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Comics artist Scott McCloud on art, death and drawing bad sculpture

In "The Sculptor," Scott McCloud tells a story about life and death -- but also about the art world

Artist Scott McCloud is best known for making comics about comics. He is the accessible, rational voice and pen behind the nonfiction books "Understanding Comics" (1993), "Reinventing Comics" (2000) and "Making Comics." These books dissect the art and structure of comic books in a comic book format and are essential reading for anyone writing about, interested in or making comics. ("Understanding Comics" has been translated into 16 languages and was named a New York Times Notable Book in 1994.)

McCloud has had a hand in the world of fiction too -- producing serial comics such as "Destroy" and "Zot!" in the '80s and '90s -- the latter of which fused manga with alternative and superhero genres.

This year, the artist published his first graphic novel, and it is no small gesture: a nearly 500-page tome titled "The Sculptor," about a young artist who makes a deal with death in order to attain supernatural powers of creation.

The book, which is inked in moody shades of blue and black, is a story about struggles of art and commerce, love and loss. There are subplots about ambitious young art stars, fickle gallerists, unscrupulous speculators and one young man's struggle to make a name for himself. (Interestingly, he is named David Smith, like the renowned 20th century abstract sculptor.) And, of course, there is a love story, which creates its own type of emotional struggle.

The book was released in February, but editions in nine other languages are already in the works. McCloud is based in Ventura, but when I reached him this week, he was in Mississippi on a book tour. He took some time to talk about his artist protagonist, his relationship to the art world and why it is fun to draw bad sculpture.

Why set a book in the art world? What about it intrigues you?

I'd say that it's less about the art world than about why an artist might want to create. I was reaching for things that I had read about the art world -- such as the phenomenon of an artist being dumped. But it had less to do with any stories about specific individuals or even the art world in particular.

So why make him a sculptor? You could have gone with a writer or a rock musician.

I'm afraid it's the one question I never really asked myself. But it was the very first part of the idea, that initial idea that you jot down in a notebook. It was the inception. But, really, it's such an old idea: the idea of a sculptor shaping things with his bare hands. It allowed me to tell this story with these preposterous fantasy qualities. I came up with the idea when I was very young and then I paired it up with this romance, but I put off doing it for a really long time because it smelled too much of that detestable subgenre: the serious superhero story. With that kind of story, the potential for disaster is very high.

Do you go to museums a lot? Were you looking at art during the time you were making the book?

I travel a lot and I always to go a museum. One of my favorite museums is in L.A., but it's not an art museum: it's the Museum of Jurassic Technology. I do love finding art in museums, especially Modern art museums around the world. And I enjoy looking at installation. Environmental sculpture is something I'm really struck by. I like it when an entire room is transformed. But I also enjoy art in a less complicated way than people in the art world because I don't have a dog in that fight. I don't have strong feelings about [sculptor Jeff] Koons. Sometimes he makes me smile. Sometimes he bores me. Some work, like Lee Bontecou or Louise Nevelson and some of those big Richard Serras, produces an effect in me. But I just like it for much less complicated reasons. I have that luxury. It's not my day job.

Any fondness for David Smith? You named your character after him.

That I have an answer for. When I was at Syracuse [University], I had a painting teacher named David Smith. I was aware of the sculptor and always thought, 'That must be a bit of a burden to be an artist named David Smith.' But how much more of a burden to be a sculptor named David Smith? I like that [my character] has the name of someone whose work he could never equal. But it's also a really common name. There are so many people named David Smith. The story is about celebrity. The 1 in 10,000. But it's also about the 9,999.

In a way, this is a story about an artist who measures artistic success in terms of fame and money. How interested were you into getting how market affects art?

The lack of money comes roaring into his life in many ways. He does not have his eye on the ball money-wise. He needs money. He wants money. But he doesn't want to want the money. I don't think he measures his self-worth financially. But he does care too much what others think, which is a more pernicious flaw. In many ways, the story came together when I understood that I wasn't writing a story about someone who wanted to be remembered or wanted to be celebrated. It's much more a story about someone who is terrified about being forgotten.

Tell me about drawing the art. Your character makes some pretty bad sculpture in the book.

That was a balancing act. They had to look cool in the panel. It had to be something that was fun for the reader to look at. The important thing is that we only see the failures. We never see the successes. We don't know what that looks like. When he does a piece that impresses his friend Oliver, [who works in a] gallery, we don't see it. So I was giving myself the luxury of only drawing failures -- and that gave me permission to have fun. There were these oddball shapes and things that were compositionally whimsical. 

Where does your view of the art world come from? Were you sitting around reading Artforum's Scene & Herd?

[Laughs.] No. The real art world, much of it is invisible to me. I don't want to advance the idea that I'm any kind of expert. That's why the story always stays inside David's head. I will say that I think there are a lot of earnest, genuine artistic talents trying to get their work seen, though. It's not just people clawing over each other and trying to impress people with money. Yes, that's part of it. But I'm sure there are a lot of gallery owners in New York who are struggling to get by and are just trying to help artists they admire get seen.

The architecture of New York is rendered in really detailed ways in the book: iconic buildings, restaurants in Chelsea. What role would you say architecture plays for you in the story?

It's made from the same durable materials [my character] wants to work with. But it's so much bigger than him. The architecture doesn't care about him. He's this little figure in these canyons. In the beginning, it was slightly more integrated into [the story]. He was talking about how buildings are these giant artworks made by money and power. But it didn't connect enough to what the story was about, so I took it out. But parts of it still linger in the drawings. You can still see traces of that idea: of tunneling into daylight, counteracting this giant art installation we call Manhattan.

You've written books about understanding comics and making comics. After the success of those, was it a little freaky to make a comic of your own?

It was a good fear. There's the kind of fear that stops you from working and there's the fear that keeps you working. This was the latter kind of fear. It was a really healthy pressure. And I had a very understanding editor who let me take a little extra time. [Chuckles.] I was supposed to complete the book in three years. It took me five. But that was a terrific gift. As for the challenge, I say bring it on. It's fun going up against something that can really crush you. 

The book has gotten good critical response -- and it's a bestseller.

The news has been very good for us. It's been on the New York Times Hardback Graphic bestseller list for eight weeks. That's been really nice. I'm 54. I started this book when I was twice as old as when I thought of it. I call it a collaboration between the young me and the old me. I conceived this when I was my protagonist's age. But I needed to live twice as long to understand what it was all about.

"The Sculptor" ($29.99) by Scott McCloud is available from First Second Books. For more on McCloud and the book, check out this Q&A by my colleague Noelene Clark in Hero Complex.

Find me on Twitter @cmonstah

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