Scott McCloud didn’t intend to become the premier comics theorist. But with his famed trilogy, Understanding Comics, Reinventing Comics, and Making Comics, he inspired the study of and an appreciation for the medium. His works resonated not only with comics creators and fans but with anyone keen on improving their grasp of visual storytelling.
And this February, his first graphic novel in over 15 years appears: The Sculptor (First Second), a spin on the superhero comic. The main character in the book, a young, unsuccessful sculptor named David Smith, makes a deal with Death in which he expands his creative powers but limits his life – just as he meets the love of his life.
The deeply felt and skillfully paced graphic novel earned praise from Neil Gaiman who, on Twitter, said that the book made him cry twice. “It’s powerful, mature, brilliant work. Don’t want it to end.” The book’s editor Mark Siegel, previously told Publishers Weekly, “To work with Scott McCloud on any project of his choosing was a long held hope of mine. But to join him as he sheds the theorist and embraces ambitious, adult fiction — that’s a dream come true.”
“My love of comics was preceded by a hatred of comics,” Scott McCloud tells me by phone from his studio in Los Angeles. When he was a kid living in Lexington, MA, he thought that he had already outgrown comics. But when his friend Kurt Busiek, who grew up to become a renowned comics writer himself, lent McCloud his stash of books, he reconsidered. “By the age of 15,” he says, “I decided I wanted to make comics for a living.”
His big break came before he even graduated from college. For a class assignment, McCloud sent his resume to one of his dream employers, DC Comics. Three weeks before he graduated, he landed a job in the company’s production department.
The work at DC was, well, workmanlike. He corrected other artists’ pages, which included altering lettering or fixing lines that went over panel borders. Working with established artists in this way, he says, helped frame his career. “The mystique of the tools and standards for creating [comics] just vanished.”
But McCloud wanted to embark on his own projects. Around the same time, a startling life event occurred: his father died. McCloud says that when that happened, “Something clicked inside of me. I just decided that I didn’t want to wait.”
After a year and a half at DC, he left and began to work on a comic called Zot!, a lighthearted story about a lonely girl who encounters a superhero from an alternate world. “I remember vividly the sense of going to bed that first night [after quitting],” he says, “knowing that in the morning, I could wake up and just start drawing all day long. It was an extraordinary feeling of freedom.”
While McCloud was making his own comic, he was taking notes on the form in general. Beginning in 1986, he began to make drawings and diagrams about what made comics work. He says that, at one point, his pile of notes overtook its folder in the filing cabinet. It was then that he realized he needed to retire Zot! and create a comic book about making comic books.
He collected these trenchant concepts about art in the innovative book Understanding Comics. Inspired by Larry Gonick’s nonfiction cartoon guides and Art Spiegelman’s essay “Cracking Jokes,” McCloud created Understanding Comics as a way to explain the inner workings of the comics universe to both the comics nerd and the curious layperson. He demystified the complex vocabulary of comics and explained the six steps for creating art – a way for readers to understand the artist not just as a stylist but a storyteller and, hopefully, a visionary.
McCloud’s McLuhan-caliber insights took hold in the comics community and beyond. To this day, the book is taught widely, not just in illustration classes but in courses on film, web design, and data visualization. Why did Understanding Comics resonate so strongly? “I liken it to drilling down to the core of a sphere,” he says. “If you drill down far enough, you will discover the very same thing that others around the globe would find if they drilled down that deeply.”
“It’s a young man’s idea,” says McCloud of his new book The Sculptor. The concept originated decades ago during high school, a rough concept scrawled in his old, blue notebook. “It’s quite nearly a superhero story. And, in many respects,” he muses, “there’s nothing more detestable than a serious superhero story.” In developing the narrative, the idea evolved from a mere hero arc with a morbid twist to a more complex tale of existential angst, the limits of art, and the power of love.
The Sculptor tells the story of David Smith, a young, frustrated, and obscure artist without a family, a girlfriend, or a remarkable career. In a Faustian bargain, David barters away the rest of his life in exchange for 200 days of creative omnipotence; he’s able to sculpt any material with his bare hands. It’s a power that he uses to create pieces that he hopes will earn him everlasting fame. But as his time runs out and his legacy remains uncertain, a young woman with whom he falls in love has the power to redeem him, if not rescue him.
McCloud spent two years conceptualizing the book and three years executing it. For an entire year, he took pages of notes for his new graphic novel. “I was trying to [create] something that celebrated the vitality of that young, crazy idea but did so in a way that didn’t feel like a dressed-up power fantasy,” he says.
His main characters were, in part, inspired by his own life. “I think David is about 40 percent me,” he says of the frustrated artist protagonist, but “he’s braver than I am, he’s crazier than I am. And he’s more morbid.”
Of the female lead, McCloud estimates that 70 percent of the character is based on Ivy, his wife Meg, who struggles with depression, is the sort of complex female character who doesn’t often grace the pages of comics penned by men. McCloud says, “It became a better story when I had the balls to actually use more of the real-world person in the creation of that character.”
The resulting book seethes with intensity. The reader feels David’s struggle acutely – so universal are the desires for self-expression, love, and recognition. “It’s not the hunger for fame and immortality that drives him forward,” says McCloud of his protagonist, “it’s this deep-seated, cold terror that he has of being forgotten. It’s not the product of some artistic philosophy or some pompous delusion. It’s a railing against the human condition.”
Though McCloud is best known for his salient comics analyses, he says that, when it came to The Sculptor, “I just really wanted to create a great page-turner.” This new work – germinated in high school, conceptualized for two years, and realized over a total of five years – is both an ode to and reimagining of the superhero comic genre. Rather than revel in fantasy, the tale is grounded in its humanity. It hits notes that you wouldn’t expect from a comics academic. With The Sculptor, the author has reinvented himself.
“The most exciting thing of all was just rediscovering how to tell a story,” says McCloud.
Grace Bello is a freelance writer who writes regularly for PW about comics.