Scott McCloud is a brave man. Over the last 20 years, his analytical books about graphic novels — notably "Understanding Comics" and "Making Comics" — have made him a leading authority on and critic of the art form. Yet McCloud is also himself an artist, and sometimes being well known as a critic can be paralyzing to an artist. Some critics retreat entirely from creative projects; others produce them under a pseudonym.
In contrast, McCloud boldly wrote and drew "The Sculptor," an ambitious work of imaginative fiction, under his own name. The book deals with a young artist who strikes a Faustian bargain to defy nature — to be able to sculpt hard rock and solid metal with his bare hands. As is typical with such bargains, it has a high price: After 200 days with his new skill, and presumably the opportunity to make his name, he must die.
Nothing comes easily to this sculptor, not even making a name, because his parents called him David Smith, already an important 20th century sculptor. He will always be "the other David Smith."
McCloud seems to enjoy mocking the art establishment — its sneering critics, its venal gallerists and its rich collectors. Embittered by his perceived mistreatment, Smith decides to work outside the system, becoming a guerrilla artist. Under the cover of night, he sculpts three-dimensional graffiti in public spaces.
Here the real love story begins for McCloud. Overnight, Smith wraps the columns of an official building with stone octopus tentacles. Giant nudes appear trapped in the sidewalk, as if in quicksand. Smith even uses his skill to alter his own face to avoid being recognized.
But graffiti does not bring Smith the recognition he covets. After centuries of literature in which Faustian pacts go horribly awry, you might think Smith would have anticipated this. But he is a true innocent. And when he falls in love, another familiar glitch in the Faustian scenario, he is unprepared.
I did not immediately apprehend what Smith saw in his inamorata, Meg. Their affair seemed shopworn: Yet another straight male artist fawning over a beautiful, self-destructive muse — a cartoon version of Scott and Zelda, if Zelda were an adrenaline-addicted bike messenger who refuses to take her psychiatric meds.
But McCloud is too smart to trade in clichés. And by examining the drawings that establish Meg's character, I saw what McCloud had aimed for and achieved. In three panels on one extraordinary page, the viewer grasps what Meg means to Smith. The largest panel shows her on a bike careering through treacherous traffic. There are no static lines in the image; it telegraphs energy and excitement. It makes us feel the instability that Smith must experience around her. The other two panels show her love of risk: she engages with street people; she eats weird food from unlicensed vendors.
Nor does McCloud dwell on details of Meg's clothing. She is a hint of a perfect woman, not a blueprint for one. In "Understanding Comics," McCloud talks about how excessive visual specificity in a character can make it hard for viewers to relate to the character. McCloud keeps Meg open-ended so that she can be what the (presumably male) viewer wants her to be.
The real love story in "The Sculptor," I think, is McCloud's passion for drawing — and for the city that he has depicted. I knew McCloud was a draftsman, but I didn't know he could really draw, a skill that has lately become so devalued that it is no longer taught in some art schools. I was riveted by his rich, detailed cityscapes: a full-page aerial view of a residential intersection, random pedestrians on a street, a vignette of a lone traffic light. The details combine to form what McCloud would term "aspect-to-aspect" exposition: apprehending the full flavor of a scene by dwelling on its parts.
McCloud's city is grubbier than what one expects in Manhattan today. It seems to hark back with affection to an earlier time, when art was made in Manhattan, not just consumed there.
Although many of the drawings invite a lingering stare, each also advances the story. The scene of Meg hurling through traffic, for example, doesn't just establish her character. It foreshadows a jaw-dropping plot turn that I cannot give away.
McCloud is a master of pacing; he compresses and expands time through the size and arrangement of his images, building to a surprise wallop at the end. Unfortunately, I felt only a small part of that wallop because despite my best efforts, I could not connect emotionally to the love story. I stayed with "The Sculptor" for McCloud's put-downs of the art world and dazzling manipulation of time. But I didn't care about the artist's blank, open-ended muse.
Smith's work is not particularly compelling, either, but McCloud uses its unevenness to make a point about the arbitrary nature of artistic acclaim. Early in the book, Smith is crushed when a snarky critic compares his miraculously crafted sculptures to tchotchkes "in a polynesian gift shop." At the end of the book, when Smith has officially become "a huge deal in the art market," arbiters still compare his first show to a gift-shop "rockpile." But it is a rock pile with "passion," "intensity" and "breadth." His public "night sculptures" have made him a celebrity vandal, blasting the value of pieces that can be purchased into the stratosphere.
It's "just about celebrity," Smith realizes, "not about the art at all" — a fact with which he must come to terms in the final few days of his life.
Lord is the author of "The Accidental Feminist: How Elizabeth Taylor Raised Our Consciousness and We Were Too Distracted by Her Beauty to Notice." A former editorial-page cartoonist for Newsday, she is currently completing a graphic novel.
First Second: 496 pp., $29.99