‘The Sculptor’: Scott McCloud molds a tale of art, love and death

Feb. 03, 2015 | 3:31 p.m.

If you could trade decades of your life for the chance to achieve your dreams, would you?

It’s the deal that Death offers a young artist named David in Scott McCloud’s new graphic novel,  “The Sculptor” — 200 days to live in exchange for unfettered creative ability. David is granted the power to sculpt with his bare hands “at the speed of thought,” McCloud explains, and the intensely focused protagonist races against his death countdown to create something lasting and important. But when he struck the bargain to end his life, he didn’t expect to fall in love.

In “The Sculptor,” which is out today from First Second, McCloud inks a heartbreaking tale of the meaning of life, the impact of art and the transformative influence of love in gorgeous black, white and blue.

The Eisner and Harvey Award-winning author of “Making Comics,” “Understanding Comics” and “Reinventing Comics” will discuss his graphic novel on Feb. 10 at the Los Angeles Public Library’s “Aloud” series.

Hero Complex chatted with McCloud about “The Sculptor,” but be warned — spoilers lie ahead.

Hero Complex: I understand you got the idea for this story when you were in high school?

Scott McCloud: I’m not sure exactly when the first idea came along. I know I wrote it down in this old three-ring binder that I’ve had since high school, but it might have been college. It started as just a random little superhero idea that wound up with all the other ideas I had for these characters that I’ll probably never actually put in a comic. But this one joined up with a more interesting story in my early 20s partially inspired by Ivy, this woman I was in love with at the time, though she didn’t know it, and that I later married. And by my late 20s it had taken enough of its final form that I knew I had to write this story someday, but it would be decades before I got around to it.

A page from "The Sculptor," by Scott McCloud. (First Second)

A page from “The Sculptor” by Scott McCloud. (First Second)

HC: If Meg is so heavily based on your wife, how much input did she have with this story? Did you talk things over with her as you created a character inspired by her?

SM: We’ve been married for 27 years, and she’s always been my first and most reliable adviser when it comes to figuring out how to write my stories. I think she took a hands-off approach with this particular character, because she knew it was up to me how much of her to include in the story. I wanted to make sure that first and foremost, the story worked as a story, and that might have meant being pretty ruthless in cutting things out. If there was something about Ivy that didn’t quite fit, then I would have to take out the knives, and then off it goes. But in the end, I think that the character’s orbit came a little closer to her in the end, and it made the character of Meg a richer character because of it. And in the end I think there’s probably a little bit more of Ivy than anything else in that character. She’s about 70% Ivy, whereas the character of David maybe has about 40% of me thrown in there.

HC: Meg is such a wonderfully complex character.

SM: We should take note of the fact that I cheated here, because I had her 3 feet away, and I could just reach in and grab whatever words I needed to. Whenever there was a scene where she spoke, it was almost like all I had to do was close my eyes and listen.

HC: Why did you choose sculpture?

SM: You know, the one thing I never really sat down and thought about was the choice of sculpture as opposed to say my protagonist being a painter, or a cartoonist for that matter. I never chose that, because that was where the story began — that idea of sculpting with one’s bare hands. It’s like a jazz musician who decides to do a riff on “Baa Baa Black Sheep,” the one thing that he never really thinks about in the creative process is the choice of “Baa Baa Black Sheep” because that’s its origin point. But I think that sculpture was particularly suited to this story because it’s graphic, it’s visual, but it’s also spacial, and part of the cartoonist’s challenge in a project like this is creating a sense of an illusionistic, three-dimensional space, entirely using the tools of flatland, just lines on paper. And if done right, that can be very absorbing and can pull the reader in. So it gave me a lot to work with visually, so I’m glad of that choice, however inadvertent or unthinking that choice was.

HC: Have you ever done any sculpture?

SM: No. As a matter of fact, when I was young, I loved to draw, but I was terrified to do anything three-dimensional. In grade school, when they would give me scissors or cardboard, I hated that stuff because it was so messy. I wanted to create whole imaginary cities in my mind with my pencil and my ruler. I didn’t want to actually be in this world and make stuff with my imperfect, clunky hands and those blunted leftie scissors and that awful paste that we had in those days. I wasn’t a messy guy. I was a very precise, slightly OCD kid, and so I didn’t relate to that stuff, and I envied the kids who could just grab and rip and throw things on top of other things and just make stuff without thinking. So in a way, maybe I’m addressing that insecurity in myself.

A page from "The Sculptor," by Scott McCloud. (First Second)

A page from “The Sculptor” by Scott McCloud. (First Second)

HC: When David sculpts with his hands, you bring such a range of motion to metal and stone — things we think are static and sturdy. How did you arrive at the particular dynamic, liquid look of this process?

SM: It changed, actually, as the project went on, because I did several drafts in the layout stage for two years before I ever drew a single finished panel, and the way that I showed him sculpting with his hands, it changed. At the beginning, I was a little nervous about embracing the things that I learned with superhero comics, through reading and drawing superhero comics over the years, because much of my career has been oriented toward trying to convince people that comics are so much more than superheroes, that they’re so much more than adolescent power fantasies. So I held back. I didn’t use the toolkit that I had to really create exciting, dynamic panels, because I didn’t want it to look like just another superhero comic. But my friends who read the book for me and gave me feedback, including Ivy, they urged me to embrace it, to be unapologetic about it, to say, “Yes, on some level, this is a superhero story.” And they encouraged me to not be shy about using those tools. So it became more dynamic, more exciting, more graphically compelling once I gave myself permission to go in that direction.

HC: David even has a page where he proclaims, “I’m the master of the universe!” He’s running down the street, and the sky is streaking above him — it feels very much like a superhero origin story moment.

SM: But of course, immediately, he trips over a fruit vendor. Because you can’t make that kind of proclamation in a comic without expecting the universe to send you down a manhole or have you slip on a banana peel or something. But yeah, it is. It’s very much an origin story, and it even has some of the superhero elements such as the deceased parents — something we associate with superhero origin stories. Everybody remembers Batman. But in this way, it points to them, but it’s an entirely different kind of story. It still has something in its DNA that marks it as part of American comics history, and that’s something now that I think I’m more at peace with than I was while working with it. It took me a minute to just accept that, yes, this comes from the American comics culture, and this has traces of that culture, including the superhero aspects to that story. And it’s OK to accept where I’ve come from, to accept the culture I grew up in as a kid, so long as I was willing to really go the distance and try to understand and transcend those power fantasies. And one of the ways I did that from the very beginning is the very first scene where we see this comic that my protagonist David had drawn when he was only 9 years old, but you know, in a way that was a way of connecting to childhood fantasies.

It’s very fractal, this thing, because we’re looking at this young man, who is looking at a much younger version of himself and his fantasies, the 9-year-old David. He’s contemplating his wishes as a 9-year-old. But then also, David’s story is a story of a young man, conceived of by a young man; I was in my 20s, I was about his age when I first thought of this story, or at least when the story first came into focus, and now I’m writing that story as a much older man. I began writing it when I was nearly 50 years old. I was nearly twice the age that he was. And what I tried to do was not turn my back on the vitality and preposterous ambition of that young man’s story, but try to understand it and harness it with maybe some of the wisdom and perspective of a much older writer, trying to capture the best of both worlds. At least I hope so.

A page from "The Sculptor," by Scott McCloud. (First Second)

A page from “The Sculptor” by Scott McCloud. (First Second)

HC: Did you set up some specific rules for the physics of David’s sculpting power?

SM: I imagine that if I was in a situation like that, I’d be able to work pretty fast. That’s what he does, he works ridiculously fast. So in terms of showing the physics and rules of the game, I’m showing all of his obstacles gone. He’s sculpting at the speed of thought, basically, so that with all of his obstacles eliminated he comes up against the wall, the limitations of his own imagination or his own understanding of what he actually wants, which turns out to be the more interesting story. And then determining the parameters of this deal, and the fact that he can’t tell anybody about it, and that he has 200 days, a lot of these are the kind of narrative constructions that determine the periphery of the game board, basically, because I think at that point the game becomes interesting. You have to know where the board is, and the shape and size of the board, and then the pieces land, and you begin the game.

HC: What would you choose if Death offered you the choice of a long life with a family in the suburbs — the choice most people make — versus the unlimited ability but for a very limited amount of time?

SM: I know that when I was David’s age, if given that opportunity, I would have said yes in a heartbeat. There’s no question about it. Because a life with meaning, however short, always trumps a life without meaning, and that’s how I looked at it when I was in my 20s. Now of course a lot of the meaning in my life comes from my family, comes from my relationships, but if ever forced to choose between my art and my life, it would be a horrible choice. Yes, I’d probably choose those relationships over these stories that I’ve made, but it really is central to who I am now, the things that I make. And I’m a real workaholic. I mean, on this one I worked five years, 11 hours a day for most of the time, except for the last year when I worked 13, 14 hours a day. I really identify with people like [Japanese animator Hayao] Miyazaki who supposedly retired, but then announced a little bit later that he could no longer take working five days a week, he had to go back to at least six. That was his idea of retirement — five days a week. And I understand that.

But we have a nice balance in my family. I work really hard on these projects, but then we have fun when it’s done. When I finished my last book in 2006, “Making Comics,” my wife and I and our two girls, we went on a 50-state of the United States for a year. It was a promotional tour, so it was work, I suppose, in a way, but it was also being together the whole time. We drove everywhere except for Hawaii. We even drove up the coast to Alaska. It was fantastic.

HC: One of the things that Penelope tells David in the comic is that art can change the world, just very, very slowly. Do you think comics have been around long enough to change the world?

SM: Yeah, I think they have. Of course, we have a rather dark side of that principle in our recent news story with the Charlie Hebdo murders in France. Sometimes art can provoke darker actions and much more swift ones. But you know, it’s true. When people woke up the morning after the Armory Show in 1913 in New York, where artists like Marcel Duchamp first came to our shores, now this was a big bang in the art world, this was an enormously important time, but they still woke up the next day and went to work, just like they had the day before. They didn’t come in to the coffeemaker or the watercooler and start talking about how art would never be the same again simply because people like Duchamp were putting mustaches on the Mona Lisa. That was not the subject of conversation, yet art would never be the same again, and it did change the world. But very slowly. Which of course is the great cosmic joke. Because David hopes for a 200-day turnaround in a world in which we count progress by centuries.

HC: Another interesting conversation in the book was between David and Ollie about deciding which art is objectively better. Ollie argues it’s all subjective, and David says that even if it’s not popular or trendy, it is known that some art is objectively better.

SM: Right, it is known. Exactly. That’s a beautiful way to put it. It is known. And if he’s forced to articulate it, he has to admit that there’s something ridiculous about it. Ollie describes it as this idea that there’s an Art-O-Meter somewhere on Jupiter that’s measuring all this stuff for us, and of course there isn’t. But this is a story in some ways about losing your religion, you might say. And this is written and drawn by an atheist, but I’m also in some ways depicting a kind of faith that we have in art that there’s something outside of human judgment that determines that Mozart is just different from Celine Dion. And it’s terrifying to us to think that this might not be true. Maybe I shouldn’t pick on Celine. Poor Celine Dion. Maybe there’s a better example, between Picasso and Bob Ross. Oh, but people love Bob Ross. What am I saying? But you know what I mean. We have this faith that there’s some kind of external judgment, and this is what terrifies David, is the inner knowledge that there isn’t. When he believes that his work has been rejected, and there just happened to be 12 people in the room at the time, and it makes him think of a jury, and it makes him feel as if there’s been a verdict on his art. Ollie tries to console him, because David is worried that his work might be worthless and he doesn’t know it, and Ollie tells him, relax. Nobody knows anything. But for David, this is even worse, the idea that nobody knows anything. Like you said, that it is not known, that there must be some way that it is known that the one thing is better than the other, that the one artist is better than the other. It’s terrifying to David that that might not be true.

HC: So as an artist who has described himself as having maybe an OCD approach to his work, is this a journey that you relate to, there not being some judge out there to take note of the more fastidious approach that you’ve taken?

SM: Oh, yeah. But I’ve been lucky in a lot of ways, because I’m not Van Gogh. I’m not struggling in obscurity, creating things that future generations will appreciate, but that everybody ignores in my lifetime. I’ve been pretty lucky.  I’ve usually had at least some kind of audience. I’m getting a good audience for this book so far. So I don’t feel as if I’m starved for sunlight, and I don’t have that same frustration. Whatever effect this work has in the long run, at least I’m getting a little bit of affection in this life, so I don’t have to feel abandoned. But I have some of the same struggles as David, just in the sense that I had this idea that maybe I could create things that would last, maybe I could create things that would still be around 20 or 40 or 60 years after I was gone. But I had trouble, too, letting go of that idea, that there’s some kind of external standard, and I would have debates with a friend of mine, Larry Marder, who definitely was a hard-line “it is what people say it is” type of thinker. Basically when Ollie and David are talking, it’s often influenced by conversations I’ve had with Larry, and he would tell me things like that — it is if enough people say it is.

A page from "The Sculptor," by Scott McCloud. (First Second)

A page from “The Sculptor” by Scott McCloud. (First Second)

HC: And in the book, Meg’s solution is embracing the idea that everything dies and everything is forgotten.

SM: Exactly, and if you know you’re heading out the door, isn’t it better to be facing forward instead of facing backwards? To be pulled screaming, backwards, into the void. Isn’t it better to step forward hand in hand with others? And in a way, I hope that’s what I’m offering in this story to some degree. This idea that everybody gets forgotten can be a frightening idea, but it can also be a comforting idea too. Knowing, for all the people struggling in obscurity, that they have company. It’s just the human condition. There’s nothing wrong with them. They’re not being singled out by fate. They’re part of the great mass of humanity. And this is the great majority of people who have ever had any kind of artistic impulse. The great majority do step into the void, and they are forgotten. That’s most of us. I’m telling the story about everybody else. Usually we get the stories about the Mozarts and the Beethovens and the Leonardo da Vincis, but what about everybody else?

HC: Another theme in your story is the idea of choosing your family. The family you choose versus, in David’s case, he’s lost, and in Meg’s case, she’s built. Is that also drawn from your own experience?

SM: When my wife and I were first married, we shared an apartment with our friend Alice, and Thanksgivings were often not so much family affairs as they were just friends. We had a lot of friends who, for one reason or another, were separated by distance from their families or just separated emotionally from their families, and the idea of the making of family is interesting to me. Just like the idea of the making of a sense of home is interesting to me. So I wanted to see if I could capture that, and I think it’s important, the realization, late in the book, this idea that David has lost his whole family isn’t entirely true because he still has Ollie, and Ollie had been very much adopted by his family back in high school. We’re not told why, but we can probably guess. I think David’s coming to understand that just like Meg, he can create a family through his relationships even beyond his blood relationships. It’s some comfort to him and it’s an important realization for him.

HC: You also show a lot of ritual, with the lighting of the candles for Hanukkah. Or when Meg says her prayer before bed, and David asks her who she is praying to, and her answer is sort of, it doesn’t really matter. Were you trying to say something about religion and ritual?

SM: As far as the praying goes, in a way I think that that too relates to this idea that Meg is not living an aesthetically rigorous life the way that David is. David has made these promises to himself, and he’s taking a very hard-line approach to every aspect of his life. Meg is more open to contradictions, and more open to unresolved ideas. The idea that she’s not praying to anyone in particular doesn’t bother her, whereas it’s sort of natural for David to commit to one belief or another. It’s letting go of faith, in part. Throughout this book, that’s one of the things that David is doing, is letting go of faith. That goes beyond religious faith, but also that faith in absolute principles. One step he takes very late in the book is finally letting go of his promises to himself, of starting to break those promises as a symbolic capitulation to the fact that there are no absolutes. I think Meg embodies that. With that prayer scene, she’s just showing that sense that it doesn’t trouble her that there’s something contradictory or odd in what she does. If it makes her feel happy and doesn’t harm anyone, she does it, plain and simple, doesn’t stop to question it. And I think David comes closer to that as well.

You know my wife, when my children were very young (they’re in college now), I was really torn on how to handle the whole Santa Claus thing, because I didn’t like the idea of lying to my kids, but I also wanted them to have that same magical experience that I had when I was young. I grew up in a Protestant family. Ivy grew up Jewish. Both of us are basically secular, humanist types now. But the way I handled it was, I never said that Santa Claus did this or did that. We’d go through the charade, we’d wait until they’d go to sleep, we’d bring the presents down, we’d do all that stuff, but if they asked me if Santa Claus was real, I would say, “I don’t know. I’ve never seen him. I’ve never met Santa Claus, so I don’t know.” And Ivy would always say that she did believe in Santa Claus. She meant it. She chose to believe it while she was speaking to our kids. She wasn’t lying, exactly. She was simple choosing as a matter of how to live that she would be a woman who believes in Santa Claus. I think it had a similar spirit to what Meg is doing in that scene.

A page from "The Sculptor," by Scott McCloud. (First Second)

A page from “The Sculptor” by Scott McCloud. (First Second)

HC: Another thing you chose to tackle was depression.

SM: That was actually one of the hardest things about the book, because Ivy has suffered from depression and has had mood swings a lot like Meg, so that came from real life, and it was important not to give it short shrift, but it was also important to remember what the story was about. And this related to aspects of that story, but I couldn’t really go off on an 80-page tangent about the day-to-day problems of living with depression. Its place in the story had more to do with David encountering the complexity and difficulty of day-to-day living at a time when he was so concentrated on achieving this one simple goal, and he wanted life to be simple. And Meg pretty much tells him that — she understands he wants it to be simple, and the reality of who she is is not allowing life to be simple. And that’s the place that it occupies in the story.

HC:  What do you want to do now? Take a long break? Another cross-country trip?

SM: We’re definitely traveling. We’re going to 14 cities in 16 days in a couple of weeks here in the U.S., and then I’m going to six countries in Europe because the book is being released simultaneously there. And then Ivy and I, we already have a number of university talks. So yeah, we’re going to find the excuse to travel. We’re just going to have an adventure and see what happens next.

– Noelene Clark | @NoeleneClark | Google+

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