I’ve been fortunate to read some really good books during 2015 and certainly it’s been a good year for the boysbookclub. Whilst I always focus my reading on whatever the book club selection is that month I do try to squeeze in other books and forms as well. Graphic novels provide a perfect way to do this as they don’t necessarily take a long time and it’s a format that I’m really growing to appreciate. Jared and Oliver at OK Comics have been guiding me into a world that I know very little about recommending titles and opening my eyes to the creativity and intelligence of the graphic novel.
The latest book they suggested to me was The Sculptor by Scott McCloud, which is undoubtedly one of the best things I’ve read this year. It’s a 500 page turner of a graphic novel with real depth and emotion throughout that lived long in my memory and raises many fundamental questions on my (our) approach to life, the lives we lead and what we leave behind. These hugely powerful themes are intertwined around a powerful love story, a Faustian pact, a portrait of young urban life, an artistic journey, mortality, aspiration, the commercial art world and mental health.
The Sculptor is brilliantly enjoyable as you are reading it but like the very best novels it seeps into the consciousness after you have finished, leaving little hooks in your mind that you find yourself musing and thinking about in moments of quite reflection long after you have turned the final page.
The novel essentially centres on the life of David Smith, a young sculptor who found fame and patronage early in life but is now down on his luck, working in a fast food restaurant, creatively unproductive, frustrated that his life and art appears to be going nowhere. Whilst drinking in a bar death (in the shape of his deceased uncle) sits with him and offers him a Faustian pact. He will give David the ability to create and sculpt anything that he can imagine out of his bare hands but if he accepts the deal he will only have 200 days before death will take him. Death also shows David an image of his life should he not choose to accept it, what he shows is a good life, working in a community college, teaching art, a wife and family, the type of life that most of us either want or settle for.
Here lies one of the first of the underlying themes of the book, almost all of us have dreams and aspirations, to create something, to leave our mark, to be remembered. For most of us this does not happen and for David he is faced with a choice of essentially a good life or a short life that realises his creative ambitions. David accepts the deal with Death but it still leaves him struggling with how to unleash his creativity and sculpt something that will realise his ambitions and leave a permanent legacy after he has gone.
What David has not considered is the strange twists that life can deliver and like all of us David never knows when love might strike. A surreal chance encounter sees David falling madly in love with Meg, a jobbing actor and performance artist. David is forbidden by death to tell anyone including Meg of the deal that he has made so he divides his time spending as much time as he can with Meg and then during the night working on his art trying harness his power to create his legacy.
Meg and David’s fast developing relationship is beautifully captured and I really felt for the characters and had a powerful pang in my chest knowing what was going to happen to David. Meg has a spontaneity to her which is instantly likeable compared to David’s intense over-worthiness but each character realises that together they are better people than they are apart.
The days pass and the David’s destiny is approaching, his art is still not the hit he wants and in his interaction with agents, galleries and patrons the book shines a light on the contemporary art world and makes you question who decides what is good art. In the end David physically sculpts the world around him, eschewing the art world and leaving his work to be discovered in the mornings after night time creative sessions. In doing so he brings the attention of the law enforcement agencies down on him as they try to uncover who is doing this. Echoes here of graffiti artists and the question of whether it’s vandalism or art.
As I was reading the book I really wanted to know what was going to happen and was genuinely gripped. Would David create his legacy, was Death going to insist on the pact, what was going to happen to David and Meg’s relationship, would David tell Meg about the pact. I’m not going to reveal here what happens but the story is brought to it’s conclusion with a really powerful emotional twist.
As I don’t really know much about the graphic medium I’m not familiar with the names of authors so Scott McCloud doesn’t mean anything to me but apparently he’s a bit of a big deal in the comic world, regarded as one of the smartest minds operating in the field and renowned as a theorist on all things comic. Perhaps though as McCloud himself hits middle age he has been musing on his own legacy and in doing so it has driven him to create this masterpiece. Does the protagonist of the novel reflect McCloud’s own artist journey in completing his first large fictional narrative ?
The Sculptor was five years in the making and it’s painstaking thoughtful creation left a profound mark on me. It is often said that the best art is a mirror to your own life and experience and this brilliant page turner left me lingering on my own life, mortality and life’s purpose. Powerful stuff, and I’d urge you to read it.