Page 45 Review by Stephen
"I'm not afraid to die, Harry."
"Give it time."
David Smith is a sculptor feeling sorry for himself.
Once he was a prodigy and protégé taken under the wings of a rich and highly influential investor while still at college. He was publicly celebrated for six months: it looked like David's future would be stellar. But then, in the full flood of that media spotlight which was serving him so well, David was summarily dropped.
In the Art world where a single critic can influence an entire room of sheep-like journalists and investors with a single turn of phrase, this is proving difficult to recover from. On a personal level it has destroyed David's self-confidence and all hope for glory.
His dad, mum and sister are all dead. David is the last of his family and he's feeling lost, lonely, left behind and forgotten. It's made him bitter and resentful and prone to lashing out except towards his childhood friend, Ollie, who works in a gallery and is doing his very best on David's behalf. That doesn't stop David taking it out on Ollie's new boyfriend and fellow sculptor, Finn.
Then on his 26th birthday while David is sitting alone in a diner, contemplating an empty plate and an equally empty future after being fired from his job flipping burgers, his Great Uncle Harry drops by. It's time for a kindly pep talk.
"Gotta be some way to get you back in the saddle."
"I don't see how, with no money, no resources, so one to care, and no time before they kick me out... Still... Every night, I see them... these monstrous, beautiful things I could make... so real I could almost reach out and touch them. 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 I'll never finish a single one."
Then comes the moment of revelation, and it is masterfully done, as David struggles to recall when they last met.
"Man, the last time I saw you, you were..."
Four silent beats alternate between Uncle Harry's soft but impassive gaze and David's dawning realisation, closing in slowly, then...
"Life doesn't always turn out the way we plan, David."
As David struggles to absorb the truth, 'Uncle Harry' presents him with an alternative route to happiness: of a wife, kids, a labrador and a life teaching while working on his art in the basement, but for David this simply isn't enough: his art is his everything, his art must be seen.
"What would you give for your art, David?"
"I'd give my life."
So, with some sadness, Uncle Harry offers him a bargain: 200 days to create art with his bare hands from any physical object. But 200 days only, after which David will die. And it's at this point - as the clock starts ticking inexorably on - that David falls in love...
What follows is a further 450 pages of extraordinary black and blue beauty and a far from straightforward trajectory as David discovers what he can do with this gift, what his art really means to him, what his heart really desires and the price to be paid for all of them.
David is hardly his own best friend. A gift doesn't change who you are and David is impulsive, compulsive, driven and self-absorbed with neck-breaking mood swings and no sense of moderation. Succinctly...?
"You think too much."
Given to grudges and paranoia, he also talks too much without the benefit of an internal editor which would prevent him from burning so many bridges. Some things are better left unsaid or at least expressed in a more kindly and considerate fashion. David could do with reading Jane Austen's 'Sense And Sensibility'.
The girl he falls for, Meg, is in so many ways his opposite: trusting, compassionate, nurturing and overwhelmingly positive and confident except when it comes to her trade. She's an actress who'd hoped to be up on Broadway by now but has to be encouraged by her friends to even attend some auditions. She picks David up and takes him in when he's at his lowest ebb, for David has far, far further to fall. He thinks she's an angel - which is far from surprising when you discover how they first meet - but no one is that straightforward, are they?
Throughout there are discussions about Art, Art criticism and absolutes - about history, objectivity and subjectivity - and what really matters at the end of the day. There are also the practicalities of commerce and marketing strategies to consider, which David doesn't.
"I thought if I just gave it everything I had..."
These set pieces are surprisingly succinct for such a vast graphic novel, but then the book would be bloated and there isn't an ounce of fat on it.
Instead Scott McCloud, the creator of UNDERSTANDING COMICS, REINVENTING COMICS, MAKING COMICS, ZOT!, leaves room for some of the most intimate, delicate and touching moments I've read in any medium, plus one great big heart-stopper on a rooftop which will have your heart racing and send you reeling from one reaction to the next faster than a Ferrari with its pedal to the metal. Its multiple climaxes - far more wide-ranging than you can possibly suspect - will take your breath away. Oh, the reprises!
It's also in places laugh-out-loud funny as when it dawns on David whom amongst Meg's friends and flatmates she's slept with, Marcos' eyes bugging out behind him as David puts his foot in it. I'm sorry to make this comparison but those eyes, combined with the no-no shaking of the head, shot me straight back to WIZARD'S TWISTED TOYFARE THEATRE. Credibility is overrated and I'm running pretty low on that anyway.
This too made me smile after David loses yet another game of chess with boney-fingered 'Uncle Harry':
"Figures... You always beat me as a kid."
"Y'get distracted too easily."
"Come to think of it, you always let me play white too."
"Hey, I get the last move... you might as well get the first."
As to the sheer beauty which Scott McCloud has brought to the printed page, the light is thrilling whether when lying together on the grass, wandering alone in the cemetery, overlooking Manhattan with a palpable sense space between buildings or as the door opens up and Ollie first surveys what David's been up to in his rented loft.
There are similar gasp-inducing moments early one morning on a bridge and the first two times he spies Meg, the second taking place across a crowded club, everyone else fading to an ethereal blue as David focuses in on her black hair and skirt and pursues.
Later on, just before David's days grow painfully few and time accelerates rapidly, the narrative pauses for a page worthy of Will Eisner, depicting a tiny David, hands in his pockets, navigating a pavement made out of calendar dates ending on April 9th after which lies the monumental stone chasm of death. Of course, he can die ahead of his time at any time and the beginnings and ends of each month, which would be blank on a printed calendar, are here similarly treacherous, bottomless pits. Throw in its overheard perspective and a thrillingly acute vanishing point and you have a visual interpretation of Time quite emphatically waiting for no man.
Regular readers will know I love rain and almost anything (other than comics covers) eroded by light. The final page of the penultimate chapter ends with David alone in a borrowed apartment he's babysitting, looking out of the window at a Manhattan skyline on the other side of Central Park surrounded by shrubbery. Every element of that soft, pale, blue-grey panel streaked by torrential rain is sublime, but it's the fluid squiggles at the base of the bushes which really made it for me.
Finally for now, one of the key visual moments which McCloud had to nail was always going to be when our sculptor first puts his mind to the task of deploying his gift on his material of choice: a precious block of cold, hard stone which takes months to chip away at with chisels and mallets. As the low morning sunlight floods into his stark, wooden-floored loft, David pauses in front of the "stubborn old bastard", throws away his tools and feels his way around the block. He then raises his hands and...
What a wallop! The most spectacular, liquid explosion of unyielding granite!
So welcome to the Art world and - to a certain extent - welcome to it, you are!
But as much as anything else THE SCULPTOR is a book like DAYTRIPPER about perspectives and priorities. About what actually makes you happy and how you can bring happiness to others or not. About life while you're still living it: paying attention to what is in front of you, who is in front of you, soaking it all in and making that count. And, like DAYTRIPPER, it prompted a great deal of self-reflection.
"Look to Heaven!" screams an old man protesting about a protest which he considers blasphemous outside a cathedral.
"Silly people..." says Meg. "It's all down here."