10:32am PT by Graeme McMillan
Scott McCloud On Burying Theory and Building A Page-Turner With 'The Sculptor'
With his Understanding Comics trilogy of comic book textbooks, Scott McCloud pretty much redefined what it meant to read (and make) comic books, becoming one of the most high-profile theorists about the medium in the process. As a result, The Sculptor — his return to fiction and his first full-length comic book project since 2006's Making Comics — is something that many people have been waiting for, if only to see McCloud put his theories into practice.
"There's no question that a lot of attention was going to be on me coming back to fiction after having the balls to tell everyone how to read and write comics, since if I failed, it was going to be a pretty conspicuous, spectacular failure," McCloud tells The Hollywood Reporter about the expectations surrounding his new project, released this week by Macmillan's First Second imprint. "I think that helped drive me forward."
However, The Sculptor is far from a dry experience of watching a master at work. "I wanted, as much as possible, to bury that theory and make the reading experience as transparent as possible," McCloud explains about the graphic novel that follows an artist struggle with his lack of success in both his work and interpersonal relationships, only for both to change in unexpected ways. "I didn't want people reading and thinking about my process, I want people reading and thinking about the story and the characters and the world." The book, he says, is intended to be "every bit as engaging and exciting as binge-watching a season of Orange is The New Black. I wanted it to be a page-turner."
He certainly worked hard to ensure that result. Writing and drawing The Sculptor took around five years, but McCloud admits that it's unofficially been in the works for even longer. "I was in my early 20s, maybe even 19, when the idea first came along," he said. "I put the story on the back burner for years, but it never quite went away."
While McCloud built his reputation with independent projects such as superhero series Zot!, The New Adventures of Abraham Lincoln and the massively successful Understanding Comics, Reinventing Comics and Making Comics, the story that would eventually become The Sculptor remained in his head, waiting for the right time to emerge. "It became a challenge of taking the vitality and curiosity and passion of a young man's story and tempering with the perspective and, hopefully, a little wisdom that's come in the intervening years," he remembers. "I wanted it to be a young man's story told by an old man that hopefully preserves the best qualities of both."
Finding that balance meant that the project went through multiple iterations. "We did four drafts of the layouts," McCloud says. "There were two years before I drew any of the finished panels, just working on the layouts. The ending is just about the only thing that never really changed. The way the story plays through to the end was, for me, the heart of what made it that story. It went through the least number of changes. Nearly every other scene was structurally, significantly changed through the four drafts of the story."
One of the concerns, McCloud reveals, was finding the right balance that allowed David Smith — the sculptor of the book's title, who makes a deal to turn his childhood wish to be able to sculpt anything he can imagine with his bare hands into a reality at the cost of his own life — to be someone the reader could empathize with, without losing what makes him a troubled (and troubling, at times) character.
"One of the first tasks we had to approach was that David was less likable in earlier drafts," McCloud says. "The goal in working and reworking the story was to ensure that David still had those hard edges, that he was prickly and obsessive and maddening in his particular way, but that we had a path into his mind to understand what he wanted and why he wanted it enough, that there's a connection with the reader. Part of the arc of the story is, of course, David's journey in earning the affections and identification of the reader. That's part of what he's doing, he's courting our affection and collaboration in his efforts."
There was also the issue of how to depict David's gift. Without spoiling the book, it's not merely that he becomes a talented sculptor; his skill goes far beyond the literal and into magic realism, something McCloud initially struggled with. "I was a little shy of embracing the excitement of the power fantasy at the heart of the book," he admits. "I've spent a whole career moving away from superheroes — I have them in my own roots, American comics have them in their DNA somewhere — and that anxiety was something that I had to overcome, and embrace the fact that it is an exciting fantasy to master your environment in the way that David does."
The key, McCloud realized, came in being able to rework the opening of the book, in which David is given a comic book he created as a child, wherein his ability is treated as an outright power fantasy. "I had actually drawn the book, and I convinced my editor to let me go back and rework the first 50 pages," he says. "I realized that having the child's comic book was a way of acknowledging the roots of the fantasy, but also that the roots of the story involved someone even younger: it was a child's wish. This, to me, helped the book to connect unapologetically to my superhero roots, and also transcend them in an entertaining way."
It turns out that McCloud's return to fiction is only temporary; having spent five years creating The Sculptor, his next project will be a book about visual iconography in digital communication. "It's something I've been passionate about for a long while," he says. "Informational graphics, data visualization, educational animation — all the ways we communicate visually, I think, are striving to find solutions for their individual areas but there are underlying principles that are worth recording, and helping to distill. I've been describing it as an Elements of Style for Visual Communications."
That book remains some time away, however. For now, McCloud is focusing on the release and promotion of The Sculptor, which has already received glowing reviews and recommendations from the likes of Neil Gaiman and the New York Times. For the book's creator, such a reception means that he's done his job well. "For all its big ambitions and themes and lofty ideals," he says, "first and foremost, I wanted this to be a good, absorbing, memorable reading experience."
The Sculptor is available in book stores now.