Return of the Teacher

uc-book
Scott McCloud is on my short list of heroes. If you work in media, or education, or you’re curious about storytelling, you should read Scott’s book, Understanding Comics, at least once every five years. And if you happen to notice that he’s speaking nearby, change your plans and spend the hour watching his on-stage presentation (he posts his schedule here). During the past several years, Scott has been phenomenally busy—we’ve gotten to know one another a bit. He’s been writing, drawing and otherwise building a rather massive graphic novel (487 pages long) called The Sculptor. This is one of those one-person creative enterprises that completely dominates a professional life, where the plan is clear but the day to day execution becomes a kind of parallel universe. It’s a remarkable life: to be completely wrapped up not only in story but in visualization, too. No other medium demands this level of commitment from an artist, and no other medium affords so much creative control.

ScottIn book, lecture and conversation, Scott McCloud has taught me a lot. But it’s one thing to be a teacher and another to be the creator of the material. The expectations become unreasonably high. The student wants to see every lesson incorporated in exquisite elegant prose and picture. The story must be perfect. The storytelling, better than perfect.

His new book is not perfect. That’s an unreasonable demand. It is a very good book, well worth the $29.99 cover price (a lot for a graphic novel) and the two-and-a-half pounds of paper and binding (it’s a heavy book, both physically and metaphorically).

At the start, we meet the character pictured on the cover, the plainly-named David Smith, an artist who seems to have burned out early, speaking with his favorite uncle, Harry. They’re sitting in a coffee shop. David is miserable. His life is not working at all. He says, “My dreams keep growing, Harry, even while my options keep shrinking. It’s like they’re demanding that I make them, demanding to be seen, demanding to exist…and now I’m scared that I’ll never finish a single one.”
sculpt-bookAs David tells his story, the evidence of Scott’s visual storytelling skill propels the sense of reality. There are extreme close-ups and wide streetscapes, frames without dialog that communicate more than those with words, and an interesting isolation technique in which David is fully inked against a world that is rendered only in sketch form. There’s a girl, of course, an angel of sorts, and as in the second act of Stephen Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George, a difficult-to-fathom big city art scene (Scott and Stephen wrestle with some similar themes.) Main character David tells us that he hates parties and by extension, the whole scene, but those pages are among Scott’s very finest: a crowded multi-page sequence where you can feel the energy of a noisy large-scale party and the frustration in coping with the idiots who won’t leave you alone while you’re trying to keep some girl within your visual range, while you’re trying to chase her before she’s gone forever. (Gee, he does this well!)

In time, the world becomes malleable. David, the sculptor, can sculpt whatever he wants. He can reshape roads and bridges. He shouts, with truthful glee: “I am the master of the universe!” Physically, that’s true, and the graphic novel form is ideal for showing us what he can do. It’s not long before he reshapes everything in sight, and becomes one of our most prolific artists (the process is astonishingly fluid, and fast). The room is filled with sculptures of giant hands, strange totem poles, the girl (a girl, that girl, which girl?)—unbelievable creative output! But along the way, his soul may not emerge intact—a deal with the devil that every creative person somehow encounters and, to some extent, masters (or doesn’t). He may be running out of time—another deal with the devil (in this case, Uncle Harry).

If you’re getting a sense that Scott’s latest work is cinematic in the scope of its story and deeply personal in a way that only a hand-drawn graphic novel can be, then I’m interpreting what he did with a degree of accuracy. Sure, there are scenes of sex and violence, trippy explorations of time and space curving around one another, gut-wrenching sadness, extreme anger (nothing like a graphic novel to screech and blast anger with words, pictures, abstractions). And a ticking clock—actually, a ticking calendar marking the number of days that David has left in his life. Or so it seems. There’s no requirement for closure—the book is more interesting because it doesn’t quite lend itself to a complete understanding of what happened or why. It takes about two hours to read, maybe three, and after complete immersion, your mind is likely to be so connected to David’s mind, it’s okay to think in terms of possibilities, not a singular ending.

photo-texasFor me, that’s the treat, same as reading Understanding Comics, same as watching Scott lecture, same as spending time with him. We’re living in a world filled with stories and ideas, and clever ways of communicating. If it’s all as simple as A-B-C, then the magic isn’t so magical. Life’s more complicated than a straight series of logical events—and that’s the beauty of a well0-crafted graphic novel. No shopping mall cinema audiences to satisfy with a clearly articulated happy ending. No need for extreme helicopter crashes or uncomfortable explosions punctuated with graphic violence. The story can be personal, it can be told by a single storyteller (provided the storyteller is willing and able to spend several years writing and drawing his epic), and it can be somewhat nonlinear. With that, a reader’s note: do it in one day. That is, find yourself a good stormy day, turn off the cell phone, and just lose yourself. Don’t think too much—just allow the storyteller control your mind for a few hours. We do this for movies all the time—with this book, you don’t want to disengage. You want to pay attention, and grab the ideas as they’re unfolding, then return to study the craft. Last weekend, I read the book. Today, a Saturday, I returned to study the construction of the visual sequences, the use of characters, my favorite scenes and how they were put together.

My next step: start recommending The Sculptor by Scott McCloud to others. That process has now begun.

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