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Fantastic frames: McCloud's full-length graphic-novel debut beautifully rendered

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 4/4/2015 (1788 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

The Sculptor proves that not all graphic novels can be read in one sitting. A nearly 500-page brick of a book containing a complex and suspenseful plot, it demands the same sort of time and attention as any contemporary novel.

The California-based Scott McCloud plays around with familiar myths and stock characters to offer a new take on classic questions: What makes art great? Is it critical acclaim, auction prices, peer recognition, imitation, reproduction, or something else? Do artists have to sacrifice everything to make great art?

The Sculptor mixes realism with fantasy and superhero genres to answer these questions. The protagonist, David Smith, is a lonely young sculptor trying to achieve recognition in the tough New York art world. There is a running joke that he shares his name with the actual well-known New York expressionist sculptor, the "other David Smith."

David's mundane life takes a more interesting turn when he meets the Grim Reaper in the form of his long-dead granduncle, Harry. Harry grants David his wish to have extraordinary artistic powers in exchange for his life, giving him 200 more days to live. Much of this storyline is familiar. Harry, who looks a lot like Marvel comics genius Stan Lee, could be one of the grim reapers from the television series Dead Like Me. The truly original element is how David's pact with Death turns him into a sculpting superhero, a normal-looking man with a secret power — not to fight crime, but to use his mind and hands to transform objects into huge works of art.

The most compelling sequences show David's ability to instantly and miraculously transform granite blocks, sidewalks and even skyscrapers into massive sculptures. While his amazing new productivity is as much a burden as a gift, it does lead him into a romance plot with a troubled young woman who is trying to make it on Broadway.

Like Harry, Meg is a bit of a cliché. She is a spontaneous yet ultimately unstable female character, the type who initially inspires the male artist to take new risks, but ultimately challenges his creativity with the duties of domesticity.

While neither the story nor the characters are particularly revelatory, the artwork certainly is. McCloud is a cartoonist at the top of his game. The Sculptor is a master class in every element of cartooning, from pacing to framing and page layout. He uses realistic dialogue and silent sequences to convey a great deal of action and emotion with remarkable economy. The New York City backgrounds alone are worth looking at, as McCloud's clean style and blue-grey palette renders familiar sights at once uncanny and beautiful.

It is not surprising that the technical and esthetic features of The Sculptor are unparalleled. McCloud is best known as the award-winning author of the 1990s Zot! comics and three classic manuals on how to draw and read comics: Understanding Comics (1993), Reinventing Comics (2000) and Making Comics (2006). He is a tireless teacher, lecturer, comics advocate and pioneer in digital comics whose website is a major resource for comics fans and students. The Sculptor is his long-awaited first full-length, self-contained graphic fiction.

The Sculptor will appeal to superhero comics fans and indie or alternative comics fans alike. It also showcases the technical and artistic sophistication of the form. And, despite its narrative shortcomings, it draws a whole world in all its minute, heartbreaking detail.


Candida Rifkind teaches Canadian literature and graphic narratives in the English Department of the University of Winnipeg.


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Updated on Saturday, April 4, 2015 at 9:12 AM CDT: Formatting.

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