders on the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope that plagues a certain kind of romantic drama. Second, the pacing of the book is herky-jerky, with little in it justifying its extreme length. Indeed, the book is repetitive and often tedious in exploring its main characters. The final "action sequence" is laughably silly in light of the rest of the book. Third, the essentialist nature of McCloud's stances on art that are on display in his famous Understanding Comics also hold sway here, a bias that I found tremendously tedious and distracting.
Let's unpack these critiques in light of the story and McCloud's long career. His first major series was Zot!, which was a breath of fresh air when it debuted in the 1980s. Absorbing aspects of the manga he was interested in along with aspects of Jack Kirby comics and Fawcett's Captain Marvel, it's interesting how its themes still resonate with The Sculptor. In Zot!, a girl named Jenny lives a humdrum life on the verge of crisis, as her parents are on the verge of divorce. Suddenly, a boy named Zot from another dimension accidentally takes her back to his earth, a world full of crazy sci-fi adventures. The tension in the series is between Jenny wanting to leave her world in favor of Zot's, and Zot's fascination with the mundane details of Jenny's world and wanting to stay to make it a better place. Jenny's love for Zot overcomes her desire to want to leave her world and her problems behind.
In The Sculptor, David Smith is an art-world washout who would give anything to make a splash. He's given that chance by Death, who trades his life for 200 days of being given incredible abilities that could make him a master sculptor. David takes the bait, but soon falls in love with the enigmatic Meg, who first appears to him as an angel in a performance art piece on the street. Against his better judgment, he can't stop thinking about her despite his deadline, and it's his love for her that eventually informs his final work. In both series, McCloud grounded the fantastic in the mundane and even downbeat. In both series, his reach outstripped his grasp. He wanted to write stories with realistic characters, relevant social situations, and everyday problems. The problem is that his work, then and now, has a certain rigidity that makes his characters into types rather than feeling like real people. There's a thudding lack of nuance, one that he tries to beat into his work by padding it out and injecting scene after scene of talking heads, backstory, flashbacks and a variety of other tricks that tell the reader about these characters. It's really no more subtle than McCloud's oversized superhero violence parody DESTROY! McCloud is simply better at telling stories through over-the-top narrative than he is at trying to achieve subtlety.
At first I felt that in writing the character of Meg, McCloud was trying to comment on the "Manic Pixie Dream Girl" phenomenon, but that narrative commentary in itself wound up being twee and ridiculous in its own way. Briefly, the MPDG is a female character introduced in a narrative with a mopey male in order to cheer him up with her relentlessly quirky, cheerful and idealistic character traits. She has no inner life of her own and exists for the male character to bounce off of. I would argue that even though McCloud gives Meg bipolar disorder, his treatment of her illness betrays a total lack of understanding of mental illness or at least how to portray it. It's just another thing for David to bounce off of and break through, because Meg is still portrayed as a character with a minimal inner life. She's a muse, a fantasy character and a sounding board. The electronic assassin 9-Jack-9 (from Zot!) felt more fleshed out than she did.
With regard to pacing, McCloud is skilled enough and slick enough to make this book fly by quickly. The device of wondering whether or not David will actually die and the countdown gives the book a built-in way of holding reader interest. The scenes between David and Death are the most compelling, especially since Death takes the form of one of David's beloved relatives. The further device of framing their interactions around chess games is given some poignancy beyond the old cliché, since it had always been a part of their past. For a book about an artist and the artist's struggle, though, a surprisingly small number of its nearly 500 pages are actually about making art. Instead, they tend to focus on the tedious will-they/won't they of Dave and Meg and their even more boring actual romance.
Dave as a character is an interesting departure for McCloud in some ways. He's the anti-Zot: he's jaded, selfish, self-pitying and a general all-around mope. I applaud McCloud for making David a difficult character to root for, even if his backstory is relentlessly tragic. That said, there's not a lot of character development or movement for David, even at the end. Yes, he falls in love and he finally decides on a lasting sculpture. Yes, he makes up with his childhood best friend who doubled as his art world agent. (The less said about that ineffective character, the better.) But he's still as whiny and self-possessed at the end as he is at the beginning, only he shouts a lot more. Indeed, the book becomes increasingly cinematic in tone and appearance as it progresses and David's power (the ability to shape any material he comes into contact with) is better controlled. The final scene, with David shaping the underpinnings of an in-progress skyscraper, is straight out of the climax of a Marvel movie. So is the literal "life flashing before one's eyes" segment. The climax includes the incredibly painful dialogue between David and the police officer assigned to catch him (also named David Smith--a sort of running joke, as there was also a famous sculptor named David Smith). That show climax was jarring, especially after the way the rest of the book was paced. It felt like the DESTROY! version of this comic slapped on at the end. There's also a fake-out ending, some tacked-on melodrama with regard to Meg's fate and a final reveal of David's last project that's meant to inspire but that provoked laughter.
Finally, there's no question that The Sculptor in part is McCloud's critique of the art world (and in an unstated manner, the world of comics), artists and even himself. Other than Understanding Comics and its sequels, McCloud's creative output has been rather sparse since he abandoned Zot about twenty years ago. There was his digital-comics experiment The Adventures Of Abraham Lincoln, which pretty much became an anachronism the minute it was released. As such, there's a bit of McCloud in David: the frustrated artist trying to find a project that works. However, the book speaks to McCloud's tendency to want to wrap art in definitions. He scorns the work of trust-fund kid Finn, setting him up as an easy punchline. David's own work is almost rigorously narrative in its scope, with even oddly-shaped pieces having very precise and rigid meanings. David's problem is similar to McCloud's: he wouldn't know subtlety if it bit him on the ass. The final sculpture of Meg and a baby, as Doug Harvey noted in his TCJ review, is realism at a level Stalin would have loved. It was certainly a big and attention-grabbing piece, but its size and scope certainly didn't match the paucity of inspiration and subtlety that inspired it. Despite a number of intriguing side-alleys and a killer central concept, the same can be said of the book.