Wednesday, July 22, 2015

'They were never little to me ... and they're not temporary anymore': The pursuit of meaning in Scott McCloud's 'The Sculptor'

The Sculptor, by Scott McCloud, is hands down the most extraordinarily powerful and resonant graphic novel I’ve ever read – in fact, it’s probably one of the most powerful pieces of art/literature I’ve ever seen/read. It’s a look at aesthetics and the arts through an existential lens - the indifference of the universe to one man’s dreams and the senselessness of some of the things that life throws at us.
They were never little to me...
I came to this book because of Steve Seigh on Talking Comics (Issue #172 of the Podcast) – he just talked about it in the most evocative way and I knew that it was something I had to read for myself.

The book's tagline has a few issues, I feel it almost misrepresents it as a boy meets girl cliché. It’s not like that at all. It’s about discovering what actually matters in life and the very real consequences of our decisions and the sacrifices we make. It goes to very dark places. It’s not sugar-coated in any way and Scott McCloud follows through in a tragic, harrowing but also beautiful and uplifting way. 

The relationship between the protagonist, David, and the girl who tells him 'everything will be okay', Meg, is dark as both parties are flawed – David is very self-absorbed as he’s been so completely alone for so long, while Meg struggles with a deep and dark depression. David has to empathise and be there for someone else for the first time in a long time –and she fights him furiously. Though she first appears to him as an angel acting in an art installation, singling him out, he must come to see her as the flawed, beautifully broken and complex human being beneath that angel 'do-gooder' exterior. 
Steve talks about how he read this book till 3 o’clock in the morning, from cover to cover, because he ‘could not put it down’ – I don’t think this is a book you will ever truly put down. I still pick it up and look through the pages and the final panels still make me very emotional.

As a budding sculptor who had been hyped growing up, everyone expected big things of David, he never quite achieved them. When the bills start stacking up and his landlord’s had enough – David finds himself in the depths of despair and hopelessness. He faces the very real questions:

What would you give to be remembered? For your art to ‘mean something’? To make a mark?
David has no one in the world… he’d give his life.

From that moment, he is granted the power to sculpt anything with his bare hands – and 200 days to do it in - 200 days to live.

During those 200 days David has to confront the vagaries of everything he thought he wanted – what does it even mean to ‘mean something’ or to ‘make a mark’? Who exactly is it he wants to remember him? Does that collective entity/audience even exist? What is it that he has to sculpt?

It is harder than he imaged to find that one thing to share with the world to make it all worth it. When he meets Meg he is inspired by her, by the woman who shows him attention and makes him feel worth something, he wants to share what means the most to him. It’s a very complicated and meaningful relationship that builds between them and McCloud does it very well and creates very deep and complex characters. The things that matter are the small, fleeting moments that don't seem big at the time but they're the ones to hang on to - the moments of clarity and contentment - the ones that people may overlook or take for granted, the underrated kindnesses and individual points of meaning that make no impact on anyone else.
Anyone’s who has studied art or been involved in the art community will really identify with this book – it takes a long hard look at the art community and the whims and prejudices artists must contend with – the sense of utter powerlessness that so many feel and the difficulty in standing out. 

N.B. My favourite film from the last year - Whiplash - kind of explores similar issues in the music world; issues like that danger of having a single vision and the things you can lose along the way = perhaps you lose more than you gain in the pursuit of brilliance. However much you come to respect them - neither of the main characters in Whiplash are very balanced or likeable, but you kind of recognise their ambition and understand what they're after - it's one of the great issues and battles of human existence - to chase greatness and to perhaps find you're chasing a red herring.  

The artwork/illustration is spectacular with its melancholy palette of blues, blacks and whites. The expressions of the characters and composition of each scene are so involving and powerful. It’s cinematic and free form and you feel the clock ticking and the growing sense of mania and urgency – the ending is bleak, perhaps cynical in some ways, but it all follows through so perfectly and the whole story is brilliantly executed. I don’t want to give too much away but I want everyone to read this book and feel what I felt. You are very much missing out if you don't, this is one I'll treasure for the rest of my life. 

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