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The Sculptor cover

The question "what do you want to be when you grow up?" is mostly associated with children, but it accompanies most people throughout most of their lives: almost everyone feels that they can "grow" personally, professionally or otherwise and become something "bigger" than what they currently are. When I was working on my PhD, I knew exactly what I wanted to be when I grew up as a researcher: I wanted to be Scott McCloud.

I'm sure I wasn't alone in this kind of aspiration—most researchers, even those who have never heard of McCloud, wish they could put together a theoretical framework that is both deep and sophisticated, and at the same time immensely accessible to and popular among a wide audience. This McCloud did in his groundbreaking trilogy of Understanding Comics (1993), Reinventing Comics (2000), and Making Comics (2006). But in McCloud's case, being a top theorist of comics was just the beginning: he had a huge influence on practice too, with his books becoming must-read material for any aspiring comic artist and writer, and he gave comics readers all over the world a whole new perspective on their hobby, making them consider just what comics are, recognizing design styles and page structures as they read their favorite works. Imagine a world in which Bordwell and Thompson's introductory books on film theory were read by at least one person sitting in each theatre, and you'll get an idea of just how influential McCloud's work is on the comic readership.

The Sculptor, McCloud's new graphic novel, marks his return to long-form prose comics after almost two decades of devoting most of his creative energy to theory. And it is all about the question of what people want to do when they grow up. It tells the story of David Smith, a once-promising young sculptor whose career was ruined due to his reckless behavior and family traumas. At the beginning of the novel, David is busy getting drunk on his birthday, feeling sorry for himself, when suddenly death approaches him—taking the appearance of his late uncle Harry—and offers him a deal: the ability to carve anything out of any material and to do so to perfection, in return to his life—which will be claimed within 200 days. Convinced that his role in the world is to make an impression and be remembered as a great artist, David accepts—and, as readers might expect, discovers that perhaps he didn't make a very wise decision.

But even as David faces the trials and tribulations of fulfilling his dream to become a great artist in the short time he has left, finding out that great talent doesn't always lead to success and recognition (or even to the creation of great works) and that there are things worth living for in this world beyond art, it is still unclear if, in accepting death's offer, David has made a Faustian deal with the devil or stepped into a moral fable in the style of It's a Wonderful Life. And McCloud keeps his readers guessing, all the way to the end: in the course of The Sculptor's plot, David grows not just as an artist but as a human being. The muse he finds, a mysterious woman named Meg, helps him in this journey, leading him to realize that good art cannot truly exist if it is not inspired by the people who surround the artist.

And this is not the only observation McCloud makes about the nature of good art in the novel. David's desperate attempts to turn the new magical gift he has for sculpting into something that everyone will admire reminds the readers that indeed everyone's a critic—but the high-brow art critics can be the biggest pain. In his afterword, McCloud discusses the real-life inspiration behind David and Meg's relationship, but I imagine there's quite a lot of autobiography in the way the novel depicts David's relationship with the establishments and gatekeepers of the art world: not just going back to his early career as a struggling artist but also reflecting the controversies that arose from his theoretical works about what comics are and where they should be headed. In fact, when David finally succeeds in making his art a sensation, it is due to a solution that in certain ways reflects McCloud’s ideas about comics, and their creation and distribution in the twenty-first century—especially how they shouldn't be confined to the formats and spaces that they usually occupy.

Another way to look at the plot of The Sculptor, however, is as a clever take on the superhero genre—what David is given is, in essence, a superpower, in an art-world where galleries replace the crime-ridden streets and critics and curators replace traditional villains. But like some better-known superhero who learned a lesson about power and responsibility, David also learns that having a superpower is not enough, and that he has to put it to good use. David's true mission is not just to become a great artist but to leave behind a legacy that applies to all the artists who will follow in his footsteps.

David's story is beautifully visualized. The first thing readers will probably notice is McCloud's choice of colors, using only black, white, and different shades of blue. It gives The Sculptor a unique, moody atmosphere that reflects David's general state of mind, one that he cannot seem to shake even when he is supposedly at the top of his game. As noted above, McCloud encouraged many readers to think of his theoretical ideas while reading comics, and this is certainly true of McCloud's own work: in particular, while reading The Sculptor I couldn't help thinking how his frequent use of moment-to-moment panel transitions loads dialogue with emotional significance without slowing things down.

And above all, The Sculptor is indeed an emotional story, taking its protagonists and readers through an epic journey that moves between triumphs and losses all the way to the end, which includes a bit of both. After many years of teaching the world what comics are and arguing what they can be through theory, in The Sculptor McCloud proves that he is also a master of their practice.

When he's not working on his PhD researching animation as a text, Raz Greenberg works as a content editor for an Internet company, and spends his time writing reviews, articles, and stories. His articles have appeared in Strange Horizons, Animated Views, RevolutionSF, and Salon Futura; his fiction has appeared in FutureQuake, Murky Depths, and Ray Gun Revival, and in several Hebrew genre magazines in his home country of Israel. In 2010, a short story by him was nominated for the Geffen Award, given by the Israeli Society for Science Fiction and Fantasy.

Raz Greenberg divides his time between working as a content editor, lecturing on comics and animation in several academic institutes, writing reviews and articles for a variety of publications (Strange Horizons, Tablet Magazine, and All the Anime, among others), and writing fiction. He muses about overlooked genre classics at the Space Oddities Facebook page.
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