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The Sculptor
by Scott McCloud
First Second, $25.00, 496pp
Published: February 2015

I've lifted bricks that are lighter than 'The Sculptor', a huge graphic novel and obvious labour of love from Scott McCloud, but it's a short 500 pages and a surprisingly quick read.

It's a deceptively simple exploration of the creative process, one which reaches out across media because I recognised some of myself in David Smith, the lead character, who lives for his art and finds that he will die for it too, even though I have precisely no skill in this realm and haven't sculpted anything since I was forced into it at school. While this specifically follows David, his reactions over time to the deal he makes and especially how his growing relationship with a girl affects those reactions, it is very much a universal story and I'd be surprised if it flies over the head of any creator, whatever they happen to create.

David is a young sculptor in New York City who clearly aches for acceptance. By the time the film begins, he's already had his fifteen minutes of fame, having been picked up by a rich investor but then dropped again because he doesn't understand people and his social skills are sorely lacking. Worse yet, he shares the same name as another sculptor, one who is renowned the world over, so he's frequently mistaken for someone who is far more successful than him. 'I'm not him,' he reiterates to those who believe they've heard of David Smith, sculptor. 'I'm just another nobody with the same name.' And he so wants to be something more than that.

He aches to create, to share his vision with others, to make an artistic statement that will last and, frankly, to discover who he really is in the process. However, he won't compromise his ideals, refusing charity, avoiding debt and following a list of rules he's created for himself. He has to make it on his own, because that's when it really counts. Unfortunately, if hardly unsurprisingly, he's finding it tough. New York is a city of artists and the art world is notoriously fickle. 'My dreams keep growing,' he tells his great uncle Harry at a diner, 'even while my options keep shrinking.' He hasn't sold a piece in a year and he's close to being kicked out of his studio. Talk about your starving artist!

But here's where he gets his chance. Harry asks him what he would give for his art and, given that he's now realised that Harry has been dead for some time, he answers the question seriously. David says that he'd give his life and so that's what Harry, who is clearly a friendly manifestation of Death, allows him to do. He gives David the power to create anything he wishes but only 200 days to do it, because after that he'll be dead.

And so the race is on, which, needless to say, doesn't go how David might remotely have expected. The majority of the book follows his frustrating quest to find his own unique artistic voice with the clock a perpetual ticking reminder of how long (or how short) a time he has left. Gradually it morphs into a second story, surrounding the prime distraction that is Meg, a girl who literally flies out of the sun and into his life on angel wings. Yet this second story, as different as it is and as much of a clash as it seems to David, is really the same as the first and the rest of the book follows his slow realisation of that fact.

While this centres around David, Meg is just as fantastically complex a character. She's bubbly and full of spontaneity and it's no surprise that everyone falls in love with her, but she has a darker side, burdened with a serious case of depression that cripples her every now and again to the point where she rails against those closest to her, like David who has become her lover. The difficulty and sheer unfairness of the choice he's forced to make is palpable and would be without the added pressure of his imminent death, about which he can't tell her. Does he stay with the woman he loves, to experience pain and anguish for as long as it takes, or does he leave and lose his muse?

That might seem to be a relatively simple story, exploring its theme through only two leads and precious few extras, but it's really about life and love and what it means to create, hardly the most simplistic ideas. The most effective deep stories are always the ones that don't seem deep until they won't leave you alone and resonate with you in the moments you least expect.

This is certainly one of those deceptively simple but really gloriously deep stories. The brick of a book is hardly the easiest thing to hold in your hand, but it's still tough to put down. I blistered through this in a few nights and lost sleep because I wanted to know what was going to happen next. Even if I knew what was going to happen next, I wanted to watch it happen. If those aren't the signs of a good book, I don't know what are.

I cared about David Smith when he was just an overly principled young artist who isn't good with people. I cared about him more as his story ran on and he struggled to discover who he is and what he can do to make his name. I particularly cared about him when his priorities changed right as his literal deadline was closing in on him. The tension is palpable and I wanted to see if he would achieve and, if so, what he would achieve.

And yet why should I care? Until the point at which he realised that he cared about Meg more than he cared about what he'd paid his life to be able to do, he's hardly a likeable person. What makes him special is how much he reminds us of us. I remember David Smith with pleasure yet I never met him and I never saw his work in person.

That's because Scott McCloud is a serious talent, one whose skill with both words and pictures is worthy of much attention. I found myself absorbed not only in his story but in how he built it. As a film critic, I'm used to looking far below the surface of the story and the actors to see the technical skill with which movies are crafted (or the lack of the same). It's rare that I find myself doing the same thing with comic books, because most live or die on their stories and their art. It's the rare book that finds me admiring the skill with which the panels are arranged and progressed as much as any of the more obvious attributes.

This book should not be overlooked by anyone who creates, as a statement and as a textbook of construction. Comic book writers could do a lot worse than to read this and learn from McCloud's mastery of the medium. Readers could do a lot worse than to experience what he puts David Smith through and ultimately to where he leads him. This is a glorious brick. ~~ Hal C F Astell

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