Scott McCloud defined the language of comic book creation and critical thought with his lauded 1993 tome Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. In advance of his appearance at Brattle Theatre in Harvard Square on Thursday, February 5, I got a chance to talk with him about his latest 500 page graphic novel, The Sculptor, and his glorious return to comics.
What can readers expect from The Sculptor?
For starters, it’s big. It’s just under 500 pages long and it is a story about a young sculptor in New York City who had a taste of early success and is now contemplating his life as a loser when he gets an opportunity from a visitor to have everything he needs to succeed — at least physically — but he has only 200 days to live. It’s a traditional Faustian bargain, [but] this time the supernatural visitor is Death, not The Devil. I’m not too keen on devils and Hell, being an atheist.
The real challenge [for the main character] is an internal one because as soon as he has power to mold anything with his bare hands, he runs up against his own artistic limitations and desires, and finds it isn’t so easy. When all the other obstacles drop away, there are still those internal obstacles.
Then he crashes headlong into this romance at the eleventh hour, and the question of how to spend one’s days becomes critical for him.
It is a race against the clock in a way. He has a superpower and it’s about how he deals with having a finite number of days. He can also be penalized if he makes certain decisions, he then has less days. I was seeing these as very much comic book ideas.
Yeah, and this is something I had to come to grips with myself, because I was going around for decades talking about how comics can be more than just superheroes. Then I have an idea that I love but it has that superhero quality to it. This is one of the reasons why when the book starts we see that this wish of his in part grows out of the thing he did as a kid. He made a comic where he had a power sort of like this.
You are working with these huge archetypes. How did you go about laying out this whole story over 500 pages, incorporating superhero ideas? Was that all there at the beginning?
Part of it was, the idea of Death was there. The conceit of what appears to be an angel at the beginning came to me [during] the actual making of it. There were a few decades before I started in earnest working on the project, then there were the five years that took me to make the thing.
Is what prompted so many revisions was wanting to try different things out?
It was more that the story was starting to come to focus in my mind. The first revision was about fixing things. With each revision, it became about excavating what was below the crap. Seeing the shape of the story of what it wanted to be and pull that story out. Occasionally I would have a neat little bit, something that works with comics or was interesting, and then I would realize that while it might be nice—it didn’t really belong. It didn’t really have anything to do with what that story was ultimately about. If you can pull it off, if you can have the parts reflect the whole, that’s hopefully a book that feels like it has a breathing heart, [that] breathes when it is on the shelf at night.
A lot of the things over the course of my career could be the collection of parts, [but] I didn’t want it to feel that way.
The character shares the name David Smith with a very famous sculptor. And that comes into play. He also struggles with identity and doesn’t think that highly of himself. As a reader, you are very much able to identify with David, especially artists. Even though he is talented he is still broke. What makes people want to get to know him better?
You mentioned artists identifying with him and I think that a lot of us are artists on some level or [just] want to be remembered. Even if people don’t go into something classified as “art”, we want to be remembered. There have been many stories about artistic greatness, misunderstood geniuses, but 99-percent of all people [involved] in art at some point put it aside. Very few manage to stay fully in the sunlight. Their stories are important too, and their struggles are no less poignant. In a way, I’m telling their stories. I’m trying to. I have a compassion and an admiration for them.
David is still a bit of a punk—he wants to say “Fuck You” to this guy or that guy. So he is choosing to spend his time messing around, not creating or being righteous all the time.
He’s a purist, [and] sometimes people that are purists and true to certain principles that they [deem] important can come across as noble, or as dickheads. That all stems from not compromising on your ideals. That is something that is a struggle in his career and his relationships.
David sets up parameters, promises, not moral codes but he won’t borrow a dollar to buy a Coke or won’t take rides. He made a promise to someone that is no longer around. He’s setting his own limits but everyone around him is saying you’re crazy, take the dollar.
We never know the origin of his ‘promises’ [however] we do know that before his father died, he told his dad he would always keep his promises. With someone with his temperament, you can see him taking that very seriously. It is also a reflection of his personality. A bit obsessive compulsive. A little emotionally stunted in some way. Even if he doesn’t think an all powerful deity is watching him, [he believes] if he lets it go, if he weakens for only a minute he will be plunged into a purgatory of compromise. He is terrified to go there.
Do you have any other projects down the line? I know you are going on tour for this book as well.
We are going to 14 cities in 16 days in February, and then six countries following that. This book is going to be coming out this Spring in six languages. There may be others coming very soon. We expect to do a lot of traveling in 2015. The next book is about visual communication and the principles [underlying] any number of different fields. I want to see if I can distill how we communicate with pictures and how it is important to the future of communication.
That will be beyond comic books…
It will take the form of a comic, but yes beyond comics [touching on] education, animation, to data visualizations, [asking] what are some of the common principles we should all try to appreciate in the pursuit of better communication with pictures.
HARVARD BOOKS PRESENTS: SCOTT MCCLOUD DISCUSSES THE SCULPTOR. THE BRATTLE THEATRE, 40 BRATTLE ST., CAMBRIDGE. FEB 5 AT 5:30PM/$5.