Now it’s only February of 2015 and we have already had Here by Richard Mcguire, a graphic novel so good as to lay waste to any other graphic novels that dare to put their collective heads above the parapet. Here is so good that even if another graphic novel wasn’t published in 2015, we could say it’s been a great year for the form. That’s how hard McGuire’s book works. And yet here is Scott McCloud’s The Sculptor. Another graphic novel with high hopes. From a writer familiar amongst the graphic novel community as the author of Understanding Comics. Is it right, is it just, to expect another important graphic novel so hard on the heels of Here? Turns out, yes, it’s isn’t right. Just because The Sculptor clocks in at about 500 pages (ticking that box in our minds that asks for quality to weigh half a tonne) and just because it has earned a good few really positive reviews does not mean that The Sculptor is a carved in stone classic. We get the sense that a lot of people would like The Sculptor to be a classic, to be important, to be one of those graphic novels that cross over into the Guardian world. But there is a real danger here that setting expectations too high will spoil the ride. So lower them just a bit. Done that? Okay. Here we go then.
David Smith is a sculptor. He has the fire of youth in his belly – only wants to make important work, want to be remembered, doesn’t want to waste his life on love and jobs and children and all of that sucker stuff that seems to suit the workaday world – but he can’t seem to get his break. And then one day he is visited by an elderly relative – an elderly relative who may have died sometime previously and who has been inhabited, apparently, by the figure of Death – willing to grant him his wish: produce the best art of his life but in return he only has 200 days to live. Faustian compact accepted, he sets out to make his name (his fingers moving through stone or metal or whatever he chooses to bend to his will as if it was butter). Except making his name isn’t as easy as he thinks it will be. His initial creative splurge is too all over the place. He isn’t selective enough. He can’t boil things down for the collectors in a way they understand. And then – didn’t you just know it – he meets someone. And she’s an angel. In a way. And David starts to see the attraction of the humdrum, the everyday, the importance of small moments shared with a person you love.
On one level, The Sculptor is a graphic novel about the imperatives of art. The desire in the creative soul to do something or make something that will be remembered. The urge for immortality. It does battle with the creative impulse, the inner voice that says nothing is ever good enough. It also articulates the frustrations of art, the sense that actually settling for a different kind of life in which the frustrations of art are put to one side in favour of simple joys (like love, like family life) is not such a bad thing after all. The answer to this question changes as the book proceeds but the way in which it engages and seeks to find an answer or answers is by far the most compelling aspect of the book. The Sculptor is also, of course, a love story, in the 500 Days of Summer camp. And it’s also a kind of fantastical odyssey, that recalls both the likes of Jonathan Lethem’s Fortress of Solitude (in its obvious love of New York and in the way it seeks to have fantastical elements appear alongside the humdrum and the banal as if there is a place for both in the world) and also a great many superhero films (David ends up as a kind of material twisting Banksy, and these parts of the story feel like Spiderman, and aren’t entirely successful).
All told, there are a great many elements of The Sculptor that work and are entertaining but there are also parts of The Sculptor that don’t work entirely and, of course, negative elements being formed of denser material, the parts that don’t work take some of the sheen from the parts of the book that do work.
Any Cop?: It isn’t entirely a success but neither is it completely a failure either. It’s robust. It does the job. It just won’t completely blow your socks off you.