If At Faust You Don’t Succeed : Scott McCloud – “The Sculptor”

“There’s this new dream where I’m walking from one end of Manhattan to the other, and somehow I know, I just know, that everyone I pass on the street is a would be artist like me. Businessmen, bartenders, cab drivers – doesn’t matter. Everyone is secretly a dancer, an actor, a writer, a painter. A million of us with the same dream: to create, to connect, to be remembered. But it’s winter; the sidewalks are slippery, covered in ice… and the city begins TILTING. And we’re sliding, all of us. Sliding down this horrible giant ramp into nothing. Into the void… Like… Like…”

“So help me God, if you say ‘like the conveyor belt scene in Toy Story 3’, I’ll-“

“It… It was on Starz.”

“Dammit, I TOLD you not to watch that!”

Those little touches of well-observed humor do their best to deflate the ponderous sentimentality in  Scott McCloud’s “The Sculptor,” a Faustian tale of a floundering artist who exchanges his life – and perhaps his soul- for his art. But “The Sculptor” won’t replace Goethe’s “Faust,” or Christopher Marlowe’s Faust, for that matter: it is much closer to Nicholas Sparks’ “Faust.”

ABOVE: “Best in Years”? Has Neil been avoiding the graphic novel field?

David Smith is a has-been-who-briefly-was and is now resigned to being in the shadow of the OTHER David Smith, (the famous real life sculptor.) When he meets Death-or-the-Devil-or-whomever in the form of his late Uncle Harry, he gets offered a deal: he’ll be able to easily mold and sculpt any material with his own superpowered hands, unleashing the totality of his talent… but he only has 200 days to leave his mark in the art world. Then, he’ll die.

ABOVE: The other David Smith went everywhere cheerfully spreading the joy of art.

David sets out to work feverishly on his transformative masterpieces – and here McCloud makes his first tactical mistake: we get to see them… and the sculptures are far from impressive. When the art  world rejects David’s creations, we’re supposed to shudder at the unappreciative callousness of those unable to recognize true genius. But honestly his stuff looks derivative at best, tacky at worst. (Rule: when your story is about a great artist/writer/painter/musician/director, please don’t show us the mind-blowing end products unless you’re convinced you can deliver.)

ABOVE: All those sculptures look horrible.

McCloud’s toothless depiction of the art world barely counts as satire. “Art School Confidential” this isn’t. And David is a cliche of the artist as the young man: if we relate to his artistic and existential dilemmas it’s less a result of good character-building than of his generic, insert-yourself-in-the-blanks persona. His most “original” trait is an unpleasant unwillingness to compromise on arbitrary moral stances. But he is nothing compared to Meg, the manic pixie dream girl who descends the heavens for David’s sexual salvation. (Ok, she doesn’t LITERALLY descend from the Heavens – it just looks like she does. However, she IS literally manic!)

ABOVE: “Send me an angel, send me angel right now.”

But even if we’re tempted to dismiss David and Meg and the rest of the cast for the way they fit so easily into their little ‘stereotype’ boxes (or panels?), the fact is that McCloud has thought deeply about his characters, and he has affection for them. Perhaps too much: affection can easily turn cloying, and boy, does McCloud work hard at tugging heart strings and plucking tears!

So here I am, feeling teary-eyed but underwhelmed. I had hoped this would be a truly ground-breaking work, coming as it does from easily the most famous of graphic novel theorists. So I can’t quite sympathize with Neil Gaiman’s “best in years” cover blurb. This could have been more. I revere McCloud’s “Understanding Comics” as the first work that gave me highfalutin academic tools to defend graphic novels from their detractors, (and I even liked “Zot” as the immature, inventive sketch it is.) But “The Sculptor” is not quite the grand successful summation of McCloud’s ideas it should have been: it is far more impressive as a debut novel, hinting at further maturation. Too bad the man is in his late 50s.

ABOVE: The Sculptor

RATING: GOOD ENOUGH going on COOL!

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