The phrase 'graphic novel' is frequently abused; by people who want to give an oversized story from a regular series more weight or validity, by snob booksellers who think they have to legitimise the buying of comics (I'm looking at you, various branches of Waterstones); by people who think a trade paperback just doesn't sound glamorous enough.
I would like all those people to look at The Sculptor and then take a good hard look at where they're going wrong in their lives. This is the real deal.
Scott McCloud's history in comics is one without a single mis-step. After creating one of the single finest runs on a character ever in Zot! (the initial colour run was brilliant, but the black and white second series is a masterclass) and going OTT mental in the one-off DESTROY!! he went on to take the medium to pieces and reassemble it in his groundbreaking Understanding/Reinventing/Making Comics series of books, creating other original material and some Superman stories along the way. There's also one of my favourite ever TED Talks in there somewhere. And now we have a new novel in The Sculptor, weighing in at just shy of 500 two-colour hardback pages.
The Sculptor is David Smith; young, talented but too unwilling to compromise. After pissing off his one influential sponsor, David has been struggling to get his work in front of the people who can then get it in front of the world. And David needs his work to be seen. He'd give his life for his art, and The Sculptor is the story of how he comes to do so (that's not a spoiler, by the way). An encounter with a strangely human Death gives him a chance to make a deal. And because The Sculptor has at least a little bit of a morality tale in its DNA, of course he takes it. 200 days in which to create sculpture like no one has ever seen before, then that's it.
From that moment onwards, The Sculptor's momentum as David crashes towards day 200 is breathtaking - making new acquaintances, losing old ones, exploring the limits of his Death-driven creativity, highs, lows, disasters and triumphs all flash by, but all knitted together with tiny, detailed little moments; a sequence of nights over Hanukkah, washing up after a meal, shopping in the supermarket. This is a story of a life being lived that just happens to have a weird supernatural thread in amongst all the others. The final chapter, as the days to the deadline are counted down most clearly, is the greatest challenge for the reader; as the speed picks up but the reasons to want to postpone the ending mount.
Given his history as a theorist, is shouldn't come as a surprise that McCloud creates a perfectly structured, perfectly executed book, but it would take familiarity with his earlier creative work, and especially the black and white Zot! to expect something with the level of emotional depth that he gives The Sculptor. There are frames and pages which directly echo that run - I found myself thinking of Woody's story in Sometimes, a direction in particular - but which add years (decades) worth of creative maturity to the experience.
His character work also recalls the nuanced intricacy of Zot!. Barring occasional flashbacks we never see more than 200 days worth of anyone's life in The Sculptor, but everyone feels like a real person, with a history, needs and wants, dreams and fears. David, with his almost archaic insistence on keeping promises and desperate belief in Art for its own sake holds everything together and is far more than the tortured artist stereotype. For a lot of the time he's also not even very likeable. But the heart of the story is his newfound friend (and saviour from himself) Meg, who provides a balance when needed, inspiration in his lowest moments, and humanises the horror tale that's also in The Sculptor's heritage. As a special bonus McCloud also completely subverts the manic pixie dream girl that it looks like she'll turn out to be on first appearances.
Visually, there are countless frames here that halt you in your tracks. There are pages in this book that I will never forget, and a sequence towards the end that tortures the reader to screaming point with its drawing out of a moment you'll pray will… (actually, that would be a spoiler). Off the top of my head I can think of ten pages I'd kill to own the original art for, but strictly speaking I know there are four hundred and eighty six others I could say the same of.
There are some stories whose endings feel inevitable, and by rights given the plot this should be one of them. But avoiding the inevitable is an entire category of story on its own, so you never quite know. I do know that as I was reading it I realised I didn't want to know how it ended, at least partly because that would mean I'd finished it.
I know we're barely into February, but I'm going to go ahead and say that I doubt I'll read a better comic than The Sculptor this year. There's a good chance I won't read many better works of fiction.
Ask your favourite bookseller for the following:
Zot!: The Complete Black and White Collection: 1987-1991
And there's a wealth of other stuff on Scott McCloud's own website.