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Elegance and Melodrama

The Sculptor - Scott McCloud

I can't deny that I was disappointed by this book--but then I had very high expectations for it. It is, as I expected, an amazing display of comics technique--beautifully drawn, with masterful variations in the rhythm of the panels, the use of a page, etc., etc.: all the things that  allow visual panels organized on a page to tell a story. And the pictures exude a kind of assured sophistication and elegance, so that the pages are usually a pleasure to look out both with reference to the story they're telling and also as just as something visually pleasing to look at, with an interesting variation on the pattern of repeating boxes on every page.


What didn't work for me was the story these pictures help tell--a weepy melodramatic tale that seems like something about of a nineteen-thrties movie starring somebody like Jimmy Stewart. A loveably boyish but failing artist makes a deal with Death (embodied as his own dead crusty but charming Lionel-Barrymorish great uncle) to be able to mould any material as he wishes in return for agreeing to die in 200 days. Almost as soon as he begins to mould granite and concrete and the sides of buildings into massive works of art (which unfortunately, in the pictures, look incredibly crass and ugly), he falls in love and discovers he has a reason to live in addition to his art. The focus throughout is on what people allow themselves to do, how they prevent themselves from fulfilling their dreams, etc., and so there's all sorts of mid-cult self-help advice about how to live and how to feel and how to love. None of this did all that much to persuade me of the humanity of the characters, who seem way too loveable (and too loved by their creator) and also, way too busy doing endless self-analysis, to offer much in the way of psychological or moral insight--at least not much to me. It just seems, to be honest, sort of self-indulgent and silly.


My major concern, though is the huge disconnect between the quality and tone of the illustrations and of the story.  I can see how the cool tasteful elegance of the style works to temper the fraught quality of the people and the events of the story, but in the long run, it simply, for me, doesn't temper them enough--and perhaps, for that reason, seems wrong, somehow, too cool, too much arousing expectations of Henry James and then offering Ann Landers.


One thing I did enjoy: how the talent Death gives the sculptor turn him into a sort of comic-book superhero, singlehandedly turning skyscrapers into giant statues, and makes the book as a whole a kind of clever twist on conventional superhero stories of damaged people with secret strength-except in this case, the superpower is an ability to make art. That's a nice twist.