Go to: Fusion, by Juana Medina
The Sculptor reminded me of that final bit from the 1984 film Amadeus when the aging composer Antonio Salieri realizes that he will never be remembered as anything more than another humdrum talent. So he declares himself the patron saint of mediocrity and absolves everyone around him of their own unremarkable qualities. Scott McCloud seems to be engaging in a somewhat similar act in this tortured, just shy of 500 pages, meditation on the nature of art, fame, and his own place in the comics pantheon. Not that McCloud makes any direct reference to himself in the story. His main hero David Smith is a failed sculptor, the running gag being that he shares his name with a real-life famous sculptor and dozens of anonymous people living in New York city. But David expresses some very definite ideas about art that will be recognizable to readers of McCloud’s Understanding Comics. Since that book’s publication, McCloud has acquired a reputation for being a notable comics theorist. But The Sculptor marks a much-heralded return to professional fiction writing after more than a decade’s absence, not to mention a test case for McCloud to put his own theories into practice. Dave himself starts out in a creative rut, and spends much of the book fighting his inner demons, which are an emotionally crippling blend of self-loathing and uncompromising perfectionism.
David is sort of an angrier, older version of Jenny Weaver from Zot! Despite being a reasonably good-looking guy, he’s too much of a social misfit to make friends, let alone get a girl to go out with him. More regrettably for him, he's burned almost all of his bridges to the highly competitive New York art scene. As he’s wallowing in self-pity, David receives a visitation from Death itself in the form of favorite uncle Harry. He’s then offered two options: Live a long and happy life in total obscurity, or make his mark on the world in the next 200 days before dying. When David chooses the latter, Harry imbues him with a superpower which will make it easy to mold any material into any shape or form - a useful skill for a sculptor.
Unfortunately, this is where the story begins to unravel a bit. But let’s first talk about the book’s virtues. McCloud has had a lot of time to hone his craft. Though not a particularly strong figure artist, here he doesn’t shrink from the arduous task of portraying dozens of very different individuals. And the results pay off. Even secondary and background characters feel well-thought out. And for a story set in New York, McCloud does a great job in capturing the city’s crowded conditions and diverse settings. The dark blue duotone palette combined with his scratchy linework produces a certain gritty, timeless appeal to the great metropolis. And his choice of viewing his characters from above in many panels conveys the imposing scale of the city’s architecture.
And the book is an engrossing page turner. The 200-day time limit creates plenty of tension to keep the reader guessing as to whether David will be able to sculpt anything memorable before the deadline, or whether he’ll be able to find a way out of his Faustian bargain. The Sculptor becomes increasingly cinematic as McCloud employs every panel-to-panel transition technique and nonlinear narrative device he’s outlined in the past to manipulate the flow of time within the story.
But McCloud has a habit of trading in archetypes that prevents him from shaping more believable characters. As a mouthpiece for McCloud’s aesthetic philosophy, it’s a laudable choice that David starts out as such an unsympathetic individual. His tendency to view the world from the vantage of moral absolutes and his initial complaint that he doesn’t have the chops to translate his vision into real art will be all too familiar to anyone who's hung around in an art school setting. There’s just a certain rigidity in execution that doesn’t allow McCloud to develop his character in unexpected ways or to acquire a more nuanced world view. At one point, David becomes a guerrilla artist. But this doesn’t mark any greater engagement with anyone outside of his small circle, or an increase in social awareness. He’s essentially still the same mopey individual, only now he’s defacing public property. This makes the book’s cheaply melodramatic conclusion kind of irritating. Even if David’s final artistic statement isn’t supposed to be a great masterpiece (which it clearly isn’t), does he still have to be so obnoxious about it?
Exacerbating David’s insufferable high mindedness is that for a college trained New York artist, he’s kind of crappy at what he does. That’s because his works look less like what a mediocre artist would produce than a cartoonist’s half-assed ideas about sculpture. For all their superficial similarities to abstract expressionism, they’re too pictorial, too tied up to a specific narrative, with not enough thought about their 3D qualities. A snooty critic compares them to a Polynesian gift shop. I’d say David’s sculptures have more in common with the PVC statues and action figures sold in comic conventions than the works found in an obscure student art gallery. This highlights McCloud’s artistic limitations. His style doesn’t quite succeed in projecting that sense of mass and volume needed to properly portray on the page David’s chosen medium.
The Sculptor actually devotes very little of its 500 pages to David’s creative process, and more to the love story between him and the enigmatic Meg. in my review of Zot! I noted how Zot was largely devoid of an inner life. His main job was to pull Jenny out of her misery. This is exactly the same with Meg and David. He first meets her playing an angel in a public performance piece, and she quickly becomes his muse. Meg’s so much of a savior figure that she even initiates David into certain mysteries of sex and how to relate to an actual functioning adult. Yeesh! To his credit, McCloud doesn’t make Meg half as ebullient as Zot. But his attempts to make her a more rounded personality are clunky in their delivery, particularly the introduction of her bipolar disorder. It still fails to impart Meg with much individual agency, let alone a complex inner life. So it turns into just another thing David has to deal with and work through on his way to making his deadline.
As for the art market David desperately wants to become a part of while constantly throwing shade at it, many of the attacks he levels at it are pretty familiar: Its disconnect from the rest of the world. The fixation on celebrity. A concern for economic value that overides artistic merit. But there’s something about the dogmatic proscription about what defines art combined with the book’s penchant for sentimental portrayal that comes across as immensely self-indulgent. And that ultimately ends up reinforcing the system it critiques.
Cover Design: Keeli McCarthy
If You Steal is the third compilation of short stories from Norwegian cartoonist John Arne Sæterøy, aka Jason, to be published for the English language market. In many ways, this is his most accessible book. Almost all of the eleven stories use some kind of hook based on popular genre conventions. His treatment to these elements is playful, at least for a Jason comic. On display is his usual inimitable style: The anthropomorphic characters with the deadpan expressions and hunched poses. The middle distance perspective. The unvarying four panel grid. Decompressed silent panels. The sparse detail of his clear line. All the stories make for a quick read. But the variety of subject matter and execution on display hints at the inventiveness that belies his outwardly uncomplicated drawings.
Take the lead story “If You Steal”, A crime drama about a lowlife forced to commit to one more heist in order to pay off some huge gambling debts - the usual setup. The melancholic tone and sense of inevitable tragedy will be familiar to readers of his past collections. But the entire narrative is broken down into one page vignettes recounted out of sequence. Each page is an example of economic storytelling. But put together, they give the reader just enough information, not to mention a few ambiguous Magritte imagery, to piece together the broad stroke of events.
The playfulness continues with “Karma Chameleon”, a homage to those 1950s sci-fi B-movies featuring giant monsters which are actually just normal animals being obviously enlarged through the era’s cheap film effects. The story features the usual cast of characters: the hero, the local sheriff, an eccentric scientist, and his beautiful daughter. And there’s the predictable showdown between monster and military. But the eccentric scientist can’t even keep on topic, preferring to talk about masturbation to anyone he can corner.
Jason then turns his attention in "Lorena Velazquez" to another 1950s movie tradition - Mexican films starring lucha libre wrestlers like Santo battling all manner of supernatural horrors, because why not? The story is fairly straightforward, with the masked hero entering a castle to rescue a damsel in distress. He takes out a couple of hooded henchmen. But things quickly become chaotic as he confronts a vampire, a Frankenstein monster, a horde of mummies, a wolfman, all manner of aliens, even Adolph Hitler himself. It’s absolutely nuts.
Come to think about it, many of the stories riff off famous mid-20th century figures: Frida Kahlo is an assassin who works for the mob, a mashup of Brigitte Bardot and Samuel Beckett’s famous play Waiting for Godot, the Van Morrison album Moondance reimagined as a series of 1950s horror comic book covers, a story about jazz musician Chet Baker, or the most ludicrous theory linking the assassination of John F. Kennedy to 9/11. It’s a fairly wide sampling of pop culture, all of which may have shaped Jason’s sensibilities.
Jason’s visuals are usually so consistent that I couldn't discern if these stories were originally published together, or if they were assembled from disparate sources. Unfortunately, Fantagraphics doesn't supply any information within the book's pages. Whatever the case, this is as good an introduction as any to the artist’s peculiar blend of surface kitsch and sardonic humor. Though in the closing story “Nothing”, Jason seems to do away with any outside reference in order to tell a humane and disturbing tale of frailty.