The cartoonist Scott McCloud has spent the last two decades examining, in a scholarly way, the medium of comic books. It began with Understanding Comics (1993), a primer, appreciation and history of the form, and stretched to Making Comics (2006), about technique, characters and creative choices.
With The Sculptor, his nearly 500-page graphic novel, McCloud, 54, is moving back from theory to practice. “I figured out along the way I was a formalist, a critical thinker,” said McCloud.
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But methodology is nothing without emotion.
“The ultimate pride of the hyper-rational artist,” he said in a telephone interview from his home in Newbury Park, California, is to “see if you can create something that wasn’t calculated at all.”
In The Sculptor, McCloud said he was trying to create an emotional story and a visceral reading experience. There was another reason to pursue the project, too.
“It gnawed at me that I had this big, gaping hole in my résumé,” he said: a hefty, solid piece of stand-alone fiction. The Sculptor, about an artist who makes a deal with Death, went through four drafts in two years.
McCloud has been described as “just about the smartest man in comics” by the comic-book auteur Frank Miller, and as the “premier comics theorist” by Publisher’s Weekly. His seminal work, Understanding Comics, led to analytic conversations about the medium, said Mark Evanier, a comic-book historian.
“Scott came up with all his theories and ideas — not all of which people agreed with, but he was starting a dialogue,” Evanier said.
McCloud’s first comic-book series, Zot! — about a teenage adventurer from a utopian parallel universe and his romance with a high school girl — ran periodically from 1984 to 1990. It won industry awards for best new series and most promising newcomer in 1985. “Overall, it was kind of my training wheels,” McCloud said.
His other work includes The New Adventures of Abraham Lincoln, a novella, and the kid-friendly series Superman Adventures.
The Sculptor presents weightier concerns: David Smith is a sullen artist in his 20s and down on his luck. His family is gone, and he has insulted his big investor. His deal with Death — to be immortalised by his artwork — has a literal deadline: In 200 days, his life will end.
But then David meets Meg, an actress suffering from depression. Their relationship inspires and focuses David’s creativity.
An advance review of The Sculptor in Publisher’s Weekly said, “McCloud’s epic generates magic and makes an early play for graphic novel of the year.”
McCloud said that David and Meg were partly inspired by his relationship with his wife, Ivy Ratafia. The character of David is “a capital-F Fool,” McCloud said.
Modelling the character of Meg on his wife made some parts of writing The Sculptor a snap. “I always used her voice — her choice of words, her cadence, her way of communicating with people,” he said. “There are deeper aspects of her personality that I brought into the story.”
Preview pages from The Sculptor have already attracted some interest from Hollywood. “You’ve only seen two pages!” was how McCloud described his initial reaction. Still, he said, “it excites me that if things went well, there might be a not-too-embarrassing movie.”
Ratafia was thrilled about being the model for Meg.
“I’m always feeling like I’m getting away with something, like I’m playing hooky,” McCloud said of time spent with his wife on tour. And working on the graphic novel had another payoff: “I kind of fell in love with her all over again.”